Just because the sunsets arrive earlier, the shadows cast longer, the nights undulate with the mating songs of crickets and the haunting bumps of falling acorns, does not mean that it is suddenly unacceptable to drink white wine.
True, my craving for red wine – suppressed in the oppressive heat of summer – is beginning to awaken and warm my veins. Nonetheless, autumn and winter are still fine times to crack open a white wine – preferably one of fuller body – when the urge strikes or menu demands.
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 don’t suppose a road can be defined as two dirt tracks just wide enough for a tractor; nor a rutted path that weaves and bobs through a black forest in the middle of nowhere.
But it was on such a “road” that I found myself, in a little 4-cylinder Fiat with wheels the size of Frisbees, one starry evening last November, following Marko Miklaužić up to the outpost of his winery in the Voloder-Ivanić Grad wine-growing hills of Moslavina, Croatia.
With the car lurching and shuttering as it plunged through muddy depressions, roiled over the humps of protruding boulders, and squealed as tree branches from the edges of the forest clawed across sheet metal, I pressed on.
Occasionally it crossed my mind that I had no idea who this man in the car in front of me really was (I had only met him minutes earlier in front of a small supermarket in town, after which he told me to follow him), and I certainly had no clue as to where on earth he was taking me.
But none of that mattered. I was on another grapey adventure. This time to investigate a little-known white grape called Škrlet.
(On a side note: I am always amazed by how fast Croatians drive. That evening, on that suspect road, was no exception. Marko’s tiny red taillights often came close to escaping me, and I drove in fear that he would leave me behind, where I would surely get lost and careen into a gully or river, never to be found. So I pushed my little rental car as hard as I dared, and we finally pulled up in front of a rustic, wooden building and parked.)
Outside the Miklaužić winery the continental night air was sharply cold, and I could see my breath as Marko sorted through keys to open the door. Millions of stars were sprinkled like white freckles across the dark skin of night.
Coincidentally, freckles are what lured me to Moslavina. Not the freckles of stars or pretty Croatian girls (although who could resist those!). Rather, the freckles – or more precisely the Scarlet Fever-like rash spots – of the Škrlet grape.
Native to the Moslavina (Moslavačko) region of north-central Croatia, just southeast of the capital city, Zagreb, the Škrlet grape is relatively unknown outside of Croatia. Actually, beyond its primary growing areas around the towns of Kutina, Čazma and Voloder-Ivanićgrad, as well as the town of Sisak in the Pokupje region, I would hazard to suggest that there are few Croats who have ever heard of or tasted Škrlet.
Derived from the German word “scharlach”, meaning a speckled or dotted surface (hence, the name also given to the rash-giving illness, Scarlet Fever), Škrlet is distinguished by the fact that – when ripe – its berries can become speckled with purple or reddish dots on its golden-orange skins.
After a tour of the winery and cellars, Marko and I settled down in the warmth of the tasting room and chatted as I tasted through a few examples of his Škrlet wines. He told me about the spring hail that knocked out about 80% of his red grape (Frankovka, Merlot & Pinot Noir) harvest. With a shrug of the shoulders, he mentioned how he didn’t have hail insurance, which reportedly costs about $1,000 per hectare.
Luckily, the 7 hectares of Škrlet vineyards were unharmed. In a typical year, Miklaužić winery produces about 100,000 bottles of wine from its 27 hectares of vines (17 in ownership/10 leased). Of this amount, Škrlet accounts for about 25% of his production, or 25,000 bottles.
Škrlet is an easy-drinking wine that is best consumed in the first year and no later than two years of the vintage. Most often it is made into a fresh, crisp, youthful style, but sometimes you can find riper, off-dry versions.
Younger styles – like the 2008 “Kvalitetno” version I tasted – tend to be light straw yellow in color with flashes of green highlights. On the nose Škrlet shows aromas that are often suggestive of green apples, pears, citrus, chamomile tea, thistles, field grass and hay – aromas reminiscent of a spring pasture.
On the palate, it is light to medium bodied, with an alcohol content ranging from 9.7% – 12.5%. A prominent feature of the palate experience is the bright, zesty acidity with a slightly bitter note of the back palate, which makes Škrlet a wonderful, palate-cleansing and food-friendly wine. While the finish is rather short, it is nonethelass pleasant with flavors of juicy green apple and lemon with green herbal notes.
Riper, late-harvest versions, like the wine from Mikša winery, show more red apple, apricot and dried hay characteristics – sometimes with a hint of elderflower – while retaining a nice, balanced dose of acidity.
Škrlet is best served chilled with dishes that feature poached white fish, poultry, and green vegetables such as asparagus, leeks, lettuce, snow peas, and zucchini.
Currently there are just a handful of producers making wine from Škrlet in the region, with much of the small production consumed locally. Consequently, availability of the wine outside the borders of the Moslavina and Pokupje appellations is limited. At the moment none is exported.
However, increasing interest among domestic and international wine connesuiers toward wines made from indigenous varieties, as well as recognition among some wine critics that Škrlet is an interesting grape variety that has the potential to deliver wines of good quality and universal appeal, has resulted in increased plantings, which will presumably result in wider distribution of this unique and off-the-beaten-path wine. Another plus, accorsding to Marko, is that Škrlet is very resistant to disease and rot – quite a necessary trait in a region that can be wet and cold, not to mention remote.
In addition to Miklaužić winery, other producers of Škrlet include Juren, Kezele, Košutić, and Mikša in Moslavina, and Trdenić in Pokupje. Other regional synonyms for Škrlet include Ovnek žuti, Ovnek Slatki, Škrlet Tusti, and Škrtec.
Sometimes when in search of off-the-beaten-path wines, one must take the road less traveled. In the case of Škrlet, that road – for now – may be a little hard and bumpy and inaccessible to most of us, but it is definitely worth the trip.
After all, isn’t that part of the wonder and magic of wine? Finding that next tasty discovery, revealed to you when you least expect it, one that transports you to places where tour buses can’t roam? For me that’s one of the most exciting things about discovering the wine roads and native grapes of Croatia. To find them you must travel down paths where few have ventured before. For the intrepid (and thirsty) explorer, the other end of the path often reveals hidden treasures and unspoiled beauties that wait like lovely, freckled princesses.