Anthony Bourdain in Croatia: “Holy S*** That’s Good!”

By Cliff Rames © 2012

”I can’t believe it took me this long….Season 8. It took me to get here. This is f****** awesome.”

Unless you have been hidden away on one of Croatia’s many uninhabited islands (there are over 1,100 of them), by now you have probably heard that Anthony Bourdain of the widely popular Travel Channel TV show, No Reservations, kicked off Season 8 by visiting Croatia.

(Photo courtesy of the Travel Channel)

The episode he filmed in Croatia, called “Coastal Croatia”, was shot over a week’s time back in October 2011 and made its world premier this week on the Travel Channel (Monday, April 23, 2012, 9pm EST).

Reaction to the episode, based on the early buzz and online chatter, has been ecstatic and overwhelmingly positive. Love him or hate him – Bourdain can be a divisive, acerbic personality with a raw, uncensored sense of humor – the “Coastal Croatia” episode is an extremely entertaining, informative, and well-produced piece of travel journalism. It is also quite infectious viewing; I still find myself watching it over and over again. You can too, thanks to the Travel Channel, which now has the full episode online here.

Certainly Anthony Bourdain’s own reactions to his experiences in Croatia fueled much of the elation mirrored by his viewers as we watched him suck on briny oysters and garlicky mussels; hunt for Istrian truffles with “Shotzy the Wonder Dog”; skewer sashimi tuna; gorge himself on shark liver pate, fish tripe and lobster; drizzle “amazing spicy Croatian olive oil”; carve succulent slivers of Paški cheese; savor slow-simmered Skradin risotto; and swirl and swallow several liters of local wine. Often Bourdain could not contain his amazement and surprise, exclaiming over and over again, ”Holy s*** that’s good”.

(Photo courtesy of the Travel Channel)

And over and over again I found myself cheering Bourdain on, perched on the edge of my seat in anticipation of his next move or discovery, and of course wishing I was there too.  🙂

Bourdain is now famous for his often hilarious, sometimes offensive yet always entertaining one-liners. Rather than repeat them here, many of the Bourdainisms from the Croatia episode have already been documented for your enjoyment in this post by Eater.com.

Bourdain’s “Coastal Croatia” travels began in Istria, where he visits Rovinj and Motovun. Our friends at Taste of Croatia have graciously mapped out Bourdain’s itinerary for you here.

In one scene at a seaside restaurant, Konoba Batelina, the wines of Bruno Trapan are on table, clearly being enjoyed by the group. While Bourdain had planned to visit Trapan winery, in the end he had to bypass it due to time restraints. Which is too bad, because Bruno Trapan is quite a rock star among Croatian winemakers and has many admirers at home and abroad. His boundless energy, wild enthusiasm, intense passion and maturing skill as winemaker would have been quite a match for Bourdain. I’m sure having the two of them in the same room would have resulted in a revolution of some sort.  🙂

The Dynamic Duo: Istrian winemaker Bruno Trapan and Dalmatian winemaker Alen Bibich. (photo by Cliff Rames)

The journey then continued to Dalmatia, where Bourdain visits Boškinac hotel and winery on Pag island in central Dalmatia – “an amazing, crazy-ass spot”. There he is treated to Boris Šuljić’s delectable cooking – a multicourse extravaganza that – I know from my own visit there last year – is one of the finest culinary experiences in Croatia. All dishes were paired with Boškinac’s “awesome” wines, which are produced from Šuljić’s vineyards in the fields across from the hotel. I am especially fond of his Gegić, a fresh, salty white wine from the locally indigenous grape of the same name. The Boškinac red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot is widely considered to be one of the best Bordeaux-style wines in Dalmatia.

Bourdain at Boškinac hotel & winery (photo courtesy of Boris Šuljić)

From Pag, Bourdain traveled to BIBICh winery in Skradin, where, simply put, he seemed to have the time of his life, asking, “Why, oh why, is there so much amazing wine in this country?”

