Debit, a white variety native to Croatia’s Dalmatian coast between the cities of Šibenik and Zadar, was once considered a workhorse grape of great proficiency, so much so (the story goes) it gained its nom de plume during the Napoleonic Era when Dalmatian land owners would barter and pay off their tax debts with their crop instead of coin. This was possible because debit, when unmanaged in the vineyard and left to its own devices, will produce high yields (and consequently simple, one-dimensional wine). So, debit’s proficiency and reliability served the locals well during the Napoleonic era–and later through the 20th century during Croatia’s time as one of the republics in Yugoslavia, when Socialist-style cooperatives demanded quantity over quality.
One of the many things that delight me on warm sunny days is the moment I crack open a cold, thirst quenching bottle of white wine, preferably out on a veranda or beach. The way it refreshes and revives my spirit is like daybreak itself. Or a walk in a spring flower garden. Or a tantalizing dip in the cool waters of a favorite lake or sea.
Simple pleasures, for sure. If anyone ever asks you about the meaning of life, you tell them that. It’s all about simple pleasures. And being kind to each other….
Back to wine. There are of course so many delicious bottles from which to choose. Such multitudes in fact that I can never adequately answer that oft-asked (and maddening) question: What is your favorite? Preferences abound for sure, from earthy reds to cheeky rosés to funky orange wines. But when the sultry days of summer strike, white cold n’ crispy is how I like them. Albariño, Chablis, chenin blanc, dry riesling, Sancerre, Santorini, and Vinho Verde are all companions who chill with me on boozy flip-flop days.
Yet in life there are casual friends who pop in and out of your life, perhaps bringing zippy moments of pleasure, fun and good times. More often than not they are unremarkable encounters that leave no lasting mark. For instance that certain $9 bottle I consumed a few evenings ago. What was it again?
Then there are dear old friends. The proverbial best buds and soul mates. Stalwart bonds that endure through thick and thin in the intimate places of your heart and mind, even when communication and visitations are missed for long periods of time.
Among these old friends I count many Croatian wines. Together we share a sweet history, know each others’ secrets, our moments of silliness and celebration, sadness and humiliation. Side-by-side we’ve experienced triumph and failure, been inspired to laughter and dance, been comforted in tears and heartbreak. And we go on loving each other even when times are tough and bottles get broken.
One of these darlings is malvazija istarska – or malvasia istriana.
Like albariño is to the seaside shores of Galicia in Spain, malvazija is the signature white wine of Istria, an axe-shaped peninsula that slices into the Adriatic Sea along Croatia’s northern coast. Here malvazija vineyards stand like sentinels not far from the rugged, salty shore and then majestically rise up the pastoral highlands of the interior, where they thrive alongside acacia trees, olive groves, and truffle oak forests in the region’s patchwork of red, white, brown and grey soils – each to subtly different effect.
Despite the name that would place the variety among the branches of the very large malvasia bianca family tree, malvazija istarska is specific to Istria, although the variety can also be found in the neighboring Koper appellation in Slovenia, as well as in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia area of Italy.
Malvazija ranks as Croatia’s second most planted wine grape variety. Because it has a tendency to over crop, malvazija can yield insipid, uninteresting wines (as was the case for many years during the era of Socialsim). Drought or extreme heat can quickly cause the delicate fruit flavors to mute, sugars to spike and acids to drop, leading to one-dimensional swill best suited for bulk sale or distillation.
Often referred to as liquid gold (although some would rightfully argue that the excellent local olive oils share that distinction), malvazija is Istria’s pride and joy, its medal champion, and best hope for international recognition from global wine lovers and foodies. No surprise then that a single vineyard malvazija from Kozlović won Gold and Trophy awards at the 2013 International Wine Challenge,and eight single-varietal malvazija istarska wines from Croatia won medals at the 2013 Decanter World Wine Awards.
In a recent article for the Croatian press, the American food and wine writing duo Jeff Jenssen and Mike DiSimone (aka the World Wine Guys) asserted that the world is ready for malvazija; that the time has come for Istria’s flagship wine to join the ranks of the fabulous and the famous.
That the Istrians are ready for the world is undisputed. With their own successful technical assistance and marketing association established in 1995, Vinistra, an annual World of Malvazija competition and wine expo, an “Istrian Quality” label designation program for top wines, and a legion of young, talented, innovative and enthusiastic winemakers, it seems inevitable that Istria and malvazija will soon take their rightful places among the stars.
However, Dimitri Brečević, a 34-year old French-Croatian who studied winemaking in Bordeaux before moving to Istria in 2004 to start his own winery and successful Piquentum label, feels that malvazija – as good as it is now – still hides its full potential.
“I would say that we still have a lot of work to do,” he says. “We have to work a lot on vinification to adapt more to this variety, but also we have to learn more about our terroir – particularly the red soils”.
Brečević also wonders about the potential benefits of blending malvazija with other varieties. “But which one?” he muses. “I am not so sure about chardonnay. I would prefer an old local variety. But we are still working on that. All this research is the price to pay if we want to improve quality and reach world class status”.
When seeking out a malvazija wine a buyer should be aware that styles range from young and fresh to French or Slavonian oak or acacia wood-aged versions, to high alcohol extended skin maceration “orange” wines from producers such as Clai, Kabola, and Roxanich that are cult favorites among some consumers (reportedly these wines pair wonderfully with cigars, a subject advocated each year during a special “Habanos Moments” session at Vinistra).
Sparkling malvazija wines are also bottled by a handful of producers, most notably one of Croatia’s leading female winemakers, Ana Peršurić.
However, most malvazija produced in Istria is the straight-forward, early-drinking, food-friendly “naked” style that is zesty, moderately alcoholic, sometimes effervescent, and slightly bitter with subdued fruit (apple, apricot), raw almond and acacia flower floral notes, and – in good vintages – distinctly saline and mineral-driven. In other words, perfect alongside summery seafood fare.
