A week of food and wine in Split, Croatia

A week ago we returned from a week in Split, Croatia, and I share here some of our food and wine experiences. This break was not particularly wine-focussed, and we did not visit any local producers, but we did drink wines made from local varieties with meals. I’ll kick off with three of our favourite restaurants, the first two being suggested by the owner of our rooms as places he likes to eat.

Villa Spiza is just outside the Palace (the area in the centre of town where Diocletian’s Palace stood). They buy in fresh food every day, and as it starts to run out it they cross dishes off the menu, and close the restaurant when it has all gone. No reservations, so you have to just turn up and be prepared to queue for a table. When we were there we waited around 30 mins, but the queue soon grew to an hour. Both from the perspective of getting a good choice of dishes, and minimising queuing, it is perhaps best to go for lunch or an early evening meal. You will also have to accept that seating can be cramped. So what is so great about it? The food was simultaneously the best and the cheapest we found in Split, and although the staff were busy, they were also attentive and friendly. This is where we got the Dingač mentioned below, which we had with steak. It was served at room temperature (mid-to-high 20s Centigrade) but when I asked for a bucket of ice and water the bucket appeared unquestioningly, and within the minute of my asking. We only visited once because we did not feel like queuing on other occasions, wanting a more relaxing evening.

Konoba Fetivi is bit further out, but still only 10 or 15 mins walk from the Palace. Nothing fancy, but good quality food and reasonably priced, and we had two evening meals there. Best known for the fish and sea food, but they serve meat too. This is where we got the house white mentioned below. When we were there a couple of weeks ago, we needed to book to get in for dinner.

Gallerija is actually in the Palace area, and a bit hidden away down a side alley from an already very narrow street, in a small courtyard. Good food at a decent price, with good service and a very pleasant location. We were staying so close to this place that we could use our rooms’ WiFi, so perhaps we were a bit biased, but we had dinner there twice, and a few breakfasts too. Not as busy at the other two places above, but probably still worth booking for dinner to be on the safe side. The image above is the view from the restaurant courtyard, towards the building where we stayed on the second floor.

The above three restaurants I would recommend with confidence, but now for some other places you might be tempted by if you use the Internet to check out wine places in Split. Zinfandel had great service and food, but it was expensive, e.g. the steak was about twice the price it was in most places. And the hasselback potato on their menu to accompany the steak was not at all like a hasselback. Despite the price and the un-hasselback potato, I must admit we came away feeling we had a good experience, so if you are feeling flush maybe you should give it a try. In contrast, the lunch we had at Uje Oil was very disappointing considering the praise it seems to get online. There were many minor annoyances with the place and the service, which together gave a bad impression, and the food we ordered was average at best. Maybe we caught them on a bad day, but I can only report what we experienced, and we were not tempted to return. Booking was needed for both these two places also. In fact, on two occasions we tried booking Uje Oil around midday for dinner, and failed both times.

Now, a couple of wines that made an impression in very different ways.

Anticević Dingač Traditional 2015,  with a mere 16% ABV. HKR 410 at Villa Spiza. Intense purple ruby. Intense aromas. Mainly savoury, but with hints of sweet dark fruit. Spicy. Medium high acidity. Off dry. Medium high tannin. Savoury and slightly bitter on finish. Good now, but could well improve with some more age. Excellent with the steak we were eating *****

Gospoja Dry White Wine, 12% ABV. This was the house white at Konoba Fetivi, and we were told the variety was Žlahtina. The wine was taken from a 10 li catering bag-in-box, and served in carafe at HRK 90 for 75cl. It was what the waiter recommended, and most people in the restaurant were drinking it. Pale straw. Stone fruit and citrus – lemon and lime? Medium high acid. Dry. Tad astringent maybe. Tingly finish. Drink now. A lot better than other cheaper wines we drank in Split, and better than some that were more expensive. Surprisingly good, and worked well with fish *****

Finally, a wine merchant. Looking online the best one in Split seemed to be Vinoteka Terra. It’s in a sort of courtyard just off the road prilaz braće Kaliterna, down some stairs, and in a cellar that it shares with a restaurant. The sign for the shop is a very small plate on the door, and easy to miss – the restaurant signs being a lot more prominent. The picture you might find on the Web, of an alcove with wine shelves, is the whole shop interior, and is not nearly as big as some online reviews make out. Nevertheless, it is still the best selection of Croatian wine I have seen in one place, taking up about half of the shop’s shelf space. Top marks for the help I was given by the lady in the shop in my quest to find 6 bottles to bring back in checked-in luggage. No idea how competitive the prices are for Split.