(photo by Cliff Rames)

Not surprising at all. I have visited BIBICh many times over the years and despite my futile efforts to remain faithful to a spit bucket, maintain dignified self control, and sustain a guise of “professionalism”, I have never left sober or unfazed by the man’s charm, incredible hospitality, and deliciously fascinating array of family wines.  🙂

I also regularly recommend BIBICh to travelers in the area, and I have never heard a bad report from anyone who has visited him. Alen BIBICh has always been miles ahead of the game in regard to an understanding of wine tourism, wine marketing, and wine exports (he exports the bulk of his production and was one of the first Croatian wine producers to find success in the United States, where his R6 Riserva red is a best seller).

Often the unsung hero behind BIBICh’s success and ability to please any number of visitors or VIP guests is his wife, Vesna. The woman is a culinary genius, and she possesses a superhero’s ability to whip up on short notice a gourmet tasting menu that is not only delicious but perfectly complements the wine that Alen is pouring. It is simply astounding, and anyone who has ever had the privilege to enjoy some time with Alen, his wines and Vesna’s food pairings will never forget it and may also find him/herself exclaiming, “Holy s*** that’s good!”

One of Vesna Bibich's culinary creations (photo by Cliff Rames)

A few viewers have been asking about the food that Bourdain ate on the show. Many of the dishes are local specialties with recipes that vary by region and village-to-village. You can get some ideas from the Taste of Croatia book by Karen Evenden. Esquire also just posted a recipe for the grilled sardines, and you can view that here. Croatian Cuisine also offers a smart phone app that contains many traditional Dalmatian recipes.

Ante Pižić, the gentleman who prepared the Skradin risotto at BIBICh winery, will not reveal the recipe, saying only that it is a family secret dating back over 200 years. He did however tell me that tradition dictates that only male members of the family can prepare it, and the whole process takes four days, 12 hours of which are spent over a fire, cooking and stirring. The Slow Food movement is a traditional way of life in Croatia.

Skradin risotto

No doubt, Anthony Bourdain No Reservations “Coastal Croatia” is by far one of the best promotional pieces for Croatian tourism, food and wine to emerge in a long time. It is also a perfect example of how smartly done, “hip” marketing can resonate across the globe and lead to practical benefits. Word is, since the episode aired the phones of Croatian wine importers in the U.S. have been ringing off the hook.

To commemorate the occasion, Blue Danube Wine Company tapped into its cellar reserves and released two older vintages of BIBICh wines, the 2004 Sangreal Mertlot and the limited release 2006 Sangreal Syrah. Needless to say, BIBICh wines are now hot, and we are happy to report that Blue Danube just received a new shipment and several new vintages are now available in the U.S. (unfortunately Boškinac wines are not exported at the moment).

Perhaps – and hopefully – this is a tipping point for Croatian wines. Certainly Boris Šuljić and Alen Bibich have gained some well-deserved attention and recognition for their talents. As for the many excellent Croatian winemakers not featured in this program: I firmly believe in the old adage: “A rising tide lifts all boats”….

While No Reservations has generated a lot of buzz and attention for Croatia and its food and wine scene, it would be foolish for any of us to rest our laurels. With his show, Anthony Bourdain has blown open the doors of imagination, of possibility, of opportunity. Now comes the hard work of delivering on the promise and sustaining the momentum….

(Photo courtesy of Alen Bibich)

Yet for now we can certainly bask in the glow and smile, knowing that many more people will soon be discovering Croatian wines and enjoying what we have always known: the wines are great, the winemakers all have great stories, and Croatia is an amazingly beautiful country with a rich food and wine heritage.

In the words of Anthony Bourdain,”this is world class food; this is world class wine; this is world class cheese…. If you haven’t been here yet, you are a fucking idiot”.

And even if you are not an “idiot” or have already been to Croatia, then perhaps – like me – you watched Bourdain as he relished in the marvels and beauties of Croatia and knew one thing for sure: that you must go back as soon as possible!

I have a feeling that the Croatian National Tourism Board was just handed a brand new marketing slogan: “Croatia – Holy S*** That’s Good!”  🙂

(Photo courtesy of the Travel Channel)

Images from the Wine Roads of Croatia #9 – Meneghetti “Stancija”

“Field of Dreams”

Meneghetti estate vineyards, Bale, Western Istria wine-growing hills, Istria sub-region, Coastal Croatia.

