Every once in a while something fine and rare occurs that makes you stop and appreciate the wonders of the universe: Haley’s Comet; double rainbows; black diamonds; a Honus Wagner baseball card; the aurora borealis; a Led Zeppelin reunion; snowy owls; mammatus clouds; old vintage Riesling; a taxi in NYC on a rainy day….
And then this happened: on the first day of spring, Pioneering Croatian winemaker Alen Bibić of BIBICh Winery arrived in the United States to personally conduct a tasting of his wines from the Dalmatia region of coastal Croatia.
Although it was Mr. Bibić’s fourth visit to the U.S. in eight years, what made this visit extraordinary was that it resulted in the first-ever tasting in New York City – and America – of a flight of seven wines made from the debit grape variety across a full range of styles.
The purpose of the tasting – held at Café Katja on March 20, 2014 and organized by Blue Danube Wine Company with the clever and whimsical #Danubia hashtag – was to highlight the “flexibility” and multi-layered personality of the debit variety and dispel antiquated notions (still held by some winemakers in Dalmatia) that debit is a simple variety meant for table wines and not worthy of merit or aging.
Debit is a late-ripening white grape variety that grows throughout the hot, arid region of Dalmatia and islands of coastal Croatia. It is believed to have migrated to Dalmatia from Puglia, Italy (where it no longer exists) many centuries ago (Dalmatians also refer to debit as “puljižanac”, which means “of Puglia”), and Mr. Bibić suspects that historically debit may have originated in Turkey. Despite the similar name, debit and pagadebit are two genetically different varieties.
But it is in the mountainous area of northern Dalmatia around the charming port town of Skradin where debit finds its sweet spot. This is where Mr. Bibić’s vineyards thrive in stingy, limestone-laced soils among olive groves, fig trees, scrub oak, wandering goats and wild Mediterranean herbs.
Ever since inheriting vineyards from his grandfather, guiding the family winery through troubled times marked by war, economic challenges, and now integration into the European Union, Mr. Bibić has stood firm in his mission: to champion and pay homage to the native grape varieties in his vineyards by allowing them to express the best of their character in his wines. Often that means stepping aside and letting the wines “make themselves”. To accentuate this point, Mr. Bibić referred to himself more as a switchman on a railroad rather than a winemaker. “The train doesn’t stop”, he said of the winemaking process. “It just goes. I just help to direct it in the right way”.
When I mentioned to the guests gathered at the tasting that Mr. Bibić was the first Croatian winemaker to export debit wines to the U.S., Mr. Bibićh interjected: “Actually I am not the first to export. Our wines from Dalmatia have been made for centuries and in ancient times were exported all over the world by boat”. Today, most of the BIBIĆh winery’s production is exported, and the first debit wines arrived in the U.S. in 2007.
Mr. Bibić’s portfolio of wines now includes about 17 labels (not all are exported to the U.S.), including many delicious reds made from local native grapes such as babić, plavina, and lasin. He also produces some incredibly tasty syrah and grenache.
But on this visit to NYC it was debit that he wanted to showcase: “This was the wine my grandfather drank, the white wine that our ancestors in Dalmatia always had on their tables”.
And although he dismisses the notion that he is a pioneer – but rather a guardian of tradition, anyone who has spent time with him (including Anthony Bourdain ofNo Reservations) cannot help but be amazed and impressed by Mr. Bibić’s level of knowledge and passion, his sincere hospitality toward visitors to his winery, his seemingly endless energy (I mean, when does this man sleep?), and his dogged determination to pay tribute to his homeland by showcasing through his wines local native grapes and the distinctive terroir of his vineyards.
In true style, Mr. Bibić makes it seem easy – and his wines, which get better with each vintage, go down the hatch even smoother. Judging by the reaction of the guests at the #Danubia tasting, debit just gained some new believers.