Wines from around Dubrovnik – Pošip, Plavac Mali, and Dingač

If you read my last post, you will know by now that Pošip and Plavac Mali are names of grapes used in South Dalmatia for varietal wines, white and red respectively. Also you will know that Pošip tends to be grown on the island of Korčula, while a lot of the Plavac Mali comes from the Pelješac Peninsula. Dingač on the other hand is a PDO name, for Plavac Mali wines from a particularly favourable site on Pelješac. Of the wines from around Dubrovnik, these are the ones that I tasted and drank enough of to get to know, and you will find them readily available if you visit.

Pošip

There was quite a variation in the Pošips I drank and tasted. None were exactly bad, but some were rather unexciting – neutral and fresh was the best you could say of them.

Others were considerably more intense and aromatic, and they were the ones I enjoyed most. An example was the one shown here, which I drank at Buffet Peninsula on Pelješac. This Pošip was 2016, 13.5%, Central and South Dalmatia PDO, made by Toreta, and from Korčula. It was intense, and in my opinion pungent in the Sauvignon Blanc cat’s-pee way. But while this was most definitely dry, it also had some honeyed aromatics that tempered the pungency. And those honeyed notes moved it away from anything that could be considered to be Sauvignon Blanc. Were it available in the UK, I think it would retail for a very reasonable £15. Another favourite was a little cheaper, and from D’Vino Wine Bar in Dubrovnik. It was made by Antunović, 2016, 12.5%, and with the same PDO, but this one was from Pelješac. It was hugely intense, fresh and herbaceous, and had a good smooth mouthfeel.

There were also sur lie Pošips, which were more rounded and complex. These seemed to be generally highly regarded and attracted a small price premium. I must admit they were good too, but on balance I preferred the more aromatic versions that were perhaps less nuanced.

Plavac Mali

Looking through my tasting notes, the Plavac Mali wines I tried also had a lot of variation. The fruit varied from red to black berries, and there were varying degrees of oakiness. Levels of astringency also varied, but tended to be a bit on the high side compared with most other varietals. And the degree of complexity increased, perhaps predictably, with price and age. I will highlight below a couple of Plavac Mali wines I particularly liked.

At the cheap and very cheerful end of the spectrum was the 2016, 13.5%, Plavac Mali made by Bura, illustrated here. It was the equivalent of £4.80 retail for a bottle at Buffet Peninsula, which I guess would be just under a tenner if it made it to the UK. The bottles I saw were labelled for the US market, and under screwcap. This wine was immediately appealing, with fresh acidity, low astringency, and bursting with juicy blackberry fruit and violets. Absolutely delicious in a straightforward sort of way, and absolutely a bargain.

A lot more expensive, and considerably more serious, was the 2005, 14.3%, Stagnum, made by Frano Miloš. This was beautiful – intense, complex, smoky and spicy. It had acidity to match the Bura described above but, even after 12 years, a good whack of tannin. The only problem with this wine was that it was very ambitiously priced at around £80 direct from the winery, so maybe £120 UK retail. In the sense that I have had worse wines that have been a lot more expensive, the price is maybe not so stupid, but nevertheless such a high price did act as a deterrent to buying. I did though get a bottle of the 2006 vintage, at around £50 from the winery, which had similar structure and I would characterise as lifted, complex, and aromatically delicate. The 2007 Stagnum was being sold for only £25, so obviously the winery put a large premium on aging. Miloš also make a cheaper Plavac wine, which was also good enough for me to buy.

Dingač

I found Dingač to be similar to non-Dingač Plavac Mali wines in their variation, but with the volume turned up – more intense, more alcoholic, more tannic.

The wine illustrated here is a 2015 Dingać produced by Šimunković, a small producer I believe, which we drank at Lady Pi-Pi with barbecued meat. I absolutely enjoyed it, but the main reason I mention it here is because that it was perhaps the most memorable wine of the trip. If Dingač is Plavac Mali with the volume turned up, this one was playing at full blast, with a declared 16% of alcohol, good acidity, massive tannins, and dark fruit aromas that managed to be both fresh and raisiny at the same time. Not usually my favourite style of wine, but in this meat-filled context it worked exceptionally well. It was £44 on the restaurant wine list, and I would guess that would be the equivalent of £25-30 retail in the UK.

