Plastic Bottles: The Real Croatian Wine Story

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There are a few differences which one notices immediately when you come from Manchester and you move to the island of Hvar.

The amount of rain in Manchester is directly proportional to the sun on Hvar, as my pink skin will attest to. Bland vegetables – available 24/7 – are swapped for delicious, fresh and home-grown produce, much of which is available according to season. A hard thing to get used to initially, but once you do, there is no going back. Manchester meetings in suits take place in offices and a glass of water, Hvar meetings take place in shorts in cafes over a beer. 

Wine is sold in glass bottles with corks at supermarkets and specialist wine stores in Manchester – as for real life in Croatia, the 1.5 litre plastic bottle is king.

Soon after I got together with my (now) wife, we decided to rent the apartment above her parents, a brave move I was told at the time, but one which has been a terrific success, and I genuinely could not have wished for better in-laws. Upon arrival, my father-in-law took me to the garage, where there were three stainless steel tanks at the back, the middle one labelled ‘POL’, which I soon figured out was a local spelling for my first name, Paul.

“This one is for you”, he said, extremely generously, before taking a plastic Coke bottle, filling it to the top with his home-made red, and handing it to me.

“It is all yours.”

What a lovely gesture, one I will never forget. And so it was, that my wine consumption on Hvar increased a little, and was limited to those plastic bottles of red goodness, as well as other plastic bottles over grills in the family field, until one day disaster struck! Popping down to top up my favourite bottle, I turned on the tap only to see to my horror that there was no wine left in the magic tank. 

I was a wine merchant before I came to Croatia, selling some of France’s most exclusive labels, and here I am 15 years later, now writing about Bibich, Trapan, Milos, Meneghetti, Tomac and a host of other quality Croatian winemakers, whose wines belong on the world stage. And yet to have a website about Croatian wine that does not pay homage to the culture of the plastic bottle would be remiss of me. 

It was a thought which came back to me during the recent Fra Ma Fu reporters’ festival in Virovitica, as I was fortunate enough to be part of a busload of journalists from the Croatian Journalist Association, who were very well looked after by our hosts. Part of our excellent itinerary was a tasting and lunch at the Vineda winery, where I was very taken by the 2014 Chardonnay, but I was not there for long, for upon learning that there was a Croatian-speaking foreigner among the group, I was whisked away by a very chatty bearded man, who wanted me to try his Sylvaner, which he made close by. We would be gone about ten minutes, I was assured… 

And so began a journey into the real Croatian wine story… 

There was even a signpost to the location – Starovinski Breg – Old Wine Hill.

The location was divine, but after we had been driving for ten minutes, I began to realise I would not be gone ten minutes… 

Off the main road, then down another smaller road, then finally straight down a grassy hill, a path of sorts made from flattened grass where previous cars had driven. And a wonderful official address in the fields – 10 Bukovac Vineyard. 

It soon became clear I was here for the afternoon. An impressive array of plastic bottles filled with the golden liquid awaited, as did half a dozen new friends who were a little surprised to see a foreigner appear at their weekly gathering, but they made me extremely welcome.  

The calm before the storm.

And any thoughts I might be asked to drink on an empty stomach were assuaged by this diligent fellow, who paid meticulous attention to the goulash in his charge. 

Others took their turn, and there was plenty of advice on what should be added, but the end result was a fabulous meal in good company, all washed down with plastic bottle goodness.  

Afternoons in the field – part of the rich tradition of Croatian life all over the country. And with plentiful home-made wine and rakija, assisted by great food, the music is often not far behind. And so it proved in our case. Initially I thought I had consumed a glass of Silvanac too much, but sure enough, there WAS a man carrying a double bass through the vineyard!

And, as you can see from the video above, he was not alone. Four of my new friends doubled up as tamburasi, a fabulous musical quartet, who added considerable life to the already lively proceedings, and there was even an extra treat, as we followed them out into the vineyard.

To fine musical accompaniment, a ‘klopetec’ was ceremoniously hoisted, a traditional wooden scarecrow in this part of the country. And the ceremony was followed by another round of Grasevina and Silvanac chasers. 

A truly fine afternoon, and as I returned to my hotel several hours later having missed the main evening event at the festival, I could not help wonder if I had had the better experience.

Croatia has more than 2,600 registered winemakers all over the country, most of which are not commercial like these guys. That is about one winemaker per 1,700 people in Croatia, which is a very high number. It is also a reason why the humble plastic bottle is an integral part of the Croatian wine experience, and should be celebrated as such.

To the team at Starovinski Breg, my heartfelt thanks for allowing me into your wonderful natural world. I will be back.


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