Sensory overload. That is how I would describe any one of my whirlwind visits to Croatia.
I mean it in a positive way. The country is simply brimming with vinous, culinary and natural delights. Gnarly old grapevines improbably clinging to sun baked seaside slopes. Nearly 1,200 islands sprinkled like seashells on the impossibly blue Adriatic. Countless villages and hamlets of seminal charm nestled in coves and on mountainsides. Fresh caught seafood and farm-to-table produce so succulent and cooked to perfection. The warm faces of family, old friends and new acquaintances (and an occasional donkey). Swoon-worthy views and secret spots where you can enjoy the sights and sounds of nature that – to this New York City boy – are so intimate, pure and wonderful.
And then there is the wine. Indigenous grapes, local producers. Most of it delicious and distinct. So this is what all this beauty… this land…this Croatia tastes like, you may be inspired to declare.
In the hills just above a luxury marina filled with opulent yachts lies a natural wonder – one of those rare and mystical places where the transcendental forces of the planet converge to create a particular sweet spot for growing wine grapes.
Here the leaves of old vines radiate in the summer heat. White rocks cover the ground and reflect sunlight, shrouding the plants in a platnium aura. Climb up onto the slopes and all grows quiet; a seminal silence – the hushed ancient secrets of butterflies, cicadas and sun lizards. I imagine them taking cover under leaf and stone as the salty sea breeze flicks over the craggy landscape.
The vines – many hunched like old market women and gnarled by the forces of time – stand stoically and stooped, burdened by their dark bunches and surrendered to the pateince they know they must keep through the decades, the centuries….
But one cannot feel – while meandering on foot through this majestic place – anything but light in step, reverent in heart, and stimulated in mind and spirit. For this is Bucavac vineyard, an unassuming shrine to the local native red grape called Babić (for more about Babić, click HERE).
Bucavac is arguably one of the least known yet most renown vineyards in Croatia (taking a respectable place behind some of the more famous coastal vineyards such as Dingač and Postup).
Elsewhere in the Old World of wine growing regions, vineyards of this stature and power are often bestowed with titles such as Grand Cru or Premier Cru. These growing areas are treated as sacred places and stand as royal thrones to the nobility of the wines produced there. One wonders, if Bucavac were located in France, would it be considered among the great wine regions of the world?
In Croatia Bucavac is simply an umarked and often unnoticed hillside. Unpretentious and until recently nearly forgotten. Tourists in sleek cars pulling boat trailers or campers zoom by on the Jadranska magistrala (Adriatic Highway), oblivious to the quiet grandeur of the sacred garden just off in the distance with its knotted and wizened old vines.
While not ancient, Bucavac vineyard is legendary and remains a testament to human determination and endurance. It is the only vineyard site in Croatia that is on UNESCO’s World Heritage Tentative List as a protected site of “cultural and natural significance”.
To further heighten the historical mystique of this little vineyard and the Babić grape, an old aerial photograph of Bucavac was once displayed in the lobby of the United Nations building in New York City.
Lying about 20 minutes south of the coastal city of Šibenik, Bucavac occupies a sleepy hump of limestone hillside just two miles (3 km) south of the seaside resort town of Primošten. The landscape is a mixture of terra rossa soil, blue-grey scrub brush, shimmering green vines, and white limestone set to the backdrop of an aqua-bue Adriatic Sea. Looking at Bucavac from a distance, I am reminded of the fabulous title of an old Ernest Hemingway story, “Hills Like White Elephants”.
By far the distinguishing characteristic of Bucavac vineyard is the patchwork of stone walls and square plots of vines that criss-cross the slopes. Collectively these checkerboard plots comprise the approximately 18 hectares of Babić vines that is Bucavac vineyard. Many of the vines are over 40 years old.