If all of this makes you curious and thirsty, let’s get to the whole point of this article: Ready or not, Istrian malvazija is already available in many markets around the world.
In the U.S. consumers have access to nearly 10 different labels, including Bastianich Adriatico, Cattunar, Clai, Coronica, Kozlović, Matosević, Piquentum, Saints Hills (blended with Chardonnay), Terzolo, and Trapan.
In the U.K., Pacta Connect offers a number of delicious malvazija wines in its portfolio, including Cattunar, Clai, Gerzinić, Piquentum, and Peršurić.
With the waning days of summer in mind, recently I gathered a few old friends (of the human kind and the malvazija kind) for a soirée of sipping, swirling and pontificating. The bottles were chosen at random based on what I could get my hands on; some are imported to the U.S., others extracted from my private cellar. Below are some notes that I managed to remember.
When drinking malvazija – or any wine – please don’t get bogged down by lofty descriptors and 100-point assessments. Wine deserves better than that. But do sit back, kick up your bare feet, raise your glass and take a sip, and enjoy what the wine has to offer, the stories it has to tell, the memories or images it evokes, and the songs it may sing for you.
In the end, perhaps a few of these beauties will become your friends too. And friends of your friends. And friends of their friends. Before you know it, it’s a party.
So let us go forth as denizens and disciples of the finer things in life, singing and shouting out proclamations of love with mouthfuls of malvazija. Because it’s delicious. And because it’s the next Big Thing – or should be.
Benvenuti 2010 Malvazija Istarska
Creamy and viscous with a soft yet zesty attack and talcum powder mineral presence, all rounded out with essence of apricot, golden apple, and citrus blossom. Simple style yet pleasant example of white soil malvazija.
Coronica 2011 Istrain Malvasia
Tight, steely and chock full of minerals, this is not malvazija for the masses. Elusive citrus notes wrap around a structured mineral core, surrounded by an aura of blazing acidity. Not for the feint of heart or sufferers of acid reflux. But if you love this style, pair it with grilled sardines, linguini with clam sauce, or raw oysters and you will be very happy indeed.
Degrassi “Bomarchese” 2009 Malazija Istarska
The most aromatic and tropical of the lot. Loads of stone fruit with a hint of gooseberry and orange blossom. Nicely structured with a long finish.
Gerzinić 2010 Malvazija
Leesy and elegant, with notes of Bosc pear, Golden Delicious apple, and honeysuckle. Smooth and refined on the palate, with soft acids, a chalky mineral presence, and a satisfying finish.
Kozlović Malvazija 2012
Clean, crisp and taught with pear fruit and dusty straw followed by a bitter almond finish. A benchmark malvazija – and a great value.
Saints Hills 2010 Nevina
Fermented in small oak barrels and blended with a small amount of Chardonnay. Creamy yet vibrant on the palate with rich notes of ripe Bartlett pear, banana, and butter toasted hazelnuts, all supported on a frame of saline minerality. Elegant and sophisticated yet approachable now.
TerzoloMalvazija Istarska 2010
Zippy and refreshing with crackling acidity and delicate fruit aromas (citrus; starfruit), pungent green notes of cut grass, fig leaf and herbs with a hint of white acacia flowers. Nicely structured with a sharp mineral core of crushed sea shells and metal ore, finishing up with that distinctive bitter almond bite.
Trapan Ponete Malvazija Istarska 2012
Crystalline and refined with delicate, tight notes of dusty pear skins, kaffir lime, apricot, marzipan and acacia flowers. Still young and taught, this is the most polished but perhaps most textbook example of the lot – the closest we’ll come (for now) to mainstream malvazija.
Suddenly the sweet fruits of Croatia’s July 1st ascension to the European Union have turned to sour grapes. At least when it comes to wine.
Not just any wine, mind you, but one with a centuries-old tradition that is a strong symbol of national pride and family life, as well as a trusted elixir that locals depend upon to treat ailments and celebrate important milestone events in their lives.
Are we talking about Prosecco? Heck, no.
I mean no disrespect to Prosecco. It’s a delightful wine. Simple, bubbly, festive. A popular patio pounder for summer days by the pool. An ingredient in trendy cocktails. Italy, through the venerable Consorzio di Tutela del Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene (the Consortium), deserves to be proud and should protect it. It’s a cash cow, a wildly successful product that supports multiple Italian winemaking regions and helps to keep many wholesalers, advertising and public relations firms in business.
Sounds completely harmless, right?
Not exactly. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported in an article entitled, “A European Name Game Uncorks a Tempest in a Wine Cask”, Croatia’s right to continue using the traditional name “Prošek” for a small-production dessert wine made from sun-dried grapes is under attack. The European Union, prodded on by the Consortium, fears that the two names are too similar and that consumers (you and I) will be confused, thus harming the Prosecco brand and endangering a 300-million-bottle-a-year industry.
So how can one obscure, tiny-production, barely-exported sweet wine called Prošek pose such a threat to mighty Prosecco? Simply put, it doesn’t. But pride, mistaken perceptions, protectionism, and the demands of the powerful often align to trump common sense.
In an attempt to expose the absurd nature of this mess, cut away all the confusion, and clarify the debate, here are 12 ways in which Prošek can be easily differentiated from Prosecco – and visa versa. The bottom line is, consumers have nothing to fear – nor do Prosecco producers or the European Union.
I realize that at this stage in the game these arguments may be mute. But for the sake of posterity perhaps there is some value in showing why Croatia should be able to keep on calling its Prošek “Prošek” – as it has done for centuries – while also distinguishing and respecting Prosecco’s rightful place in the world of wine.
