Just when daydreams of summer sailing, bathing in the crystal waters of the Adriatic Sea, and feasting on fresh fish in a favorite island café seem within reach, Saveur magazine has devoted its entire April 2014 issue (#164) to seafood, with seven full-color, mouth-watering pages about Croatia’s coastal food and wine culture.
By Cliff Rames © 2013
One of the many things that delight me on warm sunny days is the moment I crack open a cold, thirst quenching bottle of white wine, preferably out on a veranda or beach. The way it refreshes and revives my spirit is like daybreak itself. Or a walk in a spring flower garden. Or a tantalizing dip in the cool waters of a favorite lake or sea.
Simple pleasures, for sure. If anyone ever asks you about the meaning of life, you tell them that. It’s all about simple pleasures. And being kind to each other….
Back to wine. There are of course so many delicious bottles from which to choose. Such multitudes in fact that I can never adequately answer that oft-asked (and maddening) question: What is your favorite? Preferences abound for sure, from earthy reds to cheeky rosés to funky orange wines. But when the sultry days of summer strike, white cold n’ crispy is how I like them. Albariño, Chablis, chenin blanc, dry riesling, Sancerre, Santorini, and Vinho Verde are all companions who chill with me on boozy flip-flop days.
Yet in life there are casual friends who pop in and out of your life, perhaps bringing zippy moments of pleasure, fun and good times. More often than not they are unremarkable encounters that leave no lasting mark. For instance that certain $9 bottle I consumed a few evenings ago. What was it again?
Then there are dear old friends. The proverbial best buds and soul mates. Stalwart bonds that endure through thick and thin in the intimate places of your heart and mind, even when communication and visitations are missed for long periods of time.
Among these old friends I count many Croatian wines. Together we share a sweet history, know each others’ secrets, our moments of silliness and celebration, sadness and humiliation. Side-by-side we’ve experienced triumph and failure, been inspired to laughter and dance, been comforted in tears and heartbreak. And we go on loving each other even when times are tough and bottles get broken.
One of these darlings is malvazija istarska – or malvasia istriana.
Like albariño is to the seaside shores of Galicia in Spain, malvazija is the signature white wine of Istria, an axe-shaped peninsula that slices into the Adriatic Sea along Croatia’s northern coast. Here malvazija vineyards stand like sentinels not far from the rugged, salty shore and then majestically rise up the pastoral highlands of the interior, where they thrive alongside acacia trees, olive groves, and truffle oak forests in the region’s patchwork of red, white, brown and grey soils – each to subtly different effect.
Despite the name that would place the variety among the branches of the very large malvasia bianca family tree, malvazija istarska is specific to Istria, although the variety can also be found in the neighboring Koper appellation in Slovenia, as well as in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia area of Italy.
Malvazija ranks as Croatia’s second most planted wine grape variety. Because it has a tendency to over crop, malvazija can yield insipid, uninteresting wines (as was the case for many years during the era of Socialsim). Drought or extreme heat can quickly cause the delicate fruit flavors to mute, sugars to spike and acids to drop, leading to one-dimensional swill best suited for bulk sale or distillation.
But when the weather is right, vineyard management techniques hit the mark, and the terroir tenders its sweet spot, something magical and mystical happens (see Matošević ‘s Magical Mystical Tour of the James Beard House), and malvazija reveals its many charms and depths.
Often referred to as liquid gold (although some would rightfully argue that the excellent local olive oils share that distinction), malvazija is Istria’s pride and joy, its medal champion, and best hope for international recognition from global wine lovers and foodies. No surprise then that a single vineyard malvazija from Kozlović won Gold and Trophy awards at the 2013 International Wine Challenge, and eight single-varietal malvazija istarska wines from Croatia won medals at the 2013 Decanter World Wine Awards.
In a recent article for the Croatian press, the American food and wine writing duo Jeff Jenssen and Mike DiSimone (aka the World Wine Guys) asserted that the world is ready for malvazija; that the time has come for Istria’s flagship wine to join the ranks of the fabulous and the famous.
That the Istrians are ready for the world is undisputed. With their own successful technical assistance and marketing association established in 1995, Vinistra, an annual World of Malvazija competition and wine expo, an “Istrian Quality” label designation program for top wines, and a legion of young, talented, innovative and enthusiastic winemakers, it seems inevitable that Istria and malvazija will soon take their rightful places among the stars.
However, Dimitri Brečević, a 34-year old French-Croatian who studied winemaking in Bordeaux before moving to Istria in 2004 to start his own winery and successful Piquentum label, feels that malvazija – as good as it is now – still hides its full potential.
“I would say that we still have a lot of work to do,” he says. “We have to work a lot on vinification to adapt more to this variety, but also we have to learn more about our terroir – particularly the red soils”.
Brečević also wonders about the potential benefits of blending malvazija with other varieties. “But which one?” he muses. “I am not so sure about chardonnay. I would prefer an old local variety. But we are still working on that. All this research is the price to pay if we want to improve quality and reach world class status”.
When seeking out a malvazija wine a buyer should be aware that styles range from young and fresh to French or Slavonian oak or acacia wood-aged versions, to high alcohol extended skin maceration “orange” wines from producers such as Clai, Kabola, and Roxanich that are cult favorites among some consumers (reportedly these wines pair wonderfully with cigars, a subject advocated each year during a special “Habanos Moments” session at Vinistra).
Sparkling malvazija wines are also bottled by a handful of producers, most notably one of Croatia’s leading female winemakers, Ana Peršurić.
