Outside a damp low-hanging sky clung like layers of smoke on the upper slopes of the hills of Plešivica. I imagined that Ernest Hemingway, sitting here sipping a glass of wine, would have called them “hills like white elephants”. But that’s another story….
This story is about two of the most respected winemakers in Plešivica, and I had just pulled into the driveway of one of them: Mr. Velimir Korak. Mr. Korak, who has been making wine for over 20 years and released his first proprietary vintage in 1991, has a reputation as one of the finest winemakers in Croatia. His wines have won multiple awards and medals in domestic showings.
Plešivica is a wine-growing region along Croatia’s northwest border with Slovenia (see previous blog for map and more info). From his winery, Velimir Korak enjoys a breathtaking view from atop one of the region’s many summits; here the hills reach as high as 1,300 feet (400 meters) above sea level, with Alpine-styled chalet houses and family farms adorning their undulating peaks and terraces. True enough, from the front door of the Korak winery, the wine hills of Plesivica roll away like autumn-colored waves into the misty distance.
Walking among the vines in front of the winery, nibbling on a few forgotten yet sticky-sweet berries, all I could think was: What a great place for a summer picnic! Sit outside, eating lamb or wild boar roasted over an open fire, drinking some of Plešivica’s best wines, talking, joking and eventually singing with friends.
Back inside the cozy tasting room, I was ready for a glass.
Mr. Korak is a distinguished-looking gentleman with jolly eyes, a mischievous smile, and a quietly reserved manner.
“What would you like to taste”, he asked.
“Whatever you would like to show me”, I answered.
He smiled that wise and assuring smile. Without hesitation he began to move about the room, reaching into cabinets and crevices, pulling out bottles and corks. Every once in a while he would hold one up like a proud father and glance at me without a word – just a shy grin, as if to say: “you will like this one”.
Korak winery is perched atop a high hill in Plešivica. Directly in front of the winery and the adjacent house where the Korak family lives, rows of 15-year old Riesling vines arch down the hill and descend into the valley below. In addition to Riesling, the Korak family grows Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc on his 5 hectares (12.36 acres) of vineyards. Annual production hovers around 40,000 bottles, primarily white wines.
One of these wines, the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc ‘Ljetno Vino” (“Summer Wine”), swirled in my glass and awoke my palate. It was lean and crisp, showing light citrus, hay and floral notes. At only 12.9% alcohol, it would make a great picnic aperitif. In contrast, the 2008 “Vrhunsko” Sauvignon Blanc, aged for 10 months in neutral oak vats, clocked in at 14% alcohol and delivered richer stone fruit (nectarine) and dried hay notes. However, it was still closed and austere, needing more time to develop and open up.
In general I would describe Mr. Korak’s wines as pure, crystalline expressions of fruit nurtured in a stunningly beautiful, eco-clean environment. Think of table grapes that you sometimes get at the supermarket that are crunchy yet packed with juice; they crack and burst when you bite them. I imagined that Mr. Korak’s grapes, picked in the cool Plešivica mornings and covered in dew, taste even better.
More impressive was the 2006 Chardonnay “Sur Lie”, a barrel-fermented, non-filtered, unsulphured beauty that glows with a richly gold, amber-tinged color. The nose was exquisite with baked apple and brioche aromas, laced with warm spice and oak notes. A taste revealed a round, creamy and slightly oily texture with flavors of ripe apple, caramel, and buttery pastry, all set pleasantly ablaze by good doses of acidity and alcohol.
While his white wines are the crux of his portfolio, the most memorable wine for me was the 2008 Pinot Noir, freshly bottled and still without a label. This was classic Pinot: delicate and elegant; pure red fruits and a pretty floral note; clean, refreshing yet complex. Even though it was only three weeks in bottle, it was already showing great potential. I can’t wait to go back and try it again.
Glowing now from the inner warmth that only fine wine can deliver, we talked for a time while nibbling on locally-produced cheeses and savory pastries. The subject matter drifted between the state of the wine industry in Croatia, hail storms and vintage variations, and how Croatian wines should be marketed in the United States. But none of that really mattered. In the end, it was the wines that spoke to our hearts.
So, it was time to bid farewell to the Korak winery and drive down the mountain to a very different place: the Tomac winery in Donja Reka, a village just outside the town of Jastrebrasko, at the foot of the Plešivica hills, where a mystery buried in the ground waits to be discovered.
Photos and text by Cliff Rames, www.winesofcroatia.com