Located in the Istrian hinterland, 2 km away from the Adriatic Sea and 20 km from Pula, Meneghetti winery and estate grows the indigenous malvasia istriana grape, as chardonnay, pinot blanc, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and refosco.

Wines produced by Meneghetti include:

~Meneghetti White (blend of chardonnay & pinot blanc)

~Malvazija (malvasia istriana)

~Meneghetti Red (blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon & cabernet franc)

~Merlot

~Meneghetti Sparkling (blend of chardonnay & pinot blanc)

Meneghetti also operates a lovely “stancija” – a beautifully restored country guest house where visitors can enjoy the Good Life – Istria style – while dining on locally-inspired culinary creations skillfully prepared by head chef Jean-Yves Messmere and drizzled with Meneghetti’s own extra virgin olive oil.

Or you can simply loiter on the veranda, listen to the summer cicadas, breathe in the fragrant aromas of Mediterranean herbs, and slowly sip a cool glass of Meneghetti sparkling wine whilst gazing across the vineyards as they peacefully soak up the warm Istrian sun.  🙂

Bonus photo!

“Under the Istrian Sun”

Text & photos © 2012 Cliff Rames

Blood from Stone: Stina Wine from Brač – Best New Label Design

By Cliff Rames © 2012

Jako Vino, a recently-renovated winery in the circa 1903 Dalmatinska Vinska Zadruga (Dalmatian Wine Association) building in the town of Bol on Brač island, Croatia, has launched a brand new wine called “Stina”.

Stina is a quality red wine made from the locally indigenous Plavac Mali grape. “Stina” is a local word that means stone – or, more precisely, the high quality white limestone blocks that are quarried on Brač and exported around the world to be turned into great works of sculpture and architecture (“stina” from Brač was reportedly used in the building of the White House in Washington DC and as construction blocks and as sidewalk pavers in various cities, including New York City).

Jako Vino winery (photo by Cliff Rames)

While the verdict is still out on how delicious this wine possibly is (I haven’t yet tasted it or come across any reviews), what stands out is not so much the wine but its label (actually there are currently several different versions of the label, so collect them all!).  🙂

Designed and published by Zagreb advertising firm Bruketa & Žinić and brand consultants Brandoctor, the Stina label is magnificent. Strikingly sleek and eye-catching, it is a marvel of design: at once stark yet beautiful; simple yet powerful; rustic yet elegant…skillfully merging the accidental with the deliberate, the rudimentary with the artistic and wine snobbery with mainstream chic appeal.

(photos courtesy of Jako Vino)

As you can see by the photos and video below, the label’s textured white paper background serves as a canvass for free-form, breezy drawings that take their shape and inspiration from what would otherwise be unfortunate and unsophisticated drips of wine down the sides of the bottle.

Which leads me to wonder: In the history of wine drinking, how many prized labels in the hands of would-be connoisseurs and collectors have been ruined by renegade trickles of wine, staining noble depictions of Coats of Arms and names of  Great Chateaus with clumsy crimson tears?….

But that doesn’t happen here. Here a wayward drip becomes a serendipitous moment…the muse that manifests as a high-effective and über contemporary brand of folk art: wine label sketching in the blood of Brač stone.

The Jako Vino Facebook page says it best (interpreted by me from the Croatian):  Stina, which means stone, is the symbol of Brač island. The Stina wine label symbolizes a piece of virgin stone that summons sculptors to shape it; a white canvas that invites artists to paint it; a sheet of blank paper that incites bards to scratch poetic verse on it, or writers and musicians to lay down the words and notes to the most beautiful stories or musical compositions on it.

With all of this clever and creative imagery in mind, I feel inspired to (unofficially) nominate Jako Vino’s “Stina” label(s) as Croatia’s – and quite possibly the world’s – Best New Wine Label Design of the year.  🙂

My nomination means nothing, of course, except to further fuel my own curiosity and thirst (and maybe yours too?). In other words, I can’t wait to taste what’s in that bottle!

If anyone has tried this wine, please let us know your thoughts in the comment section.

You can watch the video showing the label’s creation below. Cheers!

