Croatia – Land of Malvazija

 

photo courtesy of http://www.mastersofwine.org

 

By Julia Harding MW

Reprinted with kind permission from the author, courtesy of www.jancisrobinson.com

Photos by Cliff Rames (unless otherwise credited)

 

 Croatian wine is making a concerted effort to reach UK wine glasses. Last month, the Fine Wine Croatia group, around 30 producers working together, came to London to show their wares.

The wines had been carefully selected to avoid overwhelming UK journalists and other members of the wine trade with too many different indigenous varieties, which I found pretty frustrating as I would have preferred to have tasted a little more widely, although the proliferation of wines made from Malvazija Istarksa (or Malvasia Istriana), the most widely planted white variety that makes up about 10% of the Croatian vineyard area (total c 32,500 ha/80,310 acres) and about 60% of the plantings in Istria, did show, for example, just how many different styles of wine can be made from it, even among the dry wines. On the whole, based on this tasting, I’d say that Malvazija Istarksa has greater potential for quality than Graševina (aka Welschriesling).

It is extremely difficult to summarise a country’s wines when the regions and winemaking styles are so diverse and when winemakers are testing international markets, but I found the more distinctive whites, generally those made from Malvazija Istarska but also the single example of Pošip, fell somewhere between Friuli and Slovenia in overall character, with a touch of Hungary thrown in – plenty of extract (like Riesling) and with a spectrum of flavours that ranged from crisp and mineral/non-fruity via fresh and more herbal to the weightier more textured wines. The acidity was generally fresher than in other varieties I have come across that share the Malvasia name, in Italy and Greece, for example.

Among the reds, I preferred the wines made from or based on Teran to those made from Plavac Mali, though it is clear to see that for these distinctive dark-skinned varieties, full grape maturity is essential and not always achieved in either – to avoid green flavours in the former and astringent tannins in the latter. According to Ivica Matošević, site selection and green harvesting are critical for Teran (also known as Refosco d’Istria but not the same variety as Italy’s Refosco dal Pedunculo Rosso) to control the variety’s natural tendency towards high yields and consequent poor ripening. This is why he currently blends Teran with Merlot, though he now has some better sited vines that he hopes will produce the sort of fruit he is looking for. 

Overall, the reds, especially the more interesting ones based on indigenous varieties, seemed to be more of a work in progress than the whites – or perhaps I just mean that they were very ‘local’ in style – lots of character, a bit up and down in quality, and often needing just a touch more refinement (in terms of refining the fruit rather than ironing out the character). Rather like untamed northern Italians or some corners of south-western France.

I’d particularly like to have tasted more wines from the white-skinned Pošip variety and from the dark-skinned Babić. 

This time last year, Richard Hemming visited Croatia and reported on his findings in Richard goes to Croatia. See that article for more background on the landscape, including pictures.

The wines are grouped by variety (or by colour where there weren’t many examples) and alphabetically by producer (sur)name within those groups. Here and more generally in the tasting notes database, we have English translations for the regions of origin that would be too opaque for anyone not familiar with Croatian (eg Western Istria instead of Zapadna Istra), but we have kept the Croatian names for subregions such as Kutjevo.

MALVAZIJA ISTARSKA

Benvenuti Malvazija Istarska 2008 Central Istria 15 Drink 2009-2010
Green fruit – greengage. Light and dry and fresh but rather slight. (JH) 13.4%

Clai Bijele Zemlje, Sveti Jakov Malvazija Istarska 2008 Western Istria 17 Drink 2011-2015
Deep gold, delicate floral honey. Gentle peach and apricot. So much more elegant than the Kabola Amfora. Fresh, fine grip, dried apricot. Zesty, tangy, intense and long. Full of life and alcohol not particularly intrusive. (JH) 15.1%

Clai Sveti Jakov (photo courtesy of Clai winery)

Coronica Malvazija Istarska 2009 Western Istria 16 Drink 2010-2011
Lemony, a little grassy/herbal. Sour and stony in a fine textural way. Has that delicate graininess of so many Italian whites. Tight and fresh. Invigorating. (JH) 13.6%

photo courtesy of Coronica winery

Kabola, Amfora Malvazija Istarska 2006 Western Istria 16 Drink 2009-2012
Deep gold, honeyed, very spiced. Intense, dry, a bit harsh but you can’t ignore it! Probably needs food to tame it a little. (JH) 14.8%

Kozlović Malvazija Istarska 2009 Western Istria 16 Drink 2010-2011
Lemony, orange peel, pretty aromatic. Taut and crisp and a fine sour finish. Straightforward and refreshing. Something slightly smoky, almost coffee like. (JH) 13.6%

Kozlović, Santa Lucia Malvazija Istarska 2006 Western Istria 16 Drink 2009-2011
One year in barrique. Deeper gold than their unoaked, younger wine. Honeyed oranges. Intense, and smells as if there is botrytis there. Developed and oaky – oak pretty much obscures the variety. But the finish is very tangy and rich. Just a little too broad to be fine. Full of flavour though. High alcohol but not too intrusive. (JH) 15%

Kozlovic wines

Matić Malvazija Istarska 2008 Western Istria 16 Drink 2010-2011
Intensely herbal and grassy. Towards boxtree. More Sauvignon Blanc-like but there’s also a light and attractive peachiness. Crisp, clean and modern but less distinctive than some. (JH) 13.1%

