Croatia Wins Big at the 2016 Decanter World Wine Awards

Croatia’s wineries garner a total 63 medals, with Veralda winery from Istria taking a coveted Platinum – Best in Show medal. 

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London, June 14, 2016: Decanter magazine, one of the world’s most respected wine publications, today announced the winners of the 2016 Decanter World Wine Awards. The competition, held each year in London, received over 16,000 entries from around the world. You can scroll through the lists of all winners here.

With the judging completed, we are so happy and proud to announce that Veralda winery, located in Brtonigla in the Istria wine region, was awarded the coveted Platinum – Best in Show medal for its 2015 “Istrian” red – a wine produced from Teran (which Decanter refers to as Refosco) – in the Best Single Varietal red category. With 95 out of 100 points, Veranda “Istrian” was one of only 31 wines to receive the top tier Platinum – Best in Show prize!

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In total, Croatian wines won 62 other medals, including one Platinum, nine Silver, 24 Bronze, and 28 Commended (there were no Gold medals this year). Here are the lists of winners in the Platinum, Silver, and Bronze medal categories:

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PLATINUM (01)

1. Ilocki Podrumi Traminac Izborna Berba Bobica 2011, Podunavlje (White)

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SILVER (09)

1. Đurinski Traminac Ice Wine 2012, Zagorje – Medimurje (White)
2. Gašparinčić 2013 Graševina, Zagorje – Medimurje (White)
3. Kutjevo Graševina Ice Wine 2012, Slavonia (White)
4. Vina Laguna Festigia 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Istria (Red)
5. Vina Laguna Festigia 2013 Merlot, Istria (Red)
6. Cmrečnjak Sauvignon 2015, Zagorje – Medimurje (White)
7. Kutjevo De Gotho Graševina 2015, Slavonia (White)
8. Kutjevo Graševina 2015, Slavonia (White)
9. Kutjevo Turković Graševina 2015, Slavonia (White)

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BRONZE (24)

1. Benvenuti Corona Grande 2013, Istria (White)
2. Benvenuti Teran 2012, Istria (Red)
3. Bolfan Pinot Sivi 2015, Zagorje – Medimurje (White)
4. Crvik Plavac Mali Selekcija Pomet 2011, Central and South Dalmatia (Red)
5. Galić Graševina Leon 2011, Slavonia (White)
6. Iločki Podrumi Traminac 2015, Podunavlje (White)
7. Kostanjevec Pinot Blanc 2015, Prigorje – Bilogora (White)
8. Matosevic Grimalda 2012, Istria (White)
9. Matuško Dingač Reserva 2009, Central and South Dalmatia (Red)
10. Matuško Dingač Royal 2007, Central and South Dalmatia (Red)
11. Meneghetti 2011, Istria (Red)
12. Veralda Berba Prestige Istarska Malvazija 2015, Istria (White)
13. Veralda Berba Refosk Rosé 2015, Istria (Rosé)
14. Veralda Méthode Champenoise Brut Rosé 2012, Istria (Sparkling Rosé)
15. Belje Goldberg Graševina 2011, Baranja (White)
16. Vina Laguna Festigia Malvazija 2015, Istria (White)
17. Vina Laguna Festigia Riserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Istria (Red)
18. Vina Laguna Festigia Riserva Malvazija Akacija 2013, Istria (White)
19. Vina Laguna Malvazija 2015, Istria (White)
20. Vina Laguna Riserva Festigia Malvazija 2013, Istria (White)
21. Vina Laguna Riserva Festigia Malvazija Vizinada 2013, Istria (White)
22. Vinarija Kostanjevec Grasevina 2015, Prigorje – Bilogora (White)
23. Kutjevo Galić Bijelo 9 Grasevina-Chardonnay-Sauvignon Blanc 2013,  Slavonia (White)
24. Cmrečnjak Graševina Ledeno Vino (Ice Wine) 2012, Zagorje – Medimurje (White)

*For Commended medal winners, please refer to the Decanter website.

Congratulations to all the winners!!

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An American Master Sommelier in Croatia

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An exclusive interview with Fred Dexheimer, MS

In September 2015, Fred Dexheimer, one of only 230 Master Sommeliers in the world, visited Croatia and spent four days touring the Dalmatia and Istria wine regions. Wines of Croatia recently caught up with Fred (who moves very fast!) for an exclusive interview, in which he reveals his impressions of the trip and expert opinions on the wines he tasted.

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1. What compelled you to visit Croatia now?
Well, I knew I would be going to Macedonia on a trip sponsored by Wines of Macedonia, so I thought, Croatia is so close—I should go! As you know, I have been interested in Croatia for many years and early on recognized it for the quality of its wines, particularly those produced from indigenous grape varieties. Ampelography (the botanical study of grapevine cultivation and genetics) is one of my keen interests, and Croatia’s story regarding the origins of Zinfandel is totally cool. Over the years I have met several Croatian winemakers during their visits to New York. Their stories are compelling and I have always felt the desire to do my part to champion them. When this opportunity to go to Macedonia came up, I knew it was finally time for me to pop over to Croatia and see the magic for myself.

