Last week, two editors from Wine Enthusiast magazine, Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen (aka the World Wine Guys), visited Croatia to receive the Golden Pen Award from the Croatian National Tourism Board for their article called “Croatia – In Living Color”, which was published in the September 2011 issue of Wine Enthusiast.
After receiving the Golden Pen Award (“Zlatna Penkala”), the Wine Guys toured a selection of wineries, vineyards, hotels, and restaurants in the continental region of Croatia.
The Wine Guys were escorted by Cliff Rames, sommelier and founder of Wines of Croatia, who along the way captured a few snapshots of their journey. We will be sharing an assortment of Cliff’s photos with you over the next few weeks, starting with this collection of shots from Tomac winery in the Plešivica wine-growing hills – a cool, hilly region about 30 minutes west of Croatia’s capital city, Zagreb.
Tomac is best known for his sparkling wines and iconic Anfora wines. You can read more about Tomac HERE.
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.
Krauthaker’s Rosenberg100% chardonnayis sublime; while Kutjevo winery’s 2009Chardonnay de Gotho Aureus won a silver medal at the 2011 Chardonnay du Mondewine 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.
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? Check out the Podunavlje sub-region of Slavonia, whose terroir (long, warm growing season and ancient loam slopes along the Danube) delivers promising results. Iuriswinery 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.
In Istria, iron-rich “terra rosa” soils lend nice structure and minerality to the region’s red wines (think the Coonawarraregion 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? It’s just about everywhere, from Dalmatia to Istria to Slavonia. Sometimes it’s good (Agrolaguna Festigia); BIBIChSangreal; 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 Vaynerchukreviewed – 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 is sparsely-planted, but MorenoDegrassiin Istria produces a lovely version full of typical cab franc character (cherry and black fruits with a hint of tobacco and sweet herbs).
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 Korakin 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? 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 Benkovacwinery cultivates 103 hectares of vines that spawned the award-winning 2007 Korlat Syrah.
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 Awardscompetition. 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.
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 opposethe 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? 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 Bolfanin 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!
For sauvignon blanc, watch for the award-winning Badel 1862 Sauvignon Daruvar and ZdjelarevićSauvignon 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 (“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 wineryand Iločki podrumi make a luscious Ice Wine (“Ledeno vino”) from the variety.
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! 🙂
In a charming and sweetly memorable moment from his trip, Joe sent out this tweet on Twitter: “Ok I’m about to fall asleep in Korčula but this picture of vineyards clinging to a mountain is still on my mind http://t.co/LxEWtsj“.
In this exclusive interview, Joe shares some more thoughts and observations about his trip and offers some sage advice for the future of Croatian wines.
1. You just returned from a tour of a few wine regions in Croatia. What are your general impressions of Croatia as a country and as a wine-producing country?
Croatia is country with a ton of stunning natural beauty, like the electric-blue Adriatic coast, breathtakingly steep vineyard sites, endless islands and incredible mountain peaks. It is fascinating to see a country as a relatively new quality wine producing country trying to find its way, sometimes with great success. I think the quality is only going to improve as the vines get older and as winemakers become more experienced and share information with other producers.
2. Was there anything that surprised you? Disappointed you? Blew you away?
I was surprised by the extreme beauty. It was really one of the most stunning places I’ve ever been, and I was not expecting that. I was blown away by the sheer steepness of some of the vineyards, especially in Dalmatia. It is heroic to work them.
I was also surprised by the truffles! Croatia is one of the few places that truffles grow in the world and they were incredibly delicious.
I was disappointed to see a lot of Plavac Mali wines that were unbalanced, too hot and alcoholic, often with 15.5% alcohol or higher and residual sugar.
3. How many of Croatia’s different indigenous grapes varieties did you try through the wines you tasted? Any favorites?
We probably tasted 15-20 different grapes. I loved the white grapes Pošip and Grk for their minerality and crisp acidity, though Grk was just a bit more complex. As for red grapes I thought that Terran had the most potential for its structure and food pairing ability.