1. BIBICh Brut Sparkling Debit (NV): Made from debit grapes harvested a little early, this wine is light and leesy, creamy yet vibrant, elegant and refined, with subtle citrus, white flower, salty minerals, and bitter almond notes. Not simple nor overly complex but pleasant, clean, and layered with bright fruit, a tight mineral structure, and a breezy, refreshing finish. Bring on the oysters! (Not yet imported)
2. BIBICh 2013 Debit: Pale straw colored, distinctly marked by a chalky minerality, crisp citrus, green apple, and white flower notes, and a pithy, salty bitter finish that make it a perfect foil for most mild seafood dishes. $16
3. BIBICh 2011 R5: An equal part blend of debit, pošip, maraština, pinot gris, and chardonnay aged for one year in a mix of new and used American oak. This is a winemaker’s cuvee that Mr. Bibić says reflects his personal taste (“This wine says Alen Bibić”, he noted). It is mildly and pleasantly oxidative with a rich golden color, slightly oily texture, and a Sherry-like character marked by notes of brown butter, hazelnuts, apricot, roasted Mediterranean herbs, and a slightly wild, briny mineral presence. Both rustic and refined, this is a wine to contemplate on its own or enjoy with Asian-inspired dishes. $19
4. BIBICh 2010 Lučica: A single-vineyard debit from vines planted by his grandfather that are now 54-years old. This wine was fermented in American oak barrels and then aged in wood for one year. While 2010 was a cooler, rainy vintage that caused vinous troubles elsewhere in Croatia, you would not guess it by the rich, oily and lush character of this wine, expressed in complex notes of candied orange peel, apple cider, roasted nuts, brown butter, sun-drenched Dalmatian stones, and oyster brine. Do not serve it too cold! $35
5. BIBICh 2011 Lučica: The warmer, drier 2011 vintage imparts similar but deeper, richer tones (in comparison to the 2010) to this single-vineyard debit: Apricot, bruised apple, candied citrus, honey, salted caramel, roasted nuts, and powdered limestone. Oily and savory, with a slight tannic bite and long, harmonious finish, this wine is captivating in its ability to juxtaposition funkiness and elegance. A unique and compelling drinking experience! (The 2011 is not yet available for purchase; 2010 is current)
6. BIBICh 2006 Bas de Bas Bijelo: 90% debit (with a 10% field blend of other local grapes varieties), this is wine the way Mr. Bibić’s ancestors would have made it (“a white wine that drinks like a red”): three months skin maceration and then fermentation in large limestone vats called “Kamenica”, followed by extended aging in mixed oak casks. An “orange” wine that is powerful without the punch of high alcohol – it’s only 12.5% ABV. Richly textured with a firm structure provided by grape skin tannins and layered with a complex array of aromas such as dried peach, orange pith, fresh fig, roasted herbs, caramelized parsnip, and Himalayan sea salt. Bas de Bas is produced with no added sulfites. $60
7. BIBICh Ambra Prošek (NV): Dalmatia’s traditional dessert wine is prošek (for more about prošek, click here), and Ambra is made from debit grapes that were dried on straw mats for 3 months, fermented with native yeasts, aged for years in oak vats, and then blended as the barrels become ready. Dark amber in color, Ambra is vibrant and nimble (despite its sweetness), with delicious, long-lasting flavors of dried fig, caramel, candied orange, honeyed nuts, and a savory note akin to roasted herbs and spicy tobacco. A little goes a long way, and this wine is an awesome value at $50.
Not that it’s a very complex issue. It’s not really. It’s fairly straightforward. But decide for yourself, if you haven’t already. And if you want to learn more, check out my previous post called Are You Pro Prošek? 12 Reasons Why You Should Be.
And for those of you who are (like me) short on time and attention, I have compiled this handy, easy-to-reference and share “Wine-o-graph” chart.
Cut and diced like this, it seems clearer than ever that Prošek and Proseccoare distinctly different products. No one has anything to fear from them being allowed to peacefully co-exist in the European Union or elsewhere.
So feel free to print it out, put it in your wallet, hang it on the wall, share it with a friend, or shout it from the mountaintops. In the meantime, I wish Croatia and its Prošek producers all the best in their efforts to save Prošek and continue its legacy as the traditional dessert wine of Croatia.
Suddenly the sweet fruits of Croatia’s July 1st ascension to the European Union have turned to sour grapes. At least when it comes to wine.
Not just any wine, mind you, but one with a centuries-old tradition that is a strong symbol of national pride and family life, as well as a trusted elixir that locals depend upon to treat ailments and celebrate important milestone events in their lives.
Are we talking about Prosecco? Heck, no.
I mean no disrespect to Prosecco. It’s a delightful wine. Simple, bubbly, festive. A popular patio pounder for summer days by the pool. An ingredient in trendy cocktails. Italy, through the venerable Consorzio di Tutela del Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene (the Consortium), deserves to be proud and should protect it. It’s a cash cow, a wildly successful product that supports multiple Italian winemaking regions and helps to keep many wholesalers, advertising and public relations firms in business.
Sounds completely harmless, right?
Not exactly. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported in an article entitled, “A European Name Game Uncorks a Tempest in a Wine Cask”, Croatia’s right to continue using the traditional name “Prošek” for a small-production dessert wine made from sun-dried grapes is under attack. The European Union, prodded on by the Consortium, fears that the two names are too similar and that consumers (you and I) will be confused, thus harming the Prosecco brand and endangering a 300-million-bottle-a-year industry.