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Fred Dex, MS, on Hvar, Croatia (Photo: Cliff Rames)

2. Which regions and wineries did you visit?
Croatia enjoys such a unique landscape and terroir for wine growing, especially in Dalmatia. It is also an amazingly beautiful place. So I wanted to spend a few days in Dalmatia, which for me is fascinating from the ampelography perspective because of the large number of indigenous grape varieties there. Over the years I have heard so much about Hvar island, so I decided to go there first, where I visited Duboković and Tomić wineries. It was also interesting to visit Jo Aherne’s “garagista” operation in Sveta.Nedelja. She’s a Master of Wine making wine on Hvar. How cool is that!? Jo took us on a lurching jeep ride up a mountain, which was pretty dramatic and breathtaking. I saw all these Plavac Mali vines improbably clinging to the rocks on the mountainside. I mean, it must have been a 50 degree incline. Incredible! How does anything grow there?!

 

 

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Hvar high-elevation vineyards (Photo: Cliff Rames)

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Jo Aherne, MW; Fred Dex, MS; and Wines of Croatia founder, Cliff Rames

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Fred Dex and Ivo Dubokovic (Photo: Cliff Rames

After Hvar, I returned to the mainland to visit Bibich winery near Skradin for a marathon, multi-course food and wine pairing extravaganza. I mean, Alen Bibić and his wife, Vesna, are doing French Laundry style cuisine out of a little kitchen behind the tasting room. Freakin’ incredible! And the wines are awesome and reflect Alen’s passion and dedication to the local terroir and local indigenous varieties. Grapes with names like Babić, Debit, Lasina, Maraština, Plavina, Pošip…all different and unique yet expressing a sense of place that is Dalmatia with its sun, sea and rocks. Gotta love it!

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Alen Bibic and Fred Dex inspect freshly harvested grapes (Photo: Cliff Rames)

 

 

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Bibich winery tasting menu – one of many fine courses! (Photo: Cliff Rames)

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Bibich winery taste extravaganza (Photo: Cliff Rames)

From Dalmatia I went north to Istria, where I visited Matošević and Trapan wineries. Istria is very different than Dalmatia—greener with less rocks with a great climate for wine growing. Matošević is doing very interesting and nice wines from Malvasia Istriana, experimenting with different types of wood for barrel aging. And Trapan winery was impeccable—the cellar was meticulously organized and immaculate!

3. What was your overall impression of the wines? Was there one—or more—wine(s) that really rocked you?
Overall the wines I tasted were excellent—I wish I had tasted more! The vintners definitely have figured out what to grow in the right places, so the rest is winemaking. It was great to see that producers stay out of the way—let the terroir and wine speak for themselves—and not engage in over manipulation or using too much oak. I was particularly impressed by the purity of the whites. The Tomić Beleca, a blend of indigenous varieties from Hvar, was awesome—just so juicy and refreshing. Also, the Matošević Grimalda white, a blend of Malvasia and international varieties, was delicious, as was the Alba Antiqua, an orange Malvasia aged in a mix of French oak and acacia barrels. It was pure with vibrant energy. As for reds, the different expressions of Plavac Mali from Duboković demonstrate the incredible versatility and range styles that Plavac Mali is capable of. The Trapan Teran red was world class. And the Bibich Brut sparkling wine was a surprise—a bubbly Debit of Champagne quality. Well done!

4. Where do you think the wines of Croatia stand now in terms of market position and accessibility, especially in comparison to other regional players (e.g., Macedonia; Slovenia; Hungary; Greece)?
Croatia is not unknown. It definitely has the tourism angle going for it, which is a great portal to introduce people to the wines. But still the wines are unfamiliar and misunderstood. Distribution continues to be a huge challenge. Also, Croatian wines get lumped in with other Eastern European and Balkan wines. But Croatia has its own personality, its own identity that is unique and sexy and way more interesting than some other regional players. While I don’t think Croatia is The Next Big Thing, it is ready to become an exciting and solid category of wines that have staying power and can attract consumers who seek something fresh, something authentic, something excitingly different. Because of the SOMM movie and Uncorked TV series, wine awareness is growing, and people are more open to new stuff and more willing to dismiss old dogma or stigma. But more consumers and somms need to know how good Croatian wines are. I think once they discover them, they will say, “Yeah, man, that’s delicious”.

5. What was the most interesting thing you saw in Croatia?
Hvar. That jeep ride up the mountain was intense. I thought we were going to die! (Laughs)

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High-elevation Hvar vineyards (Photo: Cliff Rames)

6. Was there anything you encountered on the wine trails that was an issue or concern?
Nope. I saw a lot of promising stuff going on. None of, “Oh, that would be good if only…”. Everywhere I went my reaction was, “This is cool; this is good!”