Matošević, Alba Barrique Malvazija Istarska 2008 Western Istria 16.5 Drink 2010-2012
Pretty tight, some citrus, touch of creamy oak and oak sweetness on the palate. Fine boned, taut and zesty without that much fruit flavour but that same herbal note as in the unoaked wine. Oak is subtle and balanced and gives a creamy oatmeal palate. Elegant but less distinctive than the acacia-aged wine. (JH) 13.5%

Matošević, Alba Malvazija Istarska 2008 Western Istria 16 Drink 2010-2011
Fresh, lightish, subtle rather than neutral, some citrus, light herbs on the nose. Crisp, dry, tight and clean. Persistent though pretty linear. Mineral and long. (JH) 13.5%

Matosevic wines

Matošević, Alba Robinia Malvazija Istarska 2004 Western Istria 17 Drink 2006-2012
Keeps fresher in acacia barrels, apparently and it does seem younger. Really fine honeyed nose. Honeyed but not at all oxidised. Slight woody/cedary flavour on the palate. Reminds me a little of mature Chenin with a herbal element. Crisp and dry and rich in the mouth without any fat. (JH) 13.1%

Matošević, Grimalda 2008 Central Istria 16 Drink 2010-2011
50% Chardonnay, 25% Sauvignon Blanc, 25% Malvasia Istarska.
He did the blend because he found similar notes in the varieties – citrus, herbal, mint. Slight mintiness here. Very fresh, doesn’t have quite the subtlety of the varietal Malvasia Istarskas. (JH) 14%

Roxanich, Antica Malvazija Istarska 2007 Western Istria 17 Drink 2010-2013
Skin maceration) 80 days, aged in large wooden vats (70hl and 35hl) for 30 months, bottled without filtration.
Deep gold and bright. Some bruised apple notes, complex, rich, orange and apricot. Powerful, dry, very clean and refreshing even with that amount of tannin. Opens up to more perfume and herbs. Slight phenolic bitterness on the finish but it’s attractive if you are ready for it. Honeyed as it warms up. But still has good freshness. Highly distinctive in this line-up. (JH) 14.1%

Roxanich Antica

Trapan, Ponente Malvazija Istarska 2009 Western Istria 16.5 Drink 2010-2011
Very fresh and on the greener side of citrus. Mineral, dry, tight. Persistent and elegant. (JH) 13%

Trapan, Uroboros Malvazija Istarska 2008 Western Istria 16.5 Drink 2010-2013
70% aged in acacia, 30% in oak, for one year. Lightly smoky and honeyed but still that finely herbal citrus character. Well balanced and zesty. Full but not overblown. (JH) 13.6% 

 
 

Trapan Uroboros

GRAŠEVINA

Belje Graševina 2009 Baranja 16 Drink 2010-2011
Fresh and citrussy but tastes off dry and quite full in the mouth. And then a tart lemon finish. Modern, bright and clean. (JH) 14.1%

Belje, Goldberg Graševina 2008 Baranja 16 Drink 2010-2011
Much deeper gold. Not much on the nose – a touch of honey. Rich, slightly sour, off dry. Silky and fills the mouth. Apricot flavours. Slightly bitter on the finish but pure and dense. (JH) 14.8%

Feravino Graševina 2009 Feričanci 16.5 Drink 2010-2012
Fine limey Riesling nose, a little mineral. Dry, tight, fresh, clean and zesty. Fine and fresh. Tight and energetic with a light grapiness on the palate but mainly crisp citrus. Persistent too. (JH) 13.6%

Galić Graševina 2008 Kutjevo 15 Drink 2010-2011
Pretty neutral nose. More full bodied and richer than the Mihalj but still rather simple. (JH) 12.8%

Krauthaker Graševina 2009 Kutjevo 15.5 Drink 2010-2011
Slightly grassy. Like a dense Sauvignon Blanc. Crisp and fresh and modern. Citrus on the palate, dry and fresh. Slight phenolic dryness on the finish. (JH) 14%

Krauthaker, Mitrovac Graševina 2009 Kutjevo 15 Drink 2010-2011
More mineral than their straight Graševina and even a little smoky. Off dry, concentrated but a little harsh with a bitter aftertaste. Concentration is there but (tasted on the warm side) not much pleasure. (JH) 14.5%

Krauthaker

Kutjevo, De Gotho Graševina 2008 Kutjevo 15 Drink 2010-2011
Lemony Riesling nose. Mineral and citrus. Sort of woody (not oaky) on the palate though it is produced in stainless steel. Bitter aftertaste. (JH) 14% 

 
 
 
 

Kujevo de Gotho Grasevina

OTHER WHITES

Feravino Pinot Blanc 2008 Feričanci 16 Drink 2010-2011
10% fermented in barrique. Fresh, clean and dry and a fine example of the variety. A very slight textural grip and a depth unusual for Pinot Blanc. (JH)

Korta Katarina Pošip 2007 Korčula 17 Drink 2010-2012
Clean and delicately limey citrus. Rich and creamy and full bodied but with very good acidity. A distinctive variety. Fine grip but smooth. Rich, lightly honeyed, dense and powerful but still fresh. Complex, fresh, dry and long. (JH) 14.7%

photo courtesy of Korta Katarina winery

Kozlović Muškat Momjanski 2008 Western Istria 16.5 Drink 2010-2011
Labelled polusuhi, ie off dry. Intensely grapey floral nose. Rose petals too. With a fine tannic grip to freshen it up given the moderate acidity. Medium but not at all cloying with that slight phenolic structure. Highly aromatic – maybe OTT for some. (JH) 12.2%

