The Paradox of wine in Split, Croatia

In Spain, many wine bars have sprung up in recent years as many people looked at their glass of 3€ a bottle Rioja that they’re drinking in say, Barcelona and asked, “Why am I drinking this crap when there’s so much good wine here in Catalonia?” In Croatia, it’s something of a different scene and is maybe 3-5 years behind what you see in Spain. There are of course those who see this need, have set about to be at the forefront of it, and thus you arrive at Paradox Wine & Cheese in Split.

Having first visiting Croatia’s second city in 2004 and several more times until 2007, it was interesting to return eight years later. For starters, it seems like everyone learned English in the intervening years. Also, Zoran Pejović and his business partner Marko Sučić realized that there was a serious need to show serious wines from the region and have them available by the glass. It formed a true paradox that while great wine and cheese are available in the region, there were essentially no places to enjoy them together. This, is a massive sea of change for the area and there has been something of a knock on effect with others opening in other towns along the coast as well.

These days there are still those tourists that love nothing better than crisping on the beach, but as most of us have seen an ungodly amount of photos and videos of our destinations before we arrive, it makes us want to search out that fourth dimension of a place, which is largely why the Vinologue series was started. It’s this aspect of travel that Zoran and Marko are focusing on with the warmer more touristic months seeing a heavy focus on the wines of Croatia and especially those of their surrounding region of Dalmatia and its islands.

Beyond just tossing up a sign out front and opening bottles of Plavac Mali, these guys also happen to be quite knowledgeable about the wines and strive to impart that knowledge on those who visit. Then during the off season, they maintain their approach but invert their offer with a more international wine list (which is helped a great deal by Croatia being in the EU) to then show locals in Split what the greater wine world has to offer.

When visiting for the Dalmacija Wine Expo in April, this, along with grabbing a meal at Villa Spiza were high on my to-do list while in Split. It also helped that I bumped in to their head sommelier, Roko Bekavac at a wine course in the UK the month before.

Located at the back side of the National Theater it’s an open venue with tables out front where I found Roko and Zoran partaking of a cigar. We started chatting and sharing some wines although still being April, we had to head inside. It’s a lovely, modern interior bedecked with hardwood appointments and the old stone walls of their building poking through.

Showing that this has become something of a destination, Alen Mandić of Secret Dalmatia Tours showed up in addition to well-known local wine salesman, Marko Pavlak. We shared more wine, a very well-executed cheese and charcuterie platter and then more wine. We talked until quite late about the current wine scene in Croatia and how they’re working to change perceptions, although it’s a slow journey, which is something I know well.

During this dinner of mostly wine (thankfully Villa Spiza had filled my belly before), there was a British couple near us who were on holiday and the server attending them did indeed do an excellent job of explaining Plavac Mali, its relation to Zinfandel, and other facets of viticulture in Croatia. I’ve seen Croatians in Dalmatia get this wrong so many times, it was refreshing to see someone getting it very much right. The server also guided them to a mid-priced wine from Tomić whereas some shoddy tourist trap would have taking them in a much higher-priced direction. Again, admirable given how tempting it must be to make a fast buck off the seasonal tourists in Dalmatia.

It was probably the “wildest” night I had while in Split and it offered a glimpse in to a wine stop that’s highly recommendable to grab a bite and good wine from Croatia.

Lead photo courtesy of Paradox Wine & Cheese