First planted in 1863, the slopes here were replanted in the 1960s.

A dramatic rugged land of soaring limestone mountains, turquoise waters and pine-scented islands, Dalmatia is magnificent. On balmy summer days, the Adriatic is speckled with white-sailed yachts. But in winter, when the fierce bura (north-east) wind blows, only the most intrepid boaters venture out. No wonder the region has produced so many courageous seafarers. Medieval explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324) was purportedly born on Korčula, and from his voyages to East Asia, he brought back to Europe silk weaving and Oriental spices.

Would Polo have taken wine aboard his ship? It’s highly plausible. “We know for sure that winemaking was an important activity on the island in the 13th-century,” says Andrija Kovač, sommelier at the Michelin-starred LD Restaurant. “The Korčula Statute from 1214 included regulations as to how wine was made and how it was sold.”

But Croatia’s wine story goes back even further. The Ancient Greeks settled in Lumbarda on Korčula in the third century BC – likely attracted by the island’s fertile soils – and cultivated grapes here. Today Lumbarda is known for its dry white wine, Grk. In Croatian, Grk means ‘Greek’, while in local dialect gerk means ‘bitter’. No one is sure which theory explains the name of the wine but both are plausible; nonetheless, Grk is recognised as one of Croatia’s most ancient indigenous grape varieties.

A plaque of Marco Polo, whose family is thought to have originated in Croatia.  

Today the village of Lumbarda curves around a deep bay, backed by lush vineyards. The land is relatively flat, the soils reddish-brown and sandy, and the vines neatly trained up the wires. Here in a stone cellar, Bire ( bire.hr), a small, family-run business conducted with passion and devotion, offers wine tasting to visitors and is regarded as the top producer of Grk.

“Lumbarda is Grk’s original home,” says co-owner Višnja Bire. “If we could, we’d grow just Grk, but the vines have only female flowers, so we have to intersperse rows of Grk with Plavač Mali vines for fertilisation. On a bunch of grapes you’ll see maybe 20 plump grapes along with many tiny ones, which were the flowers that weren’t fertilised. Those are bitter.

“Grk likes sandy soils – in the time of phylloxera (the early-20th-century on Korčula), the only vineyards that didn’t suffer were Grk, because the bug cannot reproduce in sandy soil,” she says.

“Grk has a compact body, a fruitiness and minerality, with a pleasant bitter hint of lemon at the end; it’s a refreshing summer wine. We can’t produce enough to satisfy demand. We sell it all here on the island, mainly to restaurants, so you can’t find it in shops.”

In 2021, Bire’s Grk was awarded Gold by Decanter, while their Grk Defora won Platinum. “Grk Defora is from vineyards on a particular location, on the south coast. We make it using the sur lie method, for one year in oak barrels. We produce only 1,000 litres annually, so it’s a limited edition.”

Bire, in the village of Lumbarda.

In contrast to Grk, Pošip is one of Croatia’s youngest grape varieties. To learn more, we head to the fertile valleys of Korčula’s rural interior, where rich red soils support silvery-green olive groves, wild fig trees and fragrant herbs, and above all, vineyards. Here the neighbouring villages of Smokvica and Čara vie for prominence as the top producer of white Pošip. Both appear almost forgotten by time, each with old stone cottages huddled around a parish church. But should you visit in September, the air will be thick with the smell of fermenting grapes.

In 1864, islander Marin Tomašić found the Pošip grape growing wild in fields between Smokvica and Čara. He planted the first Pošip vineyard and the first vintage was produced around 1880. His friends and neighbours liked the result and followed his lead. Today Pošip accounts for some 85% of the island’s grape production, while Grk tots up only 10%.

In the 1950s, when Croatia was part of socialist Yugoslavia, the vintners of Smokvica and Čara worked together as part of the agricultural co-operative Jedinstvo (meaning ‘unity’). Jedinstvo played an important role in developing the production of Pošip until it closed in 2010. The co-op buildings have since been taken over by Merga Victa ( mergavicta.com), whose mainstay is also Pošip. Above the winery, they’ve opened a spacious tasting room with exposed stone walls and slick, contemporary wood and black chrome furnishing.

Merga Victa Pošip is a fresh, pale-golden wine with aromas of citrus fruits, stone fruits and Mediterranean herbs,” says director and oenologist Igor Radovanović. “There’s a great balance between the freshness and complexity of the variety.”

Pelješac Peninsula’s Korta Katarina.

Nearby, family-run Toreta ( toreta-winery.business.site) is more homely and rustic. They have a tasting room displaying old-fashioned winemaking implements belonging to previous generations, and tables on a lovely sunny terrace overlooking their vineyards.

“Our Toreta Pošip has a full body, fruitiness and minerality,” says co-owner Marina Marelić. “The valley’s red, iron-rich soil, south-facing orientation, high number of sunny days per year, and our hand-cultivation all contribute to its quality.” The wine has aromas of golden pear, green apple, lemon zest, dried honey, lychee, earthy minerals, nectarine and flint.

Korta Katarina.

Just a 15-minute boat ride across the sea channel from Korčula, Orebić is the largest town on the Pelješac Peninsula. Pelješac is renowned throughout Croatia for producing some of the country’s finest reds, made from indigenous Plavac Mali, which bears small blue-black grapes on low-lying bush vines. The vines do well on poor stony soils (which encourage the roots to grow deep) and exposed to intense sunlight, producing a powerful, full-bodied red.

