Could you please introduce yourself, your winery, your wines for our readers. How did you get into winemaking, and can you tell us a bit about your ethos of making wine?
My family's roots are from Dalmatia, specifically from Zagvozd under Biokovo. My parents moved to Osijek in 1958, and I was born in Osijek in 1959. I went to high-school and university in Osijek, and still live here, with my wife and 5 children. After finishing the very intense business career lasting from 1992 until 2014, today I work in winemaking, I consult in agricultural business for domestic and international investors, and work in tourism on the Adriatic coast and in Erdut, where my winery and vineyards are located. Erdut is a small place, with 650 inhabitants and a long history, only 22 kilometres from Osijek, on the right bank of the Danube River, with the great view of Kopački Rit, Baranja and Bačka.
I came to Erdut in 2000, bought the estate with the vineyard of around 1.5 hectares. As it usually happens in life, first it was a hobby, then a business and finally a profession, so in 2008/09 we planted another 3 hectares of vineyards. Now we have 4.5 ha, 24000 vines, one third of them white varieties: Graševina and Chardonnay, and 2/3 red varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Vranac).
My strategy is for us to remain a boutique-sized winery, produce wines of the highest quality and sell them mostly in Croatian restaurants. We currently make around 50000 bottles of wine per year and we do not plan to increase our production in the near future. We want to focus on connecting the wine story with what the agro-tourism in Erdut has to offer.
How was the last harvest in your vineyards? What do you expect of the 2016 wines? Do you have any specific expectations, plans or hopes for this vintage?
Last-year's harvest was one of the best ones in the past few years, as both the sugars and the acids were at their optimal levels, and the grapes were extremely healthy, so we expect that the wines will be great - and currently young wines seem to show that potential. In a few days we will start bottling the white wines.
As for this year, it's too soon to give any predictions, but I can say that we haven't had any freezing of our vines during the last winter, and it was quite a strong winter with longer cold stretches. We can thank our vineyard's position for that, as it is located at 165 meters elevation, with favourable air movements, caused mostly by the Northern winds.
What are the Croatian wines (up to three whites and three reds) you think everyone should buy and taste at least once (not including any of yours, please)? Why?
I would definitely recommend wines from other wine regions, Malvazija and Teran from Istria, Babić from Dalmatia, and Pošip and Plavac Mali, both Dingač and Postup.
I believe that those wines, along with Graševina from some of the locations in Croatia, are the best and the most valuable wines in Croatia. Those are the wines that are interesting for the tourists, as they can't really find them anywhere else in Europe but here, and we can combine those wines with what the Croatian gastronomy offers perfectly.
There's an interesting background story of how you made the transition from a very successful businessman working with tractors into a winery owner. Do you plan to work only with wines from now on, or is that just a portion of a large business empire?
Wine is my hobby, and now it's my profession. I want to build my winery as a family tradition that my children will continue. The family tradition and fast transfer of experiences to the next generation is the key in getting quality. The wine establishment is a world of its own, where you get to meet many interesting people, and each wine tasting tells a special story.
I've sold John Deere tractors on the Croatian market for a long time, so most people know me as a John Deere dealer, but that's also a very good reference for a quick entry into the wine market, since I'm not some "no-name" person.
Of course, all of the professionalism and persistence I learned while working with John Deere machines I try to use in my so-called "new business" with the wines. It's most important to believe in your success and work fair, be fair to yourself and your wine-lovers. I'm very motivated with the success we achieved in the past three years, mostly with building our own wine audience, and hopefully some day we will be truly recognized on Croatian wine market.
In addition to wines, I work in the tourism industry as well, I have a house for rent in Brela, and that's how I want to connect the sea-side and the continental tourism, as I believe that connection to be one of Croatia's strongest potentials.
What do you think about the situation in the Croatian winemaking these days? What would you change if you could, regarding the legislation, the market or anything else? Would you agree with the idea that Croatian wines are too expensive, which is something you can often hear?
First of all, I think we should be aware that Croatia had much more vineyards before phylloxera, more than 150,000 hectares, while today it's around 21,000 hectares (many people don't even know that we have more olive groves, 26,000 hectare, so 5000 more than we have vineyards. Graševina is the most abundant variety, around 25%, followed by Malvazija and Plavac Mali - those three varieties make up for almost 50% of Croatian winemaking. Our market is completely open for the import and sale of foreign wines, and import makes up for around 30% of our production. The largest question on our market is the quality control of those imported wines, being sold at extremely low prices, and the question of their geographic origin. In that sense, I believe that the quality control of the imported wines should be the same as it is for the wines made by the Croatian winemakers, meaning that all imported wines should go through the quality control in Zagreb, in the Institute for Viticulture and Oenology. Until now we have accepted the analyses performed in the countries where the wines come from, and I find that practice questionable, as well as the geographic origin of certain varieties. My proposal is that, for instance, Graševina grown in Croatia needs to have that marked on the label, and that Graševina from Macedonia needs to have the label saying that it comes from there. That way the consumers can differentiate where the wine comes from.
