Croatian Winemakers: Zajec Family Cellar in Zmajevac

The Zajec family are hospitable hosts and welcome any guests heartily
At a time when people emigrate from Croatia to Germany every day, it seems like a true sensation when someone decided to return from Germany to Croatia. This is exactly what 20-year-old Dahlia Zajec did, with an intention to run the family boutique winery.
The Zajec family cellar is located in the Zmajevac catholic surduk, several metres away from the Josić Winery restaurant. At the entrance is an interesting traffic sign warning visitors of what awaits them in the cellar.
Spouses Klara and Danijel Zajec bought and renovated this neglected space several years ago. Klara speaks of the motifs of this business venture:
“I am originally from Zmajevac and I always had the desire to return to Zmajevac and go into winemaking. Our business is tied to Germany, and we come to Zmajevac occasionally, but I am glad Dahlia decided to return on her own and run the family cellar. Since our family is stretched between Germany and Croatia, our wine story was something between a hobby and job, but in the past several years we have gained all the conditions to dedicate ourselves more seriously to winemaking and wine tourism.”
So far they are cultivating one hectare of vineyards and are oriented primarily on quality. They sell their wine in bulk in the cellar and in bottles as well. Their offer includes Graševina and a cuvee rose. The Graševina is drinkable, refreshing and flaunty. Rose is a semi-sweet wine with 11.5% alcohol, with an exceptional aroma. While this reportage was in the making, a group of wine tourists stumbled into their space in search of Traminer. However, when they tasted the excellent cuvee rose they quickly forgot the original motif of their arrival. Labels of bottles are characterised by an image of Red Marta. Although in folk tales she is remembered as a cruel ruler, the Zajec family was kind to her and presented her on the label as a sleeping girl. Danijel says they have amicable relations with the older wineries in the village, working closely with the Josić winery and using their know-how and the services of their oenologist.
“When we started in winemaking, we were completely new to this demanding business and naturally had to learn from others. We don’t have a tradition like the Gerštmajers who are in winemaking in Zmajevac for five generations, but we have strong will and energy. Usually in such situation start-up wineries hire an outside oenologist/consultant. I am glad we have a business cooperation with the Josić Winery, our first neighbours and whose vines are very close to our, in the same terroir. We recently cleared the old vineyard and planted a new one. In one section we experimented with some new varieties unknown to this area. These varieties were developed at agricultural institutes in Germany and are quite widespread there. Judging by everything Baranja has a better terroir and we hope these varieties will give better yield. I am originally from Banja Luka, currently living in Germany, but I must admit I feel best in Zmajevac. I fully embraced my wife’s idea of buying and restoring this space and am completely into it. Zmajevac is a village with great potential in the touristic sense and I feel it is justly named the wine capital of Baranja. Hence we are also developing a tourism story, trying to intertwine them. We have a tasting room that can fit a bus of visitors. We also rent rooms with rustic décor.”
The Zajec cellar is also known for wild parties organised here during Vinceška, Gator Fest, Wine Marathon or Martinje. When the official programme ends, everyone (including other winemakers) pours into the Zajec cellar, and the party with tambouritza players lasts until dawn. Dancing on tables, a few broken glasses in moments of wine ecstasy, unintentional spilling of wine in the overcrowded space and ruined clothing as a consequence…
“It is a wonderful sensation when someone spills wine over you, and instead of getting angry you laugh. The atmosphere is simply such that no one can hold a grudge against anyone!”
The same will take place during this year’s wine marathon on September 30, with the victory lap in the Zajec cellar.
It is not uncommon for celebrations to take place without a special reason. The Zajec family are hospitable hosts and welcome any guests heartily. Even our arranged conversation and reportage turned into a small party, with the pinnacle being when Dahlia sang sevdalinke songs; a dash of Bosnia in Pannonia! Although Zmajevac is a majority Hungarian village, there is an area known as “Little Bosnia.” One of the immigrants from Bosnia is also a family friend and godfather of the Zajec family, Jozo Cveran Mršić, who says he gets along great in a Hungarian village and quickly learned to speak Hungarian.
I hope she will be bold enough to sing to a bigger audience, at one of the festivities in the near future. Dahlia says of the reasons for her return to Zmajevac:
“When I compare life in Germany and Croatia, I must admit much more money can be made in Germany, but life in Croatia is more relaxed and interesting. And since I can choose, I choose Croatia, specifically Zmajevac! I want to advance our business and especially develop the tourism dimension of our family wine story. Considering the growing number of manifestations serving to brand Zmajevac as the wine capital of Baranja, and the increasing number of visitors, I believe we are heading in the right direction!”

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