Sensory overload. That is how I would describe any one of my whirlwind visits to Croatia.
I mean it in a positive way. The country is simply brimming with vinous, culinary and natural delights. Gnarly old grapevines improbably clinging to sun baked seaside slopes. Nearly 1,200 islands sprinkled like seashells on the impossibly blue Adriatic. Countless villages and hamlets of seminal charm nestled in coves and on mountainsides. Fresh caught seafood and farm-to-table produce so succulent and cooked to perfection. The warm faces of family, old friends and new acquaintances (and an occasional donkey). Swoon-worthy views and secret spots where you can enjoy the sights and sounds of nature that – to this New York City boy – are so intimate, pure and wonderful.
And then there is the wine. Indigenous grapes, local producers. Most of it delicious and distinct. So this is what all this beauty… this land…this Croatia tastes like, you may be inspired to declare.
A few weeks ago I was rummaging around my father’s wine cabinet and found a forgotten, dusty bottle of white – a 1999 PZ Vrbnik Zlatna Žlahtina from the island of Krk in the Kvarner wine growing region along the northern coast of Croatia. Since my father rarely drinks white wine and didn’t even know the bottle existed or where it came from, he let me have it. For “research” purposes.
I was skeptical. A 15-year old Žlahtina? I mean, I’ve opened 3-year old Pinto Grigio wines that were an oxidized mess. Also this particular bottle was never properly stored, languishing for most of its life on a shelf in my parent’s sunny dining room.
Every once in a while something fine and rare occurs that makes you stop and appreciate the wonders of the universe: Haley’s Comet; double rainbows; black diamonds; a Honus Wagner baseball card; the aurora borealis; a Led Zeppelin reunion; snowy owls; mammatus clouds; old vintage Riesling; a taxi in NYC on a rainy day….
And then this happened: on the first day of spring, Pioneering Croatian winemaker Alen Bibić of BIBICh Winery arrived in the United States to personally conduct a tasting of his wines from the Dalmatia region of coastal Croatia.
Although it was Mr. Bibić’s fourth visit to the U.S. in eight years, what made this visit extraordinary was that it resulted in the first-ever tasting in New York City – and America – of a flight of seven wines made from the debit grape variety across a full range of styles.
The purpose of the tasting – held at Café Katja on March 20, 2014 and organized by Blue Danube Wine Company with the clever and whimsical #Danubia hashtag – was to highlight the “flexibility” and multi-layered personality of the debit variety and dispel antiquated notions (still held by some winemakers in Dalmatia) that debit is a simple variety meant for table wines and not worthy of merit or aging.
Debit is a late-ripening white grape variety that grows throughout the hot, arid region of Dalmatia and islands of coastal Croatia. It is believed to have migrated to Dalmatia from Puglia, Italy (where it no longer exists) many centuries ago (Dalmatians also refer to debit as “puljižanac”, which means “of Puglia”), and Mr. Bibić suspects that historically debit may have originated in Turkey. Despite the similar name, debit and pagadebit are two genetically different varieties.
But it is in the mountainous area of northern Dalmatia around the charming port town of Skradin where debit finds its sweet spot. This is where Mr. Bibić’s vineyards thrive in stingy, limestone-laced soils among olive groves, fig trees, scrub oak, wandering goats and wild Mediterranean herbs.
Ever since inheriting vineyards from his grandfather, guiding the family winery through troubled times marked by war, economic challenges, and now integration into the European Union, Mr. Bibić has stood firm in his mission: to champion and pay homage to the native grape varieties in his vineyards by allowing them to express the best of their character in his wines. Often that means stepping aside and letting the wines “make themselves”. To accentuate this point, Mr. Bibić referred to himself more as a switchman on a railroad rather than a winemaker. “The train doesn’t stop”, he said of the winemaking process. “It just goes. I just help to direct it in the right way”.
When I mentioned to the guests gathered at the tasting that Mr. Bibić was the first Croatian winemaker to export debit wines to the U.S., Mr. Bibićh interjected: “Actually I am not the first to export. Our wines from Dalmatia have been made for centuries and in ancient times were exported all over the world by boat”. Today, most of the BIBIĆh winery’s production is exported, and the first debit wines arrived in the U.S. in 2007.
Mr. Bibić’s portfolio of wines now includes about 17 labels (not all are exported to the U.S.), including many delicious reds made from local native grapes such as babić, plavina, and lasin. He also produces some incredibly tasty syrah and grenache.
But on this visit to NYC it was debit that he wanted to showcase: “This was the wine my grandfather drank, the white wine that our ancestors in Dalmatia always had on their tables”.
And although he dismisses the notion that he is a pioneer – but rather a guardian of tradition, anyone who has spent time with him (including Anthony Bourdain ofNo Reservations) cannot help but be amazed and impressed by Mr. Bibić’s level of knowledge and passion, his sincere hospitality toward visitors to his winery, his seemingly endless energy (I mean, when does this man sleep?), and his dogged determination to pay tribute to his homeland by showcasing through his wines local native grapes and the distinctive terroir of his vineyards.
In true style, Mr. Bibić makes it seem easy – and his wines, which get better with each vintage, go down the hatch even smoother. Judging by the reaction of the guests at the #Danubia tasting, debit just gained some new believers.