As far as the Croatian wines go, I propose that we classify all wines into three classes: table wine, quality wine and premium wine, all with the geographic origin, with exact numbers of vines of each variety per winemaker, and limited production of the quantity of wine and number of vines per hectare as per the class of wine. We have some of that today, but I believe that the classification is incomplete and that the limits are too high for premium quality wines, and that it's impossible to get premium quality wines with such high yields. If we implemented that, the production of wine and the grape trade would be under complete control. In the registry of winemakers and the Arkod the databases already exist, they just need to be integrated and put to serve this strategy.
Also, in this moment the overall production of wine in Croatia is around 950,000 hl, and around 300,000 hl doesn't go through the quality control in the Institute - that begs the question of where exactly is that wine being sold or used, and under which terms.
All of that is connected with the wine prices, of course. My experience from the other European countries and the US is that Croatian wines are absolutely not expensive when purchased with the winemakers themselves, and that the prices are mostly in accordance with the quality, but the question is the multipliers of prices of wine in the restaurants, which is something the winemakers can't influence We should definitely work on the promotion of Croatian wines on the national level, expand the culture of consumption of Croatian wines, especially as part of what's offered to the tourists, increase the knowledge of those people in direct contact with the consumers (waiters, specifically) so that they can introduce the wines to the consumers, tell the story of a wine they're offering.
But, all in all, I believe that the wine culture in Croatia is growing.
How do you see the relationship between the Croatian restaurants and the winemakers? Do Croatian restaurants promote and appreciate Croatian wines as much as they should, how do their margins affect the sale of Croatian wines?
I think that the restaurants mostly still don't understand that it's equally important to have excellent food and excellent wine list that needs to be created by the expert sommelier. I think that the restaurants need to have local wines, but also that they need to offer wines from the rest of Croatia, in a way that won't confuse the consumers. Unfortunately, some of the restaurants don't even offer their local wines, for instance within 50 kilometres of their location.
The margins are based on the restaurant owner's assessments and there are no rules here, but if the multipliers, ie. the margins were lower, we'd all be happier. Unfortunately, that's something winemakers have no control over.
You say that the "Northernmost" Vranac in the world grows in your vineyards. How did that happen, how did you start growing Vranac on an unexpected position, on Danube river bank? What are your results, what's the quality, what's the wine made from Danube Vranac like?
Well, Vranac is also a sort of an accident, although, nothing is really an accident, right? When I came to Erdut in 2000 I found that the previous owners had some Vranac in their vineyards, I thought it might be a good idea so I renewed those vines in 2009. Vranac really favours Erdut's location and the terroir, and especially the soil which is pure loess, clay and sand deposited over thousands of years. It ripens in the second half of September. So far we've used it to blend with Cabernet and Merlot, but I have to tell you that we've kept some of it in barrels for 18 months, and it seems to be doing great. It has great potential. Vranac makes us unique in Croatia, for as far as I know, no other continental winemaker grows Vranac. That, and the fact that red wines make for almost 2/3 of our production.
What do you think about the future of wine-making in Croatia, strategically how should it advance? Should we attempt exporting more Croatian wines? Can you comment on the changes which happened after our accession to the EU, specifically weigh in on the benefits of a larger market for export vs. the dangers of easier import of cheaper wines?
The changes that happened when we entered the EU were somewhat positive, and somewhat negative. The positive aspects are the new large market, the simpler export of wines without the administrative boundaries, the controlled production within the EU. The negative aspects are the large competition from the EU countries on the Croatian market, which led to the lowering of the prices, as well as the import of the extremely cheap wines from the third countries. I discussed that earlier. As far as the wine export is concerned, I believe that the Croatian market is capable of absorbing the large portion of the Croatian production, under the condition that we create the synergy between the restaurants, hotels, retail chains and winemakers. The export is always welcome, especially if the Croatian wines are able to get the right price, and because of the image of the winemaker. The future of winemaking in Croatia must be built exclusively on the quality, and combine that with agro-tourism. Our production is symbolic, on the EU levels, and that is the reason we must focus on the quality and getting as high prices as possible, in order for the profit of our winemakers to support the modernisation and introduction of new technologies. Of course, the continued education of the winemakers and getting their general knowledge to high levels is also important.
Do you think new vineyards in Croatia should be mostly indigenous varieties, or should more international wines be planted?
I don't think any rules apply here, as too much is changing fast, the market, consumer habits, new trends, climate change. My opinion is that the best thing is to combine the two.
Paint us a picture of a perfect setting for enjoying a bottle of your wine. Which bottle did you choose, why?
Since I only make 5 wines now (Graševina, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and a red cuvee) I would recommend all five of those wines! The main characteristic of those wines is that they are dry, with distinct minerality and without the aggressive alcohol levels. Our Graševina is made to be a fresh wine, recommended for the summer months, Chardonnay works as an aperitif or along the main course, but also works with a good dessert. Our red wines are aged in oak and get to the market three years after the harvest; those wines are a pleasant surprise on the Croatian market, as far as quality goes: they have strong bodies, pleasant aromas and great minerality. Our flagship wine is 2012 Cuvee, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Vranac, giving it a special character. We recommend you to pair it with the snails from the Erdut vineyards, prepared a'la Brzica winery. I'd like to take the opportunity to invite your readers who enjoy wine and beautiful nature to come visit us in Erdut, see the panoramic view from our winery 80 m above the Danube River and enjoy our wine and Slavonian delicacies, especially kulen!
Previously in the series of interviews: