January 5, 2020 – Croatia’s most decorated winery in Croatia’s easternmost town – why a visit to Ilocki Podrumi in Ilok is about much more than wine.
For many years, I was totally confused by the wines of Ilocki Podrumi. They were simply everywhere, at every wine festival I attended, on most wine lists, and yet I had no idea where this winery was from. Their spicy Traminac wines were more reminiscent of the vineyards of Alsace than those of Dalmatia and Istria that I was getting to know from my island home on Hvar.
Gradually, and the more I spent time off the island and got to know continental Croatia a little more, I learned about the wines of Slavonia, and then about another vineyard which did not seem to fit into any category or region, for it was much, much further to the east than all the rest. And it had an international pedigree and history that all the others could only dream of.
For, I learned that Ilocki Podrumi was the main story in Croatia’s easternmost town of Ilok, and if I had bothered to translate the name of the winery (Ilok Cellars), I might have worked that out for myself. And the more I learned about Ilocki Podrumi, the more I became intrigued. For here was a winery which provided 11,000 bottles of wine for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth in London back in 1953, more wines for the nuptials of William and Kate, and then of Harry of Meghan. A winery which was the most decorated in the history of Croatian wine, and one which had the most incredible survival story from the Homeland War.
And a winery which – a few wine expert and journalist friends apart – almost nobody I knew had ever visited. For Ilok was apparently SO far away in the east. So much so, it appears, that the main sales and marketing base seemed to be in Zagreb.
Except Ilok really wasn’t that far away at all – much closer to Zagreb than Split, for example, just over three hours, mostly on the motorway. Once you overcome the stereotype that everything in the east is far away from the rest of Croatia, you realise that there is SO much to see and do starting from the capital that is largely overlooked by most people. Here, for example, is an example of the family fun we managed to have by heading on east for a weekend in October.
The perception of Ilok’s isolation is somewhat reinforced by the local geography. The town is located on the Danube in Croatia’s easternmost spot and surrounded on three sides by Serbia, with various border crossings in three directions. This geography sealed the town’s fate back in 1991, as Ilok was overrun by the Serbs, who also took up residence in the historic winery of Ilocki Podrumi, one of the most famous wine house of Croatia and one with arguably the finest tradition. Wine has been made from its vineyards for some 2,000 years.
There was scant respect for the traditions or the quality wines from the invading forces, and the large oak barrels were slashed open, the wine either pouring out or being used to make that Serbian favour, rakija. With an annual production of some 4 million litres, not only was a great quantity of wine being lost, but also some rare quality as in danger.
There were still some priceless bottles from some of the older vintages in the cellars, including several thousand from that 1947 Traminac vintage, which had so charmed the Queen’s royal guests in London almost 40 years before. A daring plan was hatched by some of the winery workers to try and save 8,000 of the most precious bottles. At considerable personal risk, the workers built another brick wall in the cellar around these precious bottles, covering it with the ubiquitous black mold and cobwebs to age the wall like the others in the cellar.
The plan worked, and when the Croats came back to take possession of Ilok after the war, the workers found that the treasure they had hidden behind the wall lay untouched. At the time of our visit in October, there were still 282 bottles of the famous 1947 Traminac, bottle price today a cool 55,000 kuna (7,400 euro) – and they were selling. A Russian visitor had insisted on trying a bottle on the spot. The winery had decided to sell 182 more, then keep 100 bottles for posterity and promotion.
You can still see where the famous wall once was, and behind it today are some of the better vintages of previous years, many of which are reserved for clients. In the photo above, the bottles without much dust in the middle are the most recent addition – reserved by Harry and Meghan for future consumption.
A visit to Ilocki Podrum, however, was about much more than looking at old bottles and tasting newer vintages. This was a business which was managing to attract plenty of international tourists, many of them day-trippers from cruise boats down the Danube. Cruise ship tourism on the Adriatic might be making most of the headlines, but the cruising business along Croatia’s Danube border is picking up nicely year on year, and Ilok is one of the most-stop destinations on the famous European river.
Having booked a tour, I had expected to have the place more or less to ourselves, but Ilocki Podrumi was busy.
But due to the surge of interest, our tour was slightly delayed. Not that we minded at all. The area around the old cellars was idyllic. Full of character and history. People may have come for the wine, but the backdrop was really pretty, and it was no surprise to learn that there were also bungalows to rent on site, with gorgeous views of the rolling hills ahead.
