Sensory overload. That is how I would describe any one of my whirlwind visits to Croatia.
I mean it in a positive way. The country is simply brimming with vinous, culinary and natural delights. Gnarly old grapevines improbably clinging to sun baked seaside slopes. Nearly 1,200 islands sprinkled like seashells on the impossibly blue Adriatic. Countless villages and hamlets of seminal charm nestled in coves and on mountainsides. Fresh caught seafood and farm-to-table produce so succulent and cooked to perfection. The warm faces of family, old friends and new acquaintances (and an occasional donkey). Swoon-worthy views and secret spots where you can enjoy the sights and sounds of nature that – to this New York City boy – are so intimate, pure and wonderful.
And then there is the wine. Indigenous grapes, local producers. Most of it delicious and distinct. So this is what all this beauty… this land…this Croatia tastes like, you may be inspired to declare.
As a matter of fact, yes – you can find the variety growing all over Croatia. Heck, even the mother grape of chardonnay is Croatian, a little devil of a grape called štajerska belina – or gouais blanc – that long ago made its way to France where it crossed with pinot and sired chardonnay.
While quality is uneven, delicious chardonnay wines are produced across Croatia – from Istria along the coast (called the “Tuscany of Croatia” by the New York Times), to the amphitheater-shaped hills of Plešivica in the northern continental region and the Miocene Epoch-dated Pannonian Sea soils of Kutjevo in Slavonia.
Krauthaker’s Rosenberg100% chardonnayis sublime; while Kutjevo winery’s 2009Chardonnay de Gotho Aureus won a silver medal at the 2011 Chardonnay du Mondewine competition in France. Belje is a leading producer from the Baranja wine-growing (far northeastern Croatia), where among its expansive vineyard holdings is the esteemed 220 meter-above-sea-level, south-facing Goldberg appellation – home of its award winning Goldberg Chardonnay.
From Plešivica Korak Chardonnay is the benchmark beauty, and chardonnay forms 50% of the blend in Tomac’s iconic Anfora wine. If orange wine is your thing, Roxanich Milva chardonnay from Istria is fabulously elegant and complex with its creamy, mineral character and exotic fruit, floral, nut and honey notes.
Chardonnay is sometimes blended with other local grapes, like in Istria where it nicely compliments blends made with the local malvasia istriana (malvazija istarska) grape. Saints Hills Nevina, Matoševic Grimalda Bijelo, and Trapan Levante are a few prime examples.
Cabernet sauvignon? Check out the Podunavlje sub-region of Slavonia, whose terroir (long, warm growing season and ancient loam slopes along the Danube) delivers promising results. Iuriswinery in the Erdut wine-growing hills produces a tasty, food-friendly entry-level cab from their vineyards on the Kraljevo Brdo (King’s Hill) appellation.
In Istria, iron-rich “terra rosa” soils lend nice structure and minerality to the region’s red wines (think the Coonawarraregion of Australia); Agrolaguna (Festigia label), Coronica, Cossetto, Degrassi, Roxanich and Trapan all come to mind as producers who are banging out some really palate-worthy Istrian cabernet sauvignon. In southern Dalmatia, Dubrovački Podrumi(Dubrovnik Cellars) produces the benchmark southern climate cabernet, Trajectum, from its vineyards overlooking the Konavle valley just south of the tourist Mecca, Dubrovnik.
Merlot? It’s just about everywhere, from Dalmatia to Istria to Slavonia. Sometimes it’s good (Agrolaguna Festigia); BIBIChSangreal; Crvik; Frajona; Krauthaker; Roxanich); sometimes – not so much. Often it finds its best use in tasty Bordeaux blends, such as the excellent Dajla Cuvee Barrique from Istravino and the “Vrhunsko” 2007 red cab/merlot blend from Boškinac winery on Pag island.
Most famously, merlot (along with cabernet sauvignon and refosco) was a component in the Clai Ottocento 2007 Crno that Gary Vaynerchukreviewed – and fell in love with – on Wine Library TV. You can see Gary’s reaction – and watch the whole wines of Croatia episode (above).
