Los Angeles Times discovers the wines of the Plešivica region

By Cliff Rames

In a September 26, 2016 Los Angeles Times article entitled “In old-world Croatia, here are four trendy towns worth visiting”, author Margo Pfeiff lists four towns that one must visit in northern Croatia, which she describes as “rural regions known for their vineyards and welcoming agri-tourism farms….”

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(Photo: © 2016 Cliff Rames)

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Lunch at Korak Winery in the Rolling Hills of Plešivica – in Pictures

Korak vineyards, Plešivica

(All photos ©2012 Cliff Rames)

Last month, two editors from Wine Enthusiast magazine, Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen (aka the World Wine Guys), visited Croatia to receive the Golden Pen Award from the Croatian National Tourism Board for their article called “Croatia – In Living Color”, which was published in the September 2011 issue of Wine Enthusiast.

After receiving the Golden Pen Award (“Zlatna Penkala”), the Wine Guys toured a selection of wineries, vineyards, hotels, restaurants and other sites in the continental region of Croatia.

The Wine Guys were escorted by Cliff Rames, sommelier and founder of Wines of Croatia, who along the way captured a few snapshots of their journey. We will be sharing an assortment of Cliff’s photos with you over the next few weeks, starting with this collection of shots from Korak winery in the Plešivica wine-growing hills – a cool, hilly region about 30 minutes west of Croatia’s capital city, Zagreb.

Korak is best known for his chardonnay and pinot noir wines – considered some of the best in Croatia. You can read more about Korak HERE and HERE.  Over lunch we also sampled the wines of Drago Režek, who fashions lovely Rizvanac (müller-thurgau) and Zeleni Silvanac (sylvaner) from grapes grown in his Plešivica vineyards.

A huge thank you to Velimir Korak, his wife, and son, Josip, and visiting winemaker, Damir Režek, for an amazing day and their wonderful hospitality!!

Korak winery, Plešivica
Lunch among the vines, Plešivica
Korak vineyards, Plešivica
Flowering chardonnay, Plešivica
rose sentinels
Režek Rizvanac
Host winemakers, Velimir Korak (standing); Damir Režek (sitting)
Režek Zeleni Silvanac
Jeff Jenssen (l); Damir Režek; Velimir Korak
Korak 2009 Rizling (riesling)
Lunch is served!

Damir Režek and his lovely Chardonnay sur lie.
One of the best Croatian chardonnays: Korak sur lie.
Dessert! Apple strudel with Korak 2007 Rizling Izborna Berba (Riesling T.A.)

a last view before a nap, Plešivica
Cliff Rames; Mike DeSimone; Velimir Korak; Jeff Jenssen

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! 🙂

A Time for Pruning & Partying: The Feast of Saint Vincent

 

“Work hard, play harder” is a favorite slogan of mine. And while winter is not as intensely laborious as harvest time, winegrowers must occasionally brave the harsh winter days and work in the vineyard. Winter is the time for pruning the vines to prepare them for new growth in the spring. Often this means runny noses, frozen hands, and lots of dead vine stalks to haul away to the compost or firewood stacks.

But all is not sober and back-breaking among the vines. Each year on a certain day the time comes to cease work, pause to give thanks, pay homage to the vineyard, and celebrate another successful harvest and the promise of a new growing year. The day is known as the Feast of Saint Vincent of Saragossa. Celebrated each winter on January 22nd (Roman Catholic Church), St. Vincent’s Day marks the mid-point between the onset of dormancy and bud-break in the vine’s growing cycle.

St. Vincent of Saragossa

Born in Spain in the 3rd century and later martyred, St. Vincent is the patron saint of wine-growers and winemakers. The story behind how he became the patron saint of vintners is rooted in legend and has many versions. One prominent explanation focuses on the French pronunciation of the name Vincent, which is “Vin-sang” and translates into “wine blood”. It should be noted that when grapevines are pruned, they often bleed sap – or vine blood – from the cuts.

But my favorite version of the story is the one that stars a hungry donkey.

I love donkeys. They are quirky, stubborn, unpredictable, sassy, lovable creatures. Their often-contradictory nature – stoic yet highly emotional, hard-working yet lazy, loyal yet defying) makes them the butt of many jokes, fodder for comical stories, and sometimes the stuff of folklore and legend (e.g. the famous Donkey of Dingac). In short, they are magnificent creatures.

(Photo by Boris Kragić, Studio Magenta)

As the story goes, one day Saint Vincent was wandering the countryside with his donkey when he encountered some workers in a vineyard. While Vincent chatted with the workers, the donkey entertained himself by eating all the young shoots off a nearby grapevine, reducing the limbs to stubs.

