GUARDIANS OF (DI)VINE HERITAGE: Embraced by “wine mother” Baranja Published 19/06/2024

GUARDIANS OF (DI)VINE HERITAGE: Embraced by “wine mother” Baranja

Love, tradition, knowledge, and diligence transform wine from a mere drink into an
experience and one of the main symbols of Baranja

Baranja, a magical region in the northeast of Croatia, owes much of its charm to wine. Some say that win is ingrained in its name, as "bor" is Hungarian for wine, and "anya" for mother. Regardless, the people of Baranja didn't just learn how to produce and enjoy wine, but turned it into a way of life, making them guardians of (di)vine heritage, akin to nobles with vines and grapes on their family crests. If you're eager to explore the world of fine wine and the art of crafting poetry under its gentle influence, read on!

Sail through the vineyards

Let's set sail, so to speak, through a sea of vines. Just a half-hour drive from Osijek, the heart of a region known for its expansive plains and open fields, we arrive at Ban’s Hill (Cro. Bansko Brdo). In ancient times, Roman legionnaires named it Mons Aureus (Golden Hill). It was during their time here that the first vine was planted. Today, the site of those ancient vineyards is home to the expansive vineyard of the agricultural giant "Belje". An impressive wine road, stretching almost eight kilometers, cuts through the vineyard. As you stroll along, you'll encounter future Rislings, Pinots, Traminers, Chardonnays, and more. After a while, you'll be taken by surprise by the stunning viewpoint that comes into view. Once you stumble upon it, you'll find it hard to leave. Take in the air filled with the scent of millions of vines while enjoying the breathtaking view of Pannonia!

One typically visits vineyards with good company, although solo travelers are always welcome. It's inevitable that someone will interrupt the poetic conversations to point out the next stop on the itinerary. The "Belje" wine complex offers plenty of stops, including their modern winery on Ban’s Hill, with an area of over 10,000 m2. In the nearby town of Kneževi Vinogradi, the largest and oldest historic wine cellar in Croatia is located. Locally known as the old cellar "Belje," this wine temple will celebrate its 500th birthday in 2026. On several cool floors, the wines mature in Slavonian oak barrels and in bottles (some of which are… we better not tell you how old they are). Every full hour, between 9 and 15, you can take part in a guided tour that can include tasting their whites and reds. No one will stop you from mixing them, either. It is said that after some wine mixing, people have a vision of Prince Eugene of Savoy, the famous lord of the “Belje” manor from the beginning of the 18th century, after whom today's “Belje” wines got the nickname "Prince from the Danube".

A character from history
Prince Eugene of Savoy

Austrian military leader to this day remembered by his victories against the Ottoman Turks. He's hunting castle was built in Bilje. He is the hero from the novel "OSvojski" by Jasna Horvat.

“Surduk”, “bućkalice” and other tongue-twisters

After enjoying some wine, we continued our informal education in the nearby village of Zmajevac. One of the highlights is the "Vinarium Borarium," a collection of traditional winemaking and viticulture items. This collection is a protected cultural asset of the Republic of Croatia and represents the winemaking and craftsmanship heritage of a typical winemaking and winegrowing family from Baranja. The collection is managed by Šandor Juhas, a dedicated winemaker who is usually busy tending to his vineyard. It's best to announce your visit in advance, as you may have the opportunity to discover many other secrets of the Baranja wine region. For instance, visitors are often fascinated by "bućkalice," small objects that were historically used to measure the level of carbon dioxide in wine cellars. In Šandor's wines, the sugar level doesn't need to be measured, as the Baranja wines are sweetened only by Mother Nature and the generous sun of southern Pannonia.

While feeling poetic and inspired, we're keeping our alcohol intake under control as we explore Zmajevec. When walking around the village, you may encounter a "surduk," a path cut into the loess slopes of Ban’s Hill. The most famous surduks in Zmajevac are the Reformation and the Catholic ones, named after the Reformation and Catholic churches. Walking through them is special because of the wonderful “gators”, wine cellars hollowed out in Ban’s Hill. They are typical of Baranja and extremely important for its traditional winemaking due to the year-round constant temperature of 12-15 degrees Celsius. From the outside, they resemble hobbit houses but once you cross their threshold, gators open up like a kind of wine Narnia, hiding an unexpected space and wine stories and traditions. But no worries - there are no evil witches in the gators, although you might come across the infamous Red Martha, after which the village got its original name (Hung. Vörösmart).

A character from a legend
Red Marta

Along with her beauty, she was known for mercilessness which was the reason people compared her with a dragon. Peasants used to work in her vineyards for a dime, while being beaten and whipped.

Over the past fifteen years, many old gators have been transformed into excellent family wineries such as Gerštmajer, Kusić, Kalazić, Zajec, Zlatno brdo, and Josić. The Josić winery also houses a renowned restaurant where two or three kettles of irresistible fish paprikash are regularly boiling. Additionally, the area offers several quality holiday homes to make your wine vacation even more relaxing.

Although Zmajevac is the most famous, it is not the only place with a deep-rooted tradition of family viticulture and winemaking in the Baranja region. Exceptional winemakers can also be found in the neighboring village of Suza, such as the well-known Pinkert and Kolar wineries. Additionally, there are the Kováts winery, Svijetli Dvori, and Szabó from Karanac village, as well as Horvat from Kamenec village, among others. The love, tradition, knowledge, and diligence of these families transform wine from a mere drink into an experience and one of the main symbols of Baranja. Not surprisingly, some of the most popular tourist events in the region are wine-related. The "Wine Marathon" in Zmajevac in September is a must-visit event in Croatia’s eastern region, and the summer and winter editions of "Baranja Wine and Walk" are becoming sought-after experiences among wine enthusiasts.

bor = wine (Hung.)
surduk = a gorge cut into the loess slopes of the hill
gator = wine cellar dug into the hill

"Wine marathon"
"Wine and Walk"

Written by: Veronika Završki