Cabernet franc is sparsely-planted, but MorenoDegrassiin Istria produces a lovely version full of typical cab franc character (cherry and black fruits with a hint of tobacco and sweet herbs).
That pinot noir (‘pinot crni”) is only grown in a few select spots in Croatia is testimony to the grape’s fickleness and outright hostility toward inappropriate terroirs. But a couple of producers have had some luck with it, notably Velimir Korakin Plešivica and Vlado Krauthaker in Kutjevo (from grapes grown on the upper slopes of Mt. Krndija). Back in cool Plešivica, Šember winery offers a delicate and refreshing 100% pinot noir sparkling wine that tingles with hibiscus and watermelon flavors laced with seashell minerality.
Syrah? It’s emerging in a select few locations in Croatia and is still very much in the experimental phase. Early results though indicate that the grape (syrah/shiraz) seems to enjoy Croatian hospitality. A growing area to watch is the Dalmatian hinterland around the coastal city Zadar, where Alen BIBICh produces his acclaimed Sangreal Shiraz and Benkovacwinery cultivates 103 hectares of vines that spawned the award-winning 2007 Korlat Syrah.
In Istria, Bruno Trapan has seriously invested in syrah and is hedging his bets that it will do well on his 5 hectares of vineyards located 50-55 meters above sea level at Šišana near Pula. Trapan 2007 Shuluq Syrah received a “Commended” rating in the Decanter 2010 World Wine Awardscompetition. That said, I suspect that the international marketability of Croatian syrah will face many challenges, especially in light of the recent – and sad – downturn in global demand for syrah.
Let’s not forget Zinfandel. Technically, Zinfandel is a native Croatian variety called Crljenak Kaštelanski and its story and genetic links to Croatia have been widely documented. But because some Croatian producers are preparing to release wines labeled as “Zinfandel”, we will briefly mention it here. Zinfandel (aka Crljenak) is native to the Kaštela region of central Dalmatia, near the city of Split. Further south on the Pelješac peninsula, well-respected producer, Marija Mrgudić of Bura-Mugudić winery, planted Napa clones and is preparing for the first release of Croatian Zinfandel. Although the jury is still out on whether this grape can deliver as much potential as plavac mali (the variety that historically supplanted it) – or if American zinfandel producers will opposethe use of the “Zinfandel” moniker on labels from Croatia – it is an interesting development and can only help draw positive attention to Croatia’s winemaking culture.
Sauvignon blanc? Riesling? Pinot gris? Pinot blanc? All are planted in Croatia (where they are known as “sauvignon”, “rajnski rizling”, “pinot sivi”, and “pinot bijeli” respectively) and have a long history of being consumed locally as table wines, particularly in the cool continental regions. But a number of producers have invested in vineyard and cellar in order to improve quality and raise the profile of these varieties – especially sauvignon blanc and riesling. A very promising producer is Bolfanin the Zlatar wine-growing hills of the Međimurje–Zagorje region. The Bolfan portfolio includes some very intriguing, pure and refreshing whites across all styles (dry to sweet) from an array of grapes grown on its 20 hectares of stunningly beautiful “Vinski vrh” (Wine Summit) vineyards; the Bolfan ’08 Riesling Primus is drinking beautifully now with an off-dry, richly extracted profile of golden apples, pears and honey with hints of petrol and wet stone minerality. Tasty!
For sauvignon blanc, watch for the award-winning Badel 1862 Sauvignon Daruvar and ZdjelarevićSauvignon from Slavonia. Not surprisingly, sauvignon blanc seems to have found its sweetest spot in the Plešivica area with its cool, moist and sunny slopes that grace the bowl of the area’s naturally-formed amphitheater. There Korak, Šember and Tomac produce crisp, lovely citrus and herbal examples.