So how can one obscure, tiny-production, barely-exported sweet wine called Prošek pose such a threat to mighty Prosecco? Simply put, it doesn’t. But pride, mistaken perceptions, protectionism, and the demands of the powerful often align to trump common sense.
In an attempt to expose the absurd nature of this mess, cut away all the confusion, and clarify the debate, here are 12 ways in which Prošek can be easily differentiated from Prosecco – and visa versa. The bottom line is, consumers have nothing to fear – nor do Prosecco producers or the European Union.
I realize that at this stage in the game these arguments may be mute. But for the sake of posterity perhaps there is some value in showing why Croatia should be able to keep on calling its Prošek “Prošek” – as it has done for centuries – while also distinguishing and respecting Prosecco’s rightful place in the world of wine.
1)Custom and Tradition
The method for making Prošek is ancient and apparently dates back to the arrival of the Greeks to the Dalmatian islands in the 4th century B.C. However, the first written mention of Prošek occurred in 1556, when the Croatian poet Petar Hektorović in his famous work, Ribanje i Ribarsko Prigovaranje (Fishing and Fishermen Talk), lists the local sweet wine among the provisions he and two companions pack for a three-day fishing expedition on the Adriatic Sea.
As on Petar Hektorović’s boat, in the Dalmatia region of Croatia a bottle of Prošek is never far from hand. A straw-wrapped jug of homemade Prošek can usually be found hiding in the pantries and cellars of every household and, if you are lucky, a taste is offered (alongside a plate of dried figs and biscuits) when you arrive as a guest.
Croat families proudly pass down Prošek recipes through the generations. It is often used as an ingredient in traditional holiday cookies and cakes. Parents set aside bottles from the vintage in which a child was born and then customarily open them on the child’s wedding day. Prized bottles are gifted from one family to another at Easter, Christmas and other special occasions. New mothers slurp a spoonful after giving birth to help them mend and regain strength. Suffers of anemia and other ailments are urged to sip some Prošek to bolster the blood.
Old wives’ tales? Perhaps. But these stories serve as seminal evidence of Prošek’s deep-rooted contribution to Croatian culture and its firm place in the social lives of Croatians throughout the centuries.
Prosecco too has an impressive history, with some vineyard sites in the Conegliano Valdobbiadene zone estimated to be over three hundred and some even a thousand years old. Yet the first written reference to the wine did not arrive until 200 years later (in 1754), when (according to Wikipedia) a fellow named Aureliano Acanti wrote, “And now I would like to wet my mouth with that Prosecco with its apple bouquet“.
This dated but cute quip could easily serve as a contemporary marketing slogan for Prosecco. Indeed today’s consumer identifies with Prosecco as a metropolitan, early-drinking, affordable and pleasant everyday quaffer. According to a report in Meininger’s Wine Business International, consumers do not identify with, or care all that much about, Prosecco’s history, background story, or protected DOC status (granted in 1969) and much-heralded DOCG status (approved in 2009). They do care about access to low-priced, easy-to-understand and appreciate alternatives to pricier sparkling wine.
Prosecco is a product of the modern world. Modern technology (the Charmat tank, autoclaves, sterile filtration, bottling under pressure) has enabled Prosecco to be produced in mass quantities and become the very successful and ubiquitous export product it is today.
Unlike Prošek, wine lovers buy bottles of Prosecco for casual consumption and instant refreshment – not to tuck away for decades or until their children get married. In fact, consumers are advised to purchase Prosecco young and avoid bottles that have been too long on the shelf. Conversely, an intact bottle of Prošek from 1899 was recently discovered in the cellar of a wine bar on Hvar island.
How do you like them apples?
The two names – while similar – are written and pronounced in completely different ways. “Prošek” is enunciated as “Pro-shek”, while “Prosecco” is pronounced “Proh-sec-coh”. Two syllables versus three. A “sh” sound as in “Shirley” versus a “sec” sound as in “secular”.
Prošek is produced from any one or a blend of several different varieties – white and red – indigenous to coastal Croatia. Permitted white varieties include bogdanuša, dubrovačka malvasija, grk, malvazija istarska, maraština, plavac mali, prč (aka parč), pošip, tarpinka, trbljan, vugava, andžlahtina. Red varieties are primarily babić, lasina, plavina, and plavac mali.
Prosecco is most often produced from the glera grape variety (previously known as prosecco), but small amounts of bianchetta, charnonnay, perera, pinot noir, and verdiso are permitted.
4)Area of Production
Prošek is produced all along the Adriatic coast of Croatia but mainly in southern Dalmatia and on many of the islands where vineyards thrive in limestone soils among olive, fig, and pine tree groves. As winemaker Alen Bibićobserved to the Wall Street Journal, when you sip on Prošek, “you can feel the Mediterranean”. Dried fig, raisin nectar, candied orange peel, and roasted nut characteristics reflect the wine’s sun-baked, seaside terroir.