Roxanich, Milva Chardonnay 2007 Western Istria 16.5 Drink 2010-2014
Deep gold. Shorter maceration than for the Malvazija Istarska. Slightly reductive, honeyed. Really nutty and full of flavour. Chardonnay but not as we know it. Quite tannic but not unnecessarily so. Fresh on the finish and very concentrated. A very distinctive style. (JH) 13.7%

Tomac Riesling 2008 Plešivica 15 Drink 2010-2012
Eyewatering acidity, peachy more than citrus on the nose. Rather severe. (JH) 13.3%

Tomac, Amfora 2007 Plešivica 15.5 Drink 2010-2012
50% Chardonnay plus about seven other locally grown varieties. Pale gold. Spicy orange and apricot. Not totally clean on the palate and rather astringent. Interesting rather than pleasurable. (JH) 12.5% 

 
 
 
 

photo courtesy of Tomac winery

TERAN

Arman Franc, Barrique Teran 2006 Western Istria 17 Drink 2009-2014
Very deeply coloured. Elegant and subtle dark fruit aroma. A touch smoky. Firm and juicy and dense. Firm but ripe tannnis. Finesse and freshness. Still so youthful. (JH) 12.5%

Arman Teran

Coronica, Gran Teran 2007 Western Istria 16 Drink 2010-2012
A little leafy, and pretty dry. Fresh but could perhaps do with a little more ripeness to balance the tannins? Very juicy and fresh and fruit gets sweeter at the end but tannins slightly prominent for its age and only moderate fruit weight. (JH) 13.5%

Istravino, Dajla Teran 2007 Western Istria 16.5 Drink 2010-2012
Leafy with both red and black fruit. Fine freshness, balance and good fruit. Not complex but a real whole and very youthful with a long fresh aftertaste. Tannins are present but add freshness rather than astringency. (JH) 12.5%

Istravino Dajla wines

Matošević, Grimalda 2008 Central Istria 16.5 Drink 2010-2012
85% Merlot, 15% Teran. Zesty and lightly peppered red fruit. Really juicy: dry and fresh and jumps out of the glass with energy. Structured without being tannic. Mouthwateringly fresh. (JH) 13.8%

Roxanich, RE Teran 2007 Western Istria 16.5+ Drink 2011-2015
Quite reductive at first on the nose. Very tight and fresh, maybe could do with a little more flesh but there is an elegance and a naturalness that shines through. Aged in big oak. Dry and demanding tannins but not harsh. Needs food. (JH) 13.4%

PLAVAC MALI

Korta Katarina, Reuben’s Private Reserve Plavac Mali 2006 Pelješac 15.5 Drink 2010-2013
Medium  garnet. Soft, sweet, Rioja-like nose. But then that grip! Firm and dry tannins but still has sweet juicy fruit. Food needed! (JH) 14.2%

Korta Katarina, Plavac Mali 2007 Pelješac 16 Drink 2011-2013
Bright mid garnet, wild red fruits, spicy, dry and tense. Tannins still have a firm grip and the texture is rustic but the flavour lively. (JH) 14.7%

Korta Katarina (Plavac Mali on right)

Miličić, Dingac Plavac Mali 2006 Pelješac 15.5 Drink 2010-2012
Quite perfumed, almost floral nose. Much softer than the Postup Mare wine. Smooth and flavourful though perhaps a little sweet-tasting on the finish (as opposed to savoury). (JH) 14.5%

Postup Mare Plavac Mali 2006 Pelješac 14 Drink 2012-2014
Odd and marked green bean nose, still very grippy tannins. No fun with high acid to exaggerate the tannins. Needs a good steak to make it more palatable but that wouldn’t really improve the aromas. (JH) 15%

Saint’s Hill, Dingač Plavac Mali 2007 Pelješac 16.5 Drink 2009-2013
Mid garnet. Sweet. soft, blueberry/blackberry fruit. Contrast between sweet almost toffeed fruit and dry but smooth/savoury tannins. Fresh and flavourful but a bit hot on the finish. Distincitve, a little rustic and then a sweet/sour aftertaste. (JH) 15.5%

Saints Hills Dingac

Zlatan, Barrique Plavac Mali 2007 Hvar 16 Drink 2011-2013
Bright mid garnet, wild red fruits, spicy, dry and tense. Tannins still have a firm grip and the texture is rustic but the flavour lively. (JH) 14.7%

Zlatan, Grand Cru Plavac Mali 2007 Hvar 17+ Drink 2012-2017
Mix of French and Slavonian oak. This is more selective than the Barrique version. Smoky, savoury nose. Powerful, dry and very fine fruit. Firm but not harsh tannins. Needs a lot more time but has all the components to age well. (JH) 14.5%

 
 

Zlatan Otok wines

OTHER REDS

Enjingi, Venje Barrique 2003 Kutjevo 14 Drink 2008-2011
Zweigelt, Crni Pinot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Frankovka blend. A slightly stinky reductive aroma. Then very sweet and a bit leafy. Very strange and too sweet-tasting. (JH) 14.2%

Feravino Frankovka 2008 Feričanci 16.5 Drink 2010-2012
Frankovka = Blaufränkisch. 50% new oak. Half French, half Slavonian. Pure sweet ripe red fruit. Distinctive fresh fruit with a lovely bite on the back palate, almost a note of citrus. Perhaps a little rustic but in an attractive characterful way. Zesty and fresh. (JH) 13.7%

Feravino Zweigelt 2008 Feričanci 15.5 Drink 2010-2012
Aged in Slavonian oak. Sweet coconut aroma on the nose with lots of dark berry fruit. Straightforward but that coconut sweetness is too much for my taste. (JH)

