In a September 26, 2016 Los Angeles Times article entitled “In old-world Croatia, here are four trendy towns worth visiting”, author Margo Pfeiff lists four towns that one must visit in northern Croatia, which she describes as “rural regions known for their vineyards and welcoming agri-tourism farms….”
In a charming and sweetly memorable moment from his trip, Joe sent out this tweet on Twitter: “Ok I’m about to fall asleep in Korčula but this picture of vineyards clinging to a mountain is still on my mind http://t.co/LxEWtsj“.
In this exclusive interview, Joe shares some more thoughts and observations about his trip and offers some sage advice for the future of Croatian wines.
1. You just returned from a tour of a few wine regions in Croatia. What are your general impressions of Croatia as a country and as a wine-producing country?
Croatia is country with a ton of stunning natural beauty, like the electric-blue Adriatic coast, breathtakingly steep vineyard sites, endless islands and incredible mountain peaks. It is fascinating to see a country as a relatively new quality wine producing country trying to find its way, sometimes with great success. I think the quality is only going to improve as the vines get older and as winemakers become more experienced and share information with other producers.
2. Was there anything that surprised you? Disappointed you? Blew you away?
I was surprised by the extreme beauty. It was really one of the most stunning places I’ve ever been, and I was not expecting that. I was blown away by the sheer steepness of some of the vineyards, especially in Dalmatia. It is heroic to work them.
I was also surprised by the truffles! Croatia is one of the few places that truffles grow in the world and they were incredibly delicious.
I was disappointed to see a lot of Plavac Mali wines that were unbalanced, too hot and alcoholic, often with 15.5% alcohol or higher and residual sugar.
3. How many of Croatia’s different indigenous grapes varieties did you try through the wines you tasted? Any favorites?
We probably tasted 15-20 different grapes. I loved the white grapes Pošip and Grk for their minerality and crisp acidity, though Grk was just a bit more complex. As for red grapes I thought that Terran had the most potential for its structure and food pairing ability.
4. Were there any particular wines that really impressed you? Any “wow” moments?
Miloš 1994 Plavic Mali showed me that Plavic Mali has an incredible ability to age when it’s made in a balanced style with alcohol kept in check. Also Miloš is one of the few producers making wine a very traditional, natural way. He holds the wines back until they are ready to drink.
5. You visited Tomac winery and tasted his “Anfora” wine. Wines made in amphora are a particular interest of yours. What did you think of Tomac’s version?
I love Tomac’s Anfora wines and his entire philosophy. His wines were balanced, nuanced and delicious. They were also unique but not in a way that would turn off people who haven’t had them before. I also loved his Pinot Noir.
6. Can you offer a little advice on what Croatian winemakers can do better tocompete on the world market, particularly in the US?
I’d say focus on creating wines and flavors that are indicative of Croatia. Embrace your native grapes and create wines that go well with food. Croatia is never going to be able to compete at the lowest end because of cost parameters and there is so much competition for “international-styled” wine. So the only way Croatia can compete is on it’s uniqueness of high-quality, balanced wines.
7. Say one thing that American consumers/wine lovers should know about Croatian wines.
Croatia has an immensely diverse amount of grape varieties and terroirs, creating the opportunity for a wide range of wine styles. There are a few very interesting wines now but these wines will continue to improve.
8. How did you like the Croatian restaurants/cuisine? Do you have a favorite dish? Any food and wine pairings that you really liked?
The restaurants were of an extremely high quality. We ate a lot of extremely fresh fish and the local shrimp were especially sweet and soft. One of the fun things that quite a few restaurants did was that they put out a wide variety of olive oils for us to taste with our breads. One restaurant even had 15 local olive oils on the table.
9. Would you like to return to Croatia someday? Where would you go?
Of course! There are a 1,000 islands and I’d like to explore them all but I want to go back to Korčula first.
Three years ago the organizers of Vinistra (the annual wine festival of the Association of Winegrowers & Winemakers of Istria, Croatia) launched the first World of Malvasia (“Svijet Malvazije”) competition, an event that precedes by a couple of weeks the annual Vinistra wine expo, with the results formally announced on the first day of the fair.
Each year producers of Malvasia from around the world are invited to submit wines made from any of the numerous sub-categories of the Malvasia Bianca family of grapes that exist in the Mediterranean basin.
Not surprisingly, given that the event is organized by Vinistra and held in the lovely Croatian seaside town of Poreč, Malvazija Istarska is typically the most common variety of Malvasia represented in the competition. Malvazija Istarska – or Malvasia Istriana – is native to an area that encompasses the Istrian peninsula of Croatia, western Slovenia, and northeast Italy (Friuli).