7. If you could offer Croatian winemakers a bit of advice, what would it be?
Continue to experiment and find the best expression of your vineyards, your terroir. Seek that sweet spot that will distinguish the wines of Croatia from other regional wines. Establish yourselves as producers of high quality, exciting and unique wines producers that can shine on Michelin Star restaurants and get sommeliers buzzing. Find the right importer—someone who you believe in, and who believes in you and shares your winemaking philosophy and can get behind you and successfully market your story. I call it the “Bibich Approach”. Be smart in marketing but true to your terroir and wines. And make sure your price points are appropriate and attractive for what you are offering. Finally, identify one or two quality varieties that can lead the charge. I think Plavac Mali definitely is a player and can generate excitement and a following, especially because of its ties to Zinfandel. But are there others? Let’s see!

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Plavac Mali vines on Hvar (Photo: Cliff Rames)

8. When Anthony Bourdain visited Croatia in 2012, he famously declared “Holy sh**, that’s good!” after tasting Croatian wines. Do you have a “Fredism” along those lines?
Yeah: “Ka-pow! These wines are rocking!” (Laughs)

9. If you could visit Croatia again, which wine regions/wineries would you like to visit?
Clearly I’d like to spend more time in Dalmatia and visit Pelješac and Dingač. Also Korčula and its Grk vineyards. I’d like to see what is happening down around Dubrovnik. Slavonia is also intriguing—and overlooked. But they are doing some pretty interesting stuff with Graševina there. It’s apparently a variety that is capable of many styles, from sparkling to still, from dry to desert wines and everything in-between. But I haven’t tasted many wines and look forward to eventually exploring more.

10. Any last words or advice?
Sure. Instead of doing a huge Grand Tasting every two years and blowing your whole marketing budget in one day, organize several small, targeted events throughout the year. Figure out a way to bring small groups of traveling winemakers over several times a year so that there is a steady presence. During these visits, organize winemaker luncheons/dinners with top sommeliers in different cities. Four times a year—once a season—would be ideal and would help make an impact and sustain momentum. If you just show up once every couple of years and present the wines in a vacuum, without any follow-up activities, people forget, and any good will, energy and momentum evaporates. Utilize friends, ambassadors, and Wines of Croatia to grow excitement, knowledge, and momentum. That’s my two cents—or is that Kuna?—worth of advice. (Laughs)

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Master Sommelier, Fred Dexheimer, and Master of Wines, Jo Aherne, in the cellars of Tomic winery on Hvar (Photo: Cliff Rames)

Croatia’s Grgić Winery Heavily Damaged During Pelješac Wildfire

(Photo courtesy www.24sata.hr)

(Photo courtesy http://www.24sata.hr)

Late Monday night, a savage wildfire consumed large swaths of scrub pine, olive and fig trees, and vineyards on the Pelješac peninsula in Dalmatia, one of Croatia’s most renowned wine-growing regions, leaving as many as 600 hectares of rocky landscape–as well as cars and some homes–blackened and charred at the height of the tourist season.

Especially hard hit was the area around the tiny seaside hamlet, Trstenik—home of the world-famous Grgić Vina, a winery founded by legendary—and Croatian-born—Napa Valley winemaker, Mike Grgich of Grgich Hills Estate in Rutherford, CA.

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Located in the hills above Trstenik, overlooking the Adriatic Sea and surrounded by pine forests and vineyards, Grgić Vina is a major tourist attraction and stopping point on the road between Dubrovnik and Dingač, Croatia’s oldest geographically-protected wine growing appellation—and source of some of the greatest Plavac Mali wines.

While the stone-walled Grgić winery building was badly damaged, an adjacent metal storage building was completely destroyed, along with more than half of the winery’s bottled Plavac Mali wine inventory. Photos from the scene show charred and tangled metal, blackened walls, and piles of broken and burned bottles and cardboard wine boxes bearing the Grgić Vina logo nearly reduced to ash.

(Photo courtesy of www.dnevnik.hr)

(Photo courtesy of http://www.dnevnik.hr)

(Photo courtesy of www.24sata.hr)

(Photo courtesy of http://www.24sata.hr)

(Photo courtesy of Cropix)

(Photo courtesy of Cropix)

(Photo by Ahmet Kalajdzic)

(Photo by Ahmet Kalajdzic)

According to Ivo Jeramaz, Vice President of Vineyards and Production at Grgich Hills Estate, all the 2013 and 2014 Plavac Mali aging in barrels (there was no Pošip made in 2014) was intact and undamaged, and no one was injured.

Reports from the Croatian press suggest the fires ignited around 10:00pm local time and quickly spread, fueled by gusty hot “Maestral” winds. Three hundred firefighters from surrounding municipalities, aided by over fifty soldiers from the Croatian army, two Canadair CL-415 planes, and three helicopters, struggled to contain the fire and keep it away from villages.

Latest reports indicate that by morning the fire was brought under control.

