Dingač and Crljenak – Wines of Croatian Winemakers on the Table of US President Joe Biden

Written by Anita Palada
Photo by Anita Palada

Dalmatian nectar

Kaštelanski crljenak – A gift of heaven, tears of the earth, liquid hope, or merely a symbolic nectar of knowledge?

The intense, lively and concentrated taste of the Dalmatian nectar that, back in the day, left the imperial nursery garden of Francis II and went out into the world, is imbued with the finest tannins, unobtrusive and subtle, merely announcing their presence.

The soft, fine flavors of the ripe kaštelanski crljenak, fused with the flavors of dark berries, quickly won over those with fine palates. In the early 19th century, the vines were transported from the imperial fields in Split to Vienna and Trieste and onwards to the fertile Napa Valley in California. There, kaštelanski crljenak continued to develop as California’s zinfandel and as primitivo in Italy. Finally, after much wandering, the winemakers from Kaštela, such as those from the Krolo vineyard and winery, returned this sort home to continue growing it in the ancestral homeland, turning its ripe berries into a refined wine.

Dingač, vinarija Pelješac

Croatian wines on the table of US President Joe Biden

The soft, smooth, layered and very complex wine, crljenak (i.e. zinfandel) found its place on the sumptuous table in the White House during the inauguration of the new American president Joe Biden. His guests certainly enjoyed the fragrant tones of the dark berries, licorice and green pepper, as well as the intoxicating tannins of the dingač wine from Pelješac. Its berries of the plavac mali variety grow on the geographically protected southern slopes of the Pelješac peninsula, close to the Postup terroir.

Dingač, vinarija Pelješac

Dingač is a protected, autochthonous Croatian wine of a mature taste. It is richer and more corpulent than other wines, harmonious, full-bodied and pleasantly bitter. Another big fan of the wine was Robert Benmosche, a wealthy American businessman and advisor to Barrack Obama. “I’m in my vineyard on Pelješac, I’ll be there as soon as I finish picking my grapes,” Benmosche once replied when Obama phoned him, asking him to help him with a corporation that had stumbled.

Benmosche was a lover of Pelješac and its wines which is why he planted his own zinfandel vineyard in Viganj, and another one with the plavac mali variety on the slopes of the Dingač terroir. He successfully continued the path of Francis II, spreading the flavors of zinfandel and dingač around the world. Thanks to his passion, the wine is also toasted with at the table of US President Biden today.

Dingač – world-famous wine recognized around the globe

Anto Palihnić is the best Pelješac winemaker and the founder of the Pelješac Winegrowers’ Association. According to him “These wines are drunk not only in America but all over the world. At the most prestigious events and places, at Queen Elizabeth’s court and in the Papal Palace in the Vatican. Dingač is the favorite wine of the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.”

You must wonder why dingač is such an excellent wine?

The yield of one vine must not exceed half a kilo of grapes. The special feature is its triple insolation of the sea, the stone and the sun. The ideal grape sugar content for dingač is 21-23%. In Palihnic’s vineyard it reaches up to 25%, which ultimately means 17% alcohol. “Seeing the gradation, I was thrilled. I couldn’t believe it! For comparison, prosecco as a dessert wine has 18% alcohol,” Anto expertly explains.

The grapes contain up to thirty percent of dried wine berries at the time of the harvest when they are fully ripe. These berries hide rare essences that give the wine a special quality. Thus, triple insolation of the sea, the stone and the sun, the extract obtained from dried fruits, the low yield of grapes per vine and the high sugar content in the grapes are crucial for obtaining high-quality wine. Few people in Croatia can achieve such a harmonic ratio. Due to the geographical position and the knowledge of Pelješac winemakers, dingač has become a world-famous and globally recognized wine.

The key of the great success

Quality starts in the vineyard. It depends on high-quality grapes not on the wine production itself. Above all, each winegrower must love his or her vines, achieve coexistence and develop mutual respect. He must say good morning and good night to the vineyard, nurture it, make sure the grapes are never obscured from the sun. Also, he must prune the vines and be careful to protect the vineyard from natural disasters and diseases and “it will return hundredfold,” says Anto.

He will certainly be remembered in Croatian winemaking as one of the modern initiators of wine production on Pelješac. The business grew out of a modest traditional production started by his great-grandfather. He inherited only 15,000 vines from his father. Today 100,000 vines of the plavac mali variety grow in his vineyards. Apart from the cooperative harvest, each year he makes, stores and sells 8000 bottles of wine in his winery.

The vineyard is a passion, not a job

“If I were to think of the vineyard as work, I wouldn’t have a day of work experience in my life,” says Anto laughingly. Those small berries that ripen on the vine and the wine I make from them give me a special pleasure. I simply surrender myself to that love. I see how my vineyards give back abundantly every year. So, the will, patience, perseverance and the desire drives me to give them even more. I do not mix the plavac variety with other varieties, as I believe it is the best variety that God endowed us with. It would be a pity to spoil that natural harmony.”

Anto’s wine was declared a quality champion four times in six years. His colleagues are sometimes resentful, but Anto always says, jokingly: “I can’t help it, you either know how to do it or you don’t!”

Mato Violić Matuško, one of the most famous Pelješac winegrowers from Potomje, shares Anto’s opinion.

Champagne – a drink of pleasure and passion

“Thank God we get to live in paradise on Earth and enjoy the benefits of this region. He gave us a mild climate, quality raw material and hardworking hands. That is the opportunity to produce not only top-quality wine, but champagne as well!”

According to him, champagne is a drink of joyful moments. So, people drink it not for the sake of drinking. They drink it to indulge in passion and sensuality and to enjoy the mischievous play of the bubbles.

Plavac mali ripens in vineyards planted on steep, skeletal slopes of Dingač and Postup terroirs. They are difficult to access. On the one side they plunge to the rugged seashore and on the other they climb towards the bare, stony hill peaks. Here the sun’s rays are the strongest. They bounce off the stone and the sea and give the vineyards plenty of light and warmth. That result in a wealth of flavors that have become famous – and rightfully so – all across the globe.

Curiosity constantly drives Dalmatian winemakers. That is, in the days following the harvest, when they await the encounter with young wine and its seductive flavors that entice and provoke the palate. Neither Francis II, nor Benmosche, nor Biden could resist these flavors, admiring the vivid red color of the wine, its thick texture, and the flavors that permeate the body after each sip.

Dalmatians are strange people, deeply and endlessly emotional, although one would be hard-pressed to guess that! They are pouring their heart and soul into these magical drops because for them wine is a gift from heaven. It is liquid hope and nectar of worldly knowledge. In short, they are fully aware that nothing great in this world has ever been created without emotions, including the intoxicating wines of dingač and zinfandel!