The Pelješac peninsula runs parallel to the Dalmatian coastline like a finger, with just a tiny sliver of adjoining land stopping it from becoming an island. It’s a dry, mountainous landscape, with quiet villages and sandy beaches spread around the coast. We’re here to learn about the legendary wines of Dingač and Postup – Croatia’s premium expressions of the red Plavac Mali grape. Our guide for the morning is the Bura family’s Boris Mrgdić, just back from picking the first batches of this year’s Plavac, and at 10am already looking like he’s done a days’ work.
The Bura family are based in Potemje, first village of Dingač, and like most families in the area, they have been growing grapes and making wine for generations. During the communist era, most of the harvest had to be surrendered to the local cooperative, still responsible for around 60% of the region’s more indifferent production. But these days the Buras can focus on quality, as independent producers. Their portfolio includes a rosé (something which is becoming increasingly fashionable in the area), an easy drinking red, and premium cuvées from the delimited regions of Dingač and Postup.
The rosé is a blend of 70% Plavac Mali, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Marselan. It couldn’t be more different than the Provencal or Loire blueprint. It’s light, but bone dry and almost austere with its tight, spicy fruit.
The Bura Galerija is a deliberately easy-drinking, low alcohol wine (a modest 11.8%) made from equal parts of Plavac and Cabernet Sauvignon, grown in the valley rather than in the much higher altitude Dingač region. The typical spice and herb character of the plavac shines through, but I couldn’t easily detect what the Cabernet was contributing – perhaps the grippy but classy tannins.
A charming and refreshing wine, Galerija features a different painting on the label each year, usually contributed by Ivona Bura, Boris’s cousin.
The 2008 Mare Postup is a massive, brooding slab of Plavac Mali with a terrifically rich palate of figs, cocoa and prunes. There’s a slightly oxidative or sherried character on the nose, which reminded me of mature Barolo. I was impressed at how lithe this wine remained, despite its 15.7% alcohol. It is also very, very long.
We moved on to the 2008 Bura Dingač, which had a stupendous and very complex nose of violets, herbs, leather and very ripe dark fruit. This is another beast of a wine at 15.5%, and I have to say I found the alcohol less well integrated. There is also about 14gr of residual sugar, as these grapes are so ripe that the natural fermentation stops before all the sugar is consumed. That sweetness is quite apparent in the glass, and would make food-matching a little tough – in fact, a local sommelier (and friend of Boris’s) suggested that these wines are more in their element as quasi-desert wines than to accompany a main course. That makes sense when you consider they are not a million miles away from an Amarone in terms of heft and sugar.
I get the sense that Boris and his family (the winemaker is uncle Nikola Bura) are pretty savvy about the marketplace in which they operate. Boris is well travelled, having visited many of the world’s key wine regions (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Piedmont and so forth), and he knows only too well that the traditional Dingač style can be a hard sell in Europe. Americans tend to be more comfortable with the big-boned Plavac character, and indeed most producers around here export to the US if they export anywhere.
We finished our tasting with a 2007 Prošek made from Rukatac. This wine is made from dried grapes and a minute amount is produced. It is utterly delectable, with luscious candied peel and a rich, honeyed texture.
After the tasting, Boris drove us up to the family vineyards, high on the cliff tops. The Dingač vines cling precariously to the mountain-side – these must be some of the steepest vineyards in the world, perhaps aside from the Mosel valley. The vines are bush-trained (in other words, not trained at all), and must be entirely hand-tended. Farming is mostly organic. Part of the Dingač character comes from letting the grapes “bake” in the sun and allowing a proportion of the harvest to raisin on the vines. The noonday heat here is ferocious, but there is really no better way to understand how these wines gain their unique character, than to bake in it too.