(Photo courtesy of www.dubrovniknet.hr)

(Photo courtesy of http://www.dubrovniknet.hr)

In a statement on the Grgich Hills Estate Facebook page, Violet Grgich, Mike Grgich’s daughter and current Vice President of Operations and Sales, issued the following statement:

“Thank you to everyone for your concern regarding the forest fire on Pelješac, home to Grgić Vina, our winery in Croatia. Most important, everyone is safe. The winery and nearby town were evacuated. Our stone winery is fine but we did lose an attached metal building that held much of our current bottled wine and some of the surrounding vines were burnt. We’re not sure of the extent of vineyard damage yet. Our bulk wine was not affected and we still plan on harvesting this year. Thanks again to everyone for your good wishes.”

For anyone who was planning to visit Grgic winery on Pelješac, the good news is, the family intends to rebuild. In an an email to Wines of Croatia, Jeramaz said that even prior to the fire there were plans to build a new cellar. “Now we will just expand the scope of work,” he said.

For more photos from the scene, please visit:

http://www.jutarnji.hr/vinarija-grgic-stradala-u-pozaru-koji-je-zahvatio-trstenik/1386017/?foto=1

Wine Wanderlust: 7 Tour Operators in Croatia

Text and photos by Cliff Rames © 2015

It’s inevitable this time of year. Suddenly you notice passenger planes and the drift of jet trails among the clouds. You linger a bit longer than usual in daydreams. Bird songs awaken dormant desires to let loose and fly. You pine; an unsettled, almost haunting feeling settles in your breast. Call it an itchiness of the soul. You sense subliminal messages embedded in the whispers of warm breezes, summoning you: Go, they say. Make plans. Travel!

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Paul McCartney once sang of this condition: “Light out, wanderlust…help us to be free…light out, wanderlust…head us out to sea…what better time to find a brand new day…oh, wanderlust away…”

And just as dandelions and pollen are harbingers of the season, so too are the numerous emails that arrive in my mailbox, sent by intrepid people bitten by the wanderlust bug. Any recommendations for winery visits, they ask. Best wine regions to explore in Croatia? Suggestions for wine tour operators?

A few years ago, the task of naming a “wine tour” operator in Croatia would have resulted in much head scratching and conjecturing. But in recent years wine awareness in Croatia has awakened and more travel agencies have seized the opportunity to link wine tourism to the larger tourism package – or as a stand-alone offering.

When planning a visit to Croatian wine country, keep in mind that most wineries are family-owned estates; not all have visitor-ready facilities or tasting rooms. Hours of operation are often unpublished; calling ahead is highly recommended. Better yet, leave the arrangements to the professionals!

Below is a list of seven wine tour operators who offer an array of options for vinous adventures. Five are local providers, two are specialized travel agents based in the United States. All can be researched on the internet and are featured here for their interesting and diverse choices of food and wine tours in Croatia.

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(Listed alphabetically)

Agro Trails
Founded by Ilya and Olga Shchukin, who in the early 1990s began their professional careers in the special-interest travel industry with a focus on Central and Eastern Europe, Agro Trails offers unique experiences to those who like to travel off the beaten path – “from the Alps to the Adriatic” – in pursuit of delicious food and wine. The company currently offers two alluring itineraries. The first originates in the serene rolling hills and Alpine valleys of neighboring Slovenia, from where you meander through the pastoral sun-bathed hills of the Slovenian/Croatian littoral until you arrive in the medieval Adriatic fishing towns of Istria – the “Tuscany of Croatia”. Option two takes you down Croatia’s sunny southern coast, from Split to Dubrovnik, with visits to some of Dalmatia’s most beautiful, lavender-scented islands and rustic villages, where life moves “pomalo” (easy) and the slow food movement is not a movement but a natural part of the ancient customs and everyday life.

Art of Wine
Split city and wineries in its vicinity are the focus here. Now famous as the garden of “Original Zin”, you will visit Kaštel Novi and the unimposing vineyard where researchers from UC Davis discovered the missing link that established Croatia as the ancestral homeland of Zinfandel (Crljenak Kaštelanski, locally). Walking tours and tastes of local marketplace delicacies; “meet the winemaker” sessions; sips of barrel samples (including Croatian Zinfandel); and a sommelier guide are just some tempting possibilities (the group also offers a “Game of Thrones” tour through a sister site).

Dubrovnik Wine Tours
Mario Sehic, who holds a WSET Diploma level certificate, is your host for half-day or full-day tours that focus on the Pelješac peninsula and Dubrovnik areas along Croatia’s southern Dalmatian coast. Packages include a visit to an oyster farm to indulge in freshly harvested oysters paired with local wine; a journey to Croatia’s most renowned and scenic vineyard site, Dingač; local olive oil and cheese tastings; visits to wineries that produce the “noble wine of Dubrovnik”, Dubrovačka Malvasija; and even a sojourn into neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina for wine tasting at a historic monastery.

