Chardonnay May be French, But Her Mother is Croatian

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Article by Saša Špiranec, courtesy of Playboy Magazine – Croatia

Translated by Morana Zibar, www.Gastroprijevod.com

Edited by Cliff Rames, Wines of Croatia

 

 

After it was discovered that Croatia is the ancestral homeland of Zinfandel, we have now learned that Chardonnay – the most popular white grape variety in the world – has roots in Croatia. What a great time for wine…!

 

In an article entitled, “A Banned Variety was the Mother of Several Major Wine Grapes”, which was published in the science journal, Biology Letters, a group of scientists revealed the results of DNA profiling: the two parent grapes of Chardonnay are finally known, and one of them is Croatian. Chardonnay is in fact a cross between the French variety Pinot Noir and an indigenous Croatian variety, Štajerska Belina.

Štajerska Belina (photo courtesy of bilikum.hr)

Štajerska Belina – or Gouais Blanc, as the French call it – used to be one of the most common grapes in the Middle Ages, spreading from France over central and all the way to Eastern Europe.

Chardonnay (photo courtesy of americanmadness.com)

Despite its formerly ubiquitous presence, global experts generally agree that Štajerska Belina originally comes from Croatia.

Historically, Štajerska Belina (Gouais Blanc) was considered a inferior variety that was mainly planted by farmers and peasants. In France, Gouais Blanc was typically planted in the flatlands for peasant consumption, while the nobility grew the grapes of the Pinot family in the highlands.  

Because of its poor quality, Štajerska Belina was eventually banned and became extinct in France. In Croatia it can be found in the vineyards of the northwest and central parts of the country, but it is rarely bottled as a single-varietal wine and is mostly consumed locally as a homemade blended table wine.

(photo courtesy of dailymail.co.uk)

The Croatian origin of Chardonnay is further evidence of the region’s contribution to the development of modern day viticulture. For the second time since the Zinfandel discovery, a Croatian indigenous variety has entered the lexicon of the international wine community. Isn’t that fantastic? 

Gouais Blanc (photo courtesy of Corkd.com)

While Štajerska Belina is not as highly esteemed as Zinfandel, its contribution to the world of wine cannot be denied.

It is interesting that Gouais Blanc (or Štajerska Belina, one of countless synonyms) crossed with Pinot Noir to produce not just one of the world’s most important grape varieties, Chardonnay, but others as well. Crossings of the same two grapes also spawned such notable varieties as Gamay (the famous grape of Beaujolais), Aligote, Auxerrois, Franc Noir, and Melon. 

We could say these grape varieties are all different children of the same parents. Interestingly enough, the children are both red and white varietals. For instance, white Chardonnay and red Gamay. It’s the same as with puppies – when the parents are of different colours, the pups are white, black and mixed.

(photo courtesy of graphicshunt.com)

Today Croatian winemakers can introduce their Chardonnays to the world with more courage – after all, it is partly Croatian.

Even though Chardonnay has been present in our vineyards for many decades, its quality was never worthy of the best international wines like the ones from Burgundy’s Montrachet or California’s Napa Valley.

Korak Chardonnay (photo by Cliff Rames)

Yet in the last ten years we have witnessed the arrival of names like Krauthaker Rosenberg, Kutjevo de Gotho Aureus, and Korak Sur Lie – Croatian Chardonnays that can stand next to the best wines without any hesitation.

Kutjevo d.d. Chardonnay (photo by Cliff Rames)

Chardonnay likes poor soil and limestone, conditions that are not common in the Continental wine-growing region of Croatia. Unfortunately, in Dalmatia – where there is plenty of limestone – the climate is too hot for Chardonnay.

Photo courtesy of Saints Hills: "Nevina" (80% Malvazija, 20% Chardonnay)

However, the Istria regional of Coastal Croatia offers some hope, with Matošević winery leading the way that other new faces on the block have started to follow. Two examples are Meneghetti and Saints Hills (who blends Chardonnay with Malvazija).

An Excellent Croatian Chardonnay:

Meneghetti Bijelo (right) (photo courtesy of aukcije.hr)

Meneghetti Bijelo 2007

To be fair, Meneghetti Bijelo is not a pure Chardonnay but is a blended wine – probably with Pinot Gris and Malvasia (the producer does not mention the blend components on the label). However, the Chardonnay character totally overpowers the other possible varieties in the blend. Its style is reminiscent of the popular Collio from the Italian Friulli region or the neighboring Slovenian Brda region, areas which have climates and soils similar to Istria. Some of the best Chardonnays in the world (Silvio Jermann) also come from that region.