4. Were there any particular wines that really impressed you? Any “wow” moments?
Miloš 1994 Plavic Mali showed me that Plavic Mali has an incredible ability to age when it’s made in a balanced style with alcohol kept in check. Also Miloš is one of the few producers making wine a very traditional, natural way. He holds the wines back until they are ready to drink.
5. You visited Tomac winery and tasted his “Anfora” wine. Wines made in amphora are a particular interest of yours. What did you think of Tomac’s version?
I love Tomac’s Anfora wines and his entire philosophy. His wines were balanced, nuanced and delicious. They were also unique but not in a way that would turn off people who haven’t had them before. I also loved his Pinot Noir.
6. Can you offer a little advice on what Croatian winemakers can do better tocompete on the world market, particularly in the US?
I’d say focus on creating wines and flavors that are indicative of Croatia. Embrace your native grapes and create wines that go well with food. Croatia is never going to be able to compete at the lowest end because of cost parameters and there is so much competition for “international-styled” wine. So the only way Croatia can compete is on it’s uniqueness of high-quality, balanced wines.
7. Say one thing that American consumers/wine lovers should know about Croatian wines.
Croatia has an immensely diverse amount of grape varieties and terroirs, creating the opportunity for a wide range of wine styles. There are a few very interesting wines now but these wines will continue to improve.
8. How did you like the Croatian restaurants/cuisine? Do you have a favorite dish? Any food and wine pairings that you really liked?
The restaurants were of an extremely high quality. We ate a lot of extremely fresh fish and the local shrimp were especially sweet and soft. One of the fun things that quite a few restaurants did was that they put out a wide variety of olive oils for us to taste with our breads. One restaurant even had 15 local olive oils on the table.
9. Would you like to return to Croatia someday? Where would you go?
Of course! There are a 1,000 islands and I’d like to explore them all but I want to go back to Korčula first.
Three years ago the organizers of Vinistra (the annual wine festival of the Association of Winegrowers & Winemakers of Istria, Croatia) launched the first World of Malvasia (“Svijet Malvazije”) competition, an event that precedes by a couple of weeks the annual Vinistra wine expo, with the results formally announced on the first day of the fair.
Each year producers of Malvasia from around the world are invited to submit wines made from any of the numerous sub-categories of the Malvasia Bianca family of grapes that exist in the Mediterranean basin.
Not surprisingly, given that the event is organized by Vinistra and held in the lovely Croatian seaside town of Poreč, Malvazija Istarska is typically the most common variety of Malvasia represented in the competition. Malvazija Istarska – or Malvasia Istriana – is native to an area that encompasses the Istrian peninsula of Croatia, western Slovenia, and northeast Italy (Friuli).
However, fine examples of other sub-varieties of Malvasia usually find their way to the competition and are a welcome reference point of comparison. This year’s event showcased examples of Malvasija Dubrovačka (Malvasia of Dubrovnik), Malmsey, and Malvasia Volcánica, in addition to the ubiquitous Malvazija Istarska.
For the purposes of judging, the wines are organized into three categories:
1) Still Dry Wines
2) Natural Sweet Wines
3) Liqueur Wines (Fortified Wines)
To ensure a perception of impartiality and to give the competition international creed, the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV) sponsors the event and oversees the judging, which is conducted by teams of wine professionals, including sommeliers, journalists, wine buyers and restaurateurs.
This year, the World of Malvasia competition was held April 27-30, 2011 and included a record number of submissions: 219 wines from five countries (Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, Portugal, and Spain).
“For the third consecutive year and with a record number of submissions, the World of Malvasia competition has further established itself as the premier forum for the contemplation, discussion, and evaluation of Malvasia as a grape variety and wine”, said Mario Staver, president of the Vinistra Evaluation Committee.
On May 13, 2011, at a formal ceremony on the opening day of the 18th annual Vinistra wine expo, the 2011 World of Malvasia winners were announced.
Of the 219 wines submitted for judgment, a total of 65 received medals, with Gold medals awarded to 43 wines and Silver medals to 22 wines.
