By Cliff Rames
(Note: I first visited the Dalmatia Wine Expo in Split, Croatia two years ago in 2014. You can read my 2014 “Three Things I Learned” post HERE.)
Drinking wine could be compared to reading a book. Some books, like some wines, serve as mere entertainment, devoid of depth and enjoyed in a moment. Quickly they fade into the past without commemoration or recall.
Great books, though, capture and captivate your imagination. Glued to the page, each word enthralls…every sentence propels you deeper into the folds, eager to know what comes next…how the plot develops…what happens to the characters. The best among them may even influence and affect your life’s journey.
And so it is with fine wine (or should be). Fresh sensory delights, revelations and insights spark with each sip. Flavors unfold and bloom, lingering on the palate like succulent musings. They incite wonderment and sentimentality. Savor them, and time moves slower. When the last drop is inevitably consumed and the communion concluded, you find yourself altered…compelled to quiet contemplation…or—alternatively, singing and dancing…even weeping (it happens). Haunted, perhaps…but not sad or afraid. Joy and enlightenment are precious gifts granted us by great books and wines.
I carried these thoughts with me when I visited the 7th Annual Dalmatia Wine Expo, held April 22-23, 2016 at the elegant, newly renovated Hotel Park in Split, Croatia. Attended by approximately 60 wineries, roughly 250 wines were available for sampling. As with most of my short trips to Croatia, it was a whirlwind affair that barely just scratched the surface of the latest happenings and developments in Croatia’s dynamically evolving wine industry. Because I’m slow and get easily sidetracked and entranced, I ran out of time and could not taste every wine or talk to every winemaker (apologies to those I missed!). Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable experience that inspired and amazed me and will always remain a fond memory.
Without further adieu, here are the Three Things I Learned at the 2016 Dalmatia Wine Expo:
I. Native Grapes Rock!
Seriously delicious wines produced from international grapes varieties can be found all over Croatia, such as Bibich G6 Grenache, Korak Pinot Noir, Badel 1862 Korlat Syrah and Daruvar Sauvignon Blanc, Roxanich Milva Chardonnay, and Krauthaker Merlot.
But it’s the wines made from indigenous grapes that really get me excited. Wandering the expo, I happily noticed more and more wines produced from varieties with compelling names like Babić, Babica, Bogdanuša, Debit, Graševina, Grk, Kraljevina, Kuč, Kujundzuša, Lasina, Malvazija Istarska, Maraština, Mekuja, Ninčuša, Pošip, Prč, Teran, Vugava, Zlatarica, and Žlahtina. These are just some of the 130 or so indigenous varieties that set Croatia apart, spark interest among sommeliers and international wine buyers, and are key to Croatia’s wine future. It was encouraging to see many Dalmatian producers honing their focus and striving to understand the local grapes in order to produce wines that showcase their unique stories, traits and terroirs.
As if to prove my point, Jo Ahearne, a Master of Wine (MW) living on Hvar island, has fashioned a wonderful new rosé wine from the rare Darnekuša grape. The Ahearne 2015 Rosina was soft and juicy, with alluring notes of strawberry jam, watermelon, and a savory umami quality. It is the first commercial rosé made from Darnekuša, although another Hvar winemaker, Ivo Duboković, produces a medium bodied red called Laganini from the variety, and Plančić winery has resumed production (after a bankruptcy settlement) and is due to release a Darnekuša wine. Rosina is also the first wine made in Croatia by a Master of Wine, and from I can see on social media, it’s been a big success in Croatia (unfortunately only 3,000 bottles of the 2015 were made; none is currently exported).
Other indigenous wine gems to watch for include: Bibich La Sin (Lasina); Bire Grk; Babić and Debit from Birin; Carić Bogdanuša; Gracin Kontra (Babić/Plavac Mali blend); Huljić Mekuja; Lipanović Vugava; Piližota Plavina; Jure Sladić Rosé (Plavina/Lasina) and Lasina; Marinko Sladić Maraština; Vuina Babica and Plavac Mali; and Vujanović Prč.
By far the indisputable local hero is Crljenak Kaštelanski (aka Tribidrag; Pribidrag), the “Original Zin” (Zinfandel), which is quickly retaking its homeland since its ancestral origins were traced back to Croatia by a team of UC Davis researchers, as first reported by Jasenka Piljac Žegarac in her iconic book, Zinfandel: A Croatian-American Wine Story, and later also covered by me for The SOMM Journal. Hundreds of years ago Crljenak (Zinfandel) was grown throughout Dalmatia but was eventually replanted with its offspring, the heartier, more reliable Plavac Mali. Since the 2001 “Zin Quest” revelation, local wine growers have been steadfastly planting Crljenak along the central Adriatic coast, and several commercial “Croatian Zinfandel” wines have recently come to market. The best of these to look for by Bedalov, Dubrovački Podrumi, Krolo, Kuća Sretnog Čovjeka, Rizman, Stina, Vuina, and Zlatan Plenković.