Galić Pinot Noir 2008 Kutjevo 14 Drink 2010-2011
Sweet fruit, a little toffeed and then hot on the finish. Fresh enough but not much fun. (JH) 13.5%

Roxanich, Superistrian 2006 Western Istria 17 Drink 2010-2015
Merlot 40%, Cabernet Sauvignon 40%, Borgonja (Gamay x Pinot) 20%. 36 months in big oak. You can certainly smell the cassis of the Cabernet here. Sweet dark fruit, a touch leafy, rich and dense and masses of fruit. Lovely freshness, very youthful, very clean and pretty sophisticated. Bright and healthy and youthful. (JH) 13.5%

Suha Punta Babić 2007 Primošten 16.5 Drink 2010-2012
Distinctive yet hard-to-describe aroma: peppery, dry and dense. Seems to have quality potential. Spicy and tense and yet has lovely crunchy berry fruit. Bags of flavour with that peppery aftertaste. I’d like to taste some more examples of this variety. (JH) 14%

Gracin wines (photo courtesy of http://www.secretdalmatia.com)

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Winemaking on Hvar: From Ancient Greece Until Now (Part II)

 

 

 

 

Text by Ivana Krstulović Carić, dipl.ing.agr.

Edited by Cliff Rames, Wines of Croatia

Photos by Ivana Krstulović Carić (unless otherwise noted)

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While the diseases and pests that attacked Hvar’s vineyards and wrecked the island’s economy were eventually conquered, viticulture as a way of life never fully recovered to its previous level of importance. Total vineyard acreage fell by over 2,000 hectares to 3,500 hectares under vine. The economic and social impact would be felt for decades to come, resulting in a further decline in production as many residents of the islands (including Hvar) abandoned their vineyards and homes to go abroad to seek work and a means of steady income.  

photo by Cliff Rames

However, a local family, led by Niko Duboković Nadalini – a powerful ship and land owner, winemaker and the mayor of Jelsa – spearheaded an effort to restore the vineyards of Hvar. They introduced modern method of grafting grapes onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks and shared the technology with local wine growers. Their winery in Zavala* earned numerous world-class wine awards in those times.

Grafted young vine on Hvar (photo by Cliff Rames)

Yet after the nationalization* initiatives of the early 20th century, their winery was abandoned. Today most of their vineyards are overgrown with pine trees and macchia*, although certain sections have recently been replanted with young vines by local winemaking families, such as the Carić family in Zavala and Zlatan Plenković.

Zavala

World War I brought the Italian occupation of Hvar, during which time the Croatian language and culture were suppressed. Soon thereafter Hvar was absorbed into the newly-founded Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians, which later became the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

The Great Depression (1929-1932) had an obviously negative impact on wine production, and many winemakers and co-operatives, because of large debts, imploded and ceased to exist. As a result, the local population set off on another large exodus to distant countries such as the USA, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand and Australia, where they hoped to find new lives and jobs.

Today you can still find living witnesses of this hard time. My grandmother, Danica, still recalls her mother’s sad sighs while she was baking bread. “A board of bread, one hectoliter of wine”, she would say. This meant that to buy 20kg of flour, one had to sell 100 liters of wine. 

Modern mechanization, vehicles and roads were unheard of in these times. In order to reach the vineyards on the south slopes of Hvarske Plaže and the wine cellars of Ivan Dolac, wine-growers were required to climb over steep heights of Vorh Mountain.

The summit of Hvar island

It is interesting to note that before the arrival of phylloxera, mostly white indigenous grapes were grown on the south slopes of Hvar: Bogdanuša, Mekuja, Parč, Kurtelaška, Vugava. Only later did Plavac Mali, the most widely-planted red grape in Dalmatia, come to dominate and prevail in the area. 

Plavac Mali grapes (photo by Cliff Rames)

Up until World War II, every town on the south side of the island had its own quay where boats would dock to buy wine. Traders would visit wine sellers, sample the wines and set their prices. The price of wines from Hvarske Plaže was always significantly higher than those from the north side of the island where the grapes were of lower quality and sugar levels. 

 

Transporting the wine from the cellars to the boats was a challenge due to the steep slopes. Donkeys often bore the burden of carting the wine from villages situated far from the sea to the docks. Once at the sea, the traders would fill wooden barrels with the wine and then throw them into the sea, where they were picked up by the boats.

 

Sometime after World War II, Peroslav Carić (Slavko) noticed a new invention – rubber hoses – while visiting a marketplace, and he purchased some 2000 meters of hose. His idea to use the hose for pumping wine from the seaside stone reservoirs into the barrels was a success, and he soon offered his service to all the  villages on the south side of Hvar, as well as a few on the island of Brač. 

Pitve–Zavala tunnel

With the building of the Pitve–Zavala tunnel in the early 1960s, life became easier for the locals, who no longer had to each make wine in their own cellars and then transport it to the buys. Instead they transported the grapes through the tunnel to the big wineries on the north side of Vorh Mountain for processing. 

But this progress was not necessarily good news. The large wineries, such as Hvarske Vinarije, Dalmacijavino, and VinoProdukt (today the cooperative Svirče), shifted into quantitative winemaking. Quality diminished but was offset by positive developments regarding modernization and better organization of production, brands and sales.

Svirče cooperative (photo by Cliff Rames)

Thanks to the hard work of Ivo Politeo, Hvar achieved its first wine with Protected Geographical Origin status, “Faros”, which was produced by Dalmacijavino from locally indigenous Plavac Mali grapes from the south slopes of Hvar. This is Croatia’s second wine with protected status, the first being Dingač from Pelješac.