1)Custom and Tradition
The method for making Prošek is ancient and apparently dates back to the arrival of the Greeks to the Dalmatian islands in the 4th century B.C. However, the first written mention of Prošek occurred in 1556, when the Croatian poet Petar Hektorović in his famous work, Ribanje i Ribarsko Prigovaranje (Fishing and Fishermen Talk), lists the local sweet wine among the provisions he and two companions pack for a three-day fishing expedition on the Adriatic Sea.
As on Petar Hektorović’s boat, in the Dalmatia region of Croatia a bottle of Prošek is never far from hand. A straw-wrapped jug of homemade Prošek can usually be found hiding in the pantries and cellars of every household and, if you are lucky, a taste is offered (alongside a plate of dried figs and biscuits) when you arrive as a guest.
Croat families proudly pass down Prošek recipes through the generations. It is often used as an ingredient in traditional holiday cookies and cakes. Parents set aside bottles from the vintage in which a child was born and then customarily open them on the child’s wedding day. Prized bottles are gifted from one family to another at Easter, Christmas and other special occasions. New mothers slurp a spoonful after giving birth to help them mend and regain strength. Suffers of anemia and other ailments are urged to sip some Prošek to bolster the blood.
Old wives’ tales? Perhaps. But these stories serve as seminal evidence of Prošek’s deep-rooted contribution to Croatian culture and its firm place in the social lives of Croatians throughout the centuries.
Prosecco too has an impressive history, with some vineyard sites in the Conegliano Valdobbiadene zone estimated to be over three hundred and some even a thousand years old. Yet the first written reference to the wine did not arrive until 200 years later (in 1754), when (according to Wikipedia) a fellow named Aureliano Acanti wrote, “And now I would like to wet my mouth with that Prosecco with its apple bouquet“.
This dated but cute quip could easily serve as a contemporary marketing slogan for Prosecco. Indeed today’s consumer identifies with Prosecco as a metropolitan, early-drinking, affordable and pleasant everyday quaffer. According to a report in Meininger’s Wine Business International, consumers do not identify with, or care all that much about, Prosecco’s history, background story, or protected DOC status (granted in 1969) and much-heralded DOCG status (approved in 2009). They do care about access to low-priced, easy-to-understand and appreciate alternatives to pricier sparkling wine.
Prosecco is a product of the modern world. Modern technology (the Charmat tank, autoclaves, sterile filtration, bottling under pressure) has enabled Prosecco to be produced in mass quantities and become the very successful and ubiquitous export product it is today.
Unlike Prošek, wine lovers buy bottles of Prosecco for casual consumption and instant refreshment – not to tuck away for decades or until their children get married. In fact, consumers are advised to purchase Prosecco young and avoid bottles that have been too long on the shelf. Conversely, an intact bottle of Prošek from 1899 was recently discovered in the cellar of a wine bar on Hvar island.
How do you like them apples?
The two names – while similar – are written and pronounced in completely different ways. “Prošek” is enunciated as “Pro-shek”, while “Prosecco” is pronounced “Proh-sec-coh”. Two syllables versus three. A “sh” sound as in “Shirley” versus a “sec” sound as in “secular”.
Prošek is produced from any one or a blend of several different varieties – white and red – indigenous to coastal Croatia. Permitted white varieties include bogdanuša, dubrovačka malvasija, grk, malvazija istarska, maraština, plavac mali, prč (aka parč), pošip, tarpinka, trbljan, vugava, andžlahtina. Red varieties are primarily babić, lasina, plavina, and plavac mali.
Prosecco is most often produced from the glera grape variety (previously known as prosecco), but small amounts of bianchetta, charnonnay, perera, pinot noir, and verdiso are permitted.
4)Area of Production
Prošek is produced all along the Adriatic coast of Croatia but mainly in southern Dalmatia and on many of the islands where vineyards thrive in limestone soils among olive, fig, and pine tree groves. As winemaker Alen Bibićobserved to the Wall Street Journal, when you sip on Prošek, “you can feel the Mediterranean”. Dried fig, raisin nectar, candied orange peel, and roasted nut characteristics reflect the wine’s sun-baked, seaside terroir.
Prosecco is clearly a product of Italy, where it is produced throughout the Veneto, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Conegliano, and Valdobbiadene regions in the northeast corner of the country. Much of the growing area lies in the foothills between the Dolomites and the Adriatic Sea, with the highest vineyard elevations located in the Valdobbiadene zone, particularly in Cartizze. The clean, zippy green apple, fresh melon, and citrus character of the wine reflects its pristine Alpine terroir.
5) Production Amounts
Traditional Prošek is typically made by small, family-owned wineries, of which 27 are registered producers (I do not count the non-traditional, industrial Prošek produced from cooked musts and caramelized sugar, such as the supermarket products from Dalmacijavino and Vinoplod) with an annual production of 15,000 liters – or 30,000 500 ml bottles. For example, BIBICh winery produces about 5,000 bottles a year of the multi-vintage BIBICh Ambra, while in a good year Andro Tomić of Bastijana winery produces up to 4,000 bottles of his acclaimed Hektorovich Prošek.
Over 3,000 registered wineries produce Prosecco in Italy, and over 2,400 are members of the Consortium. The Prosecco DOC zone contains 19,700 hectares of vines planted to allowable varieties, and the Consortium reports that another 5,650 hectares are registered within the DOCG growing area (for a grand total of 25,350 hectares). Wine production amounts total approximately 225,000,000 liters – 300 million bottles a year.
By comparison, the total area planted to all varieties across every winemaking region in Croatia equals 24,000 hectares, with approximately 10,000 hectares under vine in Dalmatia where Prošek varieties are cultivated as a minor component of the grapes reserved for still dry wines. Total wine production in Croatia amounts to 60 million liters – or 80 million bottles – of all types.
At 15,000 liters, Prošek production equals less than 1% (.025%) of the total amount of wine made in Croatia and .006667% of Prosecco production.
