Walking alongside his “angel” on the small Kaštela hillside, the young Croatian winemaker sounds like an obsessed Romeo talking about “love and attachment.”
“When I come to the vineyard I feel every vine,” says Josip Vučica, 27, one of several artisanal winemakers who are now giving Croatian wine new international prominence.
Naked to the waist while weeding vines in the late afternoon sun, he shares a smile with his partner Anđela Buljan, 25. She is his “angel” who is now helping him navigate the admittedly-arduous cycle of cultivation and production.
“Wine is very hard work. Very hard,” he continues, tending to indigenous Crljenak Kaštelanski red grapes that will ultimately yield wine more commonly known as Italian Primitivo or American Zinfandel.
“But the earth and the vines are alive to me, like a body that breathes. When I am in the vineyard I can see life being born… the first fruits, it is so beautiful. After picking the vine remains naked, I am sad, yet still aware I am preparing for a new birth.”
Similarly seduced by the romantic notions surrounding wine, a new generation of risk-taking winemakers are profiting from Croatian grapes’ widening popularity. Graševina, Pošip, Malvasia and other grapes are winning plaudits from critics, Decanter magazine, and in Zurich, Bordeaux, and at other world competitions.
In sea breeze-swept locales such as Kaštela, and Hvar, the “Island of Wine” where white varieties Kuč and Maraština flourish, those accolades have prompted impassioned growers to return to family-owned estates. Here they are experimenting with organic farming—and also honoring centuries-old traditions.
Such work certainly demands a deep-seated zealotry. While it’s enjoyable to see grapes mature, and to welcome visitors, Vučica must also cope with the vagaries of farming. Yields are always uncertain due to capricious changes in the weather—and to climate change.
He worked with an oenologist to better understand the mercurial aspects of the production—monitoring the grapes’ growth invariably impacted by the weather, extracting their juices and dealing with the uncertainties of the aging process.
It’s a sensory experience yielding great promise, yet at times, also a stressful one.
Then there’s Anđela. Relationships are often complicated, and this one is sometimes strained by two opinionated wine enthusiasts working so closely together.
“There is tension at times, yet we are very dedicated to our work and know what our priorities are,” declares Angela, who plays a vital role in Vučica’s operations, its’ two-acre, 14,000 vine estate.
“Like any couple we sometimes quarrel,” admits Anđela, who still understands the couple’s main priority. “We still don’t let anything affect the business…so we soon reconcile…and that gives our relationship a new lovely note.”
Now the challenge is to give their wines even more enchanting notes—flavor “complexities” that will help them weather greater competition.
The increasing appeal of Croatian wines has radically changed the wine-growing landscape. Now wineries are being totally modernized to become tourist-friendly. There are new varietals, new organic wines, and to remain competitive Vučica must continue to be in the vineyard “for good morning and for a good night.”
As he talks of being proud about “seeing the drops of young wine,” Andela affectionately grabs his hand. It’s now clear that this couple is making more than wine.
They are writing a love story.