Gewürztraminer (“traminac”) does very well in the far-eastern corners of the Slavonia and Podunavlje regions, where it is made into everything from dry, spicy whites to unctuous, richly floral and delicious late harvest and ice wines. Iločki Podrumi is a leading producer in the Srijem wine-growing hills and in certain frosty years Kutjevo wineryand Iločki podrumi make a luscious Ice Wine (“Ledeno vino”) from the variety.
So yes…wines made from familiar international varieties can be found in Croatia – and to a lesser extent on export markets.
That said, international varieties are not the future of Croatian winemaking or marketing program. The “Golden Promise” (I would argue) lies in Croatia’s rich array of indigenous grape varieties. Their individual stories are screaming to be told and are sure to pique intrigue among – and stimulate the palates of – savvy foreign wine buyers and adventurous consumers.
Ray Isle, Food & Wine magazine’s executive wine editor, recently presented “Five Grapes to Expand Your Wine Horizons” in an article for CNN’s Eatocracy blog. Unfortunately none of the grapes he mentioned was from Croatia (the list did include blaufrankisch, known in Croatia as frankovka). The point is, wine drinkers who seek the magic of discovery must look beyond mainstream varieties and venture into uncharted territory: The land of native grapes with charming, sometimes tongue-twisting names.
Once blessed with over 400 indigenous grape varieties, the Croatian Ministry of Agriculture’s official list of cultivars today contains 192 varieties, of which 130 are considered autochthonous (indigenous) to Croatia or the region. Of that number, only three dozen or so are commonly found in modern commercial wines. The “Big Three” of course are graševina, malvasia istriana, and plavac mali, which are – in descending order – the most widely planted wine grape varieties in Croatia.
In our next post we will introduce the “Big Three” – and go beyond, presenting you with the “Magnificent Seven”, a fabulous handful of Croatian wine grapes that you should know. These varieties were selected based on their commonality, the quality of the wine they produce, and their accessibility and presence on both the domestic and export markets.
For fans of even lesser-know varieties, fear not. We will subsequently venture beyond the Magnificent Seven and explore a gaggle of other quirky, interesting and uniquely Croatian grape varieties that did not make the first round. Stay tuned to meet the whole gang – the wild and wonderful Grapes of Croatia! 🙂
Three years ago the organizers of Vinistra (the annual wine festival of the Association of Winegrowers & Winemakers of Istria, Croatia) launched the first World of Malvasia (“Svijet Malvazije”) competition, an event that precedes by a couple of weeks the annual Vinistra wine expo, with the results formally announced on the first day of the fair.
Each year producers of Malvasia from around the world are invited to submit wines made from any of the numerous sub-categories of the Malvasia Bianca family of grapes that exist in the Mediterranean basin.
Not surprisingly, given that the event is organized by Vinistra and held in the lovely Croatian seaside town of Poreč, Malvazija Istarska is typically the most common variety of Malvasia represented in the competition. Malvazija Istarska – or Malvasia Istriana – is native to an area that encompasses the Istrian peninsula of Croatia, western Slovenia, and northeast Italy (Friuli).
However, fine examples of other sub-varieties of Malvasia usually find their way to the competition and are a welcome reference point of comparison. This year’s event showcased examples of Malvasija Dubrovačka (Malvasia of Dubrovnik), Malmsey, and Malvasia Volcánica, in addition to the ubiquitous Malvazija Istarska.
For the purposes of judging, the wines are organized into three categories:
1) Still Dry Wines
2) Natural Sweet Wines
3) Liqueur Wines (Fortified Wines)
To ensure a perception of impartiality and to give the competition international creed, the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV) sponsors the event and oversees the judging, which is conducted by teams of wine professionals, including sommeliers, journalists, wine buyers and restaurateurs.
This year, the World of Malvasia competition was held April 27-30, 2011 and included a record number of submissions: 219 wines from five countries (Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, Portugal, and Spain).
“For the third consecutive year and with a record number of submissions, the World of Malvasia competition has further established itself as the premier forum for the contemplation, discussion, and evaluation of Malvasia as a grape variety and wine”, said Mario Staver, president of the Vinistra Evaluation Committee.