Prošek is made from grapes harvested with a sugar level of 100° Oechsle (approximately 23.5 Brix, or the equivalent of the German Auslese classification). Once harvested, the clusters are laid out on straw mats to dry in the sun for 3-4 months or until the grapes shrivel and achieve a sugar concentration of 120° Oechsle (28 Brix, or the equivalent of Beerenauslese). The grapes are then crushed and the must is macerated for 2-5 days, when the juice is pressed off the skins. Yeast must be selected based on its ability to function in a thick must with a high concentration of sugar. Fermentation can be extremely slow – often lasting up to a year or longer. Once the wine has finished fermenting, it is then aged in wood casks (usually older, neutral wood) for a minimum of one year. Most producers do not filter the wine. Typically it takes about 1 kilogram of dried grapes to produce 750 ml of Prošek.
Grapes for Prosecco are harvested with low sugar levels and high acidity. The (usually) non-vintage wine is produced using the Metodo Charmat (tank method), whereby the secondary fermentation takes place under pressure in large steel tanks called autoclaves and not in the bottle, as with Champagne (Méthode Champenoise). The idea, as described by Tom Cannavan in Wine-pages.com, is to “capture the fresh fruitiness” of the glera grape and highlight the wine’s distinctive “icing sugar and lemons” character. The wine is then bottled under pressure to retain its carbonation and quickly shipped off to market.
7) Wine Styles
Prošek is a still wine with a minimum alcohol content of 15%-22% that has been aged in wood for at least one year. Residual sugar content ranges from 70-150 grams per liter (g/l). Prošek is dark, thick, unctuous, and sweet, with flavors of dried fig, raisin nectar, coffee, toasted hazelnuts, burnt toffee, candied orange rinds, honey, vanilla, and carob.
Prosecco is a sparkling wine with an average alcohol content of 11% and no wood exposure or influence. Depending on the level of carbon dioxide, Prosecco can be either Spumante (3.5 bars of pressure) or Frizzante (1.0-2.5 bars of pressure). Styles include Brut (0-13 g/l residual sugar), Extra Dry” (12–17 g/l) and “Dry” (17–32 g/l). Prosecco is light, bubbly, delicately perfumed with notes of citrus, apple, melon, and spring flowers.
8) Wine Color
Depending on the types of grapes used and the age of the wine, the color of Prošek can range from deep gold to amber, neon orange, maple syrup, and dark brown.
Prosecco is simply straw-colored or light to medium yellow with a watery white rim.
9) Bottle Shape
While there is no standard bottle shape for Prošek, traditionally it is stored in large straw-covered jugs or demijohns for home or non-commercial use. When available for commercial sale, dessert wine bottles of 375-500 ml are the norm. These vessels are often fancy and oddly shaped and include short, small jug-like bottles (BIBICh Ambra) to tall clear cylinders and tapered obelisks.
Prosecco is typically packaged in the easily-identifiable and customary sparkling wine bottle, which is similar in shape to the Champagne bottle and includes the mushroom-shaped cork and often a metal cage under a foil wrap. Prosecco can also be packaged in aluminum cans similar to those used for beer.
Customarily Prošek is served in a small, tulip-shaped dessert wine glass. However, there is no “official” serving glass; any small, flared-rim vessel will do.
The most commonly used glass for Prosecco is the Champagne flute.
11)Availability on Export Markets
Ask yourself this: When was the last time you saw a bottle of Prošek in your local wine shop? Most likely the answer is, never. Because of the tiny production, very little of Croatia’s famous dessert wine is exported. In the U.S. BIBICh Ambra Prošek is imported by Blue Danube Wine Company but in such limited quantities that it quickly sells out. If you are in the NYC area, Bin 56 wine bar in Huntington, NY serves BIBICh Ambra Prošek. Grab a glass while it lasts!
Needless to say, Prosecco is ubiquitous and warehoused in wine shops everywhere. It is often the best selling sparkling wine in wine bars and restaurants. To highlight this point (according to Shanken News Daily), in 2012 the top six Prosecco brands in the U.S. collectively represented 1.6 million cases (19.2 million bottles) of wine, with an annual sales growth of about 35%.
That’s a lot of bubbly.
Prošek: A 500 ml bottle of BIBICh Ambra Prošek retails for about $50.
Prosecco: Retail prices in the U.S. for a 750 ml bottle range from $10 to $20 for DOC bottles, and a bit more for DOCG labels.
Similar-sounding words and spellings abound in the English language – and presumably in other languages. Take, for example, the head-spinning number of wine grape varieties that begin with the letter V: Verdejo, verdelho, verdello, verdicchio, verdiso, verduzzo, vermentino, vernaccia, vespaiola, vespolina, vignoles, vinhão, viognier, viosinho, viura, vugava…. Yikes!
Yet no one seems to be getting too excited about that muddled madness. Governments are not demanding new rules and regulations to sort it all out. Why? Because they are just names and we humans are able and accustomed to figuring out the subtle variances. I know a guy named Dana and a girl called Dayna. I would have to be a dope to confuse the two.
Then there’s McDonald’s and McDoogal’s. One is a famous hamburger conglomerate, the other an Irish pub in Kokomo, Indiana. Each has its loyal customers. And I think it’s safe to say that not one of us is foggy about which assembles Big Macs and which tops off Guinness on tap.
Slovenia, Slovakia, Slavonia. The first two are each sovereign countries, the latter a wine-growing region in Croatia. All three manage to survive, despite their names sounding alarmingly alike. And I suspect that few travelers would accidently board planes for Slovenia when they meant to go to Slovakia.
Prošek and Prosecco. The first: a hand-made, limited-production, sweet dessert wine that will never be exported in large quantities and most likely attracts only consumers who have heard of it and seek it out. The latter: a mass-produced, widely distributed, usually dry to off-dry sparkling wine that is synonymous with summer, quick refreshment, and good cheer.