Later that year at harvest, the workers noticed that the vine that had been nibbled down by the donkey produced more abundant and healthier fruit than the rest of the vineyard.

And so it was revealed that grapevines – which can grow many meters long if not cut back – should be pruned in winter to ensure that the plant’s energy is directed more towards producing fruit than growing and sustaining shoots. Today pruning is a standard vineyard practice – a meticulous and painstaking task that keeps many skilled vineyard workers busy each winter.

But come St. Vincent’s Day, the clippers and shears are put down, and the celebrations begin!

(Photo by Cliff Rames)

In Croatia, the Feast of Saint Vincent of Saragossa is celebrated in all wine growing regions and is called “Vincelovo”, “Vincekovo”, or “Vinceška”, depending where you are in the country.

This year public festivals are scheduled to be held at Kutjevo in the Slavonia wine-growing region (“Kutjevačko Vincelovo”); in Zagorje at Bolfan Vinski Vrh winery (“Vincekovo”); and in the Baranja region at Vinarija Josić (“Vinceška”).

A typical St. Vincent’s celebration in Croatia consists of religious services, a blessing of the vineyards, a lighting of bonfires, live folk music performances and dancing, regional culinary specialties cooked over open fires, and of course plenty of local wine!

So here’s wishing you all a happy Feast of Saint Vincent of Saragossa. And if you are celebrating, don’t forget to raise a glass to Saint Vincent and our old friend, the Donkey!

“Živjeli!”

Text © 2012 by Cliff Rames

(Photo courtesy of Kutjevo d.d. winery)

“Croatian Wine Story” DVD Now Available in North America

 

Just in time for the holidays! Wines of Croatia is proud to offer for sale – exclusively and for the first-time ever in North America – the beautifully filmed and informative Croatian Wine Story (“Hrvatska Vinska Priča – Putevima Vina”) DVD.

The 115-minute film, directed by Miroslav Mirković and produced by Mandrak Productions, takes us on an eye-opening journey through some of Croatia’s most stunningly beautiful wine regions, including Baranja, the Croatian Littoral, north and south Dalmatia, the Dalmatian Hinterland, Istria, Moslavina, Plešivica, Slavonija, Srijem, and Zagorje-Međimurje.

 

Your guides on this journey are Franjo Francem, a well-known Croatian enologist, and Nataša Puhelek, the reigning “Croatian Wine Queen”. Together they will take you on a four-season trip throughCroatia, where you will visit some of the country’s leading wineries. From the first bud break all the way to harvest (and ice wine harvest!) you will have an armchair view of the life in the vineyards ofCroatiaand a sneak peek behindCroatia’s unique “wine story”.

For a glimpse of the scenery that awaits you in this film, check out this trailer:

 

 

Wineries featured in the film include: Agrolaguna; Belje; Benkovac (Badel 1862); Coronica; Vinarija Daruvar (Badel 1862); Vinarija Dingač, (Badel 1862); Đakovačka vina d.d. (Misna Vina); Enjingi; Gerštmajer; Grabovac; Iločki Podrumi; Istravino; Jakopić; Kabola; Katunar; Krauthaker; Kutjevo dd; Miklaužić; Mladina; Petrovečki; Skaramuča; Tomac; Vinoplod; PZ Vrbnik; Zdjelarević; and Zlatan Otok.

The film contains 31 chapters and is presented in the Croatian language with optional English or Slovenian subtitles available.

 

Important Note: The film is only available in PAL format (Region 2), which can be played on most computer-based DVD players and multi-format home DVD players. Unfortunately it cannot be played on standard NTSC-formatted (Region 1) DVD players. We tested the DVD on several computers, and it played perfectly each time.

To order your DVD in time for the holidays, please contact us at crames@winesofcroatia.com.

Quantities are limited! The special introductory/holiday price per DVD is $20 USD, plus $6 USPS Priority Shipping (Total = $26) to most U.S. addresses.   For addresses outside the U.S.,  please email us for the shipping price.

Payment should be made via Paypal to the email address crames@winesofcroatia.com. Please contact us for more details, if you have any questions, or if you would prefer to pay by check or money order. Sorry – we cannot accept credit cards at this time.

We think that you – or your favorite Croatian wino – will really enjoy this film, so order your copy now, pop open your favorite Croatian wine, and begin your journey down the wine roads of Croatia from the comfort of your own home.

Happy Holidays!