An exclusive interview with Fred Dexheimer, MS
In September 2015, Fred Dexheimer, one of only 230 Master Sommeliers in the world, visited Croatia and spent four days touring the Dalmatia and Istria wine regions. Wines of Croatia recently caught up with Fred (who moves very fast!) for an exclusive interview, in which he reveals his impressions of the trip and expert opinions on the wines he tasted.
1. What compelled you to visit Croatia now?
Well, I knew I would be going to Macedonia on a trip sponsored by Wines of Macedonia, so I thought, Croatia is so close—I should go! As you know, I have been interested in Croatia for many years and early on recognized it for the quality of its wines, particularly those produced from indigenous grape varieties. Ampelography (the botanical study of grapevine cultivation and genetics) is one of my keen interests, and Croatia’s story regarding the origins of Zinfandel is totally cool. Over the years I have met several Croatian winemakers during their visits to New York. Their stories are compelling and I have always felt the desire to do my part to champion them. When this opportunity to go to Macedonia came up, I knew it was finally time for me to pop over to Croatia and see the magic for myself.
2. Which regions and wineries did you visit?
Croatia enjoys such a unique landscape and terroir for wine growing, especially in Dalmatia. It is also an amazingly beautiful place. So I wanted to spend a few days in Dalmatia, which for me is fascinating from the ampelography perspective because of the large number of indigenous grape varieties there. Over the years I have heard so much about Hvar island, so I decided to go there first, where I visited Duboković and Tomić wineries. It was also interesting to visit Jo Ahearne’s “garagista” operation in Sveta.Nedelja. She’s a Master of Wine making wine on Hvar. How cool is that!? Jo took us on a lurching jeep ride up a mountain, which was pretty dramatic and breathtaking. I saw all these Plavac Mali vines improbably clinging to the rocks on the mountainside. I mean, it must have been a 50 degree incline. Incredible! How does anything grow there?!
After Hvar, I returned to the mainland to visit Bibich winery near Skradin for a marathon, multi-course food and wine pairing extravaganza. I mean, Alen Bibić and his wife, Vesna, are doing French Laundry style cuisine out of a little kitchen behind the tasting room. Freakin’ incredible! And the wines are awesome and reflect Alen’s passion and dedication to the local terroir and local indigenous varieties. Grapes with names like Babić, Debit, Lasina, Maraština, Plavina, Pošip…all different and unique yet expressing a sense of place that is Dalmatia with its sun, sea and rocks. Gotta love it!
From Dalmatia I went north to Istria, where I visited Matošević and Trapan wineries. Istria is very different than Dalmatia—greener with less rocks with a great climate for wine growing. Matošević is doing very interesting and nice wines from Malvasia Istriana, experimenting with different types of wood for barrel aging. And Trapan winery was impeccable—the cellar was meticulously organized and immaculate!
3. What was your overall impression of the wines? Was there one—or more—wine(s) that really rocked you?
Overall the wines I tasted were excellent—I wish I had tasted more! The vintners definitely have figured out what to grow in the right places, so the rest is winemaking. It was great to see that producers stay out of the way—let the terroir and wine speak for themselves—and not engage in over manipulation or using too much oak. I was particularly impressed by the purity of the whites. The Tomić Beleca, a blend of indigenous varieties from Hvar, was awesome—just so juicy and refreshing. Also, the Matošević Grimalda white, a blend of Malvasia and international varieties, was delicious, as was the Alba Antiqua, an orange Malvasia aged in a mix of French oak and acacia barrels. It was pure with vibrant energy. As for reds, the different expressions of Plavac Mali from Duboković demonstrate the incredible versatility and range styles that Plavac Mali is capable of. The Trapan Teran red was world class. And the Bibich Brut sparkling wine was a surprise—a bubbly Debit of Champagne quality. Well done!
4. Where do you think the wines of Croatia stand now in terms of market position and accessibility, especially in comparison to other regional players (e.g., Macedonia; Slovenia; Hungary; Greece)?
Croatia is not unknown. It definitely has the tourism angle going for it, which is a great portal to introduce people to the wines. But still the wines are unfamiliar and misunderstood. Distribution continues to be a huge challenge. Also, Croatian wines get lumped in with other Eastern European and Balkan wines. But Croatia has its own personality, its own identity that is unique and sexy and way more interesting than some other regional players. While I don’t think Croatia is The Next Big Thing, it is ready to become an exciting and solid category of wines that have staying power and can attract consumers who seek something fresh, something authentic, something excitingly different. Because of the SOMM movie and Uncorked TV series, wine awareness is growing, and people are more open to new stuff and more willing to dismiss old dogma or stigma. But more consumers and somms need to know how good Croatian wines are. I think once they discover them, they will say, “Yeah, man, that’s delicious”.
5. What was the most interesting thing you saw in Croatia?
Hvar. That jeep ride up the mountain was intense. I thought we were going to die! (Laughs)
6. Was there anything you encountered on the wine trails that was an issue or concern?
Nope. I saw a lot of promising stuff going on. None of, “Oh, that would be good if only…”. Everywhere I went my reaction was, “This is cool; this is good!”
7. If you could offer Croatian winemakers a bit of advice, what would it be?
Continue to experiment and find the best expression of your vineyards, your terroir. Seek that sweet spot that will distinguish the wines of Croatia from other regional wines. Establish yourselves as producers of high quality, exciting and unique wines producers that can shine on Michelin Star restaurants and get sommeliers buzzing. Find the right importer—someone who you believe in, and who believes in you and shares your winemaking philosophy and can get behind you and successfully market your story. I call it the “Bibich Approach”. Be smart in marketing but true to your terroir and wines. And make sure your price points are appropriate and attractive for what you are offering. Finally, identify one or two quality varieties that can lead the charge. I think Plavac Mali definitely is a player and can generate excitement and a following, especially because of its ties to Zinfandel. But are there others? Let’s see!
8. When Anthony Bourdain visited Croatia in 2012, he famously declared “Holy sh**, that’s good!” after tasting Croatian wines. Do you have a “Fredism” along those lines?
Yeah: “Ka-pow! These wines are rocking!” (Laughs)
9. If you could visit Croatia again, which wine regions/wineries would you like to visit?
Clearly I’d like to spend more time in Dalmatia and visit Pelješac and Dingač. Also Korčula and its Grk vineyards. I’d like to see what is happening down around Dubrovnik. Slavonia is also intriguing—and overlooked. But they are doing some pretty interesting stuff with Graševina there. It’s apparently a variety that is capable of many styles, from sparkling to still, from dry to desert wines and everything in-between. But I haven’t tasted many wines and look forward to eventually exploring more.
10. Any last words or advice?
Sure. Instead of doing a huge Grand Tasting every two years and blowing your whole marketing budget in one day, organize several small, targeted events throughout the year. Figure out a way to bring small groups of traveling winemakers over several times a year so that there is a steady presence. During these visits, organize winemaker luncheons/dinners with top sommeliers in different cities. Four times a year—once a season—would be ideal and would help make an impact and sustain momentum. If you just show up once every couple of years and present the wines in a vacuum, without any follow-up activities, people forget, and any good will, energy and momentum evaporates. Utilize friends, ambassadors, and Wines of Croatia to grow excitement, knowledge, and momentum. That’s my two cents—or is that Kuna?—worth of advice. (Laughs)