However, fine examples of other sub-varieties of Malvasia usually find their way to the competition and are a welcome reference point of comparison. This year’s event showcased examples of Malvasija Dubrovačka (Malvasia of Dubrovnik), Malmsey, and Malvasia Volcánica, in addition to the ubiquitous Malvazija Istarska.
For the purposes of judging, the wines are organized into three categories:
1) Still Dry Wines
2) Natural Sweet Wines
3) Liqueur Wines (Fortified Wines)
To ensure a perception of impartiality and to give the competition international creed, the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV) sponsors the event and oversees the judging, which is conducted by teams of wine professionals, including sommeliers, journalists, wine buyers and restaurateurs.
This year, the World of Malvasia competition was held April 27-30, 2011 and included a record number of submissions: 219 wines from five countries (Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, Portugal, and Spain).
“For the third consecutive year and with a record number of submissions, the World of Malvasia competition has further established itself as the premier forum for the contemplation, discussion, and evaluation of Malvasia as a grape variety and wine”, said Mario Staver, president of the Vinistra Evaluation Committee.
On May 13, 2011, at a formal ceremony on the opening day of the 18th annual Vinistra wine expo, the 2011 World of Malvasia winners were announced.
Of the 219 wines submitted for judgment, a total of 65 received medals, with Gold medals awarded to 43 wines and Silver medals to 22 wines.
Croatia dominated with a total of 32 Gold and 17 Silver medals. Italy received four Gold and two Silver medals, while Slovenia followed with three Gold and three Silver – all in the “Still Dry Wines” category. Portugal finished with three Gold medals, while Spain scored one Gold medal in the “Liqueur Wines” category.
“When you look at the results of this year’s competition, it is evident that the average quality of the wines continues to improve. In other words, year-after-year Istrian producers are producing better and better wines. That is a trend that I am sure will continue,” said Ivica Matošević, president of Vinistra.
Taking the only “Grand Gold” medal was a dessert wine from Croatia, the 2009 Vin de Rosa by Sergio Delton – a little-known producer from Vodnjan in Istria. At 92 points, the Vin de Rosa was the highest scoring Malvasia wine of the competition.
The second-highest scoring Malvasia wine (90.67 points) was 10-year old non-vintage Madeira from Justino’s in the “Liqueur Wines” category. The third-highest score (89.83 points) went to a Malvasia Volcánica wine: the 1956 Canari from Bodegas El Grifo in Spain.
Keeping with the underdog theme, two relatively unknown producers – M&G International from Umag, Croatia and Franko Radovan from Višnjan, Croatia – each (with 89.6 points) took home a Gold Medal for their 2010 vintages in the “Still Dry Wines” category.
(Side note: Franko Radovan’s home and winery are in a village just outside of Višnjan, a hamlet called Radovani. Yes, Franko – like the more-famous Moreno Coronica – has a village named after him too!)
The only other producer to achieve the 89-point threshold was Benvenuti, a winery in the medieval hillside town of Motovun in Istria, Croatia. Their sweet 2009 Malvazija Istarska was awarded 89.5 points, putting it in second place in the “Natural Sweet Wines” category and making it the fifth-highest score of the competition.
Hot on Malvasia Istriana’s tail in the “Still Dry Wines” category is a Malvasija Dubrovačka (Malvasia of Dubrovnik) from Crvik winery in southern Dalmatia, just below Dubrovnik. With 85 points, the 2009 vintage was the only Croatian “Malvasia” from outside of Istria to win a medal.
It is interesting to note the many different styles of Malvazija Istriana represented within the “Still Dry Wines” category. There are young, fresh, unwooded versions (most of the 2010 vintages). There’s Malvasia aged in traditional oak (Matošević). Aged in acacia (“akacija”) wood (Kozlović; Matošević). Extended skin maceration (Vina Gordia Kolomban). And even a Malvasia fermented in amphora (Kabola).
It could be said that Malvasia’s diversity and ability to express a wide-array of characteristics is both a blessing and a curse. Whatever you may think, the 2011 World of Malvasia competition is an important venue that showcases the international appeal of this often misunderstood grape and reveals the many fascinating expressions of its geographical origin across a wide arch of Mediterranean terroirs.
Like in any large family, you have winners and losers, geniuses and dopes, artists and scientists, poets and pedestrians, easy-going personalities and difficult-to- understand characters.
But there’s no denying that the sum of all these parts is a colorful kaleidoscope of diversity: from straw-yellow freshness to “orange wine” wackiness; from bone-dry minerality to lusciously sweet indulgence; from bitter almond palate teasers to mouth-filling acacia-flower and honey scented “sweeties”; from low-alcohol refreshment to fortified power. Malvasia – via its many brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins, and other relatives once-removed – offers something for every palate.
