Dalmatia's wine trail

Pelješac is the home of internationally celebrated Dingač
© Marko Kovac Milos Winery
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Croatia has caused quite a stir with food-lovers in the last few years. Fresh seafood, truffles, wonderful cheeses and scrumptiously cured prosciutto are just a few delicacies on offer.But perhaps in no arena are folks as pleasantly surprised as with the wine. Croatia's improving viticulture is nationwide. But for red wine the place to go is the Pelješac peninsula: a mountainous sliver of land one hour north of Dubrovnik. And when one talks of red wine and Pelješac, the first word usually uttered is Dingač.

Dingač refers to a seven-kilometre-long stretch of seaside land where Plavac mali grapes - a varietal indigenous to Dalmatia - grow. Only grapes harvested in this small area, on the underbelly of the peninsula roughly between the towns of Podobuce and Trstenik, have the right to be called Dingač. And just like with any other patch of land that's internationally celebrated for wine, the reason farmers cling proprietarily to this geographic distinction is because of the valuable convergence of conditions here.

First and foremost, the land faces southwest, which means grapes receive the full allowance of long, sunny Dalmatian days. Secondly, the soil the vines grow in is calcified and rocky, which provides two benefits to the plants: a second shot of sun due to the light's reflection from the rocks and an evolutionary advantage owing to the fact that only the heartiest grapes can grow here. Finally, the hillside upon which the fruit grows is incredibly steep, meaning harvest time is difficult but in return the land gets a third instalment of sunlight reflected right off the sea.

The result is a strong, full-bodied red (usually in the 14-percent range) with a massive bouquet that resembles the great wines of the genre: Sangiovese, Pinot Noir or Red Zinfandel. The difference being that the flavour of the best bottles of Dingač is, some would argue, more robust, both in taste and smell. According to one vintner from the peninsula, the trick isn't in growing great grapes here, the trick is learning how to control their strength without being too controlling. Another compared the grapes to wild horses, which you want to tame - a bit, but not so much that you destroy the innate qualities that make them wild.

The difference between simply wild versus wild-yet-refined is the fine line that separates local bragging rights from world acclaim. It is this struggle to find its own international identity that makes Dingač worthy of closer inspection. The question is how to meld distinctive natural resources with modern techniques to make a truly competitive product. For visitors and connoisseurs, this metamorphosis carries the excitement of watching potential excellence from inception. In 2007, a wine road linking 11 vineyards - including producers of Dingač and other masterful winemakers such as Vinarija Miloš in Ponikve - was signposted along the peninsula.

'People think only the French make good wine but the wine here is excellent,' said Goran Miličić of the Miličić Vineyard, which has its operations on the edge of Potomje, the heart of Dingač production. 'The biggest difference is that the French have four, five or more generations but we are only in our first generation, which means we have to start everything for ourselves.'

Linking Potomje to Dingač is a 400-metre (1,310-foot) tunnel, which cuts into the hill and connects the town to the grapes. It was actually built by residents with their own money during the communist era. Previously, growers had to lead donkeys up and over the hill to fill baskets and then go back again. On the other side, around the near cliff-face of Dingač, every square metre seems stuffed with vines hanging heavy with bunches of grapes. From atop the slope, the sea is a straight shot down 300 metres (985 feet). Were it not for wine, the area would seem incredibly forbidding. With the wine, it feels something like standing over a gold mine.

Dingač is one of the rare positions in Europe where you can say, more or less, that every year is a good year, says Vlado Borošić, a wine expert and the owner of the Vinoteka Bornstein boutique in Zagreb. 'But the thing is, Dingač can be even better still. They have an excellent terroir. With some serious marketing and investment, it can really be one of the top wines in the world.'

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