Before the homeland war in the former state one of the most wanted wines was a Vranac Pro Cordem from Montenegro. No, it’s not my mistake, that excellent Vranac truly had a grammatical error in the title and as such remained in the memory of all who loved it. I remember a brilliant essay written by journalist and translator Sinan Gudžević. He reminded us how “people who knew Latin occasionally wrote or telephoned the producer that it should state Pro Corde, that it is a shame for such a title on such a wine to be exported etc.”
“Alright, it’s not correct, we understand, but the people are used to it now and that mould at the printers will have to be changed, that’s not easy, millions of labels are on the market, do you understand? And really, it’s not Latin anymore, it’s become a new language, it’s Prokordem,” the producer answered, proud of their most popular wine.
A similar conversation I had with Domagoj Buhač, always young winemaker from Ilok, who can boast of creating a counterpart to the Montenegrin Pro Cordem. A miraculous Chardonnay he made in only 500 bottles can already be called the best version of Croatian wine from the sort, described on the label as a wine that was aged on its own residue and created with the SUR LIES method.
“Domagoj, isn’t that “s” a surplus?”
“Well, it is a mistake, but I checked and the entire process can be written with “s” too. So, mistake or not, SUR LIES stays on the label and I won’t change it. Over 500 bottles sold in two weeks and that’s more important,” answered Domagoj.
Just like every time I would telephone or visit in Ilok, I would always find Domagoj in - the cellar. And he would always get angry when I titled him “sir”...
“What kind of a gentleman am I when I haven’t seen the sun in who knows how long? And I know you’ll first take a photo of my palms. Here, take a picture, although it would be better to wait a few weeks until the end of maceration. Then you’ll see the true colour hands can get.”
Domagoj’s Chardonnay Sur Lies is also his first wine he poured into a Burgundy bottle with which he is not exactly happy.
“I wanted a more serious Chardonnay, a rich wine, and it came out smooth, creamy... Such wines need to go into different bottles. And there I had a big problem, it was painstaking how to lay them in a basket where the wine still had to age a bit. When I arranged them I realized that I did a better job with logs than that, these bottles are a disaster for placing in a basket. This slightly serious Chardonnay, whose grapes we picked three and a half weeks later than usual, first aged half a year in new wooden barrels.”
I met Domagoj as an endlessly self-effacing winemaker not at all greedy for money. Some would say along the way he lost his father’s Herzegovina roots from the Široki Brijeg area. When I would ask him, for instance, why Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are 40 Kuna, he would answer: “That’s enough for me, if you want to pay more - please do!” After a few years the Merlot climbed to 47 Kuna and this wonderful Chardonnay Sur Lies reached an astronomical price of 60 Kuna. And as such, Domagoj is still a winemaker whose wines are the best value for money.
I often say I entered the magic of white wines thanks to a Rhine Riesling by Julius Stipetić from Ilok. But in Ilok is also the culprit for my love of red wines. Domagoj Buhač and his Merlot.
I remember the first time we met talking for a long time about the media neglect of Ilok winemakers. Domagoj complained that he has no solution to the media isolation despite numerous gold medals he won at wine festivals. Humble, always looking at the floor, he even joked that it doesn’t help their consultant is a veteran of Ilok Cellars, legendary enologist and experimenter Marinko Vladić.
“Marinko is my uncle! But, it seems not even he is a recommendation to pay us a visit,” said Domagoj.
Naturally, Domagoj is proud he sells everything he makes each year and considers it the greatest praise for his wines. And these are not small quantities - Domagoj cultivates twenty hectares of vineyards, with a cellar of one hundred thousand litre capacity. In the history of winemaking in Ilok it will be remembered that Domagoj’s father, Ivan Buhač, was the first among private small winemakers in the Danube area to start bottling his wines.
Domagoj doesn’t hide uncle Marinko was a role model since he was little.
“And when he sent me to wash the barrels, I knew why I had to do it and it wasn’t hard. I am in this business since I was fifteen and I know what I want,” says Domagoj who, when taking over the winery from his father, immediately began to offer red wines, which they hadn’t made before and were not characteristic of the area known for Traminer and Green Silvanac.
He bought 31 wooden barrels and soon came the results.
“Merlot became our most wanted wine,” Domagoj said.
His Merlot became something of a “best buy.” Honestly, at the price of 40 Kuna, you can’t find such a quality Merlot.
Although he pondered serious production of liqueur wine, as the only one in the east of Croatia, he’s holding back on those dreams. He made a symbolic fifty litres of liqueur wine from Traminer in 2008 and only a few can boast of tasting it.
When he made his first rose from Cabernet Sauvignon, aware of the small quantity of only seven hundred litres, Domagoj bottled the rose in one litre bottles, while giving buyers the 0.25 litre for free. Price - typical for Domagoj, 40 Kuna! He may have given up on liqueur wine for a while, but he made a Sweet Wine, in fact an atypical late harvest that became really sweet due to really high sugar concentration. And everyone went crazy for it, except of course Domagoj who aimed to sell the wine for, you guessed it, 40 Kuna.
The last time we saw each other was a few days before his trip to the Neretva valley, where he and his Ilok friends were due to sail in the galley race from Metković to Ploče. He was determined to fix their position from the previous year, when they were 23rd. And they did, coming in 22nd. Work in the vineyard, no matter how hard and tough, was still easier than rowing on the Neretva! And it’s easier to make a superior wine than win at the Galley Marathon.
For the original and more from Vinske Priče blog on wine, click here.