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! 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the findings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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

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

The Bura Dingač is imported by VinumUSA.