Croatia dominated with a total of 32 Gold and 17 Silver medals. Italy received four Gold and two Silver medals, while Slovenia followed with three Gold and three Silver – all in the “Still Dry Wines” category. Portugal finished with three Gold medals, while Spain scored one Gold medal in the “Liqueur Wines” category.
“When you look at the results of this year’s competition, it is evident that the average quality of the wines continues to improve. In other words, year-after-year Istrian producers are producing better and better wines. That is a trend that I am sure will continue,” said Ivica Matošević, president of Vinistra.
Taking the only “Grand Gold” medal was a dessert wine from Croatia, the 2009 Vin de Rosa by Sergio Delton – a little-known producer from Vodnjan in Istria. At 92 points, the Vin de Rosa was the highest scoring Malvasia wine of the competition.
The second-highest scoring Malvasia wine (90.67 points) was 10-year old non-vintage Madeira from Justino’s in the “Liqueur Wines” category. The third-highest score (89.83 points) went to a Malvasia Volcánica wine: the 1956 Canari from Bodegas El Grifo in Spain.
Keeping with the underdog theme, two relatively unknown producers – M&G International from Umag, Croatia and Franko Radovan from Višnjan, Croatia – each (with 89.6 points) took home a Gold Medal for their 2010 vintages in the “Still Dry Wines” category.
(Side note: Franko Radovan’s home and winery are in a village just outside of Višnjan, a hamlet called Radovani. Yes, Franko – like the more-famous Moreno Coronica – has a village named after him too!)
The only other producer to achieve the 89-point threshold was Benvenuti, a winery in the medieval hillside town of Motovun in Istria, Croatia. Their sweet 2009 Malvazija Istarska was awarded 89.5 points, putting it in second place in the “Natural Sweet Wines” category and making it the fifth-highest score of the competition.
Hot on Malvasia Istriana’s tail in the “Still Dry Wines” category is a Malvasija Dubrovačka (Malvasia of Dubrovnik) from Crvik winery in southern Dalmatia, just below Dubrovnik. With 85 points, the 2009 vintage was the only Croatian “Malvasia” from outside of Istria to win a medal.
It is interesting to note the many different styles of Malvazija Istriana represented within the “Still Dry Wines” category. There are young, fresh, unwooded versions (most of the 2010 vintages). There’s Malvasia aged in traditional oak (Matošević). Aged in acacia (“akacija”) wood (Kozlović; Matošević). Extended skin maceration (Vina Gordia Kolomban). And even a Malvasia fermented in amphora (Kabola).
It could be said that Malvasia’s diversity and ability to express a wide-array of characteristics is both a blessing and a curse. Whatever you may think, the 2011 World of Malvasia competition is an important venue that showcases the international appeal of this often misunderstood grape and reveals the many fascinating expressions of its geographical origin across a wide arch of Mediterranean terroirs.
Like in any large family, you have winners and losers, geniuses and dopes, artists and scientists, poets and pedestrians, easy-going personalities and difficult-to- understand characters.
But there’s no denying that the sum of all these parts is a colorful kaleidoscope of diversity: from straw-yellow freshness to “orange wine” wackiness; from bone-dry minerality to lusciously sweet indulgence; from bitter almond palate teasers to mouth-filling acacia-flower and honey scented “sweeties”; from low-alcohol refreshment to fortified power. Malvasia – via its many brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins, and other relatives once-removed – offers something for every palate.
So choose your winner – and raise your glass to the many intrepid producers who are digging for gold in the red, white and lava-soiled hills that rise so beautifully in the world of Malvasia. Your palate may shine as a result.
Photos by Ivana Krstulović Carić (unless otherwise noted)
Since the arrival of Greek colonists in 385 B.C., the Dalmatian island of Hvar, Croatia has endured many changes. Rulers, empires and foreign armies have come and gone. Today the marks and scars of these events remain a part of the island’s cultural-historical identity and economic position in the region, and the ethnic composition of the island reflects the genetic patchwork left behind by the influx of settlers over time.