My notes tell me that I enjoyed a couple of other Dingač wines even more, but the descriptive part of those notes is very poor, so I will just give them a quick mention. They were both tasted at the Peninsula Buffet wine bar. One was produced by Bura. It was 2015, 15,5%, and with an estimated UK retail price of £37. The other was a little cheaper at an estimated UK retail price of £25. The producer of this one was Ponos, and the vintage 2015. At 14.9% it was the lightest of the three Dingač wines mentioned here, and was also more moderate in tannin. Lots of donkeys on the label – a common motif for Dingač, as they were used to carry the harvest over the mountain to the winery.

And here ends my series of posts on Dubrovnik and South Dalmatia. Do feel free to let me know if you have any questions or comments.

The wine regions of South Dalmatia

I am going to be a bit more vague than I would like to in this post, because I found it very difficult to get up-to-date and authoritative sources of information. However, I saw that as all the more reason for pulling together what facts I could to serve as an introduction to the region. Here’s my best shot…

At least I can speak with certainty about the PDOs and PGIs that exist in Croatia, as the EU maintains a list centrally. Croatian PGIs are easy – there are none! Of the PDOs, there is one that covers all of this region, and more, called Srednja i Južna Dalmacija, which translates as Central and South Dalmatia. Judging by the wine labels I have seen, this is quite commonly used, and wines of several different varieties seem to qualify for it. The only other two PDOs that it is clear to me are in South Dalmatia are Dingač and Dalmatinska zagora.

Dingač and its sister area of Postup are on the Pelješac Peninsula, and discussed below, while Zagora lies somewhere between Dubrovnik and the peninsula and I know hardly anything else about it. Another major wine-growing area is the island of Korčula, of which I shall presently write a little more.

The Konavle Valley also deserves a brief mention. This is in the area around the symbol for Gruda in the map below. I don’t think the Konavle Valley has the same level of status as Pelješac and Korčula, but I have had at least two very good wines from there, and it is now accessible from Dubrovnik as a wine tour, complete with tourist train ride to take you between winery visits. There are also wine tours to the Pelješac Peninsula, which is a bit more of a schlep from Dubrovnik.

On wine labels you will additionally find a type of geographical area that is neither PDO or PGI called vinogorje, which could be translated as vineyard but in this usage it is a much larger wine area. I am not sure how strictly regulated these vinogorje names are, but South Dalmatia examples I have seen are Pelješac, Korčula and Konavle.

Probably the most important grape in the South Dalmatia is Plavac Mali. It is certainly the most important red variety – if I may presume to call it red that is, as the name translates as little blue one. It is grown principally on the Pelješac Peninsula, the entrance to which is around 40 miles North-West of Dubrovnik.

The vineyards of the peninsula are not all of Plavac Mali, and are scattered along most of its length. However there is quite a cluster of producers in and around the village of Potomje, and the flat land just to the North of the village contains what is probably the peninsula’s largest concentration of vineyards. The village, and its vineyards on the plain, can be seen in the image below. Just over the mountain ridge from Potomje, to the right in the image, are the steep South-facing slopes of the Dingač vineyards stretching down to the Adriatic. Dingač was the first protected geographical area in Yugoslavia, achieving this status in 1961. With its South-facing aspect, and possibly with the help of reflected light from the sea, grapes achieve high levels of ripeness and can make particularly powerful and tannic red wines. Dingač seems to be a strong brand – when I was there in Dubrovnik, most wines types seemed to be referred to by grape variety, but Dingač was always Dingač.

If Dingač was the first protected area for Plavac Mali, both chronologically and in terms of prestige, Postup must be second, in both respects. This area was protected in Yugoslavia in 1967, and is somewhat larger than Dingač – 70ha to th 40 ha of Dingač. Somehow however the Yugoslavian Postup has not yet managed to make it as a PDO. Postup’s wines are not as big and powerful as Dingač, perhaps because, although their aspect is similar on a South-facing slope by the sea, the vineyards are not as steep. (If you visit the D’Vino wine bar in Dubrovnik, do not be mislead by an information card you might be given, which implies that Postup is on the North side of the mountain ridge opposite Dingač.)

On the above map, Dingač lies by the top of the “l” in the word “Pelješac”, while Postup is further West, close to the Easternmost end of the island of Korčula. If you check on the Google Maps satellite images you can identify both these vineyard areas, and the ones on the plain around Potomje.

