Valentine’s Day with the Donkey, the Poet and the Saint

By Cliff Rames © 2012

Indisputably the color of Valentine’s Day is red. Red hearts. Red roses. Red candy. Red velvet. Red blushing of the cheeks when one is happily asked by a secret admirer or sweetheart to “be my Valentine”.

Often the wine of the day is red too. Malbec, pinot noir, Rioja, Barolo, merlot and cabs are perennial favorites among mainstream consumers. While some of those wines may be fine choices, if you’re looking to impress your sweetheart with your creativity and red wine savvy, why not go with something a bit more adventurous and unique – like plavac mali from Croatia. 🙂

Exceptions to the February 14th red wine rule exist, of course. Last week Wine Spectator magazine published an article entitled “Oysters, Caviar and Sauvignon Blanc for Valentine’s Day” – a tempting and sexy suggestion that is bound to excite and convince some red wine drinkers to break with tradition and cross over to the white side.

Valentine’s Day is also a time when there is much chatter – and debate and disagreement – about wine and chocolate pairing. Is it a match made in heaven? The answer – especially in regard to dry wines – is probably not. Very sweet foods will make dry wine taste astringent and bitter. Wines with some residual sugar sweetness may succeed, but it’s hit or miss. To paraphrase a famous quote from Forrest Gump, when it comes to wine and chocolate pairing, “you never know what you’re gonna get”.  😉

But in case you’re really curious, we already did some of the matchmaking work for you – with mixed results – in an earlier post, Wine & Chocolate: Can Bura Dingac Find True Love This Valentine’s Day? Check it out and let us know if you have had luck with other wine and chocolate combinations. If you still remain a skeptic about the merits of the pairing, you have an ally in Remy Charest, whose excellent article called About That Wine and Chocolate Thing is quite educational and compelling.  

By far the most intriguing argument in favor of red wine at Valentine’s Day stems from a widely-circulated article in Wine Enthusiast Magazine called “Women and Wine: Red-Rules”. The article cites a study from the University of Florence (Italy) in which it was discovered that moderate consumption of red wine seems to increase a woman’s libido: “Women who consumed one to two glasses of wine a day reported an enhanced sexual appetite and improved sexual performance… researchers from the University of Florence study believe certain chemical compounds in red wine increased (sic) blood flow to one’s erogenous areas, ultimately causing an influx of sexual stimulation.”

Very interesting, indeed!  🙂

So – if you are now convinced that red wine is the way to go on Valentine’s Day, below you’ll find three Croatian red wine suggestions – all made from the indigenous plavac mali grape – to help tickle your fancy this Valentine’s Day. We’ve nicknamed them “the Donkey”, “the Poet” and “the Saint”, for reasons you’ll soon discover.

(photo by Cliff Rames)

Your choice of which wine to serve will depend on your mood, expectations and needs. If you want to release your inner animal and really romp, go for the playful power of the Donkey. If a more romantic, nuanced and sensitive approach is appropriate, let the Poet serenade and seduce you. If the evening demands a little divine intervention or magic touch, call upon the Saint.

Whatever your choice, each of these wines is delicious in its own right, full of character, charm, and mystique. All three wines are bursting with sexy, sun-drenched flavors of Croatia’s Dalmatian coast – where there just happens to be a heart-shaped island. You certainly can’t get hotter than that for Valentine’s Day!

1. “The Donkey”: Vinarija Dingac 2006 Dingač. This is the original, timeless Croatian classic with the donkey mascot on the label. It’s packed with savory fruit and earth aromas of dried fig and plum, brambly blackberries and cherry, licorice, rusted iron and iodine mineral notes, and a touch of leather. Funky yet friendly, this premium wine from the local cooperative on the Pelješac peninsula was aged in large, old wooden vats and has a touch of residual sugar that helps offset the dry, dusty tannins and gives roundness to the slightly baked fruit flavors. At 14% alcohol, it’s big but not overly powerful and shows a beautiful translucent garnet color. Enjoy with steak with black truffle butter and grilled portabella mushrooms or seafood risotto. And yes, there is enough viscosity and sweetness in the wine to hold up to a mild dessert. It works particularly well with the beloved hazelnut nougat chocolate from Croatia called Bajadera.  🙂

