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Stina Winery on the island of Brač in Croatia is stubbornly committed to producing wines from indigenous Dalmatian varieties that boast freshness, balance, and complexity. It is a purity of philosophy as white and simple as the very labels that adorn their bottles, and the very stone that Brač itself is renowned for. 

By Ian Bancroft

The Croatian island of Brač (pronounced ‘Brach’) is most renowned for its white stone, which was used to construct Diocletian’s magnificent Palace, just across the Adriatic in Split, and – or so American tourists are told – the White House. Stina Winery – whose name (Stina meaning stone in local dialect) and labels (off white and slightly textured) draw upon this precious heritage – is rapidly chiseling away at the prize of Brač’s most famous export. 

Stina’s cellars occupy the protected building of the First Dalmatian Wine Co-operative (Prva Dalmatinska Vinarska Zadruga’) on the harbour-side in Bol, which dates back to 1903. The Winery remains, to all intents and purposes, a co-operative, though a great deal more control is exerted over yields and vineyard management. The island long-avoided the accursed phylloxera, with two and a half million litres of wine per year barreling out through the cellar doors into waiting ships. This advantage, however, was short-lived.

Brac’s wine-making heritage – as elsewhere in Croatia and the region – is long and proud. There are certificates from the 1867 Exposition Universelle and the International Wine Exposition Paris 1906. A plaque on the wall describes ‘Plavac like the night’ (‘Plavac ko nuoc’); a depth of colour to which winemakers have long aspired. It is further defined by a quote on the wall in local dialect which describes it as being as ‘dark as the (Devil’s) night without any star, give it to us today’ (‘bez vraga zvizdie caran, daj nam ga i danas’).

Emil Mehdin, Stina’s marketing manager, explains how ‘the main aim is freshness in all our wines’. It is an aim that too many winemakers, especially those on the most southerly Dalmatian positions, have all too easily forgotten. He speaks about the importance of timing during the harvest, a challenge exacerbated by the exacting terrain on which much of their vineyard is planted. These slopes are not for those with vertigo. 

Though Pošip is more typically associated with the island of Korčula, which produces more aromatic versions from its deep soils, Stina’s own boasts distinct minerality, deriving from the predominance of rocky limestone soil.

To produce Stina’s Pošip Majstor, fifty per cent comes from stainless steel, with the remainder aged in 225-liter French oak barrels, but with only a very mild influence of oak. Some ten to twenty per cent of this latter half is produced ‘sur lie’ with malolactic fermentation. Emil emphasises how the grapes are first cooled and then pressed without oxygen in order to again maximise freshness and balance; a particular challenge given the changing climatic conditions that he ranks as one of their biggest concerns.

The result is a wine from 2018 that bursts with peach, apple, and citrus fruit, with hints of nuts and vanilla. It has a full mouthfeel, with a distinct creaminess, that is underpinned by lively acidity that ensures freshness and balance. The wine’s minerality, subtle oak and long finish add to its complexity. It is a wine that should be on every seafood restaurant’s wine list.

Their second white is made from another local variety, Vugava, which is more commonly associated with the island of Vis; though too many of the samples I tried there were flabby and insipid. Stina’s own Vugava is crisp and expressive, with notes of grapefruit and apricot.

Plavac Mali, a red indigenous variety, epitomizes Stina’s signature approach to freshness. It is being planted on Brač’s south slopes at ever higher altitudes, on ever steeper gradients – in fact, the steepest vineyards in Croatia, one with an incline of more than 70% – which are even better suited to harnessing its potential.

Plavac Mali Remek Djelo (meaning ‘masterpiece’) is made from only the best plots in only their finest years. There have been only three vintages to date – 2009, 2011 and 2016; the latter yet to be bottled, though Emil’s excitement is palpable. He describes with keen interest the rigorous adjudication process required before a ‘masterpiece’ can be declared. In the years where it falls just short, these wines are blended into Plavac Mali from other vineyards.

Plavac Mali Majstor 2016 is packed with black fruit and herbal notes; with an abundance of dark cherries and a hint of mint. Silky tannins, with well-integrated oak giving tobacco and dark chocolate flavours (most of their barrels are French oak, though some Slavonian is used). Again there is that signature freshness that makes the wine uplifting and memorable.  

Stina is also experimenting with Tribidrag; genetically identical to Primitivo and Zinfandel, yet proven to have originate in Dalmatia, from where it apparently made its way to Italy and then the US. It is, as Emil tells me, ‘a scientifically proven fact’, thanks to research conducted in co-operation between the Faculty of Agronomy from Zagreb and Davis University in California. ‘When I want to make fun of someone who knows well Zinfandel, I like to call it “original Zin” or “Zin from its homeland”’, Emil jokes.  

Its vulnerability to failure during the summer months led many wine makers to tear up its roots. Stina are keen to stem this decline. Tribidrag makes wines which are noticeably fruiter and less tannic, but its potential excites Emil. Whether stand alone or blended, it is an indigenous variety that can add additional depth and character to Stina’s range.

Stina’s basic range of wines boasts Croatia’s smallest label – almost postage stamp in size – a self-deprecating play on Brac’s reputation for being one of the stingiest islands. The hospitality here is anything but. Tourists who flock to nearby Zlatni Rat (or Golden Horn), a natural spit of white pebbles that adorns many of the country’s tourist posters, retreat at sunset to sample Stina’s collection; the sea breeze refreshing their scorched skin.  

Emil describes the mindset of people from Brač as a ‘positive stubbornness’. When it comes to Stina, it is a stubborn commitment to producing wines from indigenous Dalmatian varieties that boast freshness, balance, and complexity. It is a commitment that will not be compromised, even for short term gain and even when the challenges of harvesting at altitude become backbreaking. Stina strive to achieve a harmony that mirrors the very surroundings in which this wine is nurtured. It is a purity of philosophy as white and simple as the very labels that adorn their bottles, and the very stone that Brač itself is renowned for. 

Ian Bancroft is a writer based in the Balkans.

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