Eat Istria
If the Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper were a respected Croatian foodie and wine authority bestowed with light years more charm, grace and good taste, his name would be Goran Zgrablić. With a PhD in laser physics, this self-described “gourmet vagabond” and founding member of Taste of Croatia seems more in his element as gourmand-in-chief of Eat Istria, which celebrates the diverse and spectacular culinary culture of northern, coastal Croatia. With three different packages to choose (Curious Wines of Rovinj; Wines of Central Istria; or Rich Reds of the Western Istrian Coast), it doesn’t take a scientist to deduce all are winners. Indeed, Goran’s Trip Advisor reviews are stellar, backing up his claim as the “friendly face of Istrian cuisine”.

Secret Dalmatia
In the nascent industry of specialized tour operators in Croatia, Alan Mandić is a pioneer, partnership-builder, and forward-thinking entrepreneur. With Secret Dalmatia, he showed the way, raised the bar, and set the standard for quality, professional, and interesting tours that tap into local talent and reveal the rich array of natural, cultural and gastronomical gifts ensconced in the coastal Dalmatia region. Signature tours include Secret Wines of Dalmatia and Tastes of Dalmatian Islands (“a unique sailing journey to Croatia’s most beautiful islands for wine tasting experiences you will never forget!”). Highly recommended is the tour to BIBICh winery – always an unforgettable experience and one that knocked globetrotting chef Anthony Bourdain right off his chair in an episode of “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel. Mandić offers similar tours through a sister site, Culinary Croatia, as well as tours in other regions through partners.

Visit Croatia – Tasteful Croatian Journeys
A Condé Nast Traveler’s World Top Travel Specialist for Croatia honoree since 2006, Wanda S. Radetti is a New York City-based travel expert widely regarded for her ability to design personalized itineraries and “enchanting discovery journeys in the pursuit of sensory pleasures”. The popular Croatia – Flavors of Spring tour takes you to Split, Korčula Island (birthplace of Marco Polo and home of Pošip, one of Croatia’s most beloved white wines), the Pelješac peninsula, and the old walled city of Dubrovnik – a journey that is “elegantly interlaced with the threads of history, art and culture.” In addition, Wanda can arrange private cooking lessons with professional chefs; “meet the winemaker” visits and tastings at local wineries; and fishing excursions in the Adriatic Sea so that afterwards you can dine on your catch of the day, pop open a few bottles of wine you collected along the way, and raise your glass with a hearty, “Ciao, Wanda!” (her signature greeting).

Zagreb Bites
Another project from the talented crew of enthusiasts from Taste of Croatia (see Eat Istria above), Zagreb Bites celebrates the overlooked but compelling wine scene in Croatia’s capital city, Zagreb, and the surrounding Croatian Uplands wine growing region. Excursions typically include visits to 2-3 wineries and a traditional lunch at a local restaurant or farmstead. Customized itineraries are also an option, as is the Winer Lovers Zagreb walking tour of the city’s vibrant café culture and wine bars. Your guides, Lada Radin (a self-described “curious hedonist and food forager”) and Morana Zibar (“Gurwoman”) are fun, energetic, and ready to share their insider tips and help you uncover secret food and wine treasures, while also teaching you to do “as the Zagrebians do” and “make friends with Zagreb, bite by bite”.

Zinfandel Origin Tour/Opcija Tours
Aficionados and advocates of Zinfandel, this one is for you. History buffs too will find this tour charming and informative, as you trace the steps and delve into the fascinating story behind the discovery of Zinfandel’s origins in Croatia and meet some of the people who are playing an important role in the recovery and restoration of this nearly lost variety in its ancestral homeland. The half-day tour includes visits to three wineries, two museums, and the opportunity to taste “Original Zin” and other wines produced from rare indigenous grape varieties (there’s even a horse that has been known to pop its head in at one of the wineries).

Wine Regions of Croatia

Wine Regions of Croatia

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Vina Croatia 2015: Croatian Winemakers Storm Manhattan

