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Though some will simply argue that it is contemporary preferences for less sour and alcoholic wines that make Vugava unappealing, it is Vis’s other autochthonous sorts – not a change in tastes – that may finally help Vugava realise its full potential.

Vis’s reputation for wine far exceeds the island’s size, and indeed the quality of much of its output. A culture of wine infuses the anthem, songs, history and traditions of an island that was once a Greek colony, named ‘Issa’.

Vugava – or ‘Bugava’ in local dialect – is by far and away the island’s most renowned autochthonous sort. A highly-unstable grape that produces extremely alcoholic wines (typically around the 14% mark), often described by those eager to eke out the grapes redeeming features as having a ‘pleasant heat’.

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Vugava is, however, defined by pronounced flavours reminiscent of cider; namely, sour fermented apples lacking in freshness. Despite a deep lemon-gold colour and occasional floral notes, too many of the wines sampled lacked subtlety and balance.

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Though often likened to Viognier – which is believed to have originated in Dalmatia, before being brought to the Rhône by the Romans, possibly by Emperor Probus in 281 AD – such a comparison is based more on aspiration than expectation or evidence. One will struggle to find any suggestion apricot or ripe peach in Vugava, let alone delicate notes of lavender and violets.

When blended with other autochthonous sorts like Kurteloške and Rukaca, however, a Vugava-heavy cuvée is far more expressive and refined. The wines produced by O.P.G. Magic in Stončica are a particularly good example, with their freshness and balance a fine complement to their restaurant’s excellent organic cooking.

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Plavac Mali – about which the Greek chronicler, Agarthid from Knid, wrote in 300 BD that “compared to all others, it is the best wine” – is another autochthonous sort that thrives on Vis, particularly in the Island’s sandy eastern terrain according to one producer. It too, however, struggles to rival its more illustrious counterparts from Croatia’s Pelješac peninsula.

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History through wine

Wine provides an important window into Vis’s history; a history defined by various occupations. A fifth century BC coin found on Vis is widely believed to be Croatia’s oldest wine trade-related artefact.

Years as a military island have certainly impacted the development of the island’s viticulture. No where is this more apparent than in the wine cellars of Antonio Lipanović which are housed in the very military tunnels constructed to counter all manner of real and imagined enemy. The tunnels provide an ideal and consistent temperature in which to store the 225-litre medium-toasted Slavonian barrels in which some of his wines are fermented.

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Podrum Roki in Plisko Polje – one of Vis’s most renowned winemakers – hosts a unique spectacle; a cricket pitch amidst fields of ripening vines. Originally established in 1809 by Captain William Hoste, a naval commander stationed on Vis for some six years, the club was revitalised by the Roki family.

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Captain Hoste’s words – “we have established a cricket club at this wretched place, and when we do get anchored for a few hours, it passes away an hour very well” – belie the beauty of the surrounding hills and the knowledge of the coast-line in close proximity.

It is this history and its association with winemaking on Vis that makes for a fascinating journey that the wines alone do not yet inspire. Despite harvesting Vugava for centuries, there remain significant scope for experimentation, especially the blending of Vugava with other local varieties that could add more balance and subtlety.

Though some will simply argue that it is contemporary preferences for less sour and alcoholic wines that make Vugava seem unappealing, it is Vis’s other autochthonous sorts – not a change in tastes – that may finally help Vugava realise its full potential.

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