But one thing remains virtually unchanged. This is a tale about the continuity of winegrowing and winemaking on Hvar, which has survived the many rises and falls caused by wars, social unrest, vineyard scourges, and economic hardship.
In the beginning, From the Aegian island of Paros the Greeks brought grapevines and planted them in the fields of Stari Grad, thus establishing the island’s first vineyards. The Greeks then divided the fields of Stari Grad*, also known as Ager (originally named Chora) into 73 equal parcels and allocated them to the local settlers.
One year after their arrival, a conflict between the Greek settlers and the local Illyrian tribes broke out. With the help of Dionysius I of Syracuse’s fleet (winner in the war against Carthage and ruler of Sicily), the Greeks were able to defeat the Illyrians and strengthen their hold on the island.
According to Roman historian, Appian, the Illyrian mainland tribes considered wine from Hvar a valuable commodity. Clay amphora bearing the seal of Pharos, which were recently excavated near the Neretva River in southern Dalmatia, affirms the importance of wine in the cultural-historic lifestyle of the region.
During the time of Demetrius of Hvar, a great soldier and confidant to Queen Teuta of Illyria, Hvar returned to Illyrian rule.
In the 2nd century B.C. the Romans conquered Hvar and brought with them the methods to improve the local production of wine. The Romans built many villae rusticae in the fields of Stari Grad and elsewhere on the island, where the owners would reside for the greater part of the year.
During this time, in the city of Salona, the capital of the Roman region of Dalmatia, a Christian group was founded and guided by Domnius of Antioch (better known locally as Saint Duje). Since Hvar was a major port between Salona and major cities of the Mediterranean, the teachings of the Christian Gospel quickly spread among the islanders, an influence that remains today.
After the fall of Salona (7th century A.D.), some of the city resident fled to the islands, subsequently followed by the Slavic tribe, the Croats. The Croats soon adopted the traditions and winemaking skills that would sustain the continuity of grape cultivation and wine production until the present day.
During the Middle Ages, Hvar was subjected to a revolving door of rulers: the Neretvans*, Croatian kings, Byzantine, Hungarian, Croatian-Hungarian kings, and finally the Venetian Republic all took their turns.
Despite all the turmoil, vine cultivation and winemaking endured and continued to be the backbone of the local economy. In the Middle Ages, two-thirds of arable land was owned by the Hvar Commune, and the remaining third belonged to royalty and the Church.
Public lands were offered for rent to the workers, royalty and the Church. Strict rules governed the division of property and the payment of land rent. Grape growers were required to pay 1/6 of the yield to the royalty and the Church. Discontent led to unrest, and under the leadership of Matija Ivanić, a civil uprising (1510-1514) broke out. The mission: to secure equality between the common folk and the royalty.
The uprising was followed by a period of Turkish incursions. The Turks raze the towns of Hvar, Stari Grad and Vrboska. Turkish invasions all along the coast led to demographic changes, as a large number of Croats from the Neretva region and the Makarska coast fled to Hvar in search of safety.
Hvar eventually came under control of the Venetians and continued to develop – despite ups and downs – as an economic center of Dalmatia. Wine exports were the leading source of revenue, although Hvar was also well known for its production and export of dried figs, olive oil, almonds, carob and other Mediterranean produce.
In the time leading up to the mid-19th century, Hvar was again subject to periodic regime change, coming under control of the Austrians and subsequently the French (beginning of the 19th century). It also came under attack by the British and Russians, during which time commerce was interrupted and the local economy stagnated.
Austria again gained control of Hvar in the middle of the 19th century. As a result, Hvar gained access to new markets in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which boosted the importance and production of wine.
Toward the end of the 19th century, the scourges of phylloxera, peronospera (downy mildew) and oidium (powdery mildew), devastated and ruined the vineyards of France and Western Europe. Wine from Dalmatia suddenly came under higher demand, prompting the residents of Hvar to expand their vineyard holdings to 5,750 hectares. With the increased production and revenues, many wine-growers enlarged their homes and converted the ground floors into wine cellars. The future suddenly seemed bright, and Hvar enjoyed newfound prosperity.
