Robert Parker & Croatian Wines: “Cruel to be Kind” (Part II of Neal Martin’s Report)


Editor’s Note: With this report, Robert Parker’s influencial “Wine Advocate” journal has published its first-ever review of a selection of wines from Croatia. The report and subsequent scores were written and posted by Neal Martin of and and are reprinted here with permission. This is Part II of a series of posts from Mr. Martin’s report, presented here for informational purposes. The statements, suggestions and reviews contained herein are purely Mr. Martin’s work and are subject to copyright and may not be republished elsewhere without permission of the author.      






Rights and Wrongs

This was not a disappointing showcase of Croatian wine, but it did highlight where winemakers are going right and where they are going wrong. It attested to a country with great potential, but empirically learning how to take their wines to ‘the next stage’ like New Zealand or Chile in the 1990s.

The main problem is alcohol levels.
I was astonished how many red wines topped the scales at over 15 degrees alcohol and yes, you could really feel that warmth and at times, that volatility. I initially conjectured that this was a stylistic choice on the part of the winemaker, however, the more I examined Croatia, the more I came to the conclusion that the problem maybe their indigenous grape varieties.

Ernest Tolj, Steven Spurrier and Neal Martin at the Fine Wine Croatia tasting in London, May 2010

Wine writers constantly bang on about the need for countries to embrace their domestic grape varieties in order to counter the purported homogenization of global wine. I whole-heartedly agree with that principle. It is vital for wine regions to be proud of the winemaking heritage and a flagship grape variety come be a useful tool in promoting your wine in a vast ocean of Chardonnay or Cabernet.

Grk ("Gerghk") grapes

There are two downsides.

Firstly, if grape varieties are nigh impossible to pronounce (how did you silently pronounce ‘Grk’ back there?) then this can deter consumers from dipping their toe in the water, particular on a restaurant list where there have to get their tongue around the name in front of a sommelier.

Secondly, there is the assumption that the domestic grape varieties are good by dint of them being…domestic.

What if they are not?  Do you turn a blind eye?

Babic ("Bah-Bitch") grapes

You see, both Plavac Mali and Babic are naturally acidic grapes, the latter prone to vegetal notes if not fully ripe (much like Cabernet Franc.) This coerces winemakers to pick as late as possible and ferment the wines up to 15 or 16 degrees, which is completely understandable, but in many cases this precipitates unbalanced wines that I could not imagine drinking in any quantity. Consequently, Croatian winemakers are stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea: reduce alcohol and risk under-ripeness or maintain high alcohol and risk one hell of a hangover, potentially for both consumer and sales?

What is the solution to this?

For me, it is a simply a case of going back to basics, examining the optimal picking date more carefully, piecemeal analysis of the vineyard and its terroir, managing the fermentation more meticulously and I have to say, not being corralled into producing high alcohol wine or nothing. This will all come from deepening experience and empirical learning. They need to learn that masking under-ripeness with layers of new oak often renders a bland, characterless wine that could come from anywhere and says nothing about where it comes from. High alcohol wines can sometimes work but only if you cannot feel the alcohol and the wine is perfectly in balance.

Graševina "Grah-sheh-vee-na")

On the positive side, I am convinced that Grasevina can produce fine white wine, indeed I fondly recall an impressive flight at the International Wine Challenge last April. Probably the best thing that anyone did was change the name and banish the associations we have with the much-derided Laski Rizling. Grasevina is easy to pronounce and provides a hook for some lovely, fresh, aromatic Croatian wines that perhaps need to work on their length: abundant flavour on the front palate but not the back-end to really make an impression.  Growers need to watch those yields because they can engender bland, anonymous wines if not kept in check.

I sampled a flight of sweet Croatian wines at the end of the tasting. Some of them were simply too cloying, although I found much delight in those matured in amphora.

