Famed author Ivo Andrić once said, “Žilavka is full of laughter while Blatina is full of sweet transgression.” Wine, like art, is open to interpretation, so one can’t be sure every person will react this way. What is certain: the former is white and the latter is a red grape variety. There is no doubt that each is utterly different to the eye and palate yet they are inseparable and permanently connected by history and climate. They are synonymous with Herzegovina wines and the indigenous treasures of this region’s vineyards. Their varietals have been served on tables all around the world.
As the viticulture trend continues to grow internationally – with indigenous grapes taking center stage – it also seems a sure bet that Hergovinian wine will soon be in the spotlight. The reasons are obvious to those who watch burgeoning wine regions … with an eye for marketing and a corkscrew at the ready. Herzegovina has a Mediterranean climate, which provides loads of sun, hot summers, and mild winters. The vines have a close proximity to the sea. And, they grow in diverse topsoil. The overall combination creates a perfect environment for growing grapes and producing top-quality wines.
Legend has it that Žilavka – a dry wine, with 12 to 14 percent alcohol content – was named after the fine veins (žilice) one sees through the transparent grape skin at the time of maturity. Some say the name comes from its tough, sinewy skin, or žilava in the local language. Elders have rolled the theories into one, claiming this variety is all of these things – and highly adaptable. The amalgamation creates a full-bodied taste and a seductive, assertive aroma. The reasons for Žilavka’s success, though, aren’t due to its moniker. They are due to this sturdy grape’s resistance to disease and drought. It also thrives in the harsh sun, making it the most commonly planted variety here. Simply put: Žilavka found an ideal substratum in Herzegovina’s karst. (Traditionally, its wine production has always included a small percentage – about 15 percent – of Beno, Krkošija, and a few other indigenous varieties.)
Interestingly, although wine-producing varieties aren’t usually sought-after table grapes, the mature, golden-yellow Žilavka is extraordinarily tasty. The reason is its harmonious ratio of sugar content and acid. It also has a specific aroma.
As every wine reflects its creator, every cellar offers its own type of Žilavka. The common denominator among the grapes is the crystal clear, greenish yellow – and at times golden – color. The aforementioned specific aroma, well-balanced acidity and alcohol content, and a rich extract have made this grape the most favorable of all sorts in Herzegovina.
Under favorable conditions, the Blatina grape produces high yields. If stressed by rains during the fertilization period, flowers may abscise from the crop – that’s why Blatina is sarcastically called praznobačva (empty barrel) and zlorod (evil crop). It requires a large amount of sun, as does Žilavka. But unlike Žilavka, Blatina demands a considerable amount of water. Therefore, it prefers moist soils and gives its best results in valleys of the Neretva, Trebižat, and Trebišnjica Rivers. Blatina – a dry and robust red wine with 12 to 13.5 percent alcohol – is a grape that bears large, uneven, dark-purple berries on sizable, loose clusters. It is considered a quality varietal, which, from well-chosen localities and given expert vinification, produces wines of admirable quality. It has an easily recognizable aroma … full and harmonious flavor. When grown in a climate blessed by the sun, the wine has a satisfactory acid concentration.
Although technologies have changed, mostly wooden oak barrels are used with Blatina. Producers here have traditionally used Slavonian, American, and French barrels. But a recent trend toward using handmade casks from the small village of Prusac in central Bosnia has made the vino even more BiH-sufficient.
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Many still remember, with nostalgia, how popular Žilavka was in 1970s and 80s. This persistent queen is making a major comeback. And new technologies have enabled a great number of interesting and superior versions. Žilavka Vukoje – the Trebinje wine cellar produces it from grapes grown in the former Imperial vineyards – has a complex aroma and particular crispness and is reminiscent of the past. Nuic Zilavka has become synonymous with quality. The Andrija family wine cellars, and their Žilavka Barrique, were the first to show how well Žilavka matures in wooden barrels. Josip Brkić’s Greda and Mjesečar, aged sur lie, highlight the variety’s incredible potential.
There are many versions of Blatina on the market. The one from the Buntic family cellar is fresh, fragrant, and vigorous. Josip Brkić’s Plava Greda is a multi-layered Blatina with enhanced complexity. Blatina barrique from Andrija is both strong and tender. The Blatina barrique from the Nuić cellars epitomizes the grape’s full potential. An explosion of aroma and taste make this wine unique and special.