Prosecco is clearly a product of Italy, where it is produced throughout the Veneto, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Conegliano, and Valdobbiadene regions in the northeast corner of the country. Much of the growing area lies in the foothills between the Dolomites and the Adriatic Sea, with the highest vineyard elevations located in the Valdobbiadene zone, particularly in Cartizze. The clean, zippy green apple, fresh melon, and citrus character of the wine reflects its pristine Alpine terroir.
5) Production Amounts
Traditional Prošek is typically made by small, family-owned wineries, of which 27 are registered producers (I do not count the non-traditional, industrial Prošek produced from cooked musts and caramelized sugar, such as the supermarket products from Dalmacijavino and Vinoplod) with an annual production of 15,000 liters – or 30,000 500 ml bottles. For example, BIBICh winery produces about 5,000 bottles a year of the multi-vintage BIBICh Ambra, while in a good year Andro Tomić of Bastijana winery produces up to 4,000 bottles of his acclaimed Hektorovich Prošek.
Over 3,000 registered wineries produce Prosecco in Italy, and over 2,400 are members of the Consortium. The Prosecco DOC zone contains 19,700 hectares of vines planted to allowable varieties, and the Consortium reports that another 5,650 hectares are registered within the DOCG growing area (for a grand total of 25,350 hectares). Wine production amounts total approximately 225,000,000 liters – 300 million bottles a year.
By comparison, the total area planted to all varieties across every winemaking region in Croatia equals 24,000 hectares, with approximately 10,000 hectares under vine in Dalmatia where Prošek varieties are cultivated as a minor component of the grapes reserved for still dry wines. Total wine production in Croatia amounts to 60 million liters – or 80 million bottles – of all types.
At 15,000 liters, Prošek production equals less than 1% (.025%) of the total amount of wine made in Croatia and .006667% of Prosecco production.
Prošek is made from grapes harvested with a sugar level of 100° Oechsle (approximately 23.5 Brix, or the equivalent of the German Auslese classification). Once harvested, the clusters are laid out on straw mats to dry in the sun for 3-4 months or until the grapes shrivel and achieve a sugar concentration of 120° Oechsle (28 Brix, or the equivalent of Beerenauslese). The grapes are then crushed and the must is macerated for 2-5 days, when the juice is pressed off the skins. Yeast must be selected based on its ability to function in a thick must with a high concentration of sugar. Fermentation can be extremely slow – often lasting up to a year or longer. Once the wine has finished fermenting, it is then aged in wood casks (usually older, neutral wood) for a minimum of one year. Most producers do not filter the wine. Typically it takes about 1 kilogram of dried grapes to produce 750 ml of Prošek.
Grapes for Prosecco are harvested with low sugar levels and high acidity. The (usually) non-vintage wine is produced using the Metodo Charmat (tank method), whereby the secondary fermentation takes place under pressure in large steel tanks called autoclaves and not in the bottle, as with Champagne (Méthode Champenoise). The idea, as described by Tom Cannavan in Wine-pages.com, is to “capture the fresh fruitiness” of the glera grape and highlight the wine’s distinctive “icing sugar and lemons” character. The wine is then bottled under pressure to retain its carbonation and quickly shipped off to market.
7) Wine Styles
Prošek is a still wine with a minimum alcohol content of 15%-22% that has been aged in wood for at least one year. Residual sugar content ranges from 70-150 grams per liter (g/l). Prošek is dark, thick, unctuous, and sweet, with flavors of dried fig, raisin nectar, coffee, toasted hazelnuts, burnt toffee, candied orange rinds, honey, vanilla, and carob.
Prosecco is a sparkling wine with an average alcohol content of 11% and no wood exposure or influence. Depending on the level of carbon dioxide, Prosecco can be either Spumante (3.5 bars of pressure) or Frizzante (1.0-2.5 bars of pressure). Styles include Brut (0-13 g/l residual sugar), Extra Dry” (12–17 g/l) and “Dry” (17–32 g/l). Prosecco is light, bubbly, delicately perfumed with notes of citrus, apple, melon, and spring flowers.
8) Wine Color
Depending on the types of grapes used and the age of the wine, the color of Prošek can range from deep gold to amber, neon orange, maple syrup, and dark brown.
Prosecco is simply straw-colored or light to medium yellow with a watery white rim.
9) Bottle Shape
While there is no standard bottle shape for Prošek, traditionally it is stored in large straw-covered jugs or demijohns for home or non-commercial use. When available for commercial sale, dessert wine bottles of 375-500 ml are the norm. These vessels are often fancy and oddly shaped and include short, small jug-like bottles (BIBICh Ambra) to tall clear cylinders and tapered obelisks.