The aroma is intense, steady, rich and very sophisticated. Abundant aromas of the yeast are mixed with dried fruit, vanilla and traces of citrus fruits. Hints of wood are still strongly present, so it is best to wait two years before consumption to allow for the wood to integrate. The taste is extraordinary, full and lively at the same time, with ideal acids, lightly creamy, markedly mineral, with exceptionally long and lasting aftertaste. This wine is similar to the previous vintage, but it is richer and more harmonious, with – and this is very important and too rare in Croatian Chardonnays – a potential for long-lasting ageing.

Related Links:

Biology Letters source: http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/6/3/367.abstract?sid=0cbb4133-5e71-40bb-84ec-719207defbc5

Gouais Blanc Wikipedia Entry:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gouais_blanc

Jermann Chardonnay:

http://www.jermann.it/products/pages/productsList.jsf

Wines of Croatia:

www.winesofcroatia.com

www.Facebook.com/winesofcroatia

www.Twitter.com/winesofcroatia

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Croatia – Land of Malvazija

 

photo courtesy of http://www.mastersofwine.org

 

By Julia Harding MW

Reprinted with kind permission from the author, courtesy of www.jancisrobinson.com

Photos by Cliff Rames (unless otherwise credited)

 

 Croatian wine is making a concerted effort to reach UK wine glasses. Last month, the Fine Wine Croatia group, around 30 producers working together, came to London to show their wares.

The wines had been carefully selected to avoid overwhelming UK journalists and other members of the wine trade with too many different indigenous varieties, which I found pretty frustrating as I would have preferred to have tasted a little more widely, although the proliferation of wines made from Malvazija Istarksa (or Malvasia Istriana), the most widely planted white variety that makes up about 10% of the Croatian vineyard area (total c 32,500 ha/80,310 acres) and about 60% of the plantings in Istria, did show, for example, just how many different styles of wine can be made from it, even among the dry wines. On the whole, based on this tasting, I’d say that Malvazija Istarksa has greater potential for quality than Graševina (aka Welschriesling).

It is extremely difficult to summarise a country’s wines when the regions and winemaking styles are so diverse and when winemakers are testing international markets, but I found the more distinctive whites, generally those made from Malvazija Istarska but also the single example of Pošip, fell somewhere between Friuli and Slovenia in overall character, with a touch of Hungary thrown in – plenty of extract (like Riesling) and with a spectrum of flavours that ranged from crisp and mineral/non-fruity via fresh and more herbal to the weightier more textured wines. The acidity was generally fresher than in other varieties I have come across that share the Malvasia name, in Italy and Greece, for example.

Among the reds, I preferred the wines made from or based on Teran to those made from Plavac Mali, though it is clear to see that for these distinctive dark-skinned varieties, full grape maturity is essential and not always achieved in either – to avoid green flavours in the former and astringent tannins in the latter. According to Ivica Matošević, site selection and green harvesting are critical for Teran (also known as Refosco d’Istria but not the same variety as Italy’s Refosco dal Pedunculo Rosso) to control the variety’s natural tendency towards high yields and consequent poor ripening. This is why he currently blends Teran with Merlot, though he now has some better sited vines that he hopes will produce the sort of fruit he is looking for. 

Overall, the reds, especially the more interesting ones based on indigenous varieties, seemed to be more of a work in progress than the whites – or perhaps I just mean that they were very ‘local’ in style – lots of character, a bit up and down in quality, and often needing just a touch more refinement (in terms of refining the fruit rather than ironing out the character). Rather like untamed northern Italians or some corners of south-western France.

I’d particularly like to have tasted more wines from the white-skinned Pošip variety and from the dark-skinned Babić. 

This time last year, Richard Hemming visited Croatia and reported on his findings in Richard goes to Croatia. See that article for more background on the landscape, including pictures.

The wines are grouped by variety (or by colour where there weren’t many examples) and alphabetically by producer (sur)name within those groups. Here and more generally in the tasting notes database, we have English translations for the regions of origin that would be too opaque for anyone not familiar with Croatian (eg Western Istria instead of Zapadna Istra), but we have kept the Croatian names for subregions such as Kutjevo.