Images from the Wine Roads of Croatia #8 – Terra Rota

“Plavac Rising”

Photo © Cliff Rames

 Terra Rota winery (“Vinarija Terra Rota”) vineyards, Kuna, Pelješac wine-growing hills, Southern Dalmatia sub-region, Coastal Croatia.

Terra Rota is a new project at Kuna in the upper interior highlands of the Pelješac peninsula. The winery planted 30 hectares of vineyards – some at an elevation of 480 meters (1,575 feet) above sea level, making them the highest vineyards on Pelješac.

Of the more than 235,000 vines planted at the site, the indigenous red variety Plavac Mali dominates, comprising 95 percent of the total. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah complete the remaining 5 percent. The vines are currently in their 6th year of growth.

So far Terra Rota has commercially released just one wine, the “Rota Standard”, a 100 percent barrel-fermented Plavac Mali, bottle-aged for a minimum of six months prior to release.

Images from the Wine Roads of Croatia #7 – Grk

“Grk the Geek”

Grk vineyards, Lumbarda, Korčula wine-growing hills,Southern Dalmatia sub-region, Coastal Croatia.

Grk is a white wine grape native to the island of Korčula (a place it shares with Pošip and Plavac Mali) and is predominately planted a low-lying central valley of red sand between the Adriatic Sea and Lumbarda village. Currently there are approximately 40 hectares of Grk planted at Lumbarda at elevations rising to 20m above sea level.

Notice the red grapes at the end of the vine rows. The Grk vine is gynoecious, meaning it only produces female flowers and cannot self-pollinate. As a result, growers must intersperse vineyards with plantings of Plavac Mali grapes to pollinate the Grk.

Producers of Grk wines include: BATISTIĆ-FIDULIĆ; BATISTIĆ-ZURE; BARTUL CEBALO; BRANIMIR CEBALO; CEBALO-POPIĆ; MILINA-BIRE; and MILINA-LOVRIĆ.

Related links: Daily Mail UK: Croatia – On the Trail to Find Grk

Photo © 2012 Cliff Rames

Grapes of Croatia: The Internationals

By Cliff Rames © 2012

Got Chardonnay?

Chardonnay

As a matter of fact, yes – you can find the variety growing all over Croatia. Heck, even the mother grape of chardonnay is Croatian, a little devil of a grape called štajerska belina – or gouais blanc – that long ago made its way to France where it crossed with pinot and sired chardonnay.

While quality is uneven, delicious chardonnay wines are produced across Croatia –  from Istria along the coast (called the “Tuscany of Croatia” by the New York Times), to the amphitheater-shaped hills of Plešivica in the northern continental region and the Miocene Epoch-dated Pannonian Sea soils of Kutjevo in Slavonia.

(photo © 2012 by Cliff Rames)

Krauthaker’s Rosenberg 100% chardonnay is sublime; while Kutjevo winery’s 2009 Chardonnay de Gotho Aureus won a silver medal at the 2011 Chardonnay du Monde wine competition in France. Belje is a leading producer from the Baranja wine-growing (far northeastern Croatia), where among its expansive vineyard holdings is the esteemed 220 meter-above-sea-level, south-facing Goldberg appellation – home of its award winning Goldberg Chardonnay.

From Plešivica Korak Chardonnay is the benchmark beauty, and chardonnay forms 50% of the blend in Tomac’s iconic Anfora wine. If orange wine is your thing, Roxanich Milva chardonnay from Istria is fabulously elegant and complex with its creamy, mineral character and exotic fruit, floral, nut and honey notes.

Tomac Anfora (photo © 2012 by Cliff Rames)

Chardonnay is sometimes blended with other local grapes, like in Istria where it nicely compliments blends made with the local malvasia istriana (malvazija istarska) grape. Saints Hills Nevina, Matoševic Grimalda Bijelo, and Trapan Levante are a few prime examples.

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes at Krauthaker vineyards (© 2012 Cliff Rames)

Cabernet sauvignon? Check out the Podunavlje sub-region of Slavonia, whose terroir (long, warm growing season and ancient loam slopes along the Danube) delivers promising results. Iuris winery in the Erdut wine-growing hills produces a tasty, food-friendly entry-level cab from their vineyards on the Kraljevo Brdo (King’s Hill) appellation.