The UNESCO website further describes Bucavac as lots “made up of red soil in which a few vines are planted while low dry stone heaps keep the soil together around them…. Local unpaved paths lead to the lots…. This originally rocky, inaccessibly terrain has been transformed through extreme human effort into agricultural land, namely, by its clearing in the traditional manner (manually) without the use of machines. The Bucavac site has remained a completely preserved surface as it was at the time it was first developed, maintaining the original morphology of cleared lots, traditional way of soil cultivation and agricultural function which have not changed in the entire area up to the present.”
The current configuration of vineyards at Bucavac was hon out of the stoney hillside in 1947, when the municipality of Primošten granted local residents 1,000-square meter plots of “bare and rocky terrain” in which to plant vineyards. “The clearing and reparation of soil and planting of wine grapes lasted ten years or so, and there were families who planted a few thousand vine plants of the Croatian indigenous sort Babić, which produces best quality wines precisely in the Primošten region”. (UNESCO)
Today Bucavac vineyard lies somewhat in limbo as its future is debated and its place in the world of wine remains to be seen. A project to restore the vineyard and replant the oldest and most unproductive vines is currently underway. However, limited government funding and pending European Union regulations prohibiting the planting of new vines have slowed progress and left the project without a clear mandate.
When I first visited Bucavac, I ventured up the top on the slopes on my own, thinking that at any moment someone would shout at me for trespassing – or that I would be arrested by the authorities. But nothing happened. I was left alone to stroll among the sleepy vines, lost in reverent thought, sampling nearly ripe berries along the way, digging my fingers into the soil, and turning over a bleached piece of limestone between my fingers. Touching the terroir, as they say….
It was a magical feeling. Alone among those historic vines, conversing with them, asking politely to taste their fruit, telling them that soon they shall become great wine. “Just a little longer”, I’d say. “Just be patient and give it your best.”
I promised those vines that someday the world would love them. Someday wine aficionados from all corners of the earth would taste the dark nectar of their souls: premium Babić wine! And they would be happy, laughing and singing, and toasting one another’s health.
After my last visit to Bucavac (when I eventually came down out of them hills), I made my way into Primošten. There I met Professor Leo Gracin, who is one of the leaders of the Bucavac restoration project. He happens to also be one of the few quality producers of commercially-available Babić wine in the region. His “Suha Punta” Babić remains as one of the best examples of this darkly colored, uniquely characteristic wine.
I found Dr. Gracin waiting for me at a small restaurant in the center of Primošten. On the table was an open bottle of his 2008 Babić and lunch. As I sipped and swirled the wine and ate heartily from the savory selection of pan-fried veal, braised chard and potatoes swimming in golden olive oil, and fresh crusty bread, I thought about the vines of Bucavac and my promise to them.
And here in my glass, so dark and brooding, was their gift to me. An inky elixir in which swirled all the flavors of Bucavac – the stones, the red soil, the olive trees, figs, sea salt, wild thyme and rosemary, the scratching song of the cicadas….For a moment I thought I could hear the wind – and the ancient secrets of all the life that over time made those hills home. Ghosts of the leathered faces and hands that once excavated the stones from the soil and stacked them into the immovable walls of Bucavac seemed to ascend on the wine’s bouquet, brushing my lips and cheeks.
Looking even deeper into the wine, I noticed that from its dark depths radiated a light. The light of grace. The light of love. The light of patience and hope….
Time suddenly slipped away. My body became spirit. My soul grew still. I understood…. Life is indeed transient. What is important is not what when take from it but what we leave behind for new generations to find.
At this juncture I am inclined to let Hemingway keep his wonderful “Hills Like White Elephants” metaphor. Bucavac deserves a metaphor of its own, something that captures its sense of timelessness, beauty – and tenuous future.
“Hills Like Sleeping Dreams”. Hmmm…perhaps.
And like a dream, it is in a somewhat suspended state of animation that Bucavac remains. Living proof of the continuity of life and triumph over hardship and uncertainty. I suspect that it will continue to uphold that tradition – at least I hope so.
With a glass of Babić in hand, I daydream about the time when I can wander those hills again. Feeling fully awake to their magic. Overcome by the mysterious power of the planet’s ability to generate such breathtaking beauty. Humbled and meek among the seminal stones of history.