Croatia’s Organic Wine Appellation Wins Awards, Balances Nature With Winemaking

White stone villages, bleached across time by sun and sea, sit clustered along Croatia’s jagged coastline. Behind homes and wineries, fields of lavender, abuzz with honeybees come summer, waver in the afternoon wind. The shimmering blue of the crystalline Adriatic unfurls at the feet of this ancient land, seducing all but the most jaded of travelers. More than a pretty face, Croatia bears the weight of centuries of history in its soil, serving as a living testament to the tapestry of Greek, Roman, Venetian, and Austro-Hungarian legacies woven intricately into its vineyard-strewn landscape. Though wine grape cultivation dates to the ancient Greek settlers who arrived in the 5th century B.C., Croatia’s rise in the global marketplace began recently.

Several appellations paved the way for Croatia’s modern wine industry, helping the country establish a name for itself after joining the European Union in 2013. However, the country’s youngest appellation, Komarna, is proving avant-garde. How? By preserving and respecting the status quo of the local ecosystem through organic farming while excelling at fine wines made with indigenous grapes like Plavac Mali, Tribidrag (Zinfandel), and Pošip.

Grape Varieties of Komarna

Komarna’s climatic conditions, characterized by warm Mediterranean sunshine and cooling breezes from the Adriatic Sea, provide an ideal environment for viticulture. The region predominantly cultivates indigenous grapes that thrive in these microclimates, resulting in distinctive and expressive wines. Due to climate change, the weather has become wilder and less predictable. Summers turn hotter earlier, while rain patterns have shifted, and humidity in a traditionally arid place has increased. Despite this, the most suitable grapes for the appellation remain indigenous varieties, as they’re the most capable of handling deepening weather challenges.

Plavac Mali serves as the flagship grape of Komarna. This red variety, recognized for its strong character, high alcohol content, firm tannins, and ability to age, yields full-bodied wines with flavors of dark berries, Mediterranean herbs, and distinct minerality.

Though producer style impacts the final wine, Plavac Mali from Komarna can exhibit more elegance and refinement of structure than its peers due to the balance between fruit concentration and freshness.

For whites, local variety Pošip flourishes in Komarna. Pošip, a native of nearby Korčula Island, produces dry, crisp, aromatic wines with notes of citrus, tropical fruits, and herbs.

Komarna’s Origin Story

Komarna sits between Split and Dubrovnik, occupying the coastal end of the Pelješac Bridge, or Peljeski Most, which connects Komarna and Pelješac. The vineyards cover an inland swath overlooking the Adriatic, laying 37 miles north of the famous walled Dalmatian city, and close to the Pelješac Peninsula, an isthmus famous for oysters and Plavac Mali.

Komarna boasts seven winegrowers, each onboarded after committing to organic viticulture and winemaking practices. The association comprises Rizman Winery, Volarević Wines, Terra Madre, Saints Hill Wines, Modro-zelena, Neretvanski Branitelj, and Deak Family Farm.

Each of these wineries has won coveted awards and high scores from lauded publications like Decanter and Wine Enthusiast Magazine, providing vindication for the hard work required to develop an all-organic appellation.

Since the appellation’s creation, many wineries have won coveted awards and high scores from lauded publications like Decanter and Wine Enthusiast Magazine, providing vindication for the hard work required to create the appellation. Those wineries, all open to the public for enotourism, include Rizman Winery, Volarević Winery, and Terra Madre.

Mihovil Štimac, the former familial head of Rizman Winery, pioneered the creation of the appellation and served as its first investor. The family selected the vineyard and winery site partly due to their proximity to the ancestral home in the nearby valley of Neretva and because its growing conditions are like Dingač, the first certified appellation in Croatia. Both regions share similarities in latitude and south-southwest facing slopes at steep grades upwards of 35-40 percent.

Before 2006, the arid landscape bore rocks and limestone soil blanketed with bushes and macchia, a Mediterranean scrub of herbs and brush. In 2006, Štimac tackled the immense project of clearing the rocky land for a vineyard site, with the first vines going into the ground in 2008.