So choose your winner – and raise your glass to the many intrepid producers who are digging for gold in the red, white and lava-soiled hills that rise so beautifully in the world of Malvasia. Your palate may shine as a result.
Editor’s Note: With this report, Robert Parker’s influential “Wine Advocate” journal has published its first-ever review of a selection of wines from Croatia. The report and subsequent scores were written and posted by Neal Martin of www.wine-journal.com and www.erobertparker.com and are reprinted here with permission.
This is Part VI – the final installment – in our series of post from Mr. Martin’s report, presented here for informational purposes. The statements, suggestions and reviews contained herein are purely Mr. Martin’s work and are subject to copyright and may not be republished elsewhere without permission of the author.
Tasting Notes: Sweet Wines
2007 Daruvar Grasevina Izborna Berba Prosusenih Bobica – 88
This Grasevina is a selection of dried berries. It has a tight nose: tangerine, dried honey, white flowers and honeycomb. A viscous entry on the palate, well balanced with dried honey, creme brulee, toffee and apricot, just lacking a little poise and cohesion on the finish but good length. Tasted May 2010.
2009 Krauthaker Grasevina Izborna Berba Prosusenih Bobica – 87
This lacks a little vigour on the nose that is intended to be TBA in style but not pulling it off in terms of purity or complexity. It’s a shame because the palate has an engaging fresh entry with yellow plum, honey, nutmeg and ginger, maintaining that freshness right to the end. Not quite there this time, but one to watch. Tasted May 2010.
2006 Kutjevo Grasevina Izborna Berba Prosusenih Bobica – 89
This has a lovely, well-defined nose which is more Muscat than Grasevina: acacia honey, orange-blossom, quince and almond. The palate has a slight nuttiness on the entry counterpoising the thick honeyed fruit, good weight, just a little cloying towards the finish but I like the purity on the smoky finish. Tasted May 2010
2007 Ilocki Podrumi Traminac Ledena Berba – 85
This Slavonian Gewurztraminer icewine has a lucid golden colour. The nose is fresh and lifted with pineapple, honey, tangerine and lemon zest: good definition. The palate is well defined on the entry, very pure with lychee, pineapple and honey, but loses its way towards the finish, fading far too rapidly. Tasted May 2010.
2008 Mladina Traminac Ledena Berba – ?
Strange fruit salad nose, cloying palate dominated by residual sugar. Undrinkable. Tasted May 2010.
2008 Agrolaguna Muscat Ruza – ?
Weird nose of a Hornby train set: very metallic. That palate is barely drinkable, completely out of balance and volatile. Tasted May 2010.
2007 Bodren Chardonnay TBA – 83
From northwest Croatia, this Chardonnay TBA style wine is rather cloying on the nose: saccharine, unclean with some odd damp moss notes. The palate is better, cleaner and crisper on the honeyed entry but the finish is lacking purity and poise. Tasted May 2010.
2008 Bodren Cuvee Ice Wine – 88
This has a fresh, honeyed nose with acacia, honeysuckle and a touch of quince: good definition and purity. The palate has a honeyed entry with good acidity, nice sense of tension here with quince, peach and marmalade, very fine focus on the finish, not complex but certainly a level above other Croatian ice wines. Tasted May 2010.
2008 Tomac Riesling – 87
This sweet Riesling has a touch of lime, orange peel and butter on the nose. Vibrant grapefruit and mango dominated palate that could do with more harmony, but it has good length and clarity. Fine. Tasted May 2010.
2007 Tomac Amfora – 90
From North Croatia, this Chardonnay (50%) sweetie is blended with local varieties from the Plesivica region. It has a fine minerally nose with limestone, orange-blossom, lychee and gooseberry. Good definition. Ripe on the entry with touches of butterscotch, vanilla pod and frangipane. Very fine and intriguing. Tasted May 2010.
2006 Kabola Amfora – 90
This Malvasia from Istria has a light nose of honey, melted butter and nutmeg, succinct and well defined. A touch of dried honey on the entry, waxy texture, hints of lanolin and hazelnut, leading to weighty, dried fruit, nectarine and smoke tinged finish. Very natural. Excellent. Tasted May 2010.
2008 Clai Sveti Jakov – 89
An Istrian Malvasia with a very intriguing nose of dried honey, yellow flowers, musk and quince. For some reason, it brings to mind a perfume that my grandmother always wore (and nobody under the age of 70.) The palate is medium-bodied with a waxy entry, good acidity, dried fruit, nectarine, a touch of ginger and dried apricot. Nice weight and cohesion. Serve this slightly chilled.