 

The era of Socialism brought further degradation of quality and the number of acres under vine, due to the disparaging attitude towards agriculture and farmers.

Today it is estimated that there are only 300-500 hectares of vineyards on Hvar, a huge decline from the 5,750 hectares of the mid 19th century. However, a reassessment of current vineyard acreage is underway, which will hopefully provide more precise data about present day viticulture.

Vineyards on upper south-facing slopes (photo by Cliff Rames)

When faced with the global economic problems of the present day, we can’t help but wonder what kind of a future awaits us.  One thing is clear: we should endeavor to preserve the things most dear to us – our heritage and our vineyards – because crises come and go. Vineyards do not grow overnight.

We must learn from the mistakes of our past. Ironically, the vineyards that my family cultivates today were purchased by Ljubo Carić, my husband’s father, even though the same land was once owned by his father, Juraj Carić.  In fact, when widowed with six children, my husband’s grandfather sold all his lands on the prime southern slopes to buy land on the north side of Vorh Mountain, which he thought would be easier to work. 

Vineyards in Svirče, north side of tunnel (photo by Cliff Rames)

Unfortunately, he lost almost all the value of his investments and savings when the Austrian Crown (currency at the time) was converted to the Yugoslavian Dinar. He never accomplished his dream of growing quality grapes in his new vineyards.

Note: More about the development of wine production on Hvar and the relationships between local winemakers will be covered in subsequent articles. Stay tuned!

Postscript from the editor: On May 31, 2010, the winemakers of Hvar joined together to establish their own representative association (“udruga”). Elected to be president of the Association of Hvar Winemakers is Mr. Andro Tomić of Bastijana winery in Jelsa. Marija Gabelić was chosen as vice president, and the author of this article, Ivana Krstulović Carić, will serve as secretary. The association’s mission will be to promote Hvar as a wine destination, revitalize abandoned vineyards, and protect & promote native grape varieties.

 
 

Andro Tomić (left), Bastijana winery (photo by Cliff Rames)

* Key to Terms in the Article:

Stari Grad: the “old town” on Hvar, also known as Pharos.

Neretvans: Citizens of the Principality of Neretva (7th century). Neretva is a river valley and its surrounding delta area in south Dalmatia, Croatia.

Svirče, Sveta Nedilja, Jelsa, Vrboska, Stari Grad, Hvar, Zavala: Towns on the island of Hvar.

Hvarske Plaže or Plaže: a sub-appellation on the island of Hvar – considered the best on the island. Translated as “Hvar’s Beaches” or simply “Beaches”. The name came from the fact that the vineyards are located on slope above gravel beaches of Hvar’s south shore.

Nationalization: The act of seizing land or other private property and converting it into public ownership, as occurred during the communist years when Croatia was part of former Yugoslavia.

Macchia: Scrub land biome in the Mediterranean region.

Link to original article in Croatian: http://www.supermarketi.info/index.php?mod=intervju&interId=11

 

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Winemaking on Hvar: From Ancient Greece Until Now (Part I)

 

 

 

 

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Text by Ivana Krstulović Carić, dipl.ing.agr.

Edited by Cliff Rames, Wines of Croatia

Photos by Ivana Krstulović Carić (unless otherwise noted)

 

Since the arrival of Greek colonists in 385 B.C., the Dalmatian island of Hvar, Croatia has endured many changes. Rulers, empires and foreign armies have come and gone. Today the marks and scars of these events remain a part of the island’s cultural-historical identity and economic position in the region, and the ethnic composition of the island reflects the genetic patchwork left behind by the influx of settlers over time.

But one thing remains virtually unchanged. This is a tale about the continuity of winegrowing and winemaking on Hvar, which has survived the many rises and falls caused by wars, social unrest, vineyard scourges, and economic hardship.   

In the beginning, From the Aegian island of Paros the Greeks brought grapevines and planted them in the fields of Stari Grad, thus establishing the island’s first vineyards.  The Greeks then divided the fields of Stari Grad*, also known as Ager (originally named Chora) into 73 equal parcels and allocated them to the local settlers.  

The fields of Stari Grad
One year after their arrival, a conflict between the Greek settlers and the local Illyrian tribes broke out. With the help of Dionysius I of Syracuse’s fleet (winner in the war against Carthage and ruler of Sicily), the Greeks were able to defeat the Illyrians and strengthen their hold on the island. 

According to Roman historian, Appian, the Illyrian mainland tribes considered wine from Hvar a valuable commodity. Clay amphora bearing the seal of Pharos, which were recently excavated near the Neretva River in southern Dalmatia, affirms the importance of wine in the cultural-historic lifestyle of the region.

Greek amfora

During the time of Demetrius of Hvar, a great soldier and confidant to Queen Teuta of Illyria, Hvar returned to Illyrian rule. 

In the 2nd century B.C. the Romans conquered Hvar and brought with them the methods to improve the local production of wine. The Romans built many villae rusticae in the fields of Stari Grad and elsewhere on the island, where the owners would reside for the greater part of the year. 

Remains of villae rusticae at Kupinovnik, Stari Grad fields, Hvar (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

During this time, in the city of Salona, the capital of the Roman region of Dalmatia, a Christian group was founded and guided by Domnius of Antioch (better known locally as Saint Duje). Since Hvar was a major port between Salona and major cities of the Mediterranean, the teachings of the Christian Gospel quickly spread among the islanders, an influence that remains today.