Simply put, the two wines have NOTHING in common, like apples and oranges. Cannot they happily co-exist without bureaucrats in Brussels spoiling the brew?
In that wonderful spoof of a movie from 1980, Airplane!, an in-flight emergency prompts Dr. Rumack (brilliantly played by the late-great Leslie Nielsen), to ask Ted Striker (an ex-pilot suffering from a fear of flying played by Robert Hays), if he can safely land the jet. Striker responds, “Surely you can’t be serious?” To which Dr. Rumack famously retorts, “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley”.
So let us not call Prošek Prosecco. Or visa versa. Surely we are all sophisticated enough to manage that without getting ourselves tied up in knots and discovering that the bottle we just grabbed off the shelf is not our beloved wine.
This is Part II of our two-part report. For Part I, please click here.
The VIP Guests
Each year the organizers of the Zagreb Wine Gourmet Weekend (ZWGW) make an ambitious attempt to draw international visitors and VIP guests to the festival. Without doubt this is a wise and positive thing for which to aim. Croatia is an exciting emerging winemaking country and it should be blowing its trumpets and utilizing all its tools and resources to draw attention to its fabulous winemaking history and culture.
This year’s lineup was especially exciting, as the guest list included many interesting and important VIPs from the international wine trade and media. Among them, George Taber, author of several wine books, including “Judgment of Paris”; Bernard de Laage de Meux, Commercial Director of Chateau Palmer; Ivo Jeramaz, Vice President of Vineyards & Production in Grgich Hills Winery; Sarah Kemp, Editor of Decanter magazine; Lynn Sherriff, President of the Institute of Masters of Wine; David Gates, Vice President of Ridge Vineyard in Sonoma, CA; as well as the entertaining Flying Culinary Circus, four Norwegian chefs who take catered food service to new heights with fun and innovative performances.
Check out this video from the festival, in which David Gates speaks about his impressions of Croatian wines:
To choose just a few highlights from ZWGW is nearly impossible. I enjoyed every minute of the festival. Such was the abundance of activities and rich schedule of events that I often found myself torn over which ones to attend. My entire 3-day stay at ZWGW was a whirlwind of dashing from seminars to workshops to tasting tables and then off to panel discusses and back to the tasting room for more swirling and sipping….It’s all a blur now. But a few things do happily stand out in my memory.
Rather than point out individual wines that really sang to me (some of these may be revealed in later posts), I think it’s important to note that there were very few bad wines. Technical quality is certainly getting better and better each year. But technically correct wine doesn’t always mean interesting or compelling wine. Oak has been a pervasive and often invasive, overdone fad in Croatia in recent years, especially with certain plavac mali and malvasia istriana wines. I was happy to see some of the slathered wood tamed and/ or eliminated in some of the wines this time around (although there are still some wines that I think could benefit from less or no wood, or at least being held in cellar longer before release to allow the oak to better integrate; and a small few could benefit from more oak treatment).
Teran, a red grape variety from the Istria region, continues to demonstrate great potential as an affordable, food-friendly, and terroir-expressive wine that does not need oak to achieve an earthy, animal complexity.
While I spent a little time revisiting some old favorite producers (sadly, there were some I missed and regret not seeing), my focus was on wines that I never before tasted, especially those made from native grapes from lesser-known producers. And of course I am always on the look-out for the Holy Grail: those serendipitous wines that reveal true soul, tell a story, and sing a song!
On that note, I have to admit that I was disappointed to find no grk or škrlet producers represented, as well as a few key winemakers absent from the fair (e.g., Clai, Matošević, and Roxanich). But overall there was a satiating amount of wine to taste, and it was loads of fun comparing the various different styles of graševina (young & fresh; oaked and cellar aged), malvasia istriana (young & fresh; macerated & developed), and plavac mali (unoaked; field grown grapes; oak aged; single appellation and single vineyard), as well as babić, crljenak kaštelanski, debit, maraština and pošip.
I even discovered a new grape variety: ulovina! Ulovina is an ancient white variety indigenous to Istria and used as a blending component (along with malvasia istriana and muškat momjanski) in Benvenuti’s sublime “Corona Grande” sweet dessert wine.
Workshop: Zinfandel. Primitivo, Crljenak Kaštelanski: Ten Years After
By now many of us are well aware that the origins of zinfandel trace back to Croatia, and that California zinfandel, Italian primitivo, and Croatian crljenak kaštelanski are all the same grape. However, the opportunity to taste all three of these distinct vins de terroir side by side at one sitting would be a rare and fascinating occasion. Thanks to the ZWGW, the opportunity presented itself at this workshop, one of the truly “do not miss” events in the program.
Guiding us through the comparative tasting was a number of key individuals from the world of “ZPC” (zinfandel, primitivo, crljenak): George Taber, author of Judgment of Paris, the now famous account of the 1976 Paris tasting organized by Steven Spurrier that rocked the wine world and put Napa Valley on the map; Ivo Jeramaz, Vice President of Vineyards and Winemaking for Grgich Hills winery in Rutherford, CA (Mike Grgich was the person who first suggested that California zinfandel and the red wines that his father used to make in Croatia were very similar in character, and he was an early supporter of the research that lead to the ZPC discovery); Professor Edi Maletić and Professor Ivan Pejić from the University of Agriculture in Zagreb, two of the leading researchers behind the ZPC discovery; David Gates of Ridge Vineyards, an iconic California producer of single-vineyard zinfandel wines; Gregory Perrucci, an Italian producer of Giravolta Primitivo; and Croatian crljenak producers Zlatan Plenković (Zlatan Otok); Nevin Vuina (Vuina Štafileo); and Nikola Nikša (Mimica) from Kuća sretnog čovjeka.
My quick impressions of these expressions of the same grape from three different countries?