To minimize the power of and offset any threat from the buyers and traders, many of the smaller local wine growers decided to organize themselves into the first island cooperatives. One such cooperative, Svirče *, remains today.
But the unfortunate cycles of history soon took a turn, and the economic boon turned into catastrophe. The Wine Clause, a mandate that allowed Austria to import cheaper wines from Italy, forced a drastic and devastating 350-500% decrease in the price of Hvar’s wines.
If that were not enough, the vineyards of Dalmatia – including Hvar – were also attacked by peronospera and oidium, followed in 1909 by the ravaging effects of phylloxera. The glory days of viticulture on Hvar seemed to die a slow death, leaving the population without the means to earn a living, and the local economy teetered on the verge of collapse.
A record of these dark days is still visible, engraved in 1901 in a stone panel on the chapel in the village of Ivan Dolac*, which says:
In honor of the Mother of God, this Church was built by Ivan Carić of the late Juraj. Since 1852 oidium and peronospera have ruined the grapes. These were hard times. Root pests came from Zadar, and the vines whithered. In fear we await our doom. My People! Devastated by this affront from God, heed the Virgin Mother Mary. And may God protect us from these three evils.
Tomislav Tomac is an intense fellow. A trained enologist, he oversees the winery with his father, Zvonimir, and lovely wife, Martina. From our first handshake forward his restrained passion, precise sense of purpose, and deep devotion to achieving authenticity in his wine captured my imagination.
The Tomac family has been making wine in Plešivica for over 200 years, riding the currents of history through good and bad times, to emerge – somewhat ironically – as a pioneering force of traditional winemaking in the present-day Croatian wine scene.
With 5.5 hectares of vineyards, and production of 40,000 bottles a year, Tomac is a relatively small producer. Yet his ambitions loom large, inciting curiosity and respect among some, and raising brows among others. It was in this spirit that he recently decided to discontinue production of his much-loved basic Chardonnay (the Chardonnay Premier will continue to be produced only in the best vintage years) to make room for a new and completely different wine (more on that in a moment) that may not have as wide an appeal.
Listening to Tomislav explain why he doesn’t own a single stainless steel tank (he ferments most of his wines in giant oak casks in the traditional manner), and how he uses only native yeasts, and how his vineyards harbor an array (over 4,000 vines) of ancient indigenous grape varieties from the Plešivica wine region, I couldn’t help but notice how he rarely stops moving and fussing about, his eyes frequently darting around the room, his presence marked by a sort of heightened awareness and kinetic energy that seemed to be infused with a mix of excitement, anxiety, annoyance and impatience.
But I was about to learn, on the contrary, just how patient he is.
While best known in Croatia for sparkling wines (“Millennium”, “Tomac Classic” “Tom” and “Rosé”), and excellent white wines (Chardonnay Premier, Graševina, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc), the wine I came to taste wasn’t in any vat, barrel, or bottle – it wasn’t even in the winery. Few people outside the family had ever tasted it. News of its existence was hushed and shrouded in mystery. This wine, the first ever of its type produced by Tomac, was buried in the ground in the yard.
But I would have to wait to find out more. The perfect hosts that they are, Tomislav and Martina insisted that I eat lunch with them first: delicious roast veal that was until recently (I was told) happily grazing on grasses in the neighbor’s field. There were potatoes and vegetables from the family garden. Bread freshly baked by a relative. Locally-made cheese. And of course a fine selection of wines made from grapes that grow just up the hill from where we were sitting.
The Slow Food movement is nothing new in Plešivica: it is a traditional way of life.
In between chewing and chatting, we tasted the core Tomac line-up: the “Classic” sparkling wine and Sauvignon Blanc served as perfect aperitifs, the Classic showing yeasty apple and citrus notes, and the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc delivering a fruity (mango and peach), mineral quality with a subtle note of yellow flowers. The 2008 Riesling (fermented in wood) was fragrant with unusual aromas of strawberry and banana and a haunting note of spice – nutmeg, perhaps.