While we waited, a light snack to be washed down with one of the EIGHT types of Traminac made from one individual vintage – quite extraordinary. And the delightful accompanying pastry had quite a memorable name – torn underpants! They tasted much better than the name suggested.
Ilockli Podrumi have made a superb recovery from the devastating effects of the war in the 1990s. A major investment from its new Croatian owner, who took over the winery in 2005, is largely responsible for that, but the cellars were mightily impressive. The majority of the really big wine barrels may have been destroyed during the war, but they have been replaced by an army of smaller ones.
Mira, our excellent guide, showed us the biggest barrel in use today, and then told us something that quite surprised me. Ilocki Podrum still uses a lot of the local Slavonian oak, but they are having many more issues of supply these days. Slavonian oak is among the most highly prized int the world (along with French and Californian) for oak barrels in wine production. And yet, since the war, there were no longer any Slavonian craftsmen offering the service. Consequently, the raw oak material would be exported to Italy, where coopers would produce oak barrels, and then the oak would be exported back to Croatia.
But Mira had some good news – very recently, a company in Slavonia started producing barrels from Slavonian oak once more. A small story for some perhaps, but a great tale of one of the great traditions of Slavonian production returning to its roots. You can learn more about the Slavonian company Pepel Co, which is also making the first Croatian whisky, also in Slavonia.
The wines were exquisite, and if you want a taste of a Royal Wedding, why not savour the wines and vintages served up at Harry and Meghan’s wedding?
The big surprise, however, was what happened at the end of the tour of the cellars, for I had assumed that this would be all, but then we hopped into a car and a short drive out of town to one of the most magnificent places I have seen in Croatia – Princips, a spectacular addition to the Ilocki Podrumi tourism offer.
Principovac – a unique single vineyard appellation & summer residence of the Odescalchi family.
Near the centre of the historic town of Ilok, on the landscape hill offering stunning views of Ilok, Srijem and Backa, lies the Principovac Castle and Estate that was built in 1864th as summer residence of the Odescalchi family – The Dukes of Ilok, who stayed here during hunting seasons and grape harvestings. Whether you are a true wine connoisseur or you’re just on your way to become one, when you taste the royal Traminer and Graševina from Principovac in different styles you’ll realize that wine is here much more than a profession – it is a lifestyle.
Inside the restored castle of Odescalchi family is the Principovac restaurant, which has a rich gourmet offer – new age cuisine that is based on indigenous ingredients, flavours of the Croatian Danube and Slavonia prepared in a sophisticated way serving each course with a glass of wine chosen from our rich wine offer.
The Odescalchi summer residence offers accommodation in our luxury and modern designed ☆☆☆☆, apartments and one 120m2 De Lux Residential Suite, surrounded by vineyards. The apartments provide comfort and privacy, silence and amazing views. Principovac Summer Residence is offering additional open air recreation facilities. Beside the tennis and badminton courts, playgrounds for children and soon to be opened freshwater fish aquarium, there are 8 km of wine roads ideal for running, romantic walks, bike rides, moped rides or electric car rides through the vineyards. Barbeque points and small wood houses are available in several points though the estate vineyards ideal to spend time in nature for couples, families, and friend gatherings.
For those who are passionate golf players or those who want to experience their first golf steps, there is a covered golf shutting place with 3 holes. Teaching lessons can be organised and provided by prior reservation.
Prinicipovac is GORGEOUS. And for those who want to escape from the world in nature, but be surrounded by fine food and wine, here is a little slice of magic I had never heard about until this visit.
It would be easy to think that Ilok was all about the winery which dominates it (more than 330 hectares of its own, grapes bought from another 660 hectares, with one row of vines allegedly stretching 10 kilometres), but the town itself is delightful, especially the old fortified area which is a short walk away from the Ilocki cellars.
It does feel a little different to the rest of Croatia, and it was nice to experience that change. The roads become a little narrower, and the drive along the Danube was lovely. As a weekend getaway just a few hours from Zagreb, it is on our list for 2020.
And, just 30 minutes up the road on the outskirts of Vukovar, is another undiscovered treasure of the east – and one of the most incredible tourist attractions in Croatia, which is currently visited by just 50,000 people a year. Learn more about the incredible Vucedol civilisation and how this region was once one of the most advanced in all Europe. An attraction which was boosted in 2015 by the opening of one of the best museums in Croatia to tell its fantastic story.
Plan your own trip to the east, and discover a Croatia you did not know existed. To learn more about Ilocki Podrumi, visit the official website.