Prosecco is typically packaged in the easily-identifiable and customary sparkling wine bottle, which is similar in shape to the Champagne bottle and includes the mushroom-shaped cork and often a metal cage under a foil wrap. Prosecco can also be packaged in aluminum cans similar to those used for beer.
Customarily Prošek is served in a small, tulip-shaped dessert wine glass. However, there is no “official” serving glass; any small, flared-rim vessel will do.
The most commonly used glass for Prosecco is the Champagne flute.
11)Availability on Export Markets
Ask yourself this: When was the last time you saw a bottle of Prošek in your local wine shop? Most likely the answer is, never. Because of the tiny production, very little of Croatia’s famous dessert wine is exported. In the U.S. BIBICh Ambra Prošek is imported by Blue Danube Wine Company but in such limited quantities that it quickly sells out. If you are in the NYC area, Bin 56 wine bar in Huntington, NY serves BIBICh Ambra Prošek. Grab a glass while it lasts!
Needless to say, Prosecco is ubiquitous and warehoused in wine shops everywhere. It is often the best selling sparkling wine in wine bars and restaurants. To highlight this point (according to Shanken News Daily), in 2012 the top six Prosecco brands in the U.S. collectively represented 1.6 million cases (19.2 million bottles) of wine, with an annual sales growth of about 35%.
That’s a lot of bubbly.
Prošek: A 500 ml bottle of BIBICh Ambra Prošek retails for about $50.
Prosecco: Retail prices in the U.S. for a 750 ml bottle range from $10 to $20 for DOC bottles, and a bit more for DOCG labels.
Similar-sounding words and spellings abound in the English language – and presumably in other languages. Take, for example, the head-spinning number of wine grape varieties that begin with the letter V: Verdejo, verdelho, verdello, verdicchio, verdiso, verduzzo, vermentino, vernaccia, vespaiola, vespolina, vignoles, vinhão, viognier, viosinho, viura, vugava…. Yikes!
Yet no one seems to be getting too excited about that muddled madness. Governments are not demanding new rules and regulations to sort it all out. Why? Because they are just names and we humans are able and accustomed to figuring out the subtle variances. I know a guy named Dana and a girl called Dayna. I would have to be a dope to confuse the two.
Then there’s McDonald’s and McDoogal’s. One is a famous hamburger conglomerate, the other an Irish pub in Kokomo, Indiana. Each has its loyal customers. And I think it’s safe to say that not one of us is foggy about which assembles Big Macs and which tops off Guinness on tap.
Slovenia, Slovakia, Slavonia. The first two are each sovereign countries, the latter a wine-growing region in Croatia. All three manage to survive, despite their names sounding alarmingly alike. And I suspect that few travelers would accidently board planes for Slovenia when they meant to go to Slovakia.
Prošek and Prosecco. The first: a hand-made, limited-production, sweet dessert wine that will never be exported in large quantities and most likely attracts only consumers who have heard of it and seek it out. The latter: a mass-produced, widely distributed, usually dry to off-dry sparkling wine that is synonymous with summer, quick refreshment, and good cheer.
Simply put, the two wines have NOTHING in common, like apples and oranges. Cannot they happily co-exist without bureaucrats in Brussels spoiling the brew?
In that wonderful spoof of a movie from 1980, Airplane!, an in-flight emergency prompts Dr. Rumack (brilliantly played by the late-great Leslie Nielsen), to ask Ted Striker (an ex-pilot suffering from a fear of flying played by Robert Hays), if he can safely land the jet. Striker responds, “Surely you can’t be serious?” To which Dr. Rumack famously retorts, “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley”.
So let us not call Prošek Prosecco. Or visa versa. Surely we are all sophisticated enough to manage that without getting ourselves tied up in knots and discovering that the bottle we just grabbed off the shelf is not our beloved wine.
”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 ChannelTV show, No Reservations, kicked off Season 8 by visiting Croatia.
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”.
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 Trapanare 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 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.
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?”
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!”
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.
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 Companytapped 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….
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!” 🙂
“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.
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.
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!
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 Vrhwinery (“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!
Anyone who has traveled along the north central coast of Croatia and stopped to have a snack and glass of the local vino may inevitably come upon variations of Babić wines – usually presented as “house” wines at cafes or available at shops in one liter bottles with a beer cap closure – that left much to be desired.
These wines are usually produced from Babić grapes that were grown in the easier-to-cultivate lowlands and fertile fields. Sometimes blended with other local grapes such as Plavina and Vranac and classified as table wine (“Stolno vino”), “field Babić” wines are commonplace and are mostly consumed by locals, often mixed with water to make a traditional beverage called “bevanda”. At present this simple Babić offers little to get excited about and is unlikely to find much appeal outside the local market.