The Ridge 2008 Geyserville zinfandel was a huge wine, round and richly layered and extracted, viscous and full of black raspberry, plum, licorice and chocolate – a style that is much revered among disciples of zinfandel. The Grgich 2008 was a bit more refined with lighter red fruit and floral notes. The Giravolta 2010 Primitivo was soft and fruity with velvety cherry and raspberry character; a nice wine but quickly forgotten once the crljenaks arrived.
Okay, I know I am a little biased. But the three Croatian crljenak wines really struck my chords and made music with those old familiar notes of dried fig, Adriatic sea salt and roasted herbs, black plum and cherry, accompanied by a little Dalmatian funk.
With crljenak in glass, suddenly I did not miss the rich extracts of California zin.
The 2008 Zlatan Crljenak was the most extracted and a little too tannic yet still fresh; “rough and rustic” I wrote in my notes. The 2010 Vuina ŠtafileoCrljenak was too young and closed up but showed refreshing acid and good tannic structure; slightly alcoholic on the nose, it would benefit from some more time in neutral wood. The third wine was my favorite, the Mimica 2008 Pribidrag (aka crljenak) from Kuća sretnog čovjeka – or, in translation, the “House of the Happy Man”. What a great name for a balanced, delicious wine with ripe Dalmatian fruit character and enduring freshness! Indeed I left this tasting a happy man.
Workshop: Wine of Grace – Graševina
Making me even happier was seeing this event on the schedule: a vertical tasting of graševina wines – vintages 2011, 2010, 1994, 1985, 1970, 1963, 1960 – from Kutjevo winery. To say that this was a rare opportunity to examine the five decade progression of a white wine from Croatia would be imprecise: this was an extraordinary experience during which those of us lucky enough to be there got to taste fifty two years of history in a one hour seating.
Even more astounding, graševina is not a variety that is noted for having a noble pedigree or ability for long-term aging. In Croatia and in many other regions along the Danube River basin, graševina (aka welschriesling) is a simple table wine meant for everyday quaffing and even mixing with mineral water to create a summer sipper called “gemišt”. Often a maligned workhorse grape, when not properly managed in the vineyard it can wildly overcrop and produce thin, acidic wines that are sold on tap, in one liter bottles with metal crown caps, or as boxed wine. In better examples, it is normally a 2-3 year wine that expresses apple and tree fruit character, a piquant finish, and refreshing acidity.
But here it was, dating all the way back to 1960, getting deeper gold in color as the years retreated beyond my date of birth, evolving along the way into richer, nuttier, honey and candied fruit aromas. The 2011 from Kutjevo was fresh, lively, and savory with a delicate apple blossom note. At the other end of the spectrum, the 1960 was starting to show signs of being tired and past its glory. But in ensuing years between, magic was brewing.
My favorite by far was the 1963. I first tried this “Archive Wine” last year at the winery and was blown away. I cried. Cried from happiness. Overwhelmed by the mysteries of the universe; by the inexplicable ways that wine evolves in bottle; by the time that has passed, leaving its marks on my face and in this beautiful wine.
While that graševina laid quiet in that old cellar in Kutjevo, many things outside happened: the Beatles conquered America and the planet; I was born; the Vietnam war; Korea; Jimi Hendrix; Led Zeppelin; Watergate; Space Shuttle missions to space; the first Apple computer; mullet haircuts; Michael Jackson’s lifetime; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the break-up of Yugoslavia and the war in Croatia; cell phones; 9/11; endless wars in the Middle East; Facebook; the first African-American U.S. president…to name a few.
The point is, all of that history – like wrinkles and wisdom – was somehow sewn into the wine’s fabric, with almost no fraying or fading. Judging from the mesmerized faces and stunned reactions of others at the tasting, drinking this treasured wine was truly an enchanting and righteous experience. Thank you Kutjevo winery for sharing!
I will try to write more about this tasting in a future post in order to do each wine justice. For now, suffice it to say that events like this one are an effective selling point for ZWGW and will certainly entice me – and hopefully more international visitors – to keep coming back.
Okay, despite my strong desire and best efforts, I was unable to attend any of the film screenings that were part of the weekend’s schedule of events. A pity! But I was told by people who attended that it was a nice respite from the surge outside and the films were well done. I like the dynamic that this dimension added to the program, and hope that the organizers keep it next year. For a full list of all the films shown at the festival, please consult the ZWGW website.
Meeting Trevor Long and Judith Burns
I have to admit, prior to arriving at ZWGW, I heard about and frequently came across on social media the husband and wife team who operate Pacta Connect and import Croatian wines into the U.K. and Ireland, Trevor Long and Judith Burns. However, I had never met them personally or knew them well enough to understand their motives and mission. Frankly over the years I have grown weary and disheartened by random so-called “experts” who present themselves as authorities on Croatian wine after just one or two trips to Croatia. Some of these folks do more harm than good to the Wines of Croatia brand through misinformation, less-than-transparent agendas, and shoddy business practices.
To be clear: Trevor, Judith and Pacta Connect do NOT fall into this category. Trevor and Judith are two very passionate and professionally-minded people who take the business of importing and promoting Croatian wines very seriously. Not only do they take great pleasure and care to represent the wineries in their portfolio with enthusiasm and coherence, they have also invested years of time and resources in the pursuit of learning more about each one by visiting the vines and spending days and weeks at a time with the winemakers. They hand select each wine for their portfolio based upon a criteria of artisanship, sustainability and authenticity. They also possess a keen understanding of their market and sharp sense for marketing and connecting with potential customers.
At the moment Pacta Connect is perhaps the most important and trending importer of Croatian wines in the U.K., and Trevor and Judith are certainly leading pioneers and worthy colleagues in our joint mission to tell the story and share the love for the wines of Croatia. It was a true pleasure to meet them at ZWGW and to hear their stories (Trevor used to manage rock bands!), their vision, and their love and respect for the wineries they represent.