However, most malvazija produced in Istria is the straight-forward, early-drinking, food-friendly “naked” style that is zesty, moderately alcoholic, sometimes effervescent, and slightly bitter with subdued fruit (apple, apricot), raw almond and acacia flower floral notes, and – in good vintages – distinctly saline and mineral-driven. In other words, perfect alongside summery seafood fare.
If all of this makes you curious and thirsty, let’s get to the whole point of this article: Ready or not, Istrian malvazija is already available in many markets around the world.
In the U.S. consumers have access to nearly 10 different labels, including Bastianich Adriatico, Cattunar, Clai, Coronica, Kozlović, Matosević, Piquentum, Saints Hills (blended with Chardonnay), Terzolo, and Trapan.
In the U.K., Pacta Connect offers a number of delicious malvazija wines in its portfolio, including Cattunar, Clai, Gerzinić, Piquentum, and Peršurić.
With the waning days of summer in mind, recently I gathered a few old friends (of the human kind and the malvazija kind) for a soirée of sipping, swirling and pontificating. The bottles were chosen at random based on what I could get my hands on; some are imported to the U.S., others extracted from my private cellar. Below are some notes that I managed to remember.
When drinking malvazija – or any wine – please don’t get bogged down by lofty descriptors and 100-point assessments. Wine deserves better than that. But do sit back, kick up your bare feet, raise your glass and take a sip, and enjoy what the wine has to offer, the stories it has to tell, the memories or images it evokes, and the songs it may sing for you.
In the end, perhaps a few of these beauties will become your friends too. And friends of your friends. And friends of their friends. Before you know it, it’s a party.
So let us go forth as denizens and disciples of the finer things in life, singing and shouting out proclamations of love with mouthfuls of malvazija. Because it’s delicious. And because it’s the next Big Thing – or should be.
Benvenuti 2010 Malvazija Istarska
Creamy and viscous with a soft yet zesty attack and talcum powder mineral presence, all rounded out with essence of apricot, golden apple, and citrus blossom. Simple style yet pleasant example of white soil malvazija.
Coronica 2011 Istrain Malvasia
Tight, steely and chock full of minerals, this is not malvazija for the masses. Elusive citrus notes wrap around a structured mineral core, surrounded by an aura of blazing acidity. Not for the feint of heart or sufferers of acid reflux. But if you love this style, pair it with grilled sardines, linguini with clam sauce, or raw oysters and you will be very happy indeed.
Degrassi “Bomarchese” 2009 Malazija Istarska
The most aromatic and tropical of the lot. Loads of stone fruit with a hint of gooseberry and orange blossom. Nicely structured with a long finish.
Gerzinić 2010 Malvazija
Leesy and elegant, with notes of Bosc pear, Golden Delicious apple, and honeysuckle. Smooth and refined on the palate, with soft acids, a chalky mineral presence, and a satisfying finish.
Kozlović Malvazija 2012
Clean, crisp and taught with pear fruit and dusty straw followed by a bitter almond finish. A benchmark malvazija – and a great value.
Saints Hills 2010 Nevina
Fermented in small oak barrels and blended with a small amount of Chardonnay. Creamy yet vibrant on the palate with rich notes of ripe Bartlett pear, banana, and butter toasted hazelnuts, all supported on a frame of saline minerality. Elegant and sophisticated yet approachable now.
Terzolo Malvazija Istarska 2010
Zippy and refreshing with crackling acidity and delicate fruit aromas (citrus; starfruit), pungent green notes of cut grass, fig leaf and herbs with a hint of white acacia flowers. Nicely structured with a sharp mineral core of crushed sea shells and metal ore, finishing up with that distinctive bitter almond bite.
Trapan Ponete Malvazija Istarska 2012
Crystalline and refined with delicate, tight notes of dusty pear skins, kaffir lime, apricot, marzipan and acacia flowers. Still young and taught, this is the most polished but perhaps most textbook example of the lot – the closest we’ll come (for now) to mainstream malvazija.
[**For current availability, prices and vintages for the wines mentioned in this article, please check with Blue Danube Wine Co. (Coronica, Piquentum, Saints Hills, Terzolo); CroMade (Cattunar; Matosevic); Dark Star Imports (Bastianich); Louis/Dressner (Clai); Pacta Connect (Cattunar, Clai, Gerzinic, Piquentum, Peršurić); Vinum USA (Kozlović); and Winebow (Trapan).]
By Cliff Rames © 2012
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 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.
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. 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.
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? 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 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).
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? 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.
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.
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? 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!
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 (“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.
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 case you missed anything, here is a round-up of the latest links to the news articles, blog posts and videos that highlighted Croatia, its wine or wine culture.
January 30, 2012
A profile of UK importer Pacta Connect and its involvement in the SITT tasting, which is designed specifically for “wine buyers from the independent on and off trade, and for press visitors interested in ‘real’ wines.” Clai and Coronica are just a few of the “real” wines PC Wines represents that will be on hand at the upcoming tasting.
January 30, 2012
A few scrumptious observations about Croatia’s food and wine culture by a group of 15 cyclists pedaling through Dalmatia.
January 31, 2012
Whimsical tasting notes – presented in 17-syllable haiku format – of Croatian wines tasted at the 2012 International Wine Tourism Conference in Umbria, Italy.
January 31, 2012
A group that usually focuses on “natural wines made by a small number of selected boutique wine producers in the Loire Valley of France” took a turn off the beaten path and discovered the wines of Croatia.
February 3, 2012
A little lesson on the quirks of island dialect and grapes of another name.
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