Robert Parker & Croatian Wines: “Cruel to be Kind” (Part II of Neal Martin’s Report)


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Editor’s Note: With this report, Robert Parker’s influencial “Wine Advocate” journal has published its first-ever review of a selection of wines from Croatia. The report and subsequent scores were written and posted by Neal Martin of www.wine-journal.com and  www.erobertparker.com and are reprinted here with permission. This is Part II of a series of posts from Mr. Martin’s report, presented here for informational purposes. The statements, suggestions and reviews contained herein are purely Mr. Martin’s work and are subject to copyright and may not be republished elsewhere without permission of the author.      

 

 

 

 

 

Rights and Wrongs

This was not a disappointing showcase of Croatian wine, but it did highlight where winemakers are going right and where they are going wrong. It attested to a country with great potential, but empirically learning how to take their wines to ‘the next stage’ like New Zealand or Chile in the 1990s.

The main problem is alcohol levels.
I was astonished how many red wines topped the scales at over 15 degrees alcohol and yes, you could really feel that warmth and at times, that volatility. I initially conjectured that this was a stylistic choice on the part of the winemaker, however, the more I examined Croatia, the more I came to the conclusion that the problem maybe their indigenous grape varieties.

Ernest Tolj, Steven Spurrier and Neal Martin at the Fine Wine Croatia tasting in London, May 2010

Wine writers constantly bang on about the need for countries to embrace their domestic grape varieties in order to counter the purported homogenization of global wine. I whole-heartedly agree with that principle. It is vital for wine regions to be proud of the winemaking heritage and a flagship grape variety come be a useful tool in promoting your wine in a vast ocean of Chardonnay or Cabernet.

Grk ("Gerghk") grapes

There are two downsides.

Firstly, if grape varieties are nigh impossible to pronounce (how did you silently pronounce ‘Grk’ back there?) then this can deter consumers from dipping their toe in the water, particular on a restaurant list where there have to get their tongue around the name in front of a sommelier.

Secondly, there is the assumption that the domestic grape varieties are good by dint of them being…domestic.

What if they are not?  Do you turn a blind eye?

Babic ("Bah-Bitch") grapes

You see, both Plavac Mali and Babic are naturally acidic grapes, the latter prone to vegetal notes if not fully ripe (much like Cabernet Franc.) This coerces winemakers to pick as late as possible and ferment the wines up to 15 or 16 degrees, which is completely understandable, but in many cases this precipitates unbalanced wines that I could not imagine drinking in any quantity. Consequently, Croatian winemakers are stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea: reduce alcohol and risk under-ripeness or maintain high alcohol and risk one hell of a hangover, potentially for both consumer and sales?

What is the solution to this?

For me, it is a simply a case of going back to basics, examining the optimal picking date more carefully, piecemeal analysis of the vineyard and its terroir, managing the fermentation more meticulously and I have to say, not being corralled into producing high alcohol wine or nothing. This will all come from deepening experience and empirical learning. They need to learn that masking under-ripeness with layers of new oak often renders a bland, characterless wine that could come from anywhere and says nothing about where it comes from. High alcohol wines can sometimes work but only if you cannot feel the alcohol and the wine is perfectly in balance.

Graševina "Grah-sheh-vee-na")

On the positive side, I am convinced that Grasevina can produce fine white wine, indeed I fondly recall an impressive flight at the International Wine Challenge last April. Probably the best thing that anyone did was change the name and banish the associations we have with the much-derided Laski Rizling. Grasevina is easy to pronounce and provides a hook for some lovely, fresh, aromatic Croatian wines that perhaps need to work on their length: abundant flavour on the front palate but not the back-end to really make an impression.  Growers need to watch those yields because they can engender bland, anonymous wines if not kept in check.

I sampled a flight of sweet Croatian wines at the end of the tasting. Some of them were simply too cloying, although I found much delight in those matured in amphora.

Tomislav Tomac and his amphora

To sum up, perhaps I am being cruel to be kind. Croatia can potentially make outstanding wine. I get the sense that winemakers are still trying things out and seeing what works. Nothing wrong with that, but my role as a critic is to be candid and say where its strengths and weaknesses lie, rather than patronize them with pronouncements that they can take on the world. A small handful of these wines? Maybe. But some winemakers need to change their approach and in a lot of cases, not try so hard. Again, you have to distinguish between optimal and maximum oak, for they are not necessarily the same.

Another obstacle is prices. Many of the top wines are snapped up in Croatia and those that do make it over are not shy in charging a premium. Occasionally that premium is deserved, but persuading consumers to part with their hard earned cash for a Croatian Plavac Mali is not going to be easy (assuming that Croatian wine producers feel it necessary to develop export markets.)

Plavac Mali vineyards on Hvar island

It goes without saying that I will discover more when I actually visit the country. This simply serves as an introduction. The islands such as Hvar and Korcula are reputed for their high-class wines and it is only a matter of time before I discover them. In the meantime, I leave with the tasting notes that I have collated as per region. You will see that I have kept the Croatian spelling of grape varieties, after all that is what you will probably see on the bottle. In the meantime, here are a few wines that caught my eye…

Croatian Recommendations:
Matosevic Grimalda (Red Blend) 2008
Trapan Ponente 2009
Trapan Uroboros 2008
Krauthaker Chardonnay Rosenberg 2009
Zdjelarevic Grand Cuvee Nagual (White) 2008
Daruvar Grasevina 2008
Belje Grasevina 2009
Daruvar Grasevina 2008
Kutjevo Grasevina Izborna Berba Prosusenih Bobica 2006
Tomac Amfora 2007
Kabola Amfora 2006

P.S. from Editor: In Part III, we will present Mr. Martin’s notes and scores for the Slavonian wines sampled in London.

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3 thoughts on “Robert Parker & Croatian Wines: “Cruel to be Kind” (Part II of Neal Martin’s Report)

  • Just got back from Istria and it was so, so good to NOT have Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon everywhere. I tasted some stunning Malvasia and outstanding reds from Teran and Bougojnia grape varieties. A breath of (very welcome) fresh air.

    • Thank you, Tymmie, for your comments. So happy to know you enjoyed Istria. Check out yesterday’s post about Oz Clarke, James Beard House, and “Mystical Malvazija”. You’ll enjoy it.

      Best,
      Cliff

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