Exploring Croatia's Lesser-Known Wine Regions: the Ozalj-Vivodina Wine Road

By , 02 Mar 2016, 09:14 AM Wine Regions

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With 130 indigenous grape varieties. Croatian wine is a voyage of dicovery. TCN's Damien Cullen Druzak takes us into one of its lesser-known regions on March 2, 2016. 

As part of our desire to further expand our offer to guests we (my wife, Valentino from Terra Croatica and me) had a brain-storming session - over beers in a café naturally.

The thought occurred to us – ok, we have many castles, lots of river activities, unbelievable nature, but what about wine? What about wine indeed. None of us are wine experts; Valentino had been to visit a few producers the previous year and we were all aware that the county tourist board had opened an “Ozalj-Vivodina wine road” in 2010. It has since been incorporated into the national tourist board’s Croatia365 project as part of the gastronomy offer for Karlovac destination “Green Heart of Croatia”.

We had all read the flyers and seen the text online and honestly at first I did not see it as something our guests would be too interested in given its out-of-the-way location and lack of regular organised tours. I thought perhaps this might only really appeal to; let’s say, an older more retired tourist who is on a package holiday tour, as opposed to our younger low-budget backpacker guests. We decided let’s just go for a drive and see for ourselves. We could also check out some of the other sights along the way and make a day of it. We will call it a “research trip”.

The Vivodina wine region is a located in the north of Karlovac County on the south-western slopes of the Žumberak Mountains only a couple of kilometres from the Slovenian border. The region is a collection of 26 hamlets nestled in between the valleys, vineyards and forests of the undulating landscape, very picturesque. Winemaking has been a tradition here since medieval times, but the idea of a “wine road” was hatched just a few years ago by the Ozalj winegrowers, winemakers and fruit-farmers association.

Locals wanted to create a means to showcase their high quality wine products as well as the delicious, rural, home-made gastronomic specialties to accompany them by establishing the road as one of the biggest touristic landmarks of Karlovac County. Our hosts for the day would be Ljiljana Lešćanec and her daughter Andrea of Lešćanec Family Estate Wines in the village of Vrškovac. Winemaking has been in the family since Ljiljana’s father and he passed the tradition on to her. The family now produces wine from around 15,000 vines.

First let me describe the view. Vrškovac is one of those hamlets I mentioned that sits up on a ridge in the hilly terrain. The outdoor terrace of the family’s cellar faces in a westerly direction right over the Kupa valley and into Slovenia’s back yard. The weather on this particular day was - let’s call it: “semi-overcast”, but it did not matter. Looking out over the gentile hills dusted with pockets of mist, Vivodina’s Church of St. Lawrence sitting on the next hill across the valley, all the three of us could say to one another was;

“Imagine how it looks in spring!”,

“…or summer!!”

“Imagine how great it would be to wake up with a hangover here?!!!”

If it wasn’t so calming, peaceful and serene I would use abrupt, startling words like; “breath-taking” or “stunning” and this is just the view from the first cellar.

Inside the ladies had set out a wonderful spread of home-made sausage, pršut, špek, cheeses, Istrian olive oil, bread…I’m sold! The cellar and tasting room (is that the right terminology?) are beautifully decorated, cosy, welcoming spaces.

First off concerning beverages; to wake up the senses, Ljiljana pours us her rakija. A travarica, but not like any travarica I’ve ever had. This one is her own special blend of 25 herbs. It is potent but - incredibly drinkable. It reminds me of a port or something like that, lovely stuff. We hope she will sell us a bottle!

Then there are the wines. Now like I said, none of us are huge wine fans or experts. We like wine, but personally I go for beer given the choice. For sure I have never had five consecutive wines I could see myself drinking again, until now. To begin we had two Graševina’s, the wine most commonly produced in the region. One dry, the other semi-dry. Both are light, refreshing and easy to drink. Aromatic notes of apples and pears (I’m told!). A pleasant, “easy-going” wine.

Third we have a Riesling (Rajnski rizling). There is definitely more to it than the previous two. It is refreshing, clean and bright. Andrea describes the aroma as “reminiscent of acacia flowers, peaches and cherries”. This is the kind of wine you take home to meet your parents. I’ve had Riesling before, but only because in Ireland it is a “cheap wine”, but there is no comparison to this elegant specimen.

Next up, a Grey Pinot (Sivi Pinot). This one hits you hard at first, especially following the classy Riesling. There is a big aroma going on with this one. Pleasantly biting acidity and alcohol here too, but, after all that, the taste hangs about sweet and fruity. This is a dominatrix of a wine – 50 shades of grey (pinot)… anyone?

For the grand finale we have Kerner. A cross between Trollinger and Riesling, Kerner is a German variety of grape named after poet and physician Justinus Kerner. This is serious! It almost feels like we had four wine courses and this one is the big exam at the end. A big strong, juicy, aromatic wine with high levels of acidity and sugar and a BIG ole’whack of alcohol in the face!! The problem with this one is the aftertaste is short-lived so you are always reaching for another mouthful. Dangerously good stuff!

It’s somewhere between 1-2.00pm. The meat and cheese platter is decimated and we are rosy-cheeked, chatty and jolly. On a side note, it appears that wine also brings out the photographer in Valentino. Andrea offers to take us to see the vineyard a short distance up the road. Up there the family has another older cellar. The view from the top of the hill is astounding. It’s a 180 degree south-westerly view over the county.

“On a clear day you can see all the way to Klek”, Andrea tells us, “and on mornings when the fog clings to the ground below it looks flat, like the sea!”

I am not saying I’m a converted wine drinker (I like my beer too much) but I could most definitely get used to drinking it this way! Andrea shared with us an old saying her teacher once told her,

“With beer, you drink it, it goes in your belly - then you pee! That’s it! With wine however, you drink it; it goes in your belly, up to your arms and hands, down your legs. It fills your mind and senses before it leaves”

It’s a bit of a harsh account of beer, but the wine part is exactly how this trip to Vivodina turned out to be; a full on sensory experience. Everything was perfect; from beautiful surroundings to the warm, relaxing atmosphere with the Lešćanec family.

Again, I am not an expert in this field, but why can’t this, not so well-known wine growing community in Karlovac, be internationally known as the embodiment of Continental-Croatia’s tradition of small scale family wine production? When the season starts, we will definitely be encouraging people to go experience it.

Many thanks to the Lešćanec family for a great day…and Valentino for his photographic talents!

Croatia Wine Map

For all of the various varieties, indigenous and imported, hundreds of winemakers and many different wine styles, Croatia can be divided into 4 major winemaking regions. Those are: Eastern Continental Croatia, Croatian Highlands, Istria and Kvarner Bay, and Dalmatia. We have written about those regions extensively, and we invite you to research them through our article on the regions, articles with more details written on specifics of wine-making in each of the Croatian counties and through our series of articles showing you the virtual wine maps for best-known wine regions in Croatia.


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