Agrolaguna Festigia (© 2012 by Cliff Rames)
Terra Rosa soils, Istria (© 2012 by Cliff Rames)

In Istria, iron-rich “terra rosa” soils lend nice structure and minerality to the region’s red wines (think the Coonawarra region of Australia); Agrolaguna (Festigia label), Coronica, Cossetto, Degrassi, Roxanich and Trapan all come to mind as producers who are banging out some really palate-worthy Istrian cabernet sauvignon. In southern Dalmatia, Dubrovački Podrumi (Dubrovnik Cellars) produces the benchmark southern climate cabernet, Trajectum, from its vineyards overlooking the Konavle valley just south of the tourist Mecca, Dubrovnik.

Merlot

Merlot? It’s just about everywhere, from Dalmatia to Istria to Slavonia. Sometimes it’s good (Agrolaguna Festigia); BIBICh Sangreal; Crvik; Frajona; Krauthaker; Roxanich); sometimes – not so much. Often it finds its best use in tasty Bordeaux blends, such as the excellent Dajla Cuvee Barrique from Istravino and the “Vrhunsko” 2007 red cab/merlot blend from Boškinac winery on Pag island.

 

 

Most famously, merlot (along with cabernet sauvignon and refosco) was a component in the Clai Ottocento 2007 Crno that Gary Vaynerchuk reviewed – and fell in love with – on Wine Library TV. You can see Gary’s reaction – and watch the whole wines of Croatia episode (above).

 

Cabernet Franc

Cabernet franc is sparsely-planted, but Moreno Degrassi in Istria produces a lovely version full of typical cab franc character (cherry and black fruits with a hint of tobacco and sweet herbs).

Pinot Noir (photo courtesy http://www.loirevalleywine.com)
Šember sparkling pinot (© 2012 by Cliff Rames)

That pinot noir (‘pinot crni”) is only grown in a few select spots in Croatia is testimony to the grape’s fickleness and outright hostility toward inappropriate terroirs. But a couple of producers have had some luck with it, notably Velimir Korak in Plešivica and Vlado Krauthaker in Kutjevo (from grapes grown on the upper slopes of Mt. Krndija). Back in cool Plešivica, Šember winery offers a delicate and refreshing 100% pinot noir sparkling wine that tingles with hibiscus and watermelon flavors laced with seashell minerality.

Syrah (Shiraz)

Syrah? It’s emerging in a select few locations in Croatia and is still very much in the experimental phase. Early results though indicate that the grape (syrah/shiraz) seems to enjoy Croatian hospitality. A growing area to watch is the Dalmatian hinterland around the coastal city Zadar, where Alen BIBICh produces his acclaimed Sangreal Shiraz and Benkovac winery cultivates 103 hectares of vines that spawned the award-winning 2007 Korlat Syrah.

Trapan 2007 Shuluq Syrah (photo courtesy http://vinopija.wordpress.com)

In Istria, Bruno Trapan has seriously invested in syrah and is hedging his bets that it will do well on his 5 hectares of vineyards located 50-55 meters above sea level at Šišana near Pula. Trapan 2007 Shuluq Syrah received a “Commended” rating in the Decanter 2010 World Wine Awards competition. That said, I suspect that the international marketability of Croatian syrah will face many challenges, especially in light of the recent – and sad – downturn in global demand for syrah.

Zinfandel grapes on Peljesac (© 2012 Cliff Rames)

Let’s not forget Zinfandel. Technically, Zinfandel is a native Croatian variety called Crljenak Kaštelanski and its story and genetic links to Croatia have been widely documented. But because some Croatian producers are preparing to release wines labeled as “Zinfandel”, we will briefly mention it here. Zinfandel (aka Crljenak) is native to the Kaštela region of central Dalmatia, near the city of Split. Further south on the Pelješac peninsula, well-respected producer, Marija Mrgudić of Bura-Mugudić winery, planted Napa clones and is preparing for the first release of Croatian Zinfandel. Although the jury is still out on whether this grape can deliver as much potential as plavac mali (the variety that historically supplanted it) – or if American zinfandel producers will oppose the use of the “Zinfandel” moniker on labels from Croatia – it is an interesting development and can only help draw positive attention to Croatia’s winemaking culture.