Tomislav Tomac and his amphora

To sum up, perhaps I am being cruel to be kind. Croatia can potentially make outstanding wine. I get the sense that winemakers are still trying things out and seeing what works. Nothing wrong with that, but my role as a critic is to be candid and say where its strengths and weaknesses lie, rather than patronize them with pronouncements that they can take on the world. A small handful of these wines? Maybe. But some winemakers need to change their approach and in a lot of cases, not try so hard. Again, you have to distinguish between optimal and maximum oak, for they are not necessarily the same.

Another obstacle is prices. Many of the top wines are snapped up in Croatia and those that do make it over are not shy in charging a premium. Occasionally that premium is deserved, but persuading consumers to part with their hard earned cash for a Croatian Plavac Mali is not going to be easy (assuming that Croatian wine producers feel it necessary to develop export markets.)

Plavac Mali vineyards on Hvar island

It goes without saying that I will discover more when I actually visit the country. This simply serves as an introduction. The islands such as Hvar and Korcula are reputed for their high-class wines and it is only a matter of time before I discover them. In the meantime, I leave with the tasting notes that I have collated as per region. You will see that I have kept the Croatian spelling of grape varieties, after all that is what you will probably see on the bottle. In the meantime, here are a few wines that caught my eye…

Croatian Recommendations:
Matosevic Grimalda (Red Blend) 2008
Trapan Ponente 2009
Trapan Uroboros 2008
Krauthaker Chardonnay Rosenberg 2009
Zdjelarevic Grand Cuvee Nagual (White) 2008
Daruvar Grasevina 2008
Belje Grasevina 2009
Daruvar Grasevina 2008
Kutjevo Grasevina Izborna Berba Prosusenih Bobica 2006
Tomac Amfora 2007
Kabola Amfora 2006

P.S. from Editor: In Part III, we will present Mr. Martin’s notes and scores for the Slavonian wines sampled in London.


PRESS RELEASE: Saints Hills Selected for Prestigious Merano Wine Festival


ZAGREB (Croatia), September 3, 2010 – After a rigorous selection process, it was announced that Saints Hills Winery, together with the Bura/Mrgudić family winery, were chosen to represent Croatia at the 19th annual international Merano Wine Festival, one of the most exclusive and most elegant oeno-gastronomic events in Europe. The festival will be held November 5 – 8, 2010 in Italy’s picturesque resort town of Merano.

Merano, Italy

With its selection, Saints Hills 2008 Dingač becomes the first Plavac Mali wine from the Dingač appellation of Croatia’s southern Dalmatia region to be chosen for representation at this prestigious event.

Photo by Cliff Rames

To guarantee that the highest quality and most exclusive products are represented at Merano, only a limited number of wines are selected for recognition and participation. A panel of wine experts carefully evaluates each wine, and only those that achieve a minimum of 86 out of 100 points can be included in the “presentation and tasting of top class unique wines from all over the world”. Each candidate wine must also demonstrate a verifiable pedigree of origin and be “characterized by their intensity, complexity, elegance, and extraordinary personality”.


With 89 points, Saints Hills 2008 Dingač successfully secured a place among the 462 “chosen” wineries (336 from Italy and 126 from the rest of the world) who will be presenting their wines for tasting at this year’s festival. An estimated 5,000 visitors from around the world are expected to attend.


In addition to the 2008 Dingač, Saints Hills will also present its 2009 Nevina (a blend of Malvasia Istriana and Chardonnay).

Photo by Cliff Rames

The Merano Wine Festival is widely recognized as an important “meeting place”, a venue where representatives from wineries, hotels and restaurants, as well as wine writers, sommeliers, and other wine and culinary professionals can gather to network, taste the selected wines, and exchange information. Saints Hills Winery’s participation is a major opportunity to promote not only its own wines but also Croatia as a wine-producing country with a rich array of indigenous grape varieties and a unique terroir.


As a winery, to be included in the Merano festival is tantamount, for example, to being a musician who is asked to play at one of the world’s greatest music halls”, observed Ernest Tolj, owner and winemaker at Saints Hills Winery. “This is huge recognition for us, especially since we are one of the newest wineries in Croatia and our wines are just now entering the market in Croatia.”

