By Matthew Drazick Halip, Guest Blogger
On a recent, chilly spring evening, I was sitting at my desk, pen poised over paper, contemplating an open bottle of Plavac Mali red wine. With every sip, memories of my visit to Grgić winery in Croatia flashed inside my head: the perfume of lavender fields and saltwater; the sound of the crashing waves at Trstenik Beach; and the faces of the two kindly women who introduced me to the bottle that began my love affair with wine.
That introduction came four years ago, when my cousin and I commandeered a relative’s car and went zipping across the grape-vine covered hillsides of the Pelješac peninsula, a 40-mile long finger of land that points out into the Adriatic Sea in southern Dalmatia.
We were on a mission to find “the Man”, Mike Grgich. Or least to visit his “other” winery.
Above us, the golden sun glistened in the afternoon sky, illuminating the jagged white limestone that ringed the coastline, briefly giving way to the calm cove and smooth pebble enclave that is Trstenik beach.
Suddenly I was overtaken by a feeling of serenity. The sights before me – the sparkling Adriatic Sea, olive trees, wild-herb covered hills, and emerald vineyards clinging to the steep slopes – took my breath away. This was no longer the Motor City. What was unfolding before me was something akin to a fairytale landscape.
The anticipation of the day’s event had butterflies fluttering inside my stomach, sending ripples of excitement throughout my body. After a quick stop to gaze out from another of the many scenic roadside lookouts, I turned to my cousin, Romana Prepolec, and asked her when we would be heading to the winery. Smiling, she simply said (in her charming Croatian accent), “We can go whenever you’re ready.”
The drive to the Grgić winery was short (nothing is too far away on the sparsely-populated Pelješac peninsula), but just long enough for my excitement to make me impatient. But soon enough, just after another curve in the winding road, a white sign with painted words appeared, indicating that we had arrived at the historic winery.
A gravel driveway lead up to a simple white building that was tucked into a small grove of pine trees. Just beyond the trees, descending down toward the sea, chartreuse-colored Plavac Mali vines thrived in scattered clusters, clinging to a tumble of rock and wild herb-strewn slopes. Hanging from them were conical bunches of purple and burgundy berries, ripening in the hot sun.
“Dobro došli u vinariji Grgić” two women casually welcomed us as we walked inside the tasting room of the iconic winery.
My cousin returned the Croatian greeting as I tried to absorb the majestic nature of this place where an international winemaking star calls his second (or “first”?) home.
Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, of Grgich Hills Winery in Napa Valley, grew up in this part of Croatia, drinking wine his father made from native Plavac Mali grapes. After emigrating to the United States, Mike Grgich went on to achieve international recognition, after the Chardonnay he made for Chateau Montelena won the now-famous Paris tasting of 1976.
Many years later, Mike returned to his Croatian homeland, and in 1995 he established Grgić Vina on this very spot where I stood – ready to begin tasting the Grgić Plavac Mali that the two nice women poured for me.
The crimson colored wine shimmered in the sunlight as I swirled the juice inside my glass. Plum and black cherry aromas rose up and caressed my nose, awakening my senses with each inhale. Romana raised her glass and said “Živjeli” (in the traditional Croatian salute for “Cheers”) as we clinked our glasses together. My mouth began to water at the prospect of the first sip.
At once I could tell the wine was hearty: Ripe flavors of dried and stewed fruit, Mediterranean herbs and spices, and a touch of oak coated my palate. The combination of flavors had my taste buds abuzz with delight, eager for the next sip.
The afternoon drifted away in a wash of wine, good conversation, and a short tour of the winery property (the grape press that Mike used to make the Chardonnay that won the Paris tasting is now on display at the winery). Finally, my cousin and I left the winery with a prized bottle in hand, a smile on our purple lips, and daydreams of a return trip to this beautiful site.
While I am still waiting to take that trip back to Grgić winery to relive the glory of tasting Plavac Mali in its native home, I will have to be content with opening a bottle of Grgić Plavac Mali every once in a while to taste, smile, and dream….
For me, Plavac Mali is more then just a wine. It’s an unforgettable memory, a unique experience, a special feeling that that makes the hair on my arms stand up when I think of it touching my lips.
This Croatian grape with the funny name spilled the dark ink of juice with which I began to record my lifelong story of wine tasting – setting the bar high as I taste my way through the world of wine, from Alicante Bouschet all the way to Žlahtina.
Grgić 2007 Plavac Mali (Pelješac Peninsula, Southern Dalmatia, Croatia)
Deep ruby color tinged with garnet. Distinctive aromas of muddled plum skins, mission fig, black cherry, and dried cranberries, with hints of Mediterranean herbs, sea salt and powdered limestone, and infused with sweet oak notes of chocolate and cafe au lait. On the palate, the wine is a contradiction of rusticity and elegance: bold, somewhat course tannins give a rugged frame to a mouth feel that seems smooth, rich and lush all at once. Super ripe black fruits, dried fig, spice, anise and mocha notes coat the palate and linger on the finish. The wine feels slightly overripe, and with 15,1% alcohol, it is powerful and a bit aggressive at the moment. But bright acidity provides the vibrancy to give it lift and freshness, and the warm alcohol glow yields to the sun-baked flavors. Still young, the wine would benefit from a few years’ cellar time – or 1-2 hours in the decanter prior to serving. -C.R. (Imported by Vinum USA: http://www.vinumusa.com/)
Matthew Drazick Halip is a Croatian-American food & wine blogger, student and sports aficionado from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. He current resides in Greensboro, North Carolina. His blog is called Motor City Munchies: http://motorcitymunchies.blogspot.com/