MALVAZIJA ISTARSKA

Benvenuti Malvazija Istarska 2008 Central Istria 15 Drink 2009-2010
Green fruit – greengage. Light and dry and fresh but rather slight. (JH) 13.4%

Clai Bijele Zemlje, Sveti Jakov Malvazija Istarska 2008 Western Istria 17 Drink 2011-2015
Deep gold, delicate floral honey. Gentle peach and apricot. So much more elegant than the Kabola Amfora. Fresh, fine grip, dried apricot. Zesty, tangy, intense and long. Full of life and alcohol not particularly intrusive. (JH) 15.1%

Clai Sveti Jakov (photo courtesy of Clai winery)

Coronica Malvazija Istarska 2009 Western Istria 16 Drink 2010-2011
Lemony, a little grassy/herbal. Sour and stony in a fine textural way. Has that delicate graininess of so many Italian whites. Tight and fresh. Invigorating. (JH) 13.6%

photo courtesy of Coronica winery

Kabola, Amfora Malvazija Istarska 2006 Western Istria 16 Drink 2009-2012
Deep gold, honeyed, very spiced. Intense, dry, a bit harsh but you can’t ignore it! Probably needs food to tame it a little. (JH) 14.8%

Kozlović Malvazija Istarska 2009 Western Istria 16 Drink 2010-2011
Lemony, orange peel, pretty aromatic. Taut and crisp and a fine sour finish. Straightforward and refreshing. Something slightly smoky, almost coffee like. (JH) 13.6%

Kozlović, Santa Lucia Malvazija Istarska 2006 Western Istria 16 Drink 2009-2011
One year in barrique. Deeper gold than their unoaked, younger wine. Honeyed oranges. Intense, and smells as if there is botrytis there. Developed and oaky – oak pretty much obscures the variety. But the finish is very tangy and rich. Just a little too broad to be fine. Full of flavour though. High alcohol but not too intrusive. (JH) 15%

Kozlovic wines

Matić Malvazija Istarska 2008 Western Istria 16 Drink 2010-2011
Intensely herbal and grassy. Towards boxtree. More Sauvignon Blanc-like but there’s also a light and attractive peachiness. Crisp, clean and modern but less distinctive than some. (JH) 13.1%

Matošević, Alba Barrique Malvazija Istarska 2008 Western Istria 16.5 Drink 2010-2012
Pretty tight, some citrus, touch of creamy oak and oak sweetness on the palate. Fine boned, taut and zesty without that much fruit flavour but that same herbal note as in the unoaked wine. Oak is subtle and balanced and gives a creamy oatmeal palate. Elegant but less distinctive than the acacia-aged wine. (JH) 13.5%

Matošević, Alba Malvazija Istarska 2008 Western Istria 16 Drink 2010-2011
Fresh, lightish, subtle rather than neutral, some citrus, light herbs on the nose. Crisp, dry, tight and clean. Persistent though pretty linear. Mineral and long. (JH) 13.5%

Matosevic wines

Matošević, Alba Robinia Malvazija Istarska 2004 Western Istria 17 Drink 2006-2012
Keeps fresher in acacia barrels, apparently and it does seem younger. Really fine honeyed nose. Honeyed but not at all oxidised. Slight woody/cedary flavour on the palate. Reminds me a little of mature Chenin with a herbal element. Crisp and dry and rich in the mouth without any fat. (JH) 13.1%

Matošević, Grimalda 2008 Central Istria 16 Drink 2010-2011
50% Chardonnay, 25% Sauvignon Blanc, 25% Malvasia Istarska.
He did the blend because he found similar notes in the varieties – citrus, herbal, mint. Slight mintiness here. Very fresh, doesn’t have quite the subtlety of the varietal Malvasia Istarskas. (JH) 14%

Roxanich, Antica Malvazija Istarska 2007 Western Istria 17 Drink 2010-2013
Skin maceration) 80 days, aged in large wooden vats (70hl and 35hl) for 30 months, bottled without filtration.
Deep gold and bright. Some bruised apple notes, complex, rich, orange and apricot. Powerful, dry, very clean and refreshing even with that amount of tannin. Opens up to more perfume and herbs. Slight phenolic bitterness on the finish but it’s attractive if you are ready for it. Honeyed as it warms up. But still has good freshness. Highly distinctive in this line-up. (JH) 14.1%

Roxanich Antica

Trapan, Ponente Malvazija Istarska 2009 Western Istria 16.5 Drink 2010-2011
Very fresh and on the greener side of citrus. Mineral, dry, tight. Persistent and elegant. (JH) 13%