Pacta Connect’s Twitter page (@pc_wines) says it best: “Living & breathing & loving good wine! Importers of great Croatian artisan wines, grappas & oils to the UK & Ireland. Social media fans.”
If you haven’t yet had the chance to follow Trevor and Judith’s endeavors, please do say hello. They are working hard to make a difference, and I for one am amazed by and grateful for all they have done.
When asked by the organizers of ZWGW to moderate a two hour session devoted to Twitter, I have to admit that my blood went cold. As much as I enjoy Twitter and understand its mechanisms and benefits, two hours is an awfully long time to talk about it, even if we would be adding a live blogger tasting of three wines to demonstrate one of Twitter’s many and livelier functions: the Tweet-up. A Tweet-up is a gathering (usually at different remote locations) of Twitter users, all tweeting about a common subject (in this case wines that they were tasting).
Our ZWGW guest panel of “twixperts” (Twitter experts) and winos included Lada Radin and Nenad Trifunović of Taste of Croatia. Our guest star was to be Marcy Gordon, an experienced travel and wine writer from California who operates the excellent Come for the Wine blog. Sadly, Marcy ran into a series of unexpected and unfortunate travel glitches that resulted in her having to cancel her trip after spending nearly 12 hours in the airport. We certainly missed her and hope she can make it toCroatia again soon!
At ZWGW Marcy planned to share her story of how she discovered Wines of Croatia through Twitter, which led her to Frank Dietrich at Blue Danube Wine Company in San Francisco, which inspired a successful blogger tasting of Blue Danube’s portfolio of Croatian wines, which resulted in Marcy being invited on a press trip to Croatia last year, and served as the basis for which she was invited as a VIP guest to ZWGW this year.
Marcy’s “twittertrail” experience – following the threads and connections of contacts on the social network – was the perfect example of the magic and power of Twitter. With over 175 million users, Twitter offers businesses, wineries, importers, wine writers, wine sellers, and PR and marketing agents a huge opportunity to reach large numbers of potential customers. To reveal and explain that benefit was the message and purpose of the Twitter tasting at ZWGW.
To show Twitter in action, we asked several U.S.-based wine bloggers to taste along with us the same three wines we tasted at the session inZagreb: Krajančić 2009 Pošip, Terzolo 2009 Teran, and Miloš 2008 Plavac. As they tasted, the bloggers tweeted their impressions and comments; their tweets were projected onto a big screen in the auditorium in Zagreb for ZWGW participants to see and read. To track the action, we employed a hashtag (a # symbol) before the key word that flags the term and makes it easier to search and track. The hashtag was #WoCroatia (for Wines of Croatia).
Other hashtags that we threw in for good measure were #winelovers and #zwgw. And in the heat of the action, a new hashtag (thanks to Nenad Trifunović) was born: #teranslut.
The session was fun and hopefully useful to the attendees. I was disappointed that more winery personnel did not attend. Many Croatian wineries do not use Twitter, and this session was mainly designed to encourage them to discover Twitter and start using it to market their wines.
For any Twitter users out there, here are the user names for the panel and blogger participants at the session. Please follow us!
Despite a few glitches and the acclimation period required before you can successfully navigate your way to the many hidden tasting rooms and off-site seminar locations, ZWGW was an educational, interesting and exciting wine event – one not to be missed if you are serious about discovering what Croatia has to offer.
Each year ZWGW gets better and better, and I applaud the organizers for listening to feedback and attempting to address the issues and adjust the plans for the next year’s fair. This willingness to avoid a “cut and paste” process and repeat the same show over and over again is encouraging, keeping things fresh and pushing the boundaries further outward towards discovery – and hopefully less hungry bellies!
The focus on drawing an international audience is essential, especially in light of the need to brand Croatia and a complete tourist destination, not just a wine destination. Perhaps an idea for the future would be to invite representatives from tourist agencies that operate in the corresponding wine regions to present the other features and offerings of those regions – the hotels, the restaurants, the tourist sites – to create a full immersion impression of the area?
Overall, the 2012 Zagreb Wine Gourmet Weekend was an excellent and enjoyable event. If this is the blueprint going forward, then the ZWGW will surely continue to rank as one of the most important annual wine events in Croatia. At least until the next Big Bang. 😉
For more photos from ZWGW, please check our Facebook page HERE.
We leave you now with the official video produced by ZWGW showing some of the action. Enjoy!
”I can’t believe it took me this long….Season 8. It took me to get here. This is f****** awesome.”
Unless you have been hidden away on one of Croatia’s many uninhabited islands (there are over 1,100 of them), by now you have probably heard that Anthony Bourdain of the widely popular Travel ChannelTV show, No Reservations, kicked off Season 8 by visiting Croatia.
The episode he filmed in Croatia, called “Coastal Croatia”, was shot over a week’s time back in October 2011 and made its world premier this week on the Travel Channel (Monday, April 23, 2012, 9pm EST).
Reaction to the episode, based on the early buzz and online chatter, has been ecstatic and overwhelmingly positive. Love him or hate him – Bourdain can be a divisive, acerbic personality with a raw, uncensored sense of humor – the “Coastal Croatia” episode is an extremely entertaining, informative, and well-produced piece of travel journalism. It is also quite infectious viewing; I still find myself watching it over and over again. You can too, thanks to the Travel Channel, which now has the full episode online here.
Certainly Anthony Bourdain’s own reactions to his experiences in Croatia fueled much of the elation mirrored by his viewers as we watched him suck on briny oysters and garlicky mussels; hunt for Istrian truffles with “Shotzy the Wonder Dog”; skewer sashimi tuna; gorge himself on shark liver pate, fish tripe and lobster; drizzle “amazing spicy Croatian olive oil”; carve succulent slivers of Paški cheese; savor slow-simmered Skradin risotto; and swirl and swallow several liters of local wine. Often Bourdain could not contain his amazement and surprise, exclaiming over and over again, ”Holy s*** that’s good”.