A Short Report & Photos from the 2015 Vina Croatia Grand Tasting in NYC (Photos © 2015 Cliff Rames) Braving frigid winter temperatures and blustery Hudson River winds, representatives from twenty-four Croatian wineries and over 500 guests turned out on February 24, 2015 for the third Vina Croatia – Vina Mosaica Grand Tasting at Astor Center in New York City. The wineries attending the Grand Tasting included: Agrolaguna; Badel 1862; Benmosche Family Vineyards; BIBICh; Degrassi; Feravino; Galic; Grgic; Jakovino (Stina); Korta Katarina; Korak; Kozlovic; Krauthaker; Lagradi; Markus; Matosevic; Milos; PP Orahovica; Rizman; Saints Hills; Suha Punta (Gracin); Volarevic; Zlatan Otok; and Zigante. Collectively these wineries presented nearly 110 different labels, allowing guests to discover a wide range of wine styles from Croatia’s four diverse wine-growing regions and fascinating collection of indigenous grape varieties, such as Babić, Debit, Graševina, Lasina, Malvasia Istriana, Maraština, Plavac Mali, Plavina, Pošip, Teran, and Zinfandel, as well as a host of international varieties. A focal point to of the event was two sold-out masterclass seminars with special guest speakers. The first masterclass was entitled, “Meet Croatia”. Moderated by Saša Špiranec, regional wine expert and writer and Christy Canterbury, Master of Wine, this seminar offered an overview of Croatia’s wine growing regions and major grape varieties through a guided tasting of nine wines. The second masterclass seminar, “American Winemakers Who Fell in Love with Blue Adriatic”, focused on three Croatian wineries that have a connection to the United States, two of which were founded by Americans after they visited Croatia and fell in love with the country. The session was moderated by Cliff Rames, Certified Sommelier and founder of Wines of Croatia, and featured two guest speakers, Ivo Jeramaz, Vice President of Vineyards & Production at Grgich Hills Estate, and Ari Benmosche, representative from Benmosche Family Vineyards of Dubrovnik. Attendees of the seminar tasted two wines from each of the three wineries. “We are really going global,” joked Benmosche, as he described his family’s annual 4,000 bottle production of Plavac Mali and Zinfandel. While Croatian wines really aren’t storming the market or going global just yet (more distribution is needed), the positive reactions of so many of the attendees that crowded the Vina Croatia event demonstrate that these small-production, well-made, and delicious wines with curious names are starting to emerge from obscurity and find their niche among some of the world’s best and most interesting wines. Perhaps the winds that blew that day were indeed the winds of change. Check out this selection of photos from that exciting day! DSC_0007DSC_0005DSC_0009 DSC_0011DSC_0008DSC_0014 DSC_0015 DSC_0016 DSC_0017DSC_0020 DSC_0021 DSC_0022 DSC_0023 DSC_0024DSC_0025 DSC_0026 DSC_0027 DSC_0028DSC_0030 DSC_0031 DSC_0032 DSC_0033DSC_0035 DSC_0036DSC_0039 DSC_0040DSC_0044 DSC_0045 DSC_0046 DSC_0047DSC_0051 DSC_0053 DSC_0055 DSC_0060DSC_0063 DSC_0064 DSC_0067DSC_0068 DSC_0071 DSC_0072 DSC_0073 DSC_0074 DSC_0075 DSC_0076 DSC_0077DSC_0080 DSC_0081 DSC_0082 DSC_0083 DSC_0084 DSC_0086 DSC_0088 DSC_0089 DSC_0090 DSC_0091 DSC_0092 DSC_0093 DSC_0094 DSC_0096 DSC_0098 DSC_0100To be continued….

Zinfandel in Croatia: A Sort of Homecoming

(Republished with permission from the original article in the Oct./Nov. 2014 issue of The SOMM Journal)

Croatia’s prodigal grape finds its roots. Can it go home again?

By Cliff Rames

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Sherlock Holmes, were he an ampelographer, would be pleased. Solved was an age-old mystery that spanned oceans and continents, the New World and the Old. Through hands-on detective work, forensic know-how and cutting edge technology, the missing link in the evolutionary story of a popular and beloved wine grape was uncovered, the mystery of its origins revealed in a word: Tribidrag – the ancient Croatian name for Zinfandel.

For over a century wine lovers, viticulture experts and dedicated followers of taxonomy have pondered the fascinating question of Zinfandel’s origins and migratory route to the US. No less so than in California, where the grape settled in the early 1800s and easily adapted to the topography and climate in regions like Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino. Often recommended for Thanksgiving and touted as “America’s heritage wine”, Zinfandel reigns as California’s signature red and seems as All American as apple pie.

But Mike Grgich, a native of Croatia and co-founder of Grgich Hills Estate in Napa, had his suspicions. Arriving to California in 1958, Grgich noticed that Zinfandel vines he encountered seemed like familiar old friends, the wines tasting just like the vino his father fermented back in the Old Country.

“Looking at the vines I wondered am I in California or Croatia”, he laughed during a scene in the film, Dossier Zinfandel.

Mike Grgic (Photo courtesy Grgich Hills Estate)

Mike Grgic (Photo courtesy Grgich Hills Estate)

Suspect: Plavac Mali
Grgich was not the only one to notice. In 1967 Austin Goheen, a plant pathologist at UC Davis, observed that Primitivo in the Puglia region of Italy closely resembled Zinfandel. Following an axis directly across the Adriatic Sea to the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, Goheen discovered Plavac Mali, an indigenous variety that shared characteristics with both Zinfandel and Primitivo. Isozyme analysis (a sort of plant fingerprinting a precursor to DNA profiling) revealed a high probability that Zinfandel and Primitivo were one. Tests on Plavac Mali however were inconclusive.

Compelled by these findings, an American wine historian, Leon Adams, contacted Mike Grgich, who continued to advocate that Zinfandel hailed from Croatia and could be Plavac Mali or a close relative. In 1983 Adams traveled to Croatia and reported that the leaves of the two varieties were “identical” and Plavac Mali wine “could easily be accepted as Zinfandel”.

