In Hollywood films, “the bad guys are always Russian and named Elias,” says our AMA Waterways tour guide in a mixed tone of defeat and humor. Our tour begins in Croatia, within its 88,000 square kilometers along the Adriatic Sea. We are off the beaten tourist path except for the beauty of paprika farms that we drive past.
Our bus rides alongside sunflower fields of beauty in juxtaposition of the bullet-riddled buildings we passed far East of Croatia. We are headed to Ilok, to the city for wine tasting, coincidentally on a national holiday – August 5 – a day commemorating the Yugoslav Civil War of 1991-92. You can still see the effects of the bombed buildings, as with each election, empty promises of repair are meant to lure voters to what is commonly known as a corrupt government. Vukovar’s Baroque architecture is a promise of a rebuild of a city, and it is clear that this renovation is ongoing.
Symbols of resistance are everywhere we turn: Hiding places where there are ground-level doors, the water tower, a symbol of resistance. Graffiti on a yellow building in Serbia showcases an image of an angry man. The heaviest fighting took place in Vukovar. A war-ravaged neighborhood where on a drive you see many homes decorated with bullet holes.
The Croats arrived in the 7th century and by the 12th century, the state entered with Hungary. The Ottoman invasion of Europe in the 16th century claimed almost all of Croatia, and by the 17th century, the Austrians liberated Croatia. By the end of World War I, Croatia was part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Enter the dark period, also known as World War II, when Croatia declared its independence by committing bad deeds to the Serbs in a Nazi collaboration. By 1945 Croatia was socialist and the red star was its symbol of resistance in the fight against Nazi’s and Fascism.
In this city, a statue symbolizes the first democratic elections. In 1991 the war began in the republic of Serbia; Croatia fell under UN protection and later liberated on August 5, thanks to Operation Desert Storm.
Today, Croatia is a parliamentary democracy with a prime minister and president that serves two terms of five years each. Today there is a woman president with no jurisdiction; basically she is a “floor plant in the office,” our tour guide admits.
Unlike its wine, the politics of Croatia are hard to swallow; luckily I am here to taste wine that began thanks to the Roman, Marcus Aurelias, who wanted to plant grapes here. Croatia’s region began with 80% grasevina – and Italian reisling.
The wines I taste in a 15th century castle’s hand-built cellars at Ilok (Nikolar Ilok) are crisp in minerality and the whites in particular are enjoyable on this late summer day. Aged in 7 years young Slovenian oak barrels grown in Venice, Italy, much of this wine was destroyed during the 7 years of war when Serb’s occupied Ilok.
But the wine is so tasty that even Queen Elizabeth has a few boxes of 1947 Croatian wine in her cellar. She got these bottles only because the wine bottles were hidden behind brick walls, as pictured, below.
My tasting notes at Ilocki in Croatia, where a bottle of Podrumi is $5.
#1 – Gratavina (Italian Riesling) 2014
A dry-greenish to hay color, definitely a summer wine that surprises with its buttery flavor.
#2 – Traminac 2014 has a color more golden than the Gratavina, with a strong floral bouquet of roses. This wine is so delicious it is like sipping honeysuckle, jasmine and rose. It offers a longer finish than the Gratavina. I’m sold, if only I knew where to purchase a bottle in the U.S.
#3 Kapistran CRNI 2013 is made from grapes that grow in a region where hunters flock. This is a cabernet sauvignon Frankoka with a dark, very dark, in fact, ruby red color and aroma of berries and currant. This wine is best served with Gouda cheese, wild boar, deer meat and Hungarian Goulash.
It is difficult to swallow the hard history of Croatia, but its wine production goes down easy and with a pleasant, lingering finish.