And over and over again I found myself cheering Bourdain on, perched on the edge of my seat in anticipation of his next move or discovery, and of course wishing I was there too. 🙂
Bourdain is now famous for his often hilarious, sometimes offensive yet always entertaining one-liners. Rather than repeat them here, many of the Bourdainisms from the Croatia episode have already been documented for your enjoyment in this post by Eater.com.
Bourdain’s “Coastal Croatia” travels began in Istria, where he visits Rovinj and Motovun. Our friends at Taste of Croatia have graciously mapped out Bourdain’s itinerary for you here.
In one scene at a seaside restaurant, Konoba Batelina, the wines of Bruno Trapanare on table, clearly being enjoyed by the group. While Bourdain had planned to visit Trapan winery, in the end he had to bypass it due to time restraints. Which is too bad, because Bruno Trapan is quite a rock star among Croatian winemakers and has many admirers at home and abroad. His boundless energy, wild enthusiasm, intense passion and maturing skill as winemaker would have been quite a match for Bourdain. I’m sure having the two of them in the same room would have resulted in a revolution of some sort. 🙂
The journey then continued to Dalmatia, where Bourdain visits Boškinac hotel and winery on Pag island in central Dalmatia – “an amazing, crazy-ass spot”. There he is treated to Boris Šuljić’s delectable cooking – a multicourse extravaganza that – I know from my own visit there last year – is one of the finest culinary experiences in Croatia. All dishes were paired with Boškinac’s “awesome” wines, which are produced from Šuljić’s vineyards in the fields across from the hotel. I am especially fond of his Gegić, a fresh, salty white wine from the locally indigenous grape of the same name. The Boškinac red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot is widely considered to be one of the best Bordeaux-style wines in Dalmatia.
From Pag, Bourdain traveled to BIBICh winery in Skradin, where, simply put, he seemed to have the time of his life, asking, “Why, oh why, is there so much amazing wine in this country?”
Not surprising at all. I have visited BIBICh many times over the years and despite my futile efforts to remain faithful to a spit bucket, maintain dignified self control, and sustain a guise of “professionalism”, I have never left sober or unfazed by the man’s charm, incredible hospitality, and deliciously fascinating array of family wines. 🙂
I also regularly recommend BIBICh to travelers in the area, and I have never heard a bad report from anyone who has visited him. Alen BIBICh has always been miles ahead of the game in regard to an understanding of wine tourism, wine marketing, and wine exports (he exports the bulk of his production and was one of the first Croatian wine producers to find success in the United States, where his R6 Riserva red is a best seller).
Often the unsung hero behind BIBICh’s success and ability to please any number of visitors or VIP guests is his wife, Vesna. The woman is a culinary genius, and she possesses a superhero’s ability to whip up on short notice a gourmet tasting menu that is not only delicious but perfectly complements the wine that Alen is pouring. It is simply astounding, and anyone who has ever had the privilege to enjoy some time with Alen, his wines and Vesna’s food pairings will never forget it and may also find him/herself exclaiming, “Holy s*** that’s good!”
A few viewers have been asking about the food that Bourdain ate on the show. Many of the dishes are local specialties with recipes that vary by region and village-to-village. You can get some ideas from the Taste of Croatia book by Karen Evenden. Esquire also just posted a recipe for the grilled sardines, and you can view that here. Croatian Cuisine also offers a smart phone app that contains many traditional Dalmatian recipes.
Ante Pižić, the gentleman who prepared the Skradin risotto at BIBICh winery, will not reveal the recipe, saying only that it is a family secret dating back over 200 years. He did however tell me that tradition dictates that only male members of the family can prepare it, and the whole process takes four days, 12 hours of which are spent over a fire, cooking and stirring. The Slow Food movement is a traditional way of life in Croatia.
No doubt, Anthony Bourdain No Reservations “Coastal Croatia” is by far one of the best promotional pieces for Croatian tourism, food and wine to emerge in a long time. It is also a perfect example of how smartly done, “hip” marketing can resonate across the globe and lead to practical benefits. Word is, since the episode aired the phones of Croatian wine importers in the U.S. have been ringing off the hook.
To commemorate the occasion, Blue Danube Wine Companytapped into its cellar reserves and released two older vintages of BIBICh wines, the 2004 Sangreal Mertlot and the limited release 2006 Sangreal Syrah. Needless to say, BIBICh wines are now hot, and we are happy to report that Blue Danube just received a new shipment and several new vintages are now available in the U.S. (unfortunately Boškinac wines are not exported at the moment).
Perhaps – and hopefully – this is a tipping point for Croatian wines. Certainly Boris Šuljić and Alen Bibich have gained some well-deserved attention and recognition for their talents. As for the many excellent Croatian winemakers not featured in this program: I firmly believe in the old adage: “A rising tide lifts all boats”….
While No Reservations has generated a lot of buzz and attention for Croatia and its food and wine scene, it would be foolish for any of us to rest our laurels. With his show, Anthony Bourdain has blown open the doors of imagination, of possibility, of opportunity. Now comes the hard work of delivering on the promise and sustaining the momentum….
Yet for now we can certainly bask in the glow and smile, knowing that many more people will soon be discovering Croatian wines and enjoying what we have always known: the wines are great, the winemakers all have great stories, and Croatia is an amazingly beautiful country with a rich food and wine heritage.
In the words of Anthony Bourdain,”this is world class food; this is world class wine; this is world class cheese…. If you haven’t been here yet, you are a fucking idiot”.
And even if you are not an “idiot” or have already been to Croatia, then perhaps – like me – you watched Bourdain as he relished in the marvels and beauties of Croatia and knew one thing for sure: that you must go back as soon as possible!
I have a feeling that the Croatian National Tourism Board was just handed a brand new marketing slogan: “Croatia – Holy S*** That’s Good!” 🙂