Following with keen interest the unfolding Zinfandel/ Primitivo/ Plavac Mali mystery was Dr. Carole Meredith, a grape geneticist at UC Davis and leading pioneer of DNA profiling to establish interrelatedness and ancestry of wine grape varieties. Her team is credited for identifying the parentage of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Syrah, among others.

Intrigued, she turned her attention to Croatia.

Maletic, Meredith and Pejic in Croatia (Photo courtesy of Carole Meredith)

Maletic, Meredith and Pejic in Croatia (Photo courtesy of Carole Meredith)

The Search for Origins – “Zinquest”
According to Meredith the “serendipitous moment” descended in December 1997. Two Croatian scientists, Dr. Ivan Pejić and Dr. Edi Maletić, were undertaking an initiative to genetically identify and catalogue Croatia’s native grape varieties in preparation for the country’s entry into the European Union. With few resources and limited access to the latest technological equipment, Pejić and Maletić knew outside assistance to meet the EU’s strict criteria and deadlines would be required.

When the email from Pejić arrived, Meredith had already decided that a journey to Dalmatia to investigate Plavac Mali was essential. All she needed was the right contact in Croatia.

“So here’s Ivan asking for my help to use DNA profiling to sort out old Croatian grapes and here’s me, looking for someone in Croatia who could help me find Zinfandel. A perfect fit!” Meredith recalls.

In May 1998 Meredith embarked on a tour – dubbed “Zinquest” – of Dalmatia’s coastal vineyards. Guided by Pejić and Maletić and assisted by Jasenka Piljac, Meredith collected leaf samples from 148 Plavac Mali vines from 45 vineyards sites on the Pelješac peninsula and the islands of Hvar and Korčula.

But it wasn’t to be. None of the samples Meredith brought back to the UC Davis labs exactly matched Zinfandel.

Ivica Radunic's "Original Zin" vineyard in Kastel Novi (photo by Cliff Rames)

Ivica Radunic’s “Original Zin” vineyard in Kastel Novi (photo by Cliff Rames)

A Mystery Solved
With the key piece of the puzzle still elusive, the search was nonetheless getting warmer.
Further DNA analysis of leaf material harvested in Croatia indicated a “high degree of relatedness” between Plavac Mali and Zinfandel – perhaps a parent/ offspring relationship.

Three other local varieties, Grk, Plavina and Vranac, shared genetic markers with Zinfandel, suggesting that it was once a very old and important cultivar in the area. The presence of a Zinfandel genetic pool in Dalmatia gave Meredith hope. The “original Zin” had to be somewhere in Croatia!

For the remainder of 1998 through 2000 Pejić and Maletić scoured – row by row – old vineyards along Croatia’s coast and islands, following every lead and examining every leaf.

Meanwhile in her lab at UC Davis, Dr. Meredith continued to analyze DNA fingerprints of vines from Croatia, cross-referenced data against information contained in the university’s database of profiled cultivars. Soon she made a startling and significant discovery: Zinfandel plus an old Dalmatian variety from Šolta island called Dobričić were the parent vines of Plavac Mali.

With renewed gusto the search focused on Šolta and vineyards around Split. Late 2000 delivered a breakthrough: Pejić and Maletić learned of a 2.5 acre, 35 year-old plot of mixed varieties in Kaštel Novi. The vineyard’s owner, Ivica Radunić, reportedly wasn’t sure himself what grew there, as many of the vines in the “field blend” were planted by his grandfather. One immediately caught everyone’s attention for its physiological resemblance to Zinfandel.

Once again none of the samples matched. The suspect vine turned out to be another local variety, Babica.

After three years searching, Pejić and Maletić were nearly out of funds and felt demoralized. In the spring of 2001, in a last ditch effort they decided to revisit Radunić’s vineyard. Noticing that many of vine stalks were intertwined and easy to confuse, they carefully collected new samples from a specimen Radunić identified as Crljenak Kaštelanski.

The results arrived on December 18, 2001. “We have a match for Zinfandel. Quite convincingly, finally!” Meredith reportedly wrote in an email to Pejić and Maletić.

One of the "Original Zin" (Crljenak Kastelanski) vines found in the Radunic vineyard (photo by Cliff Rames)

One of the “Original Zin” (Crljenak Kastelanski) vines found in the Radunic vineyard (photo by Cliff Rames)

“ZPCT”
“Zinfandel comes from Croatia,” declared Meredith in a 2002 press release. “The grape we call Zinfandel and the Italians call Primitivo are both Crljenak Kaštelanski.”

As it turned out, Mr. Radunić’s vineyard in Kaštel Novi contained eight more Crljenak Kaštelanski vines. Others were eventually located near Omiš, where locals referred to the variety as Pribidrag, a variation of Tribidrag – the ancient Croatian name first mentioned in the 14th century.

Because Tribidrag is the oldest recorded name for the variety, the rule of anteriority takes precedent. Jancis Robinson, co-author of the essential tome, Wine Grapes, under the entry for Zinfandel simply states, “See Tribidrag”. Meredith offers a simpler approach, referring to the assortment of synonyms as “ZPCT”: Zinfandel/ Primitivo/ Crljenak/ Tribidrag.