II. Pride of Pošip
In the above passage I deliberately neglected to mention Pošip. That’s because it became clear to me at DWE that Pošip is quickly emerging as the most important white grape variety in Dalmatia. It deserves its own dedicated mention.
Native to beautiful Korčula island (alleged birthplace of legendary world explorer, Marco Polo), Pošip—in the hands of a new generation of winemakers—has finally shed its old school reputation (big and oily, high alcohol, low acid, sometimes oak aged, frequently oxidized) and copped a fresh attitude. Sure, “big”, traditional styles (barrel fermented; lees rested; barrel aged) versions still exist, but they are now more refined—even profound at times. Premium examples include Grgić, PZ Svirče Luxe, Krajančić Intrada Sur Lie, Krajančić Statut (a rare and special wine commemorating the 1214 statute from Korčula that decreed some of the earliest wine laws), and Toreta Premium.
But it was the fresh style Pošip wines that really caught my attention. Young, vibrant, and clean, these wines mark a new era of Pošip—one that smashes the old school notion that refreshing Pošip can not be achieved in the scorching heat of Dalmatia. Local varieties such as Debit, Grk, and Maraština have had hundreds of years to adapt to the local terroir and climate and—when managed properly in the vineyard and cellar—are capable of fabulously delicious and refreshing white wines that pair beautifully with Dalmatia’s succulent seafood. Now Pošip has joined the club. Excellent examples of the “fresh” style produced by wineries include Korta Katarina, PZ Svirče, Stina, Skaramuča, and Toreta (look for the “Special” label).
While Korčula is the variety’s ancestral home, the island no longer corners the Pošip market. Excellent Pošip wines are also now being grown and produced in other locations throughout Dalmatia, most notably on neighboring Brač island (Stina Pošip Majstor, which won a gold medal at the Challenge du Vin in France for the 2013 vintage), and on slopes above the Makarska Riviera (Zlatan Plenković Pošip). Pošip is also often deployed as a structure-lending component in white blends. Blended versions to seek out are Bibich R5, Carić Cesarica, and Tomić Beleca (Bogdanuša/Pošip blend).
Pošip is also sometimes a a component of Dalmatia’s traditional dessert wine, Prošek—a thick, delicious and age-worthy treat made from sun-dried grapes. For more about Prošek, click HERE.
III. Sparkling Wines: A Twinkle in my Eye
Several years ago I exited the speedway that is the A1 highway from Zagreb to the Dalmatian coast to visit Plešivica, a sub-alpine wine growing region marked by a perfect amphitheater where vines cling to green slopes shrouded in misty morning sunlight. On the way I discovered Tomac winery, an experience I will never forget. It was with Tomislav Tomac that I first tasted the potential of sparkling wine (“pjenušac”) made in Croatia. Tomac has long been a pioneer of sparkling (and amphora) wines, and his Millenium—produced from a blend of local heirloom varieties and Chardonnay in the méthode champenoise—has long been considered a luxurious treat reserved for ceremonial New Year’s Eve popping in homes across Croatia.
In the years since I first tasted Tomac’s iconic sparklers, Croatian pjenušac has progressed with leaps and bounds. Gone are the dubious days of Bakarska Vodica (a cheap, industrial, semi-sweet, manually carbonated wine that remains a relic of old school, former Yugoslav cooperatives). Today, excellent traditional method sparkling wines are popping up all over Croatia as more and more winemakers try their hand at production.
Needless to say, when I read that a workshop entitled “Premium Domestic Sparkling Wines” was on the scheduled for Day 1 at DWE, I was happier than a string of pearls in a glass of Krug 2000 Clos du Mesnil. Lead by the impressively knowledgeable and capable, Kruno Filipović, the workshop showcased seven pjenušac wines, three from Istria (Koquelicot, Kontempo, Blanc de blancs 2013; Peršurić, Misal Blanc de blancs, 2009; and Kabola, Re, 2013), and four from the Uplands (Šember, Rose Brut NV; Bolfan, Centurion; Kos, Anita, Zelina; and Puhelek, Kraljica, Zelina). All were delightful and well made (although I suspect that was a criteria for inclusion in the workshop). Here are my notes on each:
1. The Puhelek Kraljica was delightful: a light and breezy sparkler made from 100% Kraljevina, a white variety indigenous to the Prigorje area of the Croatian Uplands wine growing region. Produced from hand-harvested grapes and aged on the lees for 12 months, it was delicate and refreshing with notes of pear, acacia flowers, green apple, and a pleasant yeastiness.
2. The Kos Anita, an equal blend of Kraljevina, Chardonnay, and Riesling, showed rich ripe pear and apple notes and a creamy frame, but was less vibrant than the Puhelek.