Ernest Tolj (photo courtesy of Saints Hills)

Tolj adds: “I would like send a message to the participants of the Merano Wine Festival:  Premium quality wines – wines that have the unique characteristics of their specific terroir – exist in our part of the world.”  

Saints Hills vineyards in Dalmatia, Croatia

Established in 2006, Saints Hills Winery – in collaboration with one of the world’s most famous enologists, Michel Rolland – produces wines from vineyards it owns in Radovani (Istria), Pelješac (Dingač) and Komarna (Dalmatia).

Michel Rolland & Ernest Tolj

The inclusion of the Saints Hills 2008 Dingač and 2009 Nevina at the Merano Wine Festival couldn’t be timelier: Exports of Croatian wines to Western Europe and the United States are increasing, and Saints Hills wines are poised to enter the U.S. and U.K. markets in the coming months.  

Saša Špiranec, one of Croatia’s leading wine writers and experts, notes that participation in prestigious wine events like Merano not only shines a global spotlight on the individual producers who are present but also on the whole country’s wine industry.

Steven Spurrier scoring Croatian wines at LIWF (photo by Fine Wine Croatia)

At the moment, Croatian wines are trying to find their place among very strong competition on the international market. Participation in events such as Merano is an opportunity to present the potential of Croatia’s indigenous varieties and show that they can stand equally alongside the international competition”, Špiranec added.


Saints Hills Winery recently presented its wines at several international tastings, most notably in London and New York, and generated a lot of interest in Croatia’s indigenous varietal wines. Julia Harding, a Master of Wine and member of Jancis Robinson’s eminent team of wine reviewers, tasted the Saints Hills 2007 Dingač at the London International Wine Fair in May 2010. Her score of 16.5 points (out of 20) was to date her second-highest rating of a Croatian wine.

Photo courtesy of Merano Wine Festival

For additional information about the 19th annual international Merano Wine Festival, go to:

Press Release Contact:

Marko Kovač, VinMedia

Tel: +385 99 735 73 99



A Warning to Croatian Winemakers: If We Don’t Export, We Don’t Exist


Article by Saša Špiranec, courtesy of Playboy Magazine – Croatia

Translated by Morana Zibar,

Edited by Cliff Rames, Wines of Croatia


The Croatian wine market is exhausted. New vineyards are being planted, and the number of winemakers is rising. Yet no one is thinking about export. Without organized joint action we don’t stand a chance. 

Regardless of the serious economic crisis that has impacted the Croatian wine industry almost as much as the automotive sector, it will still be a successful year. I know it sounds harsh, but this crisis has come in handy.

For years our winemakers have all been drinking water from the same well. Even though their numbers are growing and there’s less and less water, they are not moving away. Even when they almost reached the bottom and the water became muddy, making them realize they have to go into the world to look for new springs, they didn’t do it. They preferred the muddy water to the uncertainty of the unknown. 

Now it is finally over; there is no more water. The well is empty. The race across the desert has begun. Will our thirsty friends reach a new spring before they lose their strength? Some of them will, especially the bigger ones who held advantageous positions at the well and managed to stock up reserves.

But some of them won’t make it; some will surely perish along the way. They will be mostly the small, the weak, and those who drank everything instead of building stockpiles.


Unfortunately, even those wineries who found their way to the new spring won’t stand much of a chance of long term survival. All around them will be waiting big lions and hungry hyenas that will not respond favorably to strangers drinking their water. Scattered in unorganized small groups, our poor winemakers won’t stand a chance against the hungry beasts.

But if they had set off like an organized army, when there were still good stocks of water, and proceeded to conquer spring after spring, then nothing could have stood in their way.  By securing more wells in advance, they would have prevented their own little well from drying up.

The “well” of course is the Croatian market, which has been sucked dry for years because Croatian winemakers practically don’t export at all. It’s impossible to understand the point of planting new vineyards, increasing the number of winemakers and wine brands if nobody is even thinking about exporting.

