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! 🙂

End of an Era: Gary Vaynerchuk Retires from Wine Videos

By Cliff Rames

The day he announced it, the earth shook.

As it happened, I was home grilling fresh squid on a wood fire. Suddenly the ground shivered and rolled like a small ocean wave had just passed underfoot. I felt momentarily dizzy. Then it was over.

My lunch on the day of the big quake

At that moment I thought sun stroke had cause the vertigo, not a 5.8 magnitude earthquake that rattled much of the northeast United States. As I later discovered, other than some minor damage in Virginia and a famously tipped-over chair in Washington D.C., the east coast earthquake was no big deal – despite my panicked neighbors and the media hype.

Earthquake damage in Washington DC (photo courtesy of http://www.famousDC.com)

But what was a big deal was the news that I discovered as I surfed the earthquake coverage on the web. That same afternoon Gary Vaynerchuk aired Episode 89 of Daily Grape, the video blog that took the place of Wine Library TV. Under a headline that read “The Final Grape”, Gary announced that he was fully retiring from online wine video production.

The Final Grape

Talk about the earth shaking! As things like this often do, the news made me reminisce and think about Gary’s impact on the wine world and Croatia in particular.

As many of you know, during the five-year lifespan of Wine Library TV (WLTV) Gary produced two episodes devoted to Croatian wines, numbers 553 and 798.

Episode 553 aired on October 7, 2008, a time when few people knew that Croatia produced wine (Wines of Croatia was founded a few months later). As it turned out, the star of that episode was Zlatan Otok 2004 Plavac Mali Barrique, the wine that brought “thunder” to WLTV and Gary called “sensational”.

You can watch WLTV Episode 553, “A Croatian Wine Tasting”, here:

In late 2009 I happened to meet Gary at a wine tasting and told him about my work with Wines of Croatia. It was evident that he was very interested in Croatia, and he promptly invited me to be a guest on his show.

Episode 798, “Tasting Wines from Croatia”, aired on January 11, 2010. You can catch it here:

The response to my appearance on WLTV was overwhelming. I received dozens of emails of support and inquiry, and the number people following the Wines of Croatia page on Facebook doubled overnight. For this I am forever grateful to Gary. With that gracious invitation, he provided me a golden opportunity to share my love and passion for Croatian wines with a far wider audience than I was able to reach on my own.

Sadly, on March 14, 2011 Gary ended WLTV at Episode 1000, a milestone number and a respectable achievement. At the time he said that he was taking a break to work on new initiatives but that his regular appearances on WLTV were more or less over.

But then rumors of a new project surfaced, and on March 14, 2011 Daily Grape was launched. Suddenly all seemed well again in Garyland. The next chapter in a seemingly unstoppable quest to dominate wine-related social media content had begun.

Daily Grape

Over the course of 89 Daily Grape episodes, Gary introduced his viewers to an array of funky grape varieties and geeky wine regions. He paired wine with doughnuts.

He also initiated a new feature called “Behind the Grape” which included guest appearances by heavy-hitter wine gurus such as Andrea Robinson MS, Cameron Hughes, Dr. Stephane Vidal, Evan Dawson, Daniel Johnnes, and an excellent appearance by “The Juiceman” and Master Sommelier, Fred Dexheimer.

GaryVee & FredEx

But the highlight for me was the much-anticipated episode devoted to Plavac Mali, Croatia’s most-important native red grape. Although his review of the wines didn’t knock off any socks, the important message was that Plavac Mali has arrived and the wines are unique and people should pay attention.

Plavac Mali (photo by Cliff Rames)

You can see Daily Grape Episode 86, “Plavac Mali from Croatia”, for yourself HERE (sorry the embed function wasn’t available for this episode).

On August 23, 2011, after a few weeks’ vacation with his family, Gary returned to Daily Grape to announce – with little fanfare and obviously toned-down energy – that the end had arrived. Daily Grape Episode 89 would be his last.

As I watched Gary explain his decision, the ground of my perception of the wine world heaved and shook. Can this be? Who – if any one – can fill the void left behind by Gary’s absence from wine videos? Will he still be around to inspire? To provoke debate, ire, laughter? Will anyone ever again be able to get away with saying a wine smells like a “zebra”? Or dare to find out what wine pairs with Lucky Charms, Captain Crunch and Cinnamon Toast Crunch breakfast cereals?

Alas, I know we must go on. But today I feel that the broadband universe is a much lonelier place; the virtual wine world a tad less cool and sassy….

Say what you want about Gary (his style and personality have been the source of much divided debate), he undoubtedly made an impact on the wine industry. Over the years his internet broadcasts reached countless viewers in the U.S. and abroad (I can attest, Gary has near rock star status among many wine geeks in Croatia).

More important, he introduced a new generation of wine consumers, many of them from the coveted “Millennials” demographic, to the magic of vino and grape varieties with crazy names like Debit, Graševina, Malvasia Istriana, Plavac Mali and Teran. If it were not for Gary, many “Vayniacs” and others would still be in the dark about Croatia and its wines. For that he deserves credit and a huge note of thanks from everyone involved in producing, importing and promoting Croatian wines.

Gary Vee Drinking Happiness

Love him or hate him, one could not ignore Gary while at the same time claiming to be serious about understanding contemporary trends in social media and wine marketing and consumption. Whenever Gary “sniffy-sniffed” and described wine, tweeted, or posted a Facebook comment, online conversations erupted and debates simmered and sometime exploded.

And presumably somewhere along the way, a bottle of wine was sold. After all, Gary transformed Wine Library from a $4 million mom & pop wine shop into a $45 million internet sales-driven business, as well as a physical destination for Gary gawkers, Wine Library TV pilgrims, “Cinderella Wine” value hunters, and serious wine geeks.

After my January 2010 appearance on Wine Library TV, the wine that Gary most liked on the show – Clai 2007 Ottocento Crno – disappeared from the shelves of the Whole Foods store on the upper West Side of Manhattan. I know this because that is where I got the bottle that we tasted together. There had been about 10 bottles on the shelf when I purchased it. When I went back a couple days after the episode, the Clai was sold out.

(photo by Cliff Rames)

Today it is hard for me to conceive a world void of my regular fix of Gary Vee on TV. Yet in my disappointment and sadness, I sense that there is reason to be excited. Gary will surely explore new avenues for his intense ambition, energy and creativity. “It was never in the cards for me to spend my entire career for me to be a wine critic”, he said. “I love wine but I am an entrepreneur first. I am ready to do some new things.”

No matter what he decides to do next, it is clear that Gary Vaynerchuk has forged a stunning trajectory towards success. While he said that he hasn’t completely closed the door to doing occasional video blogs in the future – which would be great, it doesn’t matter. He had a great run, and we have many episodes in the WLTV and Daily Grape archives to revisit from time to time. What comes next is (for now) just happy fodder for the imagination.

And to Gary I say this: Thank you for all the fun, the passion, for keeping it real, and for leading us off the beaten path to mysterious wine lands, where much vino was shared among friends and strangers alike. I wish you nothing but happiness, continued success, good health, a lot of love, and of course many more bottles of Croatian wine!

I look forward to seeing you again somewhere out on the field of dreams.