But the “Kvalitetno vino” (Quality Wine) and especially the “Vrhunsko vino” (Premium Wine) categories have recently gotten more interesting, with a spike in quality and winemakers with a vision for the future where Babić will take a place among the world’s great wines. Many obstacles lie ahead, of course, and the modern wine market is a cruel place. But I think Babić possesses enough character, “drinkability”, and uniqueness as a quality wine to warrant the attention and investment in its future.
The challenge for any serious-minded grower is this: left to its own devices, Babić will wildly over crop (i.e. produce high yields), especially when planted in the wrong spot – like the lowlands and fields. But planted in the right spot, under the right conditions, Babić can excel as a high-quality, terroir-driven, uniquely complex wine. Essentially its behavior changes from that of a wily teenager to that of an elder statesperson; its body transformed from thin and anemic to full-busted and round.
Quality-conscious Babić growers know that in order to achieve great fruit for great wine, Babić must be planted away from the fertile fields and up on the mountains in “škrt” (“stingy) soil. To do this, one must climb the jagged slopes above theAdriatic Sea, smash open the ubiquitous limestone crust of the earth, find little patches of škrt soil between the rocks, bore a hole into which one vine is planted, and repeat until a vineyard is established.
Because the grapevines struggle to survive in nutrient-poor and stony earth, they eventually succumb to the gravitas of their situation and become submissive; their wild nature subdued and poised; their berries intensified with the characteristics and flavors of the terroir: deep, dark color; brooding, complex aromas of brambly black fruit, dried fig, and roasted herbs. While some of these aromas can be rustic and earthy, on the palate the wine can be smooth and refined, juicy and long-lasting.
As with all hot climate wines, another key to producing great Babić is slow ripening and maintaining the freshness of thier acidity. In this regard, Babić has a slight advantage over Plavac Mali, which often struggles to balance acid and sugar levels due to an extremely uneven ripening process that can result in overripe, shriveled berries together in the same cluster with green, unripe berries.
Luckily Babić has a tendacy to ripen more evenly and is capable of retaining acidity as it makes the journey toward phenolic ripeness. The danger though is that the fruit will raisinate in the blazingly hot Dalmatian sun and drought conditions that are typical in the region, cooking the fruit and sending alcohol levels in the finished wine to unattractive heights.
Recent improvements in vineyard management and winery techniques by local winemakers are beginning to deliver exciting results and reveal the potential of Babić as a wine of quality and character. Leading this “Babić Renaissance” is a handful of pioneering producers, such as Alen Bibich (“R6“), Leo Gracin (“Suha Punta”), Vinko Piližota, Stipe Gašperov (“Kamena Suza“) and Josip Žuvan (“Babić Žuki“). Even Vinoplod winery, the local cooperative in Šibenik, has initiated steps to improving quality and is increasingly become a source of very good Babić, especially their “Vrhunsko“ (Premium) and “Barrique” (barrel aged) labels.
The bottom line is, as mighty Plavac Mali ventures out into the world in search of love and new consumers to subjugate, back at home stately Babić quietly makes prepations for her own grand entrance. And one should never underestimate the determination and seduction of a good Queen!
In my next report, we’ll visit the mother of all Babić vineyards,Bucavac.
Note to consumers: Very little Babić wine is currently exported. However, there are two wines on the U.S. market that are noteworthy. The first is Piližota Babić, the only 100% Babić wine on the U.S. market (actually Piližota offers two labels, the so-called “black label” Babić and the “white label” Babić. The black label is a premium wine that is oak aged and costs about $24, while the white label is the entry-level offering costing about $18). Piližota Babić is imported by Vinum USA and is available from Madison Wine Cellar and Murray Hill Wines.
The second wine is the Bibich R6, a red blend that contains 34% Babić, 33% Lasina, and 33% Plavina). It is available via Oenocentric imports and Blue Danube Wine Company and retails for about $20.
Tasting Note: Piližota 2007 Babić (black label)
After nearly four years, the wine shows positive signs of development with its dark cherry red color and garnet hues. Yet on the nose it still bursts with aromas of tight black berries, brambly black fruits, dried plum, chewy fig, black olives and sweet oak. With these aromas and its hint of “barnyard”, there no mistaking this beauty as a Dalmatian wine. On the palate it is smooth and round, marked by a vivacious freshness akin to sun-ripe blackberries bursting in your mouth. While a tannic grip lends additional structure, it is sweetly pleasant and refined. Rustic yet elegant, this Babić finishes long and smooth, leaving you with the lovely taste of dried plums and figs – perhaps slightly dusted with cocoa – and dreams of pan seared cutlets served with olive oil and garlic doused chard at a seaside restaurant in Primošten.