Roman ruins at Salona, Croatia (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

After the fall of Salona (7th century A.D.), some of the city resident fled to the islands, subsequently followed by the Slavic tribe, the Croats. The Croats soon adopted the traditions and winemaking skills that would sustain the continuity of grape cultivation and wine production until the present day.

During the Middle Ages, Hvar was subjected to a revolving door of rulers: the Neretvans*, Croatian kings, Byzantine, Hungarian, Croatian-Hungarian kings, and finally the Venetian Republic all took their turns. 

Despite all the turmoil, vine cultivation and winemaking endured and continued to be the backbone of the local economy. In the Middle Ages, two-thirds of arable land was owned by the Hvar Commune, and the remaining third belonged to royalty and the Church. 

Stari Grad fields

Public lands were offered for rent to the workers, royalty and the Church. Strict rules governed the division of property and the payment of land rent. Grape growers were required to pay 1/6 of the yield to the royalty and the Church. Discontent led to unrest, and under the leadership of Matija Ivanić, a civil uprising (1510-1514) broke out. The mission: to secure equality between the common folk and the royalty.

The uprising was followed by a period of Turkish incursions. The Turks raze the towns of Hvar, Stari Grad and Vrboska. Turkish invasions all along the coast led to demographic changes, as a large number of Croats from the Neretva region and the Makarska coast fled to Hvar in search of safety.

Hvar eventually came under control of the Venetians and continued to develop – despite ups and downs – as an economic center of Dalmatia. Wine exports were the leading source of revenue, although Hvar was also well known for its production and export of dried figs, olive oil, almonds, carob and other Mediterranean produce.

Photo by Peter Higgins, http://www.Art.com

In the time leading up to the mid-19th century, Hvar was again subject to periodic regime change, coming under control of the Austrians and subsequently the French (beginning of the 19th century). It also came under attack by the British and Russians, during which time commerce was interrupted and the local economy stagnated.

Austria again gained control of Hvar in the middle of the 19th century. As a result, Hvar gained access to new markets in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which boosted the importance and production of wine.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the scourges of phylloxera, peronospera (downy mildew) and oidium (powdery mildew), devastated and ruined the vineyards of France and Western Europe. Wine from Dalmatia suddenly came under higher demand, prompting the residents of Hvar to expand their vineyard holdings to 5,750 hectares. With the increased production and revenues, many wine-growers enlarged their homes and converted the ground floors into wine cellars. The future suddenly seemed bright, and Hvar enjoyed newfound prosperity.

Grapevine under attack by Phylloxera

To minimize the power of and offset any threat from the buyers and traders, many of the smaller local wine growers decided to organize themselves into the first island cooperatives. One such cooperative, Svirče *, remains today.

photo by Cliff Rames

But the unfortunate cycles of history soon took a turn, and the economic boon turned into catastrophe. The Wine Clause, a mandate that allowed Austria to import cheaper wines from Italy, forced a drastic and devastating 350-500% decrease in the price of Hvar’s wines.

If that were not enough, the vineyards of Dalmatia – including Hvar – were also attacked by peronospera and oidium, followed in 1909 by the ravaging effects of phylloxera. The glory days of viticulture on Hvar seemed to die a slow death, leaving the population without the means to earn a living, and the local economy teetered on the verge of collapse.

A record of these dark days is still visible, engraved in 1901 in a stone panel on the chapel in the village of Ivan Dolac*, which says:

In honor of the Mother of God, this Church was built by Ivan Carić of the late Juraj.  Since 1852 oidium and peronospera have ruined the grapes. These were hard times.  Root pests came from Zadar, and the vines whithered.  In fear we await our doom.  My People! Devastated by this affront from God, heed the Virgin Mother Mary.  And may God protect us from these three evils.

 (To be continued…)

Link to original article in Croatian: http://www.supermarketi.info/index.php?mod=intervju&interId=11

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The Donkey Delivers: Dingač Plavac Mali “Kolekcija 04”

Facing the blue, blue Adriatic Sea, the sun-drenched limestone karst slopes of the Pelješac peninsula are a sight to see: tumble-down white stones and jagged outcrops lie interspersed with olive trees, drought-stricken Mediterranean scrub brush (rosemary, thyme, oregano, curry-plant) and perilously-perched and un-trellised vineyards.

Dingač vineyards

Welcome to Dingač (“Ding-gahch”), the most prestigious of all Croatia’s wine regions, where Croatia’s most revered – and eponymously-named – wine is made from Plavac Mali, Croatia’s most-cultivated red grape variety.   

 

History

Croatia – especially the coastal region and islands – has a cultural history that for centuries has revolved around the traditions of viticulture and wine-drinking. Historical records indicate that grapes were cultivated in the area as early as a few centuries before Christ. Wine jugs (amphora), goblets and coins adorned with grape motifs excavated in the region reveal the integral importance of wine in daily ancient life. The earliest written mention of the Plavac Mali grape was in 1821.

Old vine Plavac Mali at Dingač

Today, Plavac Mali vines of a hundred or more years old can still be found scattered throughout the region.

 The Region

In 1961 Dingač became Croatia’s first recognized appellation with “Protected Geographical Origin” (followed in 1967 by a neighboring area, Postup).