Recognizing the clean, chemical-free quality of the soil, Štimac realized the community had an invaluable asset worth protecting. He convinced other growers to join the Komarna 7 Association by agreeing to organic production. Today, all Komarna producers have earned organic certification, while over 90 percent of the vineyards are planted with indigenous varieties.

Since releasing its first Plavac Mali in 2009, Rizman has earned a reputation for taming the red grape into an elegant, food-friendly wine. Primus, imbued with red fruits polished into a contemporary expression, conveys this capability.

Riding Rizman’s success, Damir Štimac, the company’s current CEO and winemaker, has opted to expand the winery. The property boasts an enviable hilltop location overlooking the Peljesac Bridge and the Neretva Channel. Visitors eager to enjoy a textbook view of the vineyards sloping towards the Adriatic can also book a wine-tasting brunch replete with the famous Gligora cheese from the nearby island of Pag.

Volarević Winery, a family-owned enterprise founded on the principles of organic farming, also joined the Komarna appellation during its early stages. Fittingly, Josip Volarević, the winery’s winemaker, has chosen to pursue a PhD on Plavac Mali. Volarević’s commitment to sustainability is shown in his vineyard management techniques, which rely on manual labor, natural fertilizers, and biodiversity preservation. The brand’s lauded Plavac Mali and Pošip wines express an enchanting depth of flavor and a distinct sense of place. As a reward for his efforts, Volarević’s Plavac Mali earned a spot as the only indigenous Croatian wine on Wine Enthusiast’s 100 Best Wines of the Year in 2022.

Terra Madre, another prominent winery in Komarna, crafts wines that capture the essence of its terroir. Its portfolio includes indigenous grape varieties like Pošip made in different styles from a pure and bright stainless-steel version to a creamier sur lie, to demonstrate the grape’s range.

Rosé wines have become essential to the market and now feature prominently in the portfolios of Komarna producers. Most, including Terra Madre, use Plavac Mali as a base to make pink-hued wines redolent of raspberries, currants, and herbs with a freshness that suits the hot summers in the region.

For its varietal Plavac Mali Premium, Terra Madre blends Cabernet and Shiraz (both under 15 percent alcohol) with 85 percent Plavac Mali to create a smoother, lighter profile. Some consumers may find this wine provides an easier transition into discovering the otherwise intense grape.

Visitors at Terra Madre’s winery can discover the winemaking process through guided tours and tastings, while gaining a deeper appreciation for the organic principles that underpin its philosophy. Guests looking for an experience beyond tasting can order a picnic basket and stroll through the vineyards.

The Challenges and Opportunities of Organic Viticulture

Organic wine farming is a philosophy that prioritizes natural and sustainable practices, eschewing synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. The benefits of organic farming are manifold. First, it protects the environment by promoting biodiversity and preserving soil health. By avoiding chemicals, organic vineyards foster the growth of beneficial insects, birds, and other organisms that maintain a balanced ecosystem. Additionally, organic practices reduce the risk of chemical residues in the final product, ensuring a healthier product for the consumer. Eschewing chemical sprays also protects the health of workers and the community, all living and working close to the vines.

However, organic wine farming presents myriad challenges. Organic vineyards are more susceptible to pests and diseases, and demand meticulous care and ongoing attention. The reliance on natural solutions requires increased labor and expertise, often leading to higher production costs, especially as Komarna already suffers from a dwindling labor pool. Further, organic farming practices often result in lower yields than conventional methods. However, the Komarna wine industry collectively decided these potential drawbacks outweighed the benefits of producing wines that protect the community and ecosystem.

Komarna’s dedication to organic winemaking has established it as a unique and respected appellation within Croatia’s vinous landscape, and more recently, with international consumers who are increasingly eco-conscious. By nurturing indigenous grape varieties such as Plavac Mali and Pošip, Komarna showcases its winemaking prowess through the lens of transparency. Stunning views from winery tasting rooms further set the scene, making Komarna a must-visit destination for wine lovers and conscientious travelers.

To find these wines, contact Croatian Premium Wine Imports, Inc., a U.S.-based importer and online retailer selling over 80 indigenous Croatian wines, with shipping to most U.S. states.

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