Editor’s Note: With this report, Robert Parker’s influencial “Wine Advocate” journal has published its first-ever review of a selection of wines from Croatia. The report and subsequent scores were written and posted by Neal Martin of www.wine-journal.com and www.erobertparker.com and are reprinted here with permission. This is Part II of a series of posts from Mr. Martin’s report, presented here for informational purposes. The statements, suggestions and reviews contained herein are purely Mr. Martin’s work and are subject to copyright and may not be republished elsewhere without permission of the author.
Rights and Wrongs
This was not a disappointing showcase of Croatian wine, but it did highlight where winemakers are going right and where they are going wrong. It attested to a country with great potential, but empirically learning how to take their wines to ‘the next stage’ like New Zealand or Chile in the 1990s.
The main problem is alcohol levels.
I was astonished how many red wines topped the scales at over 15 degrees alcohol and yes, you could really feel that warmth and at times, that volatility. I initially conjectured that this was a stylistic choice on the part of the winemaker, however, the more I examined Croatia, the more I came to the conclusion that the problem maybe their indigenous grape varieties.
Wine writers constantly bang on about the need for countries to embrace their domestic grape varieties in order to counter the purported homogenization of global wine. I whole-heartedly agree with that principle. It is vital for wine regions to be proud of the winemaking heritage and a flagship grape variety come be a useful tool in promoting your wine in a vast ocean of Chardonnay or Cabernet.
There are two downsides.
Firstly, if grape varieties are nigh impossible to pronounce (how did you silently pronounce ‘Grk’ back there?) then this can deter consumers from dipping their toe in the water, particular on a restaurant list where there have to get their tongue around the name in front of a sommelier.
Secondly, there is the assumption that the domestic grape varieties are good by dint of them being…domestic.
What if they are not? Do you turn a blind eye?
You see, both Plavac Mali and Babic are naturally acidic grapes, the latter prone to vegetal notes if not fully ripe (much like Cabernet Franc.) This coerces winemakers to pick as late as possible and ferment the wines up to 15 or 16 degrees, which is completely understandable, but in many cases this precipitates unbalanced wines that I could not imagine drinking in any quantity. Consequently, Croatian winemakers are stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea: reduce alcohol and risk under-ripeness or maintain high alcohol and risk one hell of a hangover, potentially for both consumer and sales?
What is the solution to this?
For me, it is a simply a case of going back to basics, examining the optimal picking date more carefully, piecemeal analysis of the vineyard and its terroir, managing the fermentation more meticulously and I have to say, not being corralled into producing high alcohol wine or nothing. This will all come from deepening experience and empirical learning. They need to learn that masking under-ripeness with layers of new oak often renders a bland, characterless wine that could come from anywhere and says nothing about where it comes from. High alcohol wines can sometimes work but only if you cannot feel the alcohol and the wine is perfectly in balance.
On the positive side, I am convinced that Grasevina can produce fine white wine, indeed I fondly recall an impressive flight at the International Wine Challenge last April. Probably the best thing that anyone did was change the name and banish the associations we have with the much-derided Laski Rizling. Grasevina is easy to pronounce and provides a hook for some lovely, fresh, aromatic Croatian wines that perhaps need to work on their length: abundant flavour on the front palate but not the back-end to really make an impression. Growers need to watch those yields because they can engender bland, anonymous wines if not kept in check.
I sampled a flight of sweet Croatian wines at the end of the tasting. Some of them were simply too cloying, although I found much delight in those matured in amphora.
To sum up, perhaps I am being cruel to be kind. Croatia can potentially make outstanding wine. I get the sense that winemakers are still trying things out and seeing what works. Nothing wrong with that, but my role as a critic is to be candid and say where its strengths and weaknesses lie, rather than patronize them with pronouncements that they can take on the world. A small handful of these wines? Maybe. But some winemakers need to change their approach and in a lot of cases, not try so hard. Again, you have to distinguish between optimal and maximum oak, for they are not necessarily the same.
Another obstacle is prices. Many of the top wines are snapped up in Croatia and those that do make it over are not shy in charging a premium. Occasionally that premium is deserved, but persuading consumers to part with their hard earned cash for a Croatian Plavac Mali is not going to be easy (assuming that Croatian wine producers feel it necessary to develop export markets.)
It goes without saying that I will discover more when I actually visit the country. This simply serves as an introduction. The islands such as Hvar and Korcula are reputed for their high-class wines and it is only a matter of time before I discover them. In the meantime, I leave with the tasting notes that I have collated as per region. You will see that I have kept the Croatian spelling of grape varieties, after all that is what you will probably see on the bottle. In the meantime, here are a few wines that caught my eye…