Croatian Wines Featured in New Fire Island Cookbook

By Cliff Rames © 2012

In recent years you could say that a cookbook renaissance has taken place. While catch-all cookbooks are still popular, such as the iconic Essential New York Times Cookbook, the heirloom Betty Crocker Cookbook, and the mandatory Cook Illustrated Cookbook, regional and single-subject cookbooks have become all the rage.

I guess it may have started with Julia Child’s opus called Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which made the mysteries of snobby French cuisine accessible to housewives and aspiring chefs casting about in kitchens across America and elsewhere.

Today other testaments to regional cooking abound on the shelves of bookshops and – I suppose – digital libraries. The Silver Spoon comes immediately to mind, the heavyweight tome to Italian cuisine.

But regional explorations have progressively drilled down from the macro to the micro level, as interest in cooking has mushroomed and serious-minded cooks seek out authenticity, uniqueness and novelty to set their recipes and menus apart from the common or mundane. Call it the need for terroir in pot and on plate.

Whatever you call it, at the core this trend is surely based in primal human desires for discovery, for reward, for excitement, for something safe and satisfying to eat. But it also registers at a more intellectual level and raises the banner of a movement that seems to be well underway – not just in the culinary experience but also in wine: the urge to experience a sense of place in what we consume; and a rejection of generic, industrial and chemically-farmed products that so litter supermarkets and many mainstream restaurants.

“Eat Local” is the mantra of this movement. “Sustainability”, “organic”, “artisanal”, “small batch”, “handmade” are some of the buzz words that drive the message home. The point is, to increasing numbers of people, cooking is no longer just a function that precedes eating. It is passion; it has meaning; it should be creative yet wholesome; it needs to provide enjoyment, fulfillment, and healthy nourishment; it should be respectful of tradition yet never be dull or generic; and it should showcase and celebrate seasonal ingredients and – when possible – locally-grown products.

Jeff Jenssen & Mike DeSimone – The Wine Guys (photo by Cliff Rames)

And thus we arrive at Fire Island, where authors Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen (aka, the World Wine Guys), in The Fire Island Cookbook (Atria Books), present us with 14 different menus born out of recipes acquired on their worldly journeys as food and wine writers. Each recipe strives to incorporate fresh ingredients that visitors to the Long Island, NY summer seaside hideaway would find at the local groceries, butcher shops, and fish and vegetable markets during the summer season. And each recipe comes with a sachet of secret spices: Mike and Jeff’s exceptional presentation, inspired sense of hospitality, and delightful food and wine pairing talents.

Within its colorful and appealing pages The Fire Island Cookbook offers a smorgasbord of breezy menu suggestions for an array of tastes and a variety of occasions, such as a “Noche Caliente Spanish Dinner”; “Rainy Day French Menu”; Fourth of July Pool Party”; “Mediterranean Odyssey”; “Villa in Tuscany”, to name just a few.

However, the menu that caught my attention was (of course) “Height of the Empire”, a collection of hearty recipes that hail back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The flavors here are rich yet simple, piquant and savory, rustic yet comforting. Most interestingly, while these recipes reflect the traditional cuisine of the continental, southeast Europe, the wines that Mike and Jeff pair with them are coastal, specifically from the Istria and Dalmatia regions of Croatia.

Kicking off the menu is a recipe for Panfried Quail with Kielbasa-Studded Orzo, paired with Saints Hills Nevina, a blend of malvasia istriana and chardonnay from the Istria region of northern coastal Croatia.

Saints Hills Nevina (photo by Cliff Rames)

Next is Viennese Stuffed Peppers, paired with Matošević Grimalda red, another Istrian wine that is a blend of merlot and teran.

Matošević Grimalda (photo by Cliff Rames)

Crowning the feast of the Empire is Chicken Paprikash with Homemade Butter Dumplings, paired with an equally noble wine, Saints Hills Dingač, made from plavac mali grapes grown at one of Croatia’s most prestigious vineyards on the Pelješac peninsula along Croatia’s Dalmatian coastline.

Saints Hills Dingač (photo by Cliff Rames)

Whether or not you visit one of the 1,100+ islands in Croatia or Fire Island, NY this summer, it doesn’t matter. All you need to do is open The Fire Island Cookbook and you will be transported to a breezy seaside resort where everything tastes good and it doesn’t matter if it is sunny or rainy.

And even if you are a novice cook or making the best of it in a cottage kitchen, have no worries: the book is written in such a way that you feel as though Mike and Jeff are there with you, guiding you through each step while telling stories of their travels and pouring you another glass of that delicious Croatian wine they discovered on their last trip.

Throughout its pages The Fire Island Cookbook projects practical know-how kitchen-tested experience, all peppered with a touch of romance and giddiness that only summer by the sea can inspire, and exudes the warm hospitality for which Mike and Jeff are so known and loved.

Giving it additional gravitas in a world rife with cookbooks of every ilk, The Fire Island Cookbook successfully embraces locavore philosophy while weaving in an appreciation for exotic and exquisite treats from foreign lands. And that, my friends, is a recipe for summer patio yumminess.

As they say in Croatia, “Dobar tek i zivjeli” (Good appetite and cheers!)

Mike & Jeff at a Barnes & Noble book signing, Freehold, NJ, April 2012 (photo by Cliff Rames)
Jeff Jenssen (photo by Cliff Rames)

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! 🙂