 

Dingač is a small, dangerously steep area of vineyards interspersed on the south-facing slopes of Pelješac, a long, mountainous peninsula that stretches almost 40 miles (63 km) into the Adriatic Sea just north of the historic walled city, Dubrovnik, in the Southern Dalmatia wine region.

photo courtesy of http://www.BlueDanubeWine.com

The vineyards are only accessible via a single-lane, unlit tunnel excavated in 1973. While driving through it, I found myself praying against earthquakes. But that’s another story…

The Dingač Tunnel

While an exact size of the Dingač appellation is uncertain due to the fragmented way the vineyards are planted, it is estimated that the total area under vine is no larger than 200 acres (80 hectares), with most individual plots consisting of just a couple acres each scattered across the mountainside. 

The Wine

Dingač – the wine – is made from the primary native red grape of the region, Plavac Mali, a grape that resulted from a spontaneous crossing of Crljenak Kaštelanski (Zinfandel) and Dobričić.

 

With the vines positioned at 20-34 degree angles toward in the hot Mediterranean sun, Plavac Mali from the Dingač slopes achieves extreme ripeness from direct sunlight, as well as light reflected off the white stones and sparkling sea. The extreme light, heat and summer drought conditions frequently cause the berries to shriveled and raisin.

Plavac Mali vines in September

Wines from these intensely sweet, prime grapes can be big and luxurious, delivering dark, dried-fruit flavors on an off-dry to dry, tannic, full-bodied and often alcoholic frame. These are among some of the most expensive cult wines in Croatia.

The Dingač Winery

While some of the most highly regarded Dingač wines are made by small, family-owned wineries (e.g. Bura; Miličić), the biggest and best-known winery in the area is Vinarija Dingač, a cooperative owned by Badel 1862 that produces about half a million liters of wine a year.

Vinarija Dingač

The large winery can be seen just to the left of the entrance of the Dingač tunnel. Its line-up includes five Plavac Mali wines: the basic “Plavac”, the young, fruity and off-dry “Pelješac”, “Postup”, “Dingač”, and “Dingač Kolekcija”. These labels are commonly – and sometimes affectionately – referred to as the “donkey” wines.

 

The Donkey

In the old days, local vineyard workers would utilize horses and donkeys to tend the vineyards on the Dingač slopes, as well as to cart the grapes to Potomje, the town on the opposite side of the mountain where the Vinarija Dingač stands today. While beasts of burden are no longer used to harvest grapes at Dingač, the donkey is still a common sight: on the labels of Vinarija Dingač wines.

“Kolekcija 04”  

Last Sunday, Easter 2010, I treated myself to a bottle of Vinarija Dingač “Kolokcija | 04”, the winery’s rarest and most expensive bottling. The “04” designates the year in which the wine was bottled; the vintage was 2002, meaning the wine was aged in barrel for two years.  My bottle was numbered #821 of 16,100 bottles (500 ml size) produced.

 

Medium garnet in color, the wine was translucent and beautiful in appearance – like a ruby that has collected the light of an orange setting sun.

 

Even more striking was the nose: the wine cast off aromas like a series of veils shed by a beautiful princess: aromas of dried fig, rosehip preserves, plum and carob were lifted on a cloud of menthol vapor that carried hints of licorice, wet iron, old wood, and sweet Mediterranean spices. So refined, elegant and pretty -I was in love and couldn’t stop sniffing its perfume. Even more amazing, I could detect the aromas leaping from the glass from half a meter away.

 

On the palate the wine delivered an interesting array of sensations: elegant yet rustic, sweet yet savory, it tasted of dried dark fruits, cured meat, and licorice bark couched in a mineral-driven frame with soft, smooth tannins. The long finish left a Port-like sweetness (the wine is dry) that was completely and utterly delicious.

At 13.5% alcohol, the donkey delivers the goods. Very impressive!  

 

Pair with aged hard cheeses and a few very special friends.

While “Kolokcija | 04” is not imported in the US, the other wines in Vinarija Dingač’s line-up are. You can find them via www.BlueDanubeWine.com (west coast) and http://oenocentric.com/ (east coast).

Text and photos by Cliff Rames (except where indicated)

Related Posts:

https://winesofcroatia.wordpress.com/2009/12/21/a-taste-of-dalmatia-%E2%80%93-without-leaving-home/

https://winesofcroatia.wordpress.com/2010/02/11/wine-chocolate-can-bura-dingac-find-true-love-this-valentines-day/

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The 1985 Dingač

Tasting Plešivica: From Above & Below (Part 2 – Tomac)

Tomislav Tomac is an intense fellow. A trained enologist, he oversees the winery with his father, Zvonimir, and lovely wife, Martina. From our first handshake forward his restrained passion, precise sense of purpose, and deep devotion to achieving authenticity in his wine captured my imagination.

Tomac Winery

The Tomac family has been making wine in Plešivica for over 200 years, riding the currents of history through good and bad times, to emerge – somewhat ironically – as a pioneering force of traditional winemaking in the present-day Croatian wine scene.

With 5.5 hectares of vineyards, and production of 40,000 bottles a year, Tomac is a relatively small producer. Yet his ambitions loom large, inciting curiosity and respect among some, and raising brows among others. It was in this spirit that he recently decided to discontinue production of his much-loved basic Chardonnay (the Chardonnay Premier will continue to be produced only in the best vintage years) to make room for a new and completely different wine (more on that in a moment) that may not have as wide an appeal.

Traditional Oak Casks

Listening to Tomislav explain why he doesn’t own a single stainless steel tank (he ferments most of his wines in giant oak casks in the traditional manner), and how he uses only native yeasts, and how his vineyards harbor an array (over 4,000 vines) of ancient indigenous grape varieties from the Plešivica wine region, I couldn’t help but notice how he rarely stops moving and fussing about, his eyes frequently darting around the room, his presence marked by a sort of heightened awareness and kinetic energy that seemed to be infused with a mix of excitement, anxiety, annoyance and impatience.