In Part 2 of this 3-part report, we went inside the festival to explore the venue, meet the VIP guests, and hear about the round table workshop. In Part 3, we provide some general observations about the wines, offer some “names to watch out for”, and mourn a missed opportunity to leave the festival in style. Živjeli!
[Note: The views presented here are strictly my own and are in no way intended to reflect the views of the festival organizers or its sponsors and partners]
Let me begin by saying, two days was not enough time to taste everything, even if it were not for the crowds and the less-than-ideal tasting conditions. Perhaps the organizers would consider extending the festival by one day next year? Just an idea….
Based on what I succeeded in tasting (see special note below), it was clear the quality of Croatian wines continues to rise. While a few of clunkers could be found here and there, a greater number of delicious treasures could be discovered and enjoyed at nearly every table. Overall the wines were well-made, full of character, expressive of a unique terroir, and very drinkable.
It was also great to see so many of the well-established, bigger wineries investing in new winery technology, newly designed packaging, and updated marketing strategies – thereby demonstrating an understanding that they cannot rest on their laurels if they are to survive in the current market environment.Agrokor Vina, a conglomerate that owns several wineries and nearly 1,700 hectares of vineyards, has recently invested heavily in redefining its brands and market presence. The results are now in bottle: many of their brands are very approachable, value-driven, quality wines with attractive packages offered at affordable prices. This could easily propel Agrokor to the lead as a producer of competitive, value-driven gateway wines, especially for the export market.
Not to be outdone, many of the traditional industry-leaders and well-established wineries have stepped up their games, becoming more active with social media, introducing new wines and labels, and taking steps to ready themselves for the international market.
These key players include: Krauthaker (the man who put premium Graševina on the map and whose TBA Graševina landed a much-celebrated place on the wine list of Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duckin London)….
Feravino(their new “Dika” and “Miraz” Graševina labels are very approachable and tasty); and Kozlovic(his 2009 Malvazija was the stand-out favorite of Decanter’s Sarah Kemp)…
Matosevic (watch out for his new “Grimalda” wines, a red “Super Istrian” blend and a white Malvazija/Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc blend); Kutjevacki Podrum(their “De Gotho Aureus” 2009 Chardonnay just took the silver medal at the 2011 Chardonnay Du Monde competition in France)….
Then there’s: Bura-Mokalo (this dynamic duo of a brother/sister winemaking team are the early pioneers of “cult” Plavac Mali wines; watch out for a new Zinfandel release this year); BIBICh(his new limestone “kamenica”-fermented, long-macerated Debit may take the orange wine category to new heights)….
Caric(produces a lovely, fresh, seafood-friendly white from Bogdanuša, an indigenous variety native to Hvar island; also produces an interesting Beaujolais-style young Plavac Mali called “Novello”; just introduced some very cool new labels too!); and Zlatan Otok(their first-ever commercial production of Crljenak Kašelanski has been scoring very well and is making history as the first-ever commercial production of the “original Zinfandel”).
Even more exciting was to see a new generation of rising-star winemakers who are truly making names for themselves with wines that are clean, well-made, expressive of place, and cleverly and attractively packaged.
Names that come to mind as examples in this category are: Dimitri Brečević (his “Piquentum” Teran and Malvazija wines from Istria are generating a lot of excitement); and Benvenuti(making some very impressive sweet wines from Malvazija Istriana and Muscat of Momjan under the “San Salvatore” label).
Then there’s: Marko Gerzinic(noted for his beautiful stainless-steel fermented Teran and consistently good Malvazija); Franco Radovan (his young Malvazija wine is incredibly pure and fresh; cute label too!)…
Bruno Trapan(with cigar in hand, this young upstart winemaker has rocked the domestic wine scene with a number of recent awards and high scores, especially for his macerated and mature Malvazija wine, “Uroboros”; he recently opened a brand new winery and tasting room in the style of a train depot, called “Wine Station Trapan”)….
Watch out for the “other” white wine of Korčula island (more commonly known for the Pošip grape), made from the indigenous Grk variety (producers Cebalo and Bire are pioneers of Grk wine and are working hard to revive interest in the grape and the quality of the wines); and Grabovac(one of the only producers of sparkling wine in the Dalmatia region, Grabovac is noted for their unique wines made from Kujundžuša and Trnjak – two obscure native grape varieties from the Dalmatian hinterland).