On May 13, 2011, at a formal ceremony on the opening day of the 18th annual Vinistra wine expo, the 2011 World of Malvasia winners were announced.
Of the 219 wines submitted for judgment, a total of 65 received medals, with Gold medals awarded to 43 wines and Silver medals to 22 wines.
Croatia dominated with a total of 32 Gold and 17 Silver medals. Italy received four Gold and two Silver medals, while Slovenia followed with three Gold and three Silver – all in the “Still Dry Wines” category. Portugal finished with three Gold medals, while Spain scored one Gold medal in the “Liqueur Wines” category.
“When you look at the results of this year’s competition, it is evident that the average quality of the wines continues to improve. In other words, year-after-year Istrian producers are producing better and better wines. That is a trend that I am sure will continue,” said Ivica Matošević, president of Vinistra.
Taking the only “Grand Gold” medal was a dessert wine from Croatia, the 2009 Vin de Rosa by Sergio Delton – a little-known producer from Vodnjan in Istria. At 92 points, the Vin de Rosa was the highest scoring Malvasia wine of the competition.
The second-highest scoring Malvasia wine (90.67 points) was 10-year old non-vintage Madeira from Justino’s in the “Liqueur Wines” category. The third-highest score (89.83 points) went to a Malvasia Volcánica wine: the 1956 Canari from Bodegas El Grifo in Spain.
Keeping with the underdog theme, two relatively unknown producers – M&G International from Umag, Croatia and Franko Radovan from Višnjan, Croatia – each (with 89.6 points) took home a Gold Medal for their 2010 vintages in the “Still Dry Wines” category.
(Side note: Franko Radovan’s home and winery are in a village just outside of Višnjan, a hamlet called Radovani. Yes, Franko – like the more-famous Moreno Coronica – has a village named after him too!)
The only other producer to achieve the 89-point threshold was Benvenuti, a winery in the medieval hillside town of Motovun in Istria, Croatia. Their sweet 2009 Malvazija Istarska was awarded 89.5 points, putting it in second place in the “Natural Sweet Wines” category and making it the fifth-highest score of the competition.
Hot on Malvasia Istriana’s tail in the “Still Dry Wines” category is a Malvasija Dubrovačka (Malvasia of Dubrovnik) from Crvik winery in southern Dalmatia, just below Dubrovnik. With 85 points, the 2009 vintage was the only Croatian “Malvasia” from outside of Istria to win a medal.
It is interesting to note the many different styles of Malvazija Istriana represented within the “Still Dry Wines” category. There are young, fresh, unwooded versions (most of the 2010 vintages). There’s Malvasia aged in traditional oak (Matošević). Aged in acacia (“akacija”) wood (Kozlović; Matošević). Extended skin maceration (Vina Gordia Kolomban). And even a Malvasia fermented in amphora (Kabola).
It could be said that Malvasia’s diversity and ability to express a wide-array of characteristics is both a blessing and a curse. Whatever you may think, the 2011 World of Malvasia competition is an important venue that showcases the international appeal of this often misunderstood grape and reveals the many fascinating expressions of its geographical origin across a wide arch of Mediterranean terroirs.
Like in any large family, you have winners and losers, geniuses and dopes, artists and scientists, poets and pedestrians, easy-going personalities and difficult-to- understand characters.
But there’s no denying that the sum of all these parts is a colorful kaleidoscope of diversity: from straw-yellow freshness to “orange wine” wackiness; from bone-dry minerality to lusciously sweet indulgence; from bitter almond palate teasers to mouth-filling acacia-flower and honey scented “sweeties”; from low-alcohol refreshment to fortified power. Malvasia – via its many brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins, and other relatives once-removed – offers something for every palate.
So choose your winner – and raise your glass to the many intrepid producers who are digging for gold in the red, white and lava-soiled hills that rise so beautifully in the world of Malvasia. Your palate may shine as a result.