3. Although listed as non vintage (NV), the Šember Rose was produced from 100% Pinot Noir from the 2013 vintage grown in the Plešivica area of the Uplands. Described as a rosé, the wine was somewhat amber in color (from skin maceration lasting only minutes, not hours). Aged six months in 20-year old wood, it expressed classic blanc de noirs character with notes of potpourri and rose petal, apricots, dried honey, and talcum powder minerality.
4. On a richer note, the Domaine Koquelicot Kontempo “Zero Dose” recalled classic French blanc de blancs. Produced from 100% Chardonnay by Oliver Ertzbischoff and Jacqueline Marovac, a couple who moved to Istria from France, Kontempo was creamy, yeasty, well-balanced and beautifully constructed with a traditional brioche and buttered apple/pear nose. (Note: Ertzbischoff and Marovac have invested lots of passion and resources in their beloved Istria, and I believe great things from them are coming—stay tuned!)
5. Another entry from Istria, the Kabola Re 2013 (80% Malvazija; 10% Chardonnay; 10% Pinot Noir), delivered rich fruit aromas (apricot, white cherry, apple) that reminded me of that poof of aroma when you first open a bag of hard candy. With a touch of residual sugar (4.4 g/l), the wine was juicy, round and fresh (no malolactic fermentation was allowed) with delicate yeasty notes and and a hint of acacia flowers.
6. From Međimurje-Zagore in the Uplands, another winery to watch is Bolfan, whose Centurion Natur Brut was a beautiful creation, a transformation of 100% Chardonnay into a rich, golden sparkler that swooned me with notes of golden raisin, apricot, toffee, and dusty minerals. My notes say it best: “Wow!”.
7. But my “Bazinga” moment arrived with the Misal Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut, which for me recalled fond memories of Krug Champagne: Deeply rich with classic crème brûlée, orchard fruit strudel, brown butter, and toasted hazelnut notes. Creamy and complex, deep golden in color, this wine—along with the fine examples mentioned here and many others to come—could undoubtedly could put Croatia on the map as a source of serious, world-class sparkling wines.
Unfortunately, it seems the DWE has morphed into a local event, with many seminars in Croatian and very few international journalists or wine buyers. It also seemed more sparsely attended than in previous years (apparently there was a competing wine festival in Dubrovnik). That’s too bad, because I think the DWE is an important occasion to celebrate and highlight Dalmatia’s rich winemaking heritage, the new generations of talented winemakers, and the region’s treasure chest of indigenous grape varieties. Workshops like the two (“The Potential of Premium Plavac Mali from the 2013 Vintage”; and “Big Whites”) presented by Croatian wine expert and writer, Saša Špiranec, were fantastic and worth every minute. I hope more international sommeliers and wine buyers take note of this expo and come in the future.
Of course no story is perfect, and the Croatian wine industry has over the years experienced its fair share of starts and stops, successes and setbacks, lofty ambitions and false promises. Several challenges remain, such as scarce government support for an international marketing program and regional wine roads; ongoing disputes with the European Union regarding the legal status of Teran and Prošek; an influx of cheap foreign wines that are hurting domestic sales and cash flow to wineries; and competitive pricing of exports.
These things will work themselves out, I am optimistic about that. The fuel that propels the Croatian wine story forward is a magic brew—a combination of the inherent beauty of Croatia’s wine regions; Croatia’s fascinating assortment of indigenous grape varieties; the compelling Zinfandel story; the many visionary, talented winemakers who are producing wines that retain their Croatian identity while also appealing to global palates; and the many tourists and passionate advocates and importers who have visited Croatia, tasted Croatia, and believe that Croatian wine is something special to be enjoyed not just in Zagreb, Split or Dubrovnik but around the world.
One of my prized possessions is a moldy, leaking bottle of 1985 Vinarija Dingač Dingač that my uncle gave me many moons ago. The wine is probably bad at this point, and I may never open it. But that’s not important. For me it remains as a keepsake and reminder of that moment when I first fell in love with Croatian wine and felt that sense of wonder, curiosity, and excitement. Like great books I have read, I keep that bottle nearby—a comforting, inspiring old friend. Other bottles have joined along the way, and with each new visit to Croatia and festivals such as the Dalmatia Wine Expo, I discover new wines that continue to reaffirm and renew that magical, life-affirming feeling I first felt over 30 years ago. You may eventually read about some of them here….
If you haven’t tried Croatian wine yet, please look for one. If you need help finding one, let us know and we will try to connect you to a local importer or retailer. But more than anything else, travel to Croatia and visit one of the wine regions or a few wineries. Maybe you will find that one bottle that will change your life—or at least inspire you to dance, sing, or weep with joy. 🙂
For another lovely account of DWE happenings, please check the blog of our dear friend, artist, and fellow wine lover, Marion Podolski, HERE.
(Disclaimer: My flight to Croatia and two nights accommodations while in Split for the DWE were sponsored by The Croatian National Tourism Board.)