On the edge of Orebić, the gracious Villa Korta Katarina is owned by US wine enthusiasts, Lee and Penny Anderson. They purchased the property (the former Rivijera Hotel) back in the late 1990s, along with the extensive vineyards, and founded the Korta Katarina Winery ( kortakatarinawinery.com).

Pošip and Plavac Mali dominate the Korta Katarina portfolio. “We sell 70-80,000 bottles annually, all quality wines made from local grapes,” says winery visit organiser Goran Tanić. “Plavac Mali from Pelješac, we have vineyards on Dingač and Postup. And we use Pošip from Korčula; we don’t have vineyards there but every year we buy grapes from some 50 local families.”

Korta Katarina offers guided tours and wine tasting, as well as a sumptuous five-course Royal Culinary Wine Pairing dinner. These are held in an elegant dining room with a vaulted terracotta brick ceiling and stone floor.

Korta Katarina Pošip is our best seller,” says general manager Ivo Cibilić, as we taste it accompanied by sublime tuna tartar. “Pošip has taken off in the last 20 years. It gives very diverse wines, big grapes often compared to chardonnay, and ages nicely in wood.”

The next course – Croatian beef with sweet potato, pea pureé and fresh truffle – sets off the splendid Korta Katarina Plavac Mali, made from a blend of Dingač and Postup grapes that spend a year in French oak barrels.

Seaside terraces planted with plavac mali, which is hand-harvested and carried in baskets.

Dingač and Postup are grape-growing locations on Pelješac’s steep, south-facing seaward slopes, both noted for their distinctive terroir. From the village of Potomje, where most Dingač wineries are located, you drive through a narrow tunnel, opened in 1973, to be greeted by magnificent views down to the sparkling Adriatic. Here, terraced seaward slopes of limestone soils planted with Plavac Mali descend dramatically towards the sea at inclinations of up to 60 degrees. A testimony to human strength and will, the wine harvest is undertaken entirely by hand and the grapes gathered in baskets.

In Potomje, Bura ( buracellar.com), run by the Bura and Mrgudić families, is widely regarded as making some of the best wines in Dingač.

“We say that Dingač has three suns: the direct sun; the sun reflected by the big blue sea, which becomes a mirror on summer days; and the sun reflected by the stone slopes, which make it very hot during summer,” explains winemaker Boris Mrgudić. “This red soil is very rich in minerals, which give a particular flavour. So the sun and the land create this special terroir. It’s a low yield, half-a-kilo of grapes from one vine, so you often need four or five vines for a bottle. But it produces a very unique wine,” he says.

“Dingač is a wine for pleasure - the kind you drink at the end of the day to relax with someone you like. A good Dingač is very fruity, very powerful. If you drink it slowly, glass after glass it gets better, as it opens up and displays more aroma and complexity.”

But Bura is not a one-trick pony, says Mrgudić. “Our wines range from those for meditation and enjoyment, such as Dingač, to Bura Plavac, which is young, fresh and fruity. Our goal is to demonstrate the potential of Plavac Mali from different vineyards in various locations. In the valley, we have flat vineyards with deep rich soil, so there’s a bigger grape yield, but it produces lighter, easy-going, everyday wines, such as Bura Plavac.”

Bura follows traditional production methods: fermentation on the skin, on natural yeast from the grapes. Then the wine is aged in French oak barrels, mostly used barrels, to keep the fruitiness of the grape. “But for us, really the most important thing is what happens in the vineyard,” says Mrgudić. “Basically we’re putting nature in a bottle.”

Igor Radovanović and Nikola Mirošević of Merga Victa.

How to get here
Fly to either Dubrovnik or Split on the mainland, then catch the Krilo fast catamaran (krilo.hr) to Korčula Town

Where to Stay
Lešić Dimitri Palace
, Korčula Town, island of Korčula ( ldpalace.com)
Villa Korta Katarina, Orebić, Pelješac Peninsula ( villakortakatarina.com)

Where to Eat
LD Restaurant
, Korčula Town, island of Korčula (ldrestaurant.com).
Michelin-starred contemporary gourmet fare, based on local Dalmatian ingredients.
Konoba Maha, Žrnovo, island of Korčula (konobamaha.com)
Rural agrotourism, serving traditional dishes made from home produce with creative flair.
Villa Korta Katarina, Orebić, Pelješac (villakortakatarina.com)
A superb wine-and-dine experience, based on seasonal ingredients.
Konoba Antunović, Kuna, Pelješac (opgantunovic.hr)
Rustic agrotourism, serving their own cheeses and cured meats, plus barbequed lamb and goat.

David Bicknell of Oakridge.

Local Wines

2019 Bire Grk
Dry white, noted for fruitiness and minerality.

2018 Bire Grk Defora
Dry white, limited edition.

2019 Merga Victa Pošip
Dry white, with aromas of citrus fruits, stone fruits and Mediterranean herbs.

2018 Bura Dingač
Made from plavac grapes from the Dingač vineyards, considered by some to be the best red on the Croatian market at present.

2020 Bura Plavac
Light easy-going red, made from plavac grapes grown in Pelješac’s flat interior.

2019 Toreta Pošip
Dry white, with aromas of pear, apple, lemon zest and earthy minerals.

2018 Korta Katarina Pošip
Korta Katarina’s best seller, dry white, made from grapes from Korčula vineyards.

2013 Korta Katarina Plavac Mali
Robust red, made from a blend of plavac grapes from Dingač and Postup.