Ivica Radunic (photo by Cliff Rames)

Ivica Radunic (photo by Cliff Rames)

The Revitalization
The handful of Zinfandel vines discovered in Croatia in 2001 propagated to over 2,000 by 2008. Today, over 400,000 ZPCT vines have taken root in a massive repatriation initiative. Zlatan Plenković, a leading producer from Hvar, sowed over 50,000 vines in the foothills of the Dinaric Alps near seaside Makarska. Around Radunić’s vineyard in Kaštel Novi local vintners have embraced their prodigal grape by planting over 20,000 new vines. Commercial producers include Vuina and Putalj.

Elsewhere in Dalmatia, the Zinfandel renaissance is flourishing in Omiš, Komarna, Hvar, Brač, Pelješac, and Konavle.

However, virus infected plant material is a major issue facing growers. All original ZPCT plants in Croatia tested positive for viruses. Pejić and Maletić now lead a project to eliminate viruses and build a “mother block” of cleansed vines. Meredith reports the mother block currently contains 150 virus-free vines obtained from UC Davis from eight sources, including Crljenak and Pribidrag from Croatia, Primitivo from Italy, and “three selections from old California vineyards chosen for the Zinfandel heritage selection program” – all ready to propagate the next generation of Croatian vineyards.

No one expects Zinfandel to supplant Plavac Mali as the primary red grape variety in Croatia. Yet wineries are eager to bring the grape home and capitalize on its fame and familiarity. Meredith believes that Croatian Zinfandel will never be more than a “wine geek” curiosity. But she also thinks that Croatian producers could capitalize on the Zinfandel story to promote Croatia as “a fine wine region with undiscovered wine gems”.

“Zinfandel was already known internationally and well-established before its Croatian identity was discovered,” she adds. “It never would have become important if Croatian producers tried to promote it on their own without the California connection. Now that it is known Zinfandel is Croatian, I think many consumers and members of the wine trade are looking to see where Croatia is on a map and realizing that it’s an ancient wine region with a wine heritage as old as anywhere in Europe.”

Marija Mrgudić, a producer from Pelješac and one of Croatia’s prominent female winemakers, is excited about the future of Zinfandel in Croatia. “It is a variety with higher acid and freshness than Plavac Mali with potential for aging,” she says. “I think the future will bring a greater role for Zin in the vineyards of Dalmatia – and on the tables of Croatians and their guests!”

Presently over two dozen Croatian wineries produce Zinfandel, but just a few are commercially available. In the US, Zlatan Plenković Crljenak (VinumUSA), Vuina Crljenak Kaštelanski (Terraneo Merchants), and Korta Katarina Plavac Mali/ Zinfandel Rosé (Katharine’s Garden) are currently available. Robert Benmosche, the former CEO of AIG, also produces Zinfandel from vineyards he owns on the Pelješac peninsula.

Heritage Tribidrag vines subsequently discovered on Peljesac, currently part of Benmosche Family Vineyards (photo by Cliff Rames)

Heritage Tribidrag vines subsequently discovered on Peljesac, currently part of Benmosche Family Vineyards (photo by Cliff Rames)

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List of Wineries to Attend the 2015 Vina Croatia Grand Tasting in NYC is Released

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**SEVERAL WINERIES SEEKING IMPORTERS/U.S. DISTRIBUTION!**

As we previously announced here, the third Vina Croatia Grand Tasting 2015 of the Wines of Croatia will be held on February 24, 2015 at Astor Center in New York City. This is a TRADE ONLY event.

Twenty-five (25) Croatian wineries will be present for the walk around tasting, each with a minimum of two staff members – including winemakers from most wineries– on hand to explain the wines and answer questions.

The wineries scheduled to attend the Grand Tasting include: Agrolaguna; Badel; Benmosche Family Vineyards; BIBICh; Degrassi; Feravino; Galic; Grgic; Jakovino (Stina); Korta Katarina; Korak; Kozlovic; Lagradi; Matosevic; Milos; PP Orahovica; Rizman; Saints Hills; Suha Punta (Gracin); Szabo; Volarevic; Zlatan Otok; and Zigante.

Note to visiting IMPORTERS AND DISTRIBUTORS: Roughly half of the wineries attending are seeking importers and U.S. representation. For more information or to inquire about scheduling a time to privately meet with winery representatives, please send an email to crames@winesofcroatia.com.

Additionally the event will include two seminars with special guest speakers, including Cliff Rames, Certified Sommelier and founder of Wines of Croatia; Christy Canterbury, Master of Wine; and Saša Špiranec, regional wine expert and writer.
Registration is complimentary and exclusive to members of the wine trade and press.

**Please note however that currently the two seminars are full but you may request to be added to the wait list.

For more information please email Tatiana Reif at treif@colangelopr.com, or via Eventbrite by clicking on any image on this page.

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