A Taste of Dalmatia – Without Leaving Home

Croatia’s Plavac Mali grape can be complex, versatile and friendly.

Every once in a while a wine comes along like an old friend and delivers a surprise.  Not a box of chocolates.  Not the phone number of that person you’re in love with but didn’t know how to contact.  And not a mullet-haired photo from your high school days.  But a new insight into something you thought you already knew everything about.

That’s what happened in a New York City wine shop when I exchanged $21 for a bottle of PZ Putnikovici 2007 “Lirica” red wine from Croatia.  While I was familiar with the grape variety, Plavac Mali [a native Croatian red grape that is the offspring of the original Zinfandel – Crljenak Kaštelanski (tsirl-YEN-ak kash-tel-LAHN-skee)], I had never tried this proprietary label from Vinum USA imports.  It felt like adventure time!

Over the years, my extensive drinking experience had taught me that wines from Plavac Mali can manifest themselves in a range of very diverse expressions, from fruitier, sometimes off-dry, food-friendly Cooperative styles to richly extracted, dark and brooding, oak-infused, high-alcohol, tannic creations from single-vineyard sites and boutique wineries.  As I pulled the cork, my mind was drifting through the possibilities: what would I find here?

Plavac Mali grapes, Dingač

The Lirica label provided a clue: most Croatian wines labeled as Plavac Mali – or more simply, Plavac – tend to be simpler, lighter, less tannic, lower in alcohol and lightly oaked – or completely un-oaked.  Happily my Lirica delivered characteristics somewhere in the middle between the two extremes, offering a perfect balance between fruit, food-friendliness and distinctive terroir-infused complexity.

The PZ Putnikovici 2007 “Lirica” Plavac Mali comes from grapes grown on Pelješac, a long, mountainous peninsula that stretches almost 40 miles (63 km) out into the Adriatic Sea just north of Dubrovnik in the Southern Dalmatia wine region of Croatia.

Map of Peljesac, Croatia

Some of Croatia’s most magnificent vineyards – and arguably best red wines – come from Pelješac, especially from the steep, sun-drenched rocky slopes along its southwest and south-facing shores – an area that in ways reminds me of the dramatic hillsides of Portugal’s Duoro Valley, and the Mosel vineyards of Germany, and the roasted slopes of the northern Rhone Valley.

On Pelješac Plavac Mali grapes thrive and reach their pinnacle of perfection, especially in the vineyard areas called Dingač and Postup.  Wines from these two prime wine-growing regions, which total about 80 hectares (200 acres), have been prized for centuries. In fact, in 1961 the Dingač vineyards received protected status under the international Geneva Convention; Dingač is Croatia’s first wine with “protected geographical origin” classification.

The PZ Putnikovici vineyards lie just south of the prestigious slopes of Dingač, facing the pristine Adriatic Sea, with a fabulous view of the island, Mljet.  While the terrain is similar and the climate identical, the Lirica must be labeled as Plavac Mali because its vineyards lie beyond the boundaries of Dingač and Postup.

The Croatian coastline, especially in the central and southern regions of Dalmatia, is one of the Mediterranean basin’s most eco-clean and naturally beautiful vineyard areas.  It is also an area that enjoys a perfect Mediterranean climate, with long, blazingly hot and dry summers followed by relatively short, mild yet windy winters.  This ideal package of sun, sea, soil, geography and climate naturally finds its way into the local gastro and “vinsko” offerings, such as artisanal cheeses, honey, fish, olive oil and of course, wine.

Dingač vineyards

The vineyards of the Dalmatian coast are special and deliver  wild, natural expressions of the region’s terroir: scrub brush, wild rosemary, thyme, curry plant and anise growing between the bleached white stones, perfuming the air; olive and fig trees, their branches full with fruit; and vines perched on impossibly steep hillsides that tumble down into the magnificently blue Adriatic Sea, their leaves shimmering white and green in the summer breeze, their bunches purple and raisined, thick with sugar and must.

It was with these idyllic images in my mind that I considered my glass of Lirica.

One of the first things I noticed about the Lirica was how the saturated color left a ruby residue on the sides of my glass – a sign of something substantive to come.

On the nose, initial fruity notes of fresh-squeezed cherry juice, both black and red, gave way to more complex notes of plum jam, violets, savory rhubarb, roasted herbs and earthy licorice fruit.  A noticeable but fleeting alcoholic vapor (the wine is 14.1% ABV) rose from the glass but quickly blew off, revealing a softer, rounder aroma profile that was sweet and seductive with old world charms: Mediterranean spice jar, sun-ripened black fruits, and an alluring earthiness.   A very pleasant nose; I imagined that its perfume could only get more interesting if it were lightly dabbed behind a lovely lady’s ear….

But I digress…

In my mouth this wine was all about ripe, sweet Morello cherries backed up by a harmony section comprised of dried figs, plums preserves, and a touch of cinnamon stick.  A decisive hint of residual sugar (perhaps a bit too much for my taste) fills out the body and holds the medium-plus acidity in check while maintaining a zippy cherry freshness.  On the finish, the soft, round tannins lingered and co-mingled with a pleasantly long finish that coated my tongue with a viscous perception of sweetness.  Lirica is not oaked, but did spend some time in large old neutral wood vats.

Yes, I really enjoyed this wine.  But let’s also be clear-headed: this is an affordable and somewhat pedestrian expression of Plavac Mali, not a knock-your-socks-off, extreme extraction, multi-layered and densely packed creation that needs years in the cellar to settle down; it will never be granted access to Christie’s auction house.  While Plavac Mali, in the hands of producers such as Bura, Duboković, Korta Katarina, Madirazza, Miličić, Miloš and Plenković can deliver wines that will rock your world, Lirica is simply a focused, easy-drinking and accessible wine that will comfort and please you with its tasty, sophisticated rusticity.

And it’s welcome through the doors of my house anytime….    

Pair this wine with Salumi and cured hams; feta or hard saline cheeses, and roasted sweet red peppers for a true taste of the Mediterranean life.  It’s also a winner with grilled lamb chops, osso buco – and pizza!  I had it with a bowl full of steaming steak strips tossed with Mediterranean vegetables, herbs and pasta, with a big chunk of crusty bread.  Life is good sometimes!

The PZ Putnikovici 2007 “Lirica” Plavac Mali is imported by Vinum USA (www.vinumusa.com) of Madison, NJ and retails between $18-$21.

Full disclosure: I purchased the first bottle of 2007 Lirica, reviewed here; a second bottle was given to me by the importer as a sample and will be opened at a later time in the interest of research to see how the wine progresses in bottle.  

 Photos and text by Cliff Rames, www.winesofcroatia.com