(photo by Cliff Rames)

2. “The Poet”: Miloš 2006 Plavac. Proprietor and winemaker Frano Miloš is known to recite his poetry for lucky visitors to his winery in Ston on the southern-most shores of the Pelješac peninsula. And like the man, his wines are sublime and slow to open. But when they do, they speak candidly and romantically of the place from which they came and of the struggle to remain kind and gentle in such a harsh, rustic and unforgiving landscape. “In hues the colors pour through the glass, reflecting shades in motion. In their layers they speak, narrate, whisper of a time of hardship” writes Frano. The 2006 Miloš Plavac delivers “garnet color with a salmon edge. Nose of red roses, autumn floor, mushrooms, and earth give way to red fruits and well rounded tannins. Frano oversees a simple vinification with natural yeasts, and 12 months in neutral Slavonian oak followed by 24 months bottle aging before release” (tasting notes by Blue Danube Wine Company).

(By the way: That earlier reference to oysters and Sauvignon Blanc? The good news is that Plavac Mali seems to be one of the rare red wines that can successfully pair with oysters. Read about it here and decide for yourself: Shucking Plavac.)

3. “The Saint”: Saints Hills 2008 Dingač, St. Lucia vineyard. The latest heir to the cult wine throne in Croatia, its prestige further fueled by famous wine consultant Michel Rolland’s involvement with the winery. This single-vineyard wine is made from plavac mali grapes grown on the steep, sun-drenched, seaside slopes of Croatia’s most-prized vineyard appellation: Dingač. Fermented in large wooden vats and aged for 15 months in French oak barrels, this full-bodied wine is rich with sun-baked black fruits, roasted herbs, dried fig, licorice and spice. Powerful (15.5% ABV) yet soft and elegant, this wine would do well to accompany braised beef short ribs, roast lamb, wood fire-grilled meats and fish, aged hard cheeses – and even dark bittersweet chocolate.  🙂

(photo by Cliff Rames)

A Time for Pruning & Partying: The Feast of Saint Vincent

 

“Work hard, play harder” is a favorite slogan of mine. And while winter is not as intensely laborious as harvest time, winegrowers must occasionally brave the harsh winter days and work in the vineyard. Winter is the time for pruning the vines to prepare them for new growth in the spring. Often this means runny noses, frozen hands, and lots of dead vine stalks to haul away to the compost or firewood stacks.

But all is not sober and back-breaking among the vines. Each year on a certain day the time comes to cease work, pause to give thanks, pay homage to the vineyard, and celebrate another successful harvest and the promise of a new growing year. The day is known as the Feast of Saint Vincent of Saragossa. Celebrated each winter on January 22nd (Roman Catholic Church), St. Vincent’s Day marks the mid-point between the onset of dormancy and bud-break in the vine’s growing cycle.

St. Vincent of Saragossa

Born in Spain in the 3rd century and later martyred, St. Vincent is the patron saint of wine-growers and winemakers. The story behind how he became the patron saint of vintners is rooted in legend and has many versions. One prominent explanation focuses on the French pronunciation of the name Vincent, which is “Vin-sang” and translates into “wine blood”. It should be noted that when grapevines are pruned, they often bleed sap – or vine blood – from the cuts.

But my favorite version of the story is the one that stars a hungry donkey.

I love donkeys. They are quirky, stubborn, unpredictable, sassy, lovable creatures. Their often-contradictory nature – stoic yet highly emotional, hard-working yet lazy, loyal yet defying) makes them the butt of many jokes, fodder for comical stories, and sometimes the stuff of folklore and legend (e.g. the famous Donkey of Dingac). In short, they are magnificent creatures.

(Photo by Boris Kragić, Studio Magenta)

As the story goes, one day Saint Vincent was wandering the countryside with his donkey when he encountered some workers in a vineyard. While Vincent chatted with the workers, the donkey entertained himself by eating all the young shoots off a nearby grapevine, reducing the limbs to stubs.

Later that year at harvest, the workers noticed that the vine that had been nibbled down by the donkey produced more abundant and healthier fruit than the rest of the vineyard.

