It’s about 10:30 am when Domagoj shows up at the Old Cellar here in Ilok, the medieval town nestled into a hillside along the Danube River in eastern Croatia. My new friend from the local tourist office, Ivica, arranged for Domagoj to take me to his winery and cellar on the other side of town.
Named after a ninth-century Croatian Duke, Domagoj is tall, in his mid-thirties with brown hair and with a warm and friendly nature. We walk into the cellars of the family winery, Ivan Buhac or Vino Buhac. There are several hoses sprawled on the floor which has small puddles of water. He’s self-conscious, tells me earlier this morning he made a batch of rose.
“I don’t like when people come here during harvest time. It doesn’t look so good,” he tells me. I try to reassure him I’ve tripped my way through many cellars during harvest and to not worry.
“The rose smelled fantastic this morning,” he says, “but now it’s pooped out.” I laugh, he’s still working on the semi-sweet wine made from Merlot.
“My professor in school is from France. When I share him my rose, he gets upset. Tells me, rose must not be sweet.” He respects his former teacher but makes fun of his French attitude. When I tried the rose later, I expected a sweet wine, but it was dry with a hint of acidity and just a touch of sweetness. I disagree with the French professor’s notes. It’s fine.
The appellation or wine-growing region around Ilok and across the border is Fruska Gora. With gentle hills sloping to the Danube, Fruska Gora is mainly known for its white wines. The most widely planted here is Grasevina, or as it’s known in Italy as Italian Riesling and in Germany Welsch Riesling. Sixty percent of the 200,000 liters Ivan Buhac produces is from Grasevina grapes.
Walking around the winery, it’s difficult to separate where the family home ends and the winery begins. We walk into the oldest cellar beneath the house. He tells me that in the early days this was the garage and his father made the wine next to where he parked his car. “Today, I cannot say we make garage wine,” he laughs, “but my father did.” Packed tightly with stainless steel tanks and large 500-liter oak casks with smaller 225-liter barriques stacked on top, we squeeze through the narrow passageway, it’s hard to imagine this was once a garage.
In the 1950s his grandfather moved to Ilok from the Dalmatian part of Bosnia and Herzegovina bringing a passion for winemaking with him. By the time of the Balkans war, Domagoj’s father, Ivan, was making about 50,000 liters of wine in their garage. He would sell most to the local cooperative, now the Old Cellar, where his brother, Domagoj’s uncle, worked as an enologist. But this relationship abruptly ended during the war.
Like most Ilok residents, in 1991 when Domagoj was just seven years old, the Serbs forced him and his family to evacuate the town and take refuge elsewhere in the uncontested part of Croatia. “My parents protected me from all that; I never had nightmares.”
As refugees living in Zagreb and unsure of the fate of the war, Domagoj’s father, Ivan, wondered what they would do when they would return to Ilok. “My father always dreamed about making wine, but nobody knew if we’d ever come back to Ilok. Sure, we are connected to the place, we knew we would, but we just didn’t know when.”
After the “Convoy of Ilok” on October 17, 1991, where over one thousand residents evacuated the city en masse, his uncle the enologist took refuge on the Island of Krk in the Adriatic Sea off the northern coast of Croatia. On Krk, he started over and worked as an enologist. This inspired Ivan and seven years later after they returned to the family home in Ilok, Ivan decided he would no longer park his car in the garage. The Ivan Buhac winery was born.
We walk up a few steps and then down to the newer cellar which he built in 2006, and he completed the path we just walked connecting the two cellars in 2015. He has packed this cellar with smaller 225-liter barriques stacked three high. Bins filled with bottles line the walls, and along one wall there’s a station for bottling and labeling.
The loud sound of pumps drowns our conversation. His assistant is tending to the pump and tanks. “You meet another Domagoj,” we shake hands, and I remark it’s good to be in the company of two guys named after 8th Century Croatian Dukes.
“You are dukes of wine,” I joke.
Walking by one of the smaller tanks, Domagoj shakes his head. Tells me he’s making Gamay, but he struggled with getting the temperature right. “Finally, I am happy. The temperature is thirty degrees (Celsius) I was killing myself. I could not get it heating.” It’s ten degrees in the cellar, and the tank he’s using has fourteen centimeters of insulation. He’ll macerate the red for about three weeks. Though he doesn’t bottle a Gamay, he instead uses it to add color to his reds.
We walk outside. The heat of the sun is refreshing after wandering the cold cellars. We walk past a crusher and de-stemmer. Shaking his head again, he tells me that one bearing broke, and he’s trying to figure how to fix it. “I’m not a mechanic. I’m not good at fixing things,” he says it takes too long to get the part and that a friend is trying to find a better solution. “We will fix, and then the other bearing will break,” he laughs—Murphy’s Law.
We walk past a few squatty stainless steel (inox) tanks, neither have insulation. Domagoj points to another that is insulated and tells me it is his biggest, holding about 28,000 liters. Pushed up against the house is another tank more than twice as tall as the big one, but it only holds 10,000 liters because of the insulation from its forty-centimeter thick walls.
“My mom got angry when I put the tank next to the house like this,” he confides with me. “So I tell her no problem, I will put another one on the other side to make it balanced,” he laughs but says his mom did not appreciate the joke.
“When I climb the tanks, I always climb with a rope,” Domagoj confides his fear of heights. He shares a story of an enologist working for one of the largest wineries in the area who fell off one tank and broke his back. “They fired him,” he tells me. “He was a company soldier, in earlier times he would still work.