Sauvignon Blanc
Riesling

Sauvignon blanc? Riesling? Pinot gris? Pinot blanc? All are planted in Croatia (where they are known as “sauvignon”, “rajnski rizling”, “pinot sivi”, and “pinot bijeli” respectively) and have a long history of being consumed locally as table wines, particularly in the cool continental regions. But a number of producers have invested in vineyard and cellar in order to improve quality and raise the profile of these varieties – especially sauvignon blanc and riesling. A very promising producer is Bolfan in the Zlatar wine-growing hills of the Međimurje–Zagorje region. The Bolfan portfolio includes some very intriguing, pure and refreshing whites across all styles (dry to sweet) from an array of grapes grown on its 20 hectares of stunningly beautiful “Vinski vrh” (Wine Summit) vineyards; the Bolfan ’08 Riesling Primus is drinking beautifully now with an off-dry, richly extracted profile of golden apples, pears and honey with hints of petrol and wet stone minerality. Tasty!

Bolfan wines (© 2012 Cliff Rames)

For sauvignon blanc, watch for the award-winning Badel 1862 Sauvignon Daruvar and Zdjelarević Sauvignon from Slavonia. Not surprisingly, sauvignon blanc seems to have found its sweetest spot in the Plešivica area with its cool, moist and sunny slopes that grace the bowl of the area’s naturally-formed amphitheater. There Korak, Šember and Tomac  produce crisp, lovely citrus and herbal examples.

Gewürztraminer in Kutjevo (© 2012 Cliff Rames)

Gewürztraminer (“traminac”) does very well in the far-eastern corners of the Slavonia and Podunavlje regions, where it is made into everything from dry, spicy whites to unctuous, richly floral and delicious late harvest and ice wines. Iločki Podrumi is a leading producer in the Srijem wine-growing hills and in certain frosty years Kutjevo winery and Iločki podrumi make a luscious Ice Wine (“Ledeno vino”) from the variety.

Iločki Podrumi Traminac Ice Wine
Iločki Podrumi "Ledeno vino" (© 2012 Cliff Rames)

So yes…wines made from familiar international varieties can be found in Croatia – and to a lesser extent on export markets.

That said, international varieties are not the future of Croatian winemaking or marketing program. The “Golden Promise” (I would argue) lies in Croatia’s rich array of indigenous grape varieties. Their individual stories are screaming to be told and are sure to pique intrigue among – and stimulate the palates of – savvy foreign wine buyers and adventurous consumers.

Ray Isle, Food & Wine magazine’s executive wine editor, recently presented “Five Grapes to Expand Your Wine Horizons” in an article for CNN’s Eatocracy blog. Unfortunately none of the grapes he mentioned was from Croatia (the list did include blaufrankisch, known in Croatia as frankovka). The point is, wine drinkers who seek the magic of discovery must look beyond mainstream varieties and venture into uncharted territory: The land of native grapes with charming, sometimes tongue-twisting names.

Once blessed with over 400 indigenous grape varieties, the Croatian Ministry of Agriculture’s official list of cultivars today contains 192 varieties, of which 130 are considered autochthonous (indigenous) to Croatia or the region. Of that number, only three dozen or so are commonly found in modern commercial wines. The “Big Three” of course are graševina, malvasia istriana, and plavac mali, which are – in descending order – the most widely planted wine grape varieties in Croatia.

In our next post we will introduce the “Big Three” – and go beyond, presenting you with the “Magnificent Seven”, a fabulous handful of Croatian wine grapes that you should know. These varieties were selected based on their commonality, the quality of the wine they produce, and their accessibility and presence on both the domestic and export markets.

For fans of even lesser-know varieties, fear not. We will subsequently venture beyond the Magnificent Seven and explore a gaggle of other quirky, interesting and uniquely Croatian grape varieties that did not make the first round. Stay tuned to meet the whole gang – the wild and wonderful Grapes of Croatia! 🙂