But I was about to learn, on the contrary, just how patient he is.

While best known in Croatia for sparkling wines (“Millennium”, “Tomac Classic” “Tom” and “Rosé”), and excellent white wines (Chardonnay Premier, Graševina, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc), the wine I came to taste wasn’t in any vat, barrel, or bottle – it wasn’t even in the winery. Few people outside the family had ever tasted it. News of its existence was hushed and shrouded in mystery. This wine, the first ever of its type produced by Tomac, was buried in the ground in the yard.

Tasting Room, Tomac Winery

But I would have to wait to find out more. The perfect hosts that they are, Tomislav and Martina insisted that I eat lunch with them first: delicious roast veal that was until recently (I was told) happily grazing on grasses in the neighbor’s field. There were potatoes and vegetables from the family garden. Bread freshly baked by a relative. Locally-made cheese. And of course a fine selection of wines made from grapes that grow just up the hill from where we were sitting.

The Slow Food movement is nothing new in Plešivica: it is a traditional way of life.

In between chewing and chatting, we tasted the core Tomac line-up: the “Classic” sparkling wine and Sauvignon Blanc served as perfect aperitifs, the Classic showing yeasty apple and citrus notes, and the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc delivering a fruity (mango and peach), mineral quality with a subtle note of yellow flowers. The 2008 Riesling (fermented in wood) was fragrant with unusual aromas of strawberry and banana and a haunting note of spice – nutmeg, perhaps.

The 2005 Chardonnay Premier Sur Lie was perfect with the milky veal and roasted potatoes, offering a creamy pear and butterscotch profile couched in a rich, buttery texture kept lively by zesty acidity.

Eager with anticipation I stopped chewing and nodded a smile when Tomislav finally said, with a sudden gleam in his eye, the magic words: “Would you like to try the Amfora?”

Again I was reminded that there are no stainless steel tanks at the Tomac winery, just giant oak vats and an assortment of small barrels and casks.  And starting with the 2007 vintage,  six clay amphora (“amfora”) fermentation vessels joined the ranks.  Tomislav and his father had traveled to the Republic of Georgia, where they met with the makers of these antiquated pieces of winemaking history, and shipped six of them back to Croatia. Inside these vessels, now buried in the ground just beyond the winery parking lot, approximately 20,000 liters of Tomac Amfora wine waited to emerge from its dark seclusion.

Tomislav & the Amphora

Tomislav disappeared from the room for a few minutes and came back with an unlabeled, clear bottle, filled with beautiful amber-colored nectar. I felt nervous and honored to behold it at last. My mouth was watering.

“Here it is; still a little young”, he said rather sheepishly. “We’ll bottle it in a few weeks.”

Tomac Amfora is made using winemaking methods that date back 5,000 years – and recently made famous by Josko Gravner (a good friend of the Tomac family).  The must is fermented for 6 months in hand-made clay amphora buried underground.  During the first four weeks of fermentation, the must is stirred on a daily basis to ensure maximum skin contact and extraction.  After four weeks the amphora are sealed and no further human intervention occurs until 6 months later, when the wine is moved into oak barrels, where it will spend another 1.5 years.

Wine at rest, Tomac cellar

The wine Tomislav poured into my glass was the first result of that wait. Made primarily from Chardonnay (50%), Amfora also includes a field blend of grape varieties that are traditional in the Plešivica region: Graševina, Roter Veltliner, Plavec žuti, Sylvaner, Neuburger, Kraljevina and štajerska Belina.

Unusually beautiful in color and aroma, the Amfora offered a seductive bouquet of primary and tertiary aromas that were all at once alluring, haunting and comforting: warm winter spices, caramel, wet terra cotta, orange blossoms, ripe pear and apple, and a distinctive Sherry-like oxidative note. On the palate it was zesty and dry with a powerful acidity that strips the palate clean with every sip. Yet I didn’t find the wine to be astringent; in fact, it was soft – almost oily – on the finish, with a long spiced orange, stewed apple, and almond aftertaste.

Photo curtesy of http://www.jutarnji.hr

Like its historical pedigree implies, the Tomac Amfora is a wine for the ages. I expect that this wine will last for decades in the bottle and become richer, more seductive, complex and beautiful with age. Shouldn’t we all be so lucky?

Ah yes, how sweet it is to be around at that moment when the old becomes new again; when something beautiful that was forgotten is found again; when traditional ways suddenly seem “cool” to modern minds. I left Tomac winery feeling happy and excited about the future of wine in Croatia, and as I drove away I remembered that old quote from Victor Hugo: “God made only water, but man made wine.”

Divers in the Adriatic Sea sometimes find old amphora vessels that the Romans once used for wine. Elsewhere in our day, arguments brew over the merits of screw caps versus corks, plastic versus glass versus bag-in-the-box, and French versus American versus Hungarian or Slavonian oak (let’s not mention oak chips). Through all of this, as the centuries pass us by, one thing stands true: great wine happens when that perfect balance is struck between nature giving us her best efforts, and the winemaker knowing when to intercede and – most importantly – when to back-off and wait.

The Tomac 2007 Amfora is a charming example of when that happens. Great job, guys.

Note: The Tomac 2007 Amfora will make one of its first public appearances at the upcoming Zagreb Wine Gourmet Festival in Zagreb, Croatia on February 12 & 13, 2010. More info here: http://zagrebwinegourmet.com/

Text and Photos by Cliff Rames (except where noted), www.WinesofCroatia.com

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