After warming up at the wine marathon at the Palić Lake in Vojvodina on the last summer Saturday, on the first autumn Saturday, which was also the final Saturday in September, I took part in the oldest and largest marathon in the region – the wine marathon in Zmajevac. Unlike the Palić wine marathon which had all the characteristics of a real race and where the wine was just a decor and a refreshment, the situation in Zmajevac was the opposite. The emphasis here is on the having a good time and not on the competition.
The Zmajevac wine marathon is actually a kind of an anti-competition. Except for a group of fanatics, everyone else is aiming to reach the finish line as late as possible. Two years ago, I was half an hour late for the start of the marathon, and when I came in to take my starting package, I had the honour to meet the race winner, who managed to visit all the wine cellars in half an hour and drink 2.5 litres of wine. Unfortunately, despite my insistence, I did not manage to have my photo taken with the winner because the guy could not stand up!
This year, the start was at 3 pm and the finish at 7 pm. It took us four hours to visit 27 cellars or less than nine minutes per cellar on average. We panicked when we realised that twenty or so minutes before the end of the marathon we still had ten coupons so we hurried to use them. We wanted to try all the varieties of the offered wines. It was fortunate that I had assistants because I could not taste all the wines myself. Or perhaps I could have, but at the cost of not being able to take part in the lap of honour, it is by no means advisable.
This is an event which nobody wants to miss. It is one of few parties which are always written in gold letters in the schedule of events. Due to the wine marathon in Zmajevac, I declined an invitation for a trip to the “Gusti di frontiera” gastronomy festival in Gorizia in Italy... and I am not sorry at all.
This is the thirteenth edition of the Zmajevac wine marathon. They started in 2005 with about a hundred competitors, and now competitors come in their thousands. Due to its tradition and success in the promotion of wine culture throughout Croatia, many other wine marathons have been organised following the Zmajevac example, which prompted the organisers of the Zmajevac marathon, the Surduk Association for Hungarian Folk Tradition, protected the name “wine marathon” with the intellectual property office.
This wine marathon, at least when we talk about Croatia, is truly unique, just like Zmajevac itself, the wine-making capital of the Baranja region. Ahead of this year's marathon, a large plaque was put up at the entrance of the village with the inscriptions “Zmajevac – wine capital of Croatia” and “Jó boroknak szép hazája”, which in Hungarian means “Home to nice wines.” Perhaps the "wine capital of Croatia" initially sounds a bit pretentious, but when we take into account the fact that Zmajevac has several hundred inhabitants and more than thirty wine cellars, then it can be seen that the label is more than justified.
The day of the event was filled with a festive atmosphere. After picking up the start packages, which included a glass, a shirt, a marathon map and coupons for 27 wine cellars, we watched a performance of Hungarian folklore societies at a stage in front of the local cultural centre and prepared for the start of the competition.
The participants were divided into three groups, red, yellow and green, in order to avoid large queues forming at the start of the marathon. Each group set off on its own path. The red route was called Katolički Surduk and it had the largest number of wineries, as many as 11.
The first stop was the Josić winery. There is no need to describe it too much. They are the pioneers of the development of wine tourism in Zmajevac. When Damir Josić decided to open a winery and a restaurant in Zmajevac, some said it was a bad move because at that moment 90% of people had not even an idea what rural and wine tourism was. Despite that, the Josić winery restaurant is generally considered to be one of the best in eastern Croatia, while its wines, especially red coupages such as Baranja Šiler (Frankovka and Cabernet Sauvignon) or Ciconia Nigra cuvee (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir), have won over the palates of connoisseurs all over Croatia and beyond.
Next was the stand of the Svijetli Dvori winery from Karanac. We should explain that the Zmajevac wine marathon is open to all winemakers from Baranja, which therefore includes, in addition to the locals, wineries from neighbouring Suza, and from Batina and Karanac. Spouses Oliver and Julijana Novački own the winery and offer great wines. One of their most interesting wines is certainly the Graševina Jarčevina – hormonal wine.
The third on the list was a small family winery Tür from Zmajevac, and the fourth was the Kalazić winery, whose new facility is officially located in Zmajevac, although it is closer to Batina. They have fine wines, and if I had to pick one that would be the Batina red cuvee (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah). The fifth winery was Pinkert from Suza and the sixth Čokot Čarda from Zmajevac.
The Szabó winery form Karanac was the number seven, and the Kolar winery from Suza number eight. The number nine was reserved for the Vukoje winery. It is a young winery, and their Rose is the most remarkable wine on offer. The number ten features the Zajec family cellar. They have great wines, and if I would have to choose one that would be their phenomenal red cuvee. The final station on the red route was the Kusić cellars.
The Reformatski Surduk route was marked in yellow. The first winery on this route was the Kovács cellars, and the route ended with the Kováts cellars at number eight. They are different wineries, also their names sound almost the same. The former is from Zmajevac and the latter from Suza. In addition to them, the yellow route included the cellars of Đerfi, Pavlović, Antonio, Martin, Krómer and Underground Wines – an Irish investment in the Zmajevac wine story.
The green route leading from the roundabout towards the road to Draž had the most spread around cellars. In addition to the best Zmajevac winemaker Mihalj Gerštmajer, it included the Martinov ethno-house, cellars Majorić, Čočić, Guštin, Ujhely, Pöc and Varga – known for its red coupage called the Zmajevac Viagra.
After the official part of the programme, the festivities moved from the streets to the “gators” (cellars). As always, the atmosphere was the best at the Zajec cellar, where the marathon runners ran the lap of honour. In June this year, they expanded their capacity, opening a tasting room across from the gator. Still, there was no room for everyone who wanted to come in. An old, well-known scenario took place: table-dancing, unintentional (and intentional) spilling of wine, group singing in the atmosphere of wine ecstasy... It continued until the next morning. The lap of honour was three times longer than the marathon itself. If it were possible somehow to delay the daybreak the next morning, it would have lasted even longer.
The Zmajevac wine marathon is the ultimate wine celebration. If you have never experienced it, there is no excuse not to visit next year. I know people who organise it, and there is no doubt that the next edition of the Zmajevac wine marathon will be even bigger, more interesting, and more exciting!
Long live Zmajevac – the wine capital of Baranja and Croatia.