“I will never ride a motorcycle,” he shakes his head. “Both my roommates had motorcycles, both crashed.” We talk about his vineyards and insists next time I visit we will visit. “They are steep, and it’s hard to cut the grass. So, I have a powerful Stihl FS450 cutter—on YouTube I watch hillbillies like me use it to cut trees in Canada, and here I use it to cut grass—it’s like for you to have the most powerful BMW. This, I like.”
He lives in the house with his parents. “The best part is when I wake up, I just walk downstairs to my job; it’s easy.”
We walk up a flight of stairs to the second-floor tasting room on the far side of the house. There’s a screened porch just outside the modest-sized tasting room. Set on a round wooden table on the porch are three wine glasses, a basket of bread and a plate of sliced sausage and cheese.
“My uncle makes this sausage,” he explains, “He’s very fat, like potato man with very thick hands. He is the boss of food.” I grab a sausage and a piece of bread and pair it with the 2017 Grasevina he just poured for me.
“Never trust a skinny chef,” I tell him while enjoying the slightly spicy sausage and crisp Grasevina.
Over thirty percent of all wine produced in Croatia is Grasevina. In this part, continental Croatia, Grasevina amounts to sixty percent of all wine produced. Domagoj feels that the push to identify this region with Traminer is wrong. It’s a difficult grape to tame, with its low acidity and over the top aromatics. The old cellar produces eight different bottlings of Traminer or Gewurztraminer. It’s the wine that the British Royal family purchased for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953.
“I can have maybe one glass,” Domagoj admits, “I never can I have a whole bottle.”
He pours me a glass of the Ivan Buhac Traminer. It has classic aromatics with tropical fruits, coconut, and eucalyptus. It’s got plenty of sweetness, but the wine is not tart nor cloying. It’s nice. I prefer the rose and Grasevina.
While most Ivan Duhac’s production is Grasevina, they dedicate twenty percent to Merlot, an international varietal.
I was fourteen years old when I started making wine in 2007. That year I made Merlot.” When the family returned from being refugees between 1991 and 1998, they had just two hectares of vineyards. In 1998, they became the third winery registered in the region, following the two large former state-owned cooperatives in Vukovar and Baranja. Today they have ten hectares planted. Domagoj took over winemaking for the family in 2007. “
“In the public register, they list us as number three, the third winery to register in this area.”
“My dad doesn’t drink much wine. Me and my mom, we are the boozers in the family,” he laughs as he pours me the next two wines, the rose with I find to be crisp, and clean, and his 2017 Chardonnay, made sur lie style. The Chardonnay is big, bold and shows a hint of oak and tastes closer to a new world chardonnay. I like it. Sur lie means it’s aged on the lees — or with the sediment, small berries, and dead yeast cells. Winemakers do this to get more complexity, color, and flavor from the wines.
Vinos Buhac has won accolades and awards and sometimes Domagoj attends wine fairs to promote the brand. He chuckles as he tells me that Buhac in the Russian language means “boozer” or “chronic alcoholic.” Attending a wine fair in Poland a couple of years ago he notices two Polish girls standing by his booth looking at the Buhac stand laughing. “They know what it means.”
Moving to the red wines, Domagoj tells me they were the first to plant Merlot in Fruska Gora. “For ten years, we were the only winery growing Merlot.” He explains that Merlot is sensitive to a cold climate, so the position is vital to growing quality Merlot grapes.
“Our vineyard is 263 meters above sea level. We have the highest elevation vineyard in Ilok—in the region.” He shows me photos of the vineyard, explaining the best position and its microclimate and soil are perfect for Merlot. They have been making it for seventeen years.
The 2016 Ivan Buhac Merlot is delicious, but I confide that while I love the international varietals, especially Merlot, I search out the unique and indigenous varietals in my travels. He explains that there are few indigenous varietals—especially red—in this part of Croatia. There are much more in Dalmatia and on the islands.
The Merlot is mouth-coating and packs a punch in the mid-palate and finishing with flavors of blueberry, plum, and ripe cherry. He pulls a cork on another red, the 2016 Ivan Buhac Cabernet Sauvignon. We taste both reds side by side. As our conversation meanders from politics to travel, winemaking, and women, the wines evolve and open up. We both are at odds to which we like best. At one moment it’s Merlot, the next it’s the cabernet. There’s no question both wines are of premium quality.
“Next year I hope to reduce the yields of Merlot,” he explains that he still experiments and spends time in the vineyard to get the best expression of the wine from the land.
I like the branding and label design of the Ivan Buhac wines. Domagoj reveals a knack for design and wisdom for business and recognizes the importance of delegation. “I pay someone to do this for me. I let my designer make the best,” he tells me.
The winery sells ninety-five percent of its wines through these distributors. As of now, there is very little direct to consumer sales out of the winery. Of the wine sold from the winery, they sell most of it to Serbians who have easier access thanks to the main road, but Serbian customs limits wine imports to just one bottle per person.
Domagoj studied economics and business administration in school. In his final year, he shared top honors in a competition with his classmates for marketing. His professor offered a book as a prize to the top student. This year two students one, a female classmate and Domagoj. “The professor gave the book to my friend,” he admits feeling that the professor gave it to her because she was a woman.
“After university, I worked for seven months in business at a bank,” he tells me. “Then I realized I didn’t want hands like a banker; I wanted hands like this.” He holds up his wine-stained palms. The red lines tell the story of a farmer and winemaker.
“It’s like art,” I tell him, snapping several pictures of his hands.
He pours me another glass of Merlot. We laugh and agree that talking about wine is more fun than discussing politics. So we avoid that subject. I grab another couple slices of his uncles sausage and look out over his driveway and to his neighbors and the hills beyond. He’s got a good life here in the far-out stretches of eastern Croatia. I sense the wave of tourism will ebb and flow from the coast to the Danube. And Domagoj is in a great position to watch that growth.
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