Newly planted vineyards in Dalmatia. Photo by Cliff Rames

The local market has been stagnant for years and the former number of winemakers was quite enough to satisfy its needs. The only discrepancy was between the amount of red and larger amount of white wines. If we had no intention to export, we shouldn’t have planted new vineyards. Instead we should have replaced a portion of white varieties in existing vineyards with red varieties.

Export statistics are poor, and the numbers heavily reflect our exports to neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina. Export to the rest of the world is still in its infancy. The efficiency of Croatia’s export strategy is so far best illustrated by the following figures, taken from the Handel Market Research report for Croatian wine.

Export of Croatian Wine

2004 = 52.802hl

2006 = 31.311 hl

2008 = 28.564 hl

Besides exporting a lousy 2,800,000 litres, especially devastating is the fact that export figures comprise only 4.5% of all Croatian wine distribution.

The culprit behind this failure is not far away: the lion’s share of the blame falls on the winemakers themselves because they don’t know how organize and approach the government with a united voice.

I’ve been following the conflicts in our winemaking scene for two decades. First it was about “big against the small”. Then it moved to the regional level, when one region belittles the other one and vice versa. Later it finally ended up at the local level, with one winemaker quietly wishing for his neighbor’s demise instead of his success.

Still it is important to remember that another country, a close regional neighbor – Austria, went through hardship greater than anything Croatia could imagine: during the 1980’s, Austria was hit by the so-called “Antifreeze Affair”, whereby a number of Austrian winemakers ended up in jail for adulterating wine with chemical additives (rather than doing the hard work in the vineyards to grow good grapes) to boost profits.

As the result the reputation of the Austrian wine industry was ruined. Nobody would buy Austrian wines after news of the scandal broke. Today’s wine crisis in Croatia is just a small baby compared to Austria’s consequences: several years of zero sales.

However, Austria today has re-emerged as one of the most progressive wine regions in Europe. Their wine marketing activities and branding strategies are some of the most positive, sophisticated and effective campaigns in the world. In twenty years they have risen from the ashes to become a star.

Lesson 1: Looking for shortcuts and fishing in troubled waters is not only a Croatian specialty. As we can see, it happens to advanced nations too.

Lesson 2: It is never too late to get your act together. When you are last, you have the least to lose and the greatest possibility for improvement.

Therefore the current crisis and Croatia’s nonexistence on the global wine market is not a problem. Let’s get together, put all our money in a pile, and jointly launch an organized world campaign. It is not a mission impossible.

Trends are indeed going our way. Consumers are getting tired of the usual grape varieties and they are looking for something new. Maybe Croatia is the very thing they want. What is more important, so far the reactions from wine critics and connoisseurs have been sympathetic – they like us.


With assistance from the Croatian Chamber of Commerce, Croatian winemakers recently participated in several important wine expos, including the World Wine Symposium in Lake Como, Italy, and the London International Wine Fair, which are annual gatherings of the world’s biggest wine experts, journalists and wine buyers.


These events were very successful and many in attendance highly rated the quality of our wines. And important questions were asked: Where can we find these wines? Why are they not more present on foreign markets?  

Steven Spurrier, the legendary 70-year-old British wine critic and editor or Decanter magazine, offered the same message. After 40 years of constant wine tasting all over the world, at the Lago di Como wine expo he said: “You know, this is the first time that I have tasted Croatian wine. I didn’t have a chance to try it before.”


Postscript from the editor: Mr. Spurrier tasted Croatian wines for the second time on May 25, 2010 at the London International Wine Fair, where he spent a significant amount of time at the Fine Wine Croatia grand tasting chatting with winemakers and sampling the selections. He reported that he was particularly impressed by Malvazija, Teran and Pošip. More impressive, he took a bottle of Saints Hills 2008 “Nevina” (a blend of Malvazija and Chardonnay from Istria) home with him.

Steven Spurrier at LIWF. Photo courtesy of Ernest Tolj

As the old adage goes, “Every journey begins with a single step”. We’ve started to move. Now it’s time to go and conquer some springs.