While the Pelješac Peninsula is best known for it Plavac Mali, Korčula specialises in white wine. The decision for it to focus on whites was taken by a Yugoslav government committee but that decision has had a lasting influence, even if on the face of it the island’s geography is not too different from that of Pelješac. Special mention should be given to the relatively rare grape variety Grk, which is grown in any quantity only on Korčula, largely at the Eastern tip of the island. However, Pošip is the variety that Korčula is best known for, and Pošip from Korčula is widely available in the region.

In summary, the local wines you are most likely to come across in Dubrovnik, or at least the ones I remember best, are Plavac Mali from Pelješac, in particular Dingač if you go a bit upmarket; and the white wines of Korčula, especially Pošip, and the rarer Grk.

Places to eat and drink in Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik is not only a great place to explore in its own right, but is a good base to discover the wines of South Dalmatia and, to a lesser extent, the rest of Croatia. While it was historically well-connected by sea, Dubrovnik’s land links with the rest of Croatia are rather tenuous as it lies almost right at the southern end of a very thin Croatian coastal strip, and nearby islands and peninsulas are more important for winegrowing than what you might call the mainland.


I cannot pretend to have explored the restaurants and bars of Dubrovnik to the extent that I can point to the very best places to eat and drink, but I can add my weight to some positive reviews you will find on TripAdvisor and elsewhere: three places in the old town, and one in another town, Cavtat, readily accessible as a day trip from Dubrovnik.

Firstly there is the wine bar D’Vino, which is just off the main drag in Dubrovnik. They serve platters of cheese and ham, and a good range of wines, including tasting flights. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable, and I would recommend sitting inside the building to make it easier to benefit from their knowledge and enthusiasm, as some bits of the outside seating area are a bit remote from the main action. They also run wine tours out to the Pelješac Peninsula. I had already made other arrangements for visiting Pelješac, but I think I would be more confident going with them than any of the other standard wine tours I saw advertised.

We visited D’Vino twice, and the only other place we went back to was the restaurant Kopun. The name means capon, a castrated cockerel, which is their signature dish. They do however have a range of other options, and quite a decent wine list. I didn’t get into any detailed discussion about their wines, but their suggestions were confident and competent. Probably the best food-wine match of the trip was their Dubrovnik Capon with a Malvasija dubrovačka. The restaurant is one of two in the square in front of the Jesuit church, which you can actually see in the top-right corner of the image above at the top of a flight of stairs, though the restaurants are hidden.

The other restaurant in Dubrovnik that made a good impression was Lady Pi-Pi, named after their unusual statue of a woman having a pee. It is located high up in the old town, close to the wall on the North side. We walked there up many, many steps from the town centre but, after sharing a bottle of 16% Dingač, thought it safer to return by the easier route round the outside of the wall. This is a barbecue restaurant that has outside seating only, and there is no booking. So you have to be prepared to queue if necessary, and possibly get rained on. In heavy rain, the restaurant will close, possibly even while you are seated. One of the biggest attractions of the place is apparently the view over Dubovnik – if you are lucky enough to get a table with a view, that is. As we visited in October, and were prepared to share a table, we did not have long to wait. I really enjoyed eating there, but to be honest I am not sure why. The food was good, but there is a limit to how good grilled meat and chips can be. The best bit was probably the Cevapi – a local meat ball speciality. And the aforementioned Dingač hit the spot nicely too. This place is a nice break from the Dubrovnik tourist norm, and well worth considering if it sounds like your sort of thing, but personally I would not queue long for the experience.

Not in Dubrovnik at all but easy to reach by bus and boat, Bugenvila in Cavtat was probably my favourite restaurant of the whole trip, certainly as far as the food was concerned – good quality ingredients, and very well prepared. I learned afterwards that the chef had worked with Heston Blumenthal. We had lunchtime set menus with matching wine flights. I must admit that I was a little disappointed that 5 of our 6 wines (3 with each of the menus) were of international grapes. I also thought it a strange that I was served a Sauvignon Blanc with a mushroom and truffle oil soup, but I approached it with an open mind and it did seem to work in a yin-yang sort of way. I still wonder though if that was the intended match, or was it an error, or just some left-over wine?

More about the wines of South Dalmatia, including those briefly mentioned here, in my next post.