And so it was revealed that grapevines – which can grow many meters long if not cut back – should be pruned in winter to ensure that the plant’s energy is directed more towards producing fruit than growing and sustaining shoots. Today pruning is a standard vineyard practice – a meticulous and painstaking task that keeps many skilled vineyard workers busy each winter.

But come St. Vincent’s Day, the clippers and shears are put down, and the celebrations begin!

(Photo by Cliff Rames)

In Croatia, the Feast of Saint Vincent of Saragossa is celebrated in all wine growing regions and is called “Vincelovo”, “Vincekovo”, or “Vinceška”, depending where you are in the country.

This year public festivals are scheduled to be held at Kutjevo in the Slavonia wine-growing region (“Kutjevačko Vincelovo”); in Zagorje at Bolfan Vinski Vrh winery (“Vincekovo”); and in the Baranja region at Vinarija Josić (“Vinceška”).

A typical St. Vincent’s celebration in Croatia consists of religious services, a blessing of the vineyards, a lighting of bonfires, live folk music performances and dancing, regional culinary specialties cooked over open fires, and of course plenty of local wine!

So here’s wishing you all a happy Feast of Saint Vincent of Saragossa. And if you are celebrating, don’t forget to raise a glass to Saint Vincent and our old friend, the Donkey!

“Živjeli!”

Text © 2012 by Cliff Rames

(Photo courtesy of Kutjevo d.d. winery)

A Happy New Year 2012 Message from Wines of Croatia

Dear friends,

I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to believe. Another year has woven its winding path and is about to quickly disappear over the horizon. Yet I hope that somewhere along the way you found the time to stop and enjoy many of Life’s beauties and precious moments, glass of great wine in hand, and friends and loved ones by your side!

With that said, I would like to wish you all a very Happy New Year and to THANK YOU for your ongoing support, encouragement and friendship. It has truly been a wonderful journey so far! And I have no doubts that 2012 will bring us even better reasons to salute and celebrate the winemakers and wines of Croatia!

As always, I welcome your suggestions and feedback for the blog, Facebook page, Twitter feed, and website (yes, it will be completed in 2012 – I promise!). Remember, these pages are for you and for your enjoyment. So, I will be soon asking you for your ideas, comments and criticisms so that in the coming year we can serve you better.

In the meantime, enjoy the holiday celebrations – and please be safe!

May the New Year bring you much joy in your heart, sacred peace in your soul, passion and exuberance to your spirit, and vibrant health to your body! I hope that the days and months ahead bring you closer to your dreams and find you waking each morning with the excitement and lust that come from knowing that Life has a purpose, Love waits to greet you, and Opportunity and Success serenade you like the sweetest of songs.

I look forward to tasting our way down the wine roads of Croatia with you in 2012. “Sretna Nova Godina – and Živjeli!!!”

Sincerely,

Cliff Rames

Founder, Wines of Croatia

Wine & Chocolate: Can Bura Dingač Find True Love this Valentines Day?

If red wine and chocolate were potential mates searching for each other on eHarmony, some would undoubtedly question their compatibility. Certainly the jury is still out on whether red wine and chocolate is a match made in heaven or a disastrous waste of talent.

Among some wine writers and critics (e.g. Eric Asimov, NY Times), the mention of such a pairing evokes gasps of horror. This group would seemingly prefer that the two swinging singles remain as they should be: happily separate.

Other voices (Paul Grieco, owner of Hearth restaurant and Terroir wine bar in NYC) praise and adore the decadent intersection of the two dark masters.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, and Blogs and Tweets are abuzz with the subject, I decided to find out for myself.

There was never a question about which red wine I would choose: Without a moment’s hesitation I opened the Bura 2007 from the Dingač region of Pelješac, a peninsula on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. The Bura Dingač is made from the primary native red grape of the region, Plavac Mali (an offspring of Zinfandel) and is a luxurious, cult, premium wine that delivers bold flavors on an off-dry, gently tannic, full-bodied frame. And at 16% alcohol, it is almost Port-like in character. I just had a feeling it would work.

I also knew that the Bura Dingač is the perfect Valentine’s Day wine. At $55 it is expensive, true. But on Valentine’s Day, aren’t we supposed to splurge on our sweeties?