Other names to watch out for: Roxanich (a winery with a rockin’ name, owner Mladen Rožanić is considered the father of the “Super Istrian” red blend; he also makes a wonderful extended skin maceration, wood-aged “Antica” Malvazija that is almost an orange wine;); Moreno Coronica(his ’07 “Gran Teran” is a profound expression of Istria’s native son red grape); Velimir Korak(making elegant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the cool Plešivica region); Boris Drenški “Bodren” (for award-winning TBA and ice wines)…
Giorgio Clai (an organic/biodynamic winemaker who produces somewhat inconsistent yet fascinating, terroir-driven wines); Moreno DeGrassi (his “Terre Bianche” blend of Malvazija, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier was the fan favorite at the Gala Dinner).
More names to watch: Leo Gracin (“the Professor”; a consultant and winemaking pioneer of the indigenous Babić red variety of northern Dalmatia; his 2008 vintage was another favorite of Decanter’s Sarah Kemp); Frano Milos (long considered a “traditionalist” among Plavac Mali producers, the increasing involvement of his very attractive, twenty-something son and daughter in his marketing and social media activities has injected new energy into his brand; his “Stagnum” Plavac Mali is a cult favorite)….
Luka Krajančić (his Pošip “Intrada” and “Sur Lie” is taking the native Pošip white grape from Korčula island to a whole new level; world class juice!)….
Finally, there’s Saints Hills , whose “Nevina” and “Dingač” wines are well on their way to achieving cult status (Ernest Tolj’s winery now stands poised to release a new and exciting Plavac Mali rosé this spring, “St. Heels” with a sexy, craftily cheeky and irreverent label depicting a pair of women’s high heel shoes. We also eagerly await the first-ever vintage  Plavac Mali wine from the new “St. Roko” vineyard at Komarna).
[Special Note: To all the winemakers I didn’t meet, I’m sorry! It was impossible to make it to every table, and my selection of who to visit was completely random, subject to the surges of the crowd, and dependent upon how much time I had between meetings in the café. I didn’t mean to miss this opportunity to meet you and taste your wines. For what it’s worth, I am very aware of whom I missed, and I hope to one day have another chance to visit you and taste your wines.]
Okay, how can I put this diplomatically….? I spent most of the time at ZWGF starving.
Starving is an odd way to pass the time at a festival that touts the word “gourmet” in its title. The fact is, there was very little to eat, at least I couldn’t find much. Yes, there were the 16 food vendors with their tooth-pick-harpooned nibbles and bites, and the 15 Kuna sandwiches at the café bar….But it was the “gourmet” part that I needed – and was so sadly missing.
Okay, yes – there was the cooking demonstration tent. A couple of us, lured by the scrumptious aromas coming from within, tried unsuccessfully to grab a plate or two of the gourmet dishes prepared by guest chefs. These small plates were randomly handed out to lucky mouths in the audience (the system for receiving one of these tasty-looking offerings seemed to entail being in the right place at the right time) – but not to us.
Mouths watering and defeated, we went to the information booth to ask about our dining options in the vicinity. The friendly (English-speaking)information desk girl told us to go to the shopping center across the highway, where (we were told) there were surely some fast food places….
Having learned my lesson, the next morning I really filled-up at the breakfast buffet in the Westin Zagreb hotel. For an inclusive hotel breakfast, it was really quite an extensive and satiating spread.
It was not until the festival was over that I realized my greatest disappointment of the trip: I had missed “the Slide”.
The Slide? Is it an art exhibit? A secret restaurant?
Nope. It’s a huge metal tube that corkscrews all the way through the center of the Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb, traveling down from the 4th floor to street level. Given the opportunity, a person could slip into the shiny tube and slide all the way down to the bottom, where he/she would be spit out onto the sidewalk outside the museum. The slide looks like this:
Riding that slide down and out would have been the grandest and most memorable exit from any wine festival ever, anywhere, anytime! Period.
Maybe the museum is not such a bad venue after all. Maybe the organizers will decide to hold ZWGF there next year.
The crowds? Who cares! The hunger? Never mind!
A good whirl on that giant silver slide would have made all of those things just a second thought…a pesky inconvenience…the price of greatness!
In fact it should be mandatory. Everyone should be asked to leave the festival on the slide. What a hoot that would be!
In a recent articlefor Wine Spectator, Matt Kramer wrote that “terroir” is no longer enough to sell wine; most wine regions today hold some claim or another to terroir. What we need more of (writes Kramer) is “narrative”. The question then becomes, what “stories” do the wines or wine-producing regions have to tell?
As silly as it may seem, I mention the slide here because (for me) it suddenly became such a wonderful component of Croatia’s somewhat quirky and complex wine story – a memorable detail that sets ZWGF apart from many other wine expos and festivals.
Despite a few minor glitches and lessons learned, ZWGF demonstrated that Croatian wine producers are ready and able to join hands with the world of wine and take the plunge into the future. While the journey has just begun, the twisting way forward – if smartly navigated with poise and passion – promises to be a lip-smacking, exhilarating ride.