1. BIBICh Brut Sparkling Debit (NV): Made from debit grapes harvested a little early, this wine is light and leesy, creamy yet vibrant, elegant and refined, with subtle citrus, white flower, salty minerals, and bitter almond notes. Not simple nor overly complex but pleasant, clean, and layered with bright fruit, a tight mineral structure, and a breezy, refreshing finish. Bring on the oysters! (Not yet imported)
2. BIBICh 2013 Debit: Pale straw colored, distinctly marked by a chalky minerality, crisp citrus, green apple, and white flower notes, and a pithy, salty bitter finish that make it a perfect foil for most mild seafood dishes. $16
3. BIBICh 2011 R5: An equal part blend of debit, pošip, maraština, pinot gris, and chardonnay aged for one year in a mix of new and used American oak. This is a winemaker’s cuvee that Mr. Bibić says reflects his personal taste (“This wine says Alen Bibić”, he noted). It is mildly and pleasantly oxidative with a rich golden color, slightly oily texture, and a Sherry-like character marked by notes of brown butter, hazelnuts, apricot, roasted Mediterranean herbs, and a slightly wild, briny mineral presence. Both rustic and refined, this is a wine to contemplate on its own or enjoy with Asian-inspired dishes. $19
4. BIBICh 2010 Lučica: A single-vineyard debit from vines planted by his grandfather that are now 54-years old. This wine was fermented in American oak barrels and then aged in wood for one year. While 2010 was a cooler, rainy vintage that caused vinous troubles elsewhere in Croatia, you would not guess it by the rich, oily and lush character of this wine, expressed in complex notes of candied orange peel, apple cider, roasted nuts, brown butter, sun-drenched Dalmatian stones, and oyster brine. Do not serve it too cold! $35
5. BIBICh 2011 Lučica: The warmer, drier 2011 vintage imparts similar but deeper, richer tones (in comparison to the 2010) to this single-vineyard debit: Apricot, bruised apple, candied citrus, honey, salted caramel, roasted nuts, and powdered limestone. Oily and savory, with a slight tannic bite and long, harmonious finish, this wine is captivating in its ability to juxtaposition funkiness and elegance. A unique and compelling drinking experience! (The 2011 is not yet available for purchase; 2010 is current)
6. BIBICh 2006 Bas de Bas Bijelo: 90% debit (with a 10% field blend of other local grapes varieties), this is wine the way Mr. Bibić’s ancestors would have made it (“a white wine that drinks like a red”): three months skin maceration and then fermentation in large limestone vats called “Kamenica”, followed by extended aging in mixed oak casks. An “orange” wine that is powerful without the punch of high alcohol – it’s only 12.5% ABV. Richly textured with a firm structure provided by grape skin tannins and layered with a complex array of aromas such as dried peach, orange pith, fresh fig, roasted herbs, caramelized parsnip, and Himalayan sea salt. Bas de Bas is produced with no added sulfites. $60
7. BIBICh Ambra Prošek (NV): Dalmatia’s traditional dessert wine is prošek (for more about prošek, click here), and Ambra is made from debit grapes that were dried on straw mats for 3 months, fermented with native yeasts, aged for years in oak vats, and then blended as the barrels become ready. Dark amber in color, Ambra is vibrant and nimble (despite its sweetness), with delicious, long-lasting flavors of dried fig, caramel, candied orange, honeyed nuts, and a savory note akin to roasted herbs and spicy tobacco. A little goes a long way, and this wine is an awesome value at $50.
Wine: Miličić 2007 Plavac Mali “Selekcija” (Vrhunsko vino)
Sub-Region: Pelješac Peninsula
Grape Varieties: Plavac Mali
Alcohol by Volume: 13.7%
Residual Sugar: N/A
Price: 65 Kuna (in Croatia; Approximately $13)
Bottle Size: 750 ml
Imported By: N/A
Tasting Note: At 7 years old, this wine is dark ruby colored yet translucent, with elegant hues of garnet beginning to betray its age.Bold, seductive notes of dried fruits – black cherry, fig, and plum – combine to deliver a sweetly enticing nose that’s balanced and alluring, earthy and briny, sweet yet savory. Tertiary notes of leather, black olive, and iodine lurk beneath and linger with the aroma of stewed black fruits long after the glass is empty. The wine is labeled dry, yet I suspect there is a gram or two of residual sugar due to its slightly sweet attack and round finish that avoids being cloying due to a juicy dose of acidity. At 13.7% ABV, this is a pleasantly restrained and refined Plavac Mali, completely balanced, richly extracted, and easy to drink with dusty, fine tannins and a long, long mouth coating finish. Excellent! Bring on the mussels and squid ink risotto!! ~CR
Tasting Note: Made only in the best years from partially sun-dried Plavac Mali grapes, this deeply garnet-colored, full-bodied wine is sweet at first but finishes a bit drier to reveal a mouth-filling texture and notes of dried plum, black fig, pine, orange zest, old saddle leather, espresso, and sea salt-infused dark chocolate. A fine & rare treat for a chilly autumn eve at home with loved ones. 🙂