Overwhelmingly the deciding factor was this: Bura Dingač is simply a stunningly pretty wine. It is beautiful in a steamy yet approachable, voluptuous yet elegant, deeply brooding yet spry, fabulously irresistible kind of way. It makes me think of love and romance, of that scene from “American Beauty” where is Mena Suvari lying naked, covered in rose petals. Does not chocolate evoke similar fantasies?

And then there’s the wine’s bouquet: Striking with sweet stewed fruit and spice aromas (black cherry, plum, fig, black currant jam, anise) with distinctive floral and earthy herbal notes – I detect a sexy, seductive mix of rose petals, lavender, black olive, pine wood, and – dark chocolate.

So far so good. My instincts told me that this wine would totally rise to the orgasmic when paired with one of my all-time favorite dishes from the Dalmatian islands: black risotto with squid (I also find that Bura Dingač displays a distinct note of iodine on the nose and really reminds me of the Adriatic Sea). But how would it perform against chocolate?

To find out I went to my local gourmet supermarket and chose four different varieties: 1) Lindt milk chocolate with liquid cherry filling; 2) Ghirardelli dark chocolate with raspberry cream filling; 3) Lindt dark chocolate with Fleur de Sel sea salt crystals; and 4) Dagoba organic dark chocolate with wild blueberries and lavender essence.

Here are the findings:

1) I chose the Lindt milk with dark cherry liquor because I thought the dark cherry would accent the similar notes in the wine while the smooth, creamy milk chocolate would match the texture of the wine. To some extent this held up in the tasting, and the cherry notes in both wine and chocolate really popped. But the overly sweet flavors in the chocolate suppressed the complexity of the wine and made it seem slightly astringent.  Rating: 2.5 (out of 5)

2) As with number 1, I felt that the raspberry notes in the Ghirardelli would nicely accentuate the luscious fruit character of the Bura, and the less sugary, earthier nature of the dark chocolate would allow more room for the wine to assert itself and find balance on the palate. The wine brought out the fruit notes in the chocolate but it lost a lot of its middle depth and became more tannic. Not that exciting. Rating: 2 (out of 5)

3) This is my favorite chocolate bar in the world: Lindt dark with sea salt. It’s lightly sweet with a good tooth bite that gives way to creaminess on the tongue, accented by the saline crunch of sea salt crystals. Divine! I hoped that the mix of sweet and savory notes would highlight the similar qualities in the Bura. To my relief, this pairing performed better, with both the chocolate and wine holding up their ends of the deal and allowing each other to sing their respective parts. This was a sort of “nothing lost, nothing gained” match, with the wine becoming a bit more focused and fruity under the influence of the savory, earthy tones of the Lindt. Perfect pairing? No. But it’s interesting, fun and delicious. Rating: 3.5 (out of 5)

4) I’ll get right to the point: This is the hands down winner. The rule of thumb for any wine and food pairing is that each should not only compliment the other but raise the eating/drinking experience to another level. The Dagoba dark chocolate with wild blueberries and lavender essence is an unusual treat, but it delivered just the right combination of subtle sweetness, earthiness, fruit and floral notes to stand up to and highlight the similar profile of the Bura. No doubt, the lavender/blueberry duo (lavender grows wild in many of the fields that surround Plavac Mali vineyards in Croatia) lifts the same Mediterranean notes out of the wine and makes them dance on the palate. The transition is seamless: there is no looking for why this pairing should work. The magic just happens as the two sensations become one in a splendid, harmonious and deeply satisfying act of love-making. Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)

Like two people in any relationship, there are personality traits that are desired, admired and loved, and there are characteristics that repel, discourage and disappoint. Wine and chocolate, it seems, are no different. But find the right combination of traits and it is possible that, despite the odds, something wonderful can happen.

So introduce yourself to red wine and chocolate and see what happens. If all else fails, there’s always a dozen roses.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Text and Bura wine photos by Cliff Rames, Wines of Croatia

www.winesofcroatia.com; www.Facebook.com/winesofcroatia; www.Twitter.com/winesofcroatia

The Bura Dingač is imported by VinumUSA.