The 2005 Chardonnay Premier Sur Lie was perfect with the milky veal and roasted potatoes, offering a creamy pear and butterscotch profile couched in a rich, buttery texture kept lively by zesty acidity.
Eager with anticipation I stopped chewing and nodded a smile when Tomislav finally said, with a sudden gleam in his eye, the magic words: “Would you like to try the Amfora?”
Again I was reminded that there are no stainless steel tanks at the Tomac winery, just giant oak vats and an assortment of small barrels and casks. And starting with the 2007 vintage, six clay amphora (“amfora”) fermentation vessels joined the ranks. Tomislav and his father had traveled to the Republic of Georgia, where they met with the makers of these antiquated pieces of winemaking history, and shipped six of them back to Croatia. Inside these vessels, now buried in the ground just beyond the winery parking lot, approximately 20,000 liters of Tomac Amfora wine waited to emerge from its dark seclusion.
Tomislav disappeared from the room for a few minutes and came back with an unlabeled, clear bottle, filled with beautiful amber-colored nectar. I felt nervous and honored to behold it at last. My mouth was watering.
“Here it is; still a little young”, he said rather sheepishly. “We’ll bottle it in a few weeks.”
Tomac Amfora is made using winemaking methods that date back 5,000 years – and recently made famous by Josko Gravner (a good friend of the Tomac family). The must is fermented for 6 months in hand-made clay amphora buried underground. During the first four weeks of fermentation, the must is stirred on a daily basis to ensure maximum skin contact and extraction. After four weeks the amphora are sealed and no further human intervention occurs until 6 months later, when the wine is moved into oak barrels, where it will spend another 1.5 years.
The wine Tomislav poured into my glass was the first result of that wait. Made primarily from Chardonnay (50%), Amfora also includes a field blend of grape varieties that are traditional in the Plešivica region: Graševina, Roter Veltliner, Plavec žuti, Sylvaner, Neuburger, Kraljevina and štajerska Belina.
Unusually beautiful in color and aroma, the Amfora offered a seductive bouquet of primary and tertiary aromas that were all at once alluring, haunting and comforting: warm winter spices, caramel, wet terra cotta, orange blossoms, ripe pear and apple, and a distinctive Sherry-like oxidative note. On the palate it was zesty and dry with a powerful acidity that strips the palate clean with every sip. Yet I didn’t find the wine to be astringent; in fact, it was soft – almost oily – on the finish, with a long spiced orange, stewed apple, and almond aftertaste.
Like its historical pedigree implies, the Tomac Amfora is a wine for the ages. I expect that this wine will last for decades in the bottle and become richer, more seductive, complex and beautiful with age. Shouldn’t we all be so lucky?
Ah yes, how sweet it is to be around at that moment when the old becomes new again; when something beautiful that was forgotten is found again; when traditional ways suddenly seem “cool” to modern minds. I left Tomac winery feeling happy and excited about the future of wine in Croatia, and as I drove away I remembered that old quote from Victor Hugo: “God made only water, but man made wine.”
Divers in the Adriatic Sea sometimes find old amphora vessels that the Romans once used for wine. Elsewhere in our day, arguments brew over the merits of screw caps versus corks, plastic versus glass versus bag-in-the-box, and French versus American versus Hungarian or Slavonian oak (let’s not mention oak chips). Through all of this, as the centuries pass us by, one thing stands true: great wine happens when that perfect balance is struck between nature giving us her best efforts, and the winemaker knowing when to intercede and – most importantly – when to back-off and wait.
The Tomac 2007 Amfora is a charming example of when that happens. Great job, guys.
Note: The Tomac 2007 Amfora will make one of its first public appearances at the upcoming Zagreb Wine Gourmet Festival in Zagreb, Croatia on February 12 & 13, 2010. More info here: http://zagrebwinegourmet.com/