Miquel Hudin is a wine writer based in Priorat.
While taking a ferry from the Croatian city of Split to his home on the island of Hvar, winemaker Zlatan Plenković, just 68, passed away on Thursday 17 March, suffering the rapid onset of severe fever.
Zlatan's name may not be familiar to that many wine drinkers since Croatian wine plays only a small part in the world's wine scene, but what he started marked a turning point in the appreciation of wines from the former Yugoslavian republics.
Being of Croatian descent, I was finally able to visit the homeland of my father's family in 2004. After a long trip from the capital Zagreb out towards the coast on the twisty old road (which included my initial bus catching fire), I met up with a friend in Dubrovnik who took me in to a little bar tucked away in the Old Town, where, asking for a local wine, I was presented with a bottle of Zlatan's Plavac Mali. Framed by the sun setting sun over the Adriatic, the bottle was soon emptied.
My own wine career began in Napa Valley, but this wine demonstrated what was possible with non-French grapes, from somewhere that was neither France nor California. It may seem a trivial revelation now to those who have a lengthy history with wine. But while I have experienced many revelations in the last 12 years, this one, I now realise, was seminal.
Zlatan was an extremely influential winemaker in Croatia and is one of the people largely responsible for modernising Croatian wine production. Early on he realised the potential of the extremely rocky, karst 'soil' of his native Hvar. He also saw that the indigenous grapes of Plavac Mali and Pošip could create much higher quality wines than the basic, uninspiring produce of the former Yugoslavian collectives, and the liquids on offer from someone's garage beside Croatia's coastal roads with a hand-painted sign out front offering 'Vino & Rakija' - the fiery rakija spirit usually being superior to the wine.
He founded his winery in 1986 in the village of Sveta Nedjelja and his first releases were in 1989, just as the former Yugoslavia was breaking up and Croatia emerging as an independent country. It was a precarious affair given that when he started, bottling outside the communist collectives was forbidden and it almost landed him in jail. As the market was liberalised and his winemaking prowess grew, he starting winning international competitions with his wines. At each Croatian wine fair I've attended over the years, I always knew where Zlatan Otok (the commercial name of the winery) was because of the crowd clamouring for a taste of his wine, especially his 'Grand Cru' from a vineyard where the vines yield a miserly half-kilo of grapes each on average.
He always had a foot planted in both the future as well as the past, so when DNA research led by grape geneticist Carole Meredith at UC Davis found that Zinfandel was originally from Dalmatia (where it is known as Crljenak or Tribidrag), he decided to plant an experimental vineyard to revitalise the vine variety on its native soils and produced the first example in 2008. At one stage it looked as though this vine was on the verge of extinction, but there are now several winemakers in Dalmatia producing wine from Zinfandel grapes, alongside the more popular Plavac Mali, which was discovered to be an offspring of Zinfandel. (Below is a picture of a leftover bottle of the Zlatan Crljenak we showed at a Decanter masterclass to coincide with the publication of Wine Grapes - JR)
Zlatan Plenković was also ahead of his time in realising the wine tourism potential of Hvar. He built a restaurant and tasting room in Sveta Nedjelja at at the edge of the water where the steep rocky slopes tumble into the Adriatic Sea. In 2007, although I had traipsed up and down the Croatian coast for my first book on Dalmatia, I was still deeply impressed the first time I visited Bilo Idro (pictured below) with Zlatan's son Nikola.
Of course this international tourist attraction brought some controversy as opponents saw him disturbing the natural surroundings. Zlatan was used to fights, however, and saw the benefits for his native village at the end of a twisting road on the southern side of Hvar. Hvar is a lovely island with striking natural beauty, historic stone villages and lavender fields, but it can be impossibly crowded in July and August.
Zlatan's children have been actively involved in the winery in recent years and will carry on the project their father started 30 years ago, continuing to produce the high-quality wines that Dalmatia has become known for. I can only imagine that at the annual Dalmacija Expo event at the end of April, there will be a tribute to this man who leaves very big shoes to fill.