Trapan, Uroboros Malvazija Istarska 2008 Western Istria 16.5 Drink 2010-2013
70% aged in acacia, 30% in oak, for one year. Lightly smoky and honeyed but still that finely herbal citrus character. Well balanced and zesty. Full but not overblown. (JH) 13.6% 

 
 

Trapan Uroboros

GRAŠEVINA

Belje Graševina 2009 Baranja 16 Drink 2010-2011
Fresh and citrussy but tastes off dry and quite full in the mouth. And then a tart lemon finish. Modern, bright and clean. (JH) 14.1%

Belje, Goldberg Graševina 2008 Baranja 16 Drink 2010-2011
Much deeper gold. Not much on the nose – a touch of honey. Rich, slightly sour, off dry. Silky and fills the mouth. Apricot flavours. Slightly bitter on the finish but pure and dense. (JH) 14.8%

Feravino Graševina 2009 Feričanci 16.5 Drink 2010-2012
Fine limey Riesling nose, a little mineral. Dry, tight, fresh, clean and zesty. Fine and fresh. Tight and energetic with a light grapiness on the palate but mainly crisp citrus. Persistent too. (JH) 13.6%

Galić Graševina 2008 Kutjevo 15 Drink 2010-2011
Pretty neutral nose. More full bodied and richer than the Mihalj but still rather simple. (JH) 12.8%

Krauthaker Graševina 2009 Kutjevo 15.5 Drink 2010-2011
Slightly grassy. Like a dense Sauvignon Blanc. Crisp and fresh and modern. Citrus on the palate, dry and fresh. Slight phenolic dryness on the finish. (JH) 14%

Krauthaker, Mitrovac Graševina 2009 Kutjevo 15 Drink 2010-2011
More mineral than their straight Graševina and even a little smoky. Off dry, concentrated but a little harsh with a bitter aftertaste. Concentration is there but (tasted on the warm side) not much pleasure. (JH) 14.5%

Krauthaker

Kutjevo, De Gotho Graševina 2008 Kutjevo 15 Drink 2010-2011
Lemony Riesling nose. Mineral and citrus. Sort of woody (not oaky) on the palate though it is produced in stainless steel. Bitter aftertaste. (JH) 14% 

 
 
 
 

Kujevo de Gotho Grasevina

OTHER WHITES

Feravino Pinot Blanc 2008 Feričanci 16 Drink 2010-2011
10% fermented in barrique. Fresh, clean and dry and a fine example of the variety. A very slight textural grip and a depth unusual for Pinot Blanc. (JH)

Korta Katarina Pošip 2007 Korčula 17 Drink 2010-2012
Clean and delicately limey citrus. Rich and creamy and full bodied but with very good acidity. A distinctive variety. Fine grip but smooth. Rich, lightly honeyed, dense and powerful but still fresh. Complex, fresh, dry and long. (JH) 14.7%

photo courtesy of Korta Katarina winery

Kozlović Muškat Momjanski 2008 Western Istria 16.5 Drink 2010-2011
Labelled polusuhi, ie off dry. Intensely grapey floral nose. Rose petals too. With a fine tannic grip to freshen it up given the moderate acidity. Medium but not at all cloying with that slight phenolic structure. Highly aromatic – maybe OTT for some. (JH) 12.2%

Roxanich, Milva Chardonnay 2007 Western Istria 16.5 Drink 2010-2014
Deep gold. Shorter maceration than for the Malvazija Istarska. Slightly reductive, honeyed. Really nutty and full of flavour. Chardonnay but not as we know it. Quite tannic but not unnecessarily so. Fresh on the finish and very concentrated. A very distinctive style. (JH) 13.7%

Tomac Riesling 2008 Plešivica 15 Drink 2010-2012
Eyewatering acidity, peachy more than citrus on the nose. Rather severe. (JH) 13.3%

Tomac, Amfora 2007 Plešivica 15.5 Drink 2010-2012
50% Chardonnay plus about seven other locally grown varieties. Pale gold. Spicy orange and apricot. Not totally clean on the palate and rather astringent. Interesting rather than pleasurable. (JH) 12.5% 

 
 
 
 

photo courtesy of Tomac winery

TERAN

Arman Franc, Barrique Teran 2006 Western Istria 17 Drink 2009-2014
Very deeply coloured. Elegant and subtle dark fruit aroma. A touch smoky. Firm and juicy and dense. Firm but ripe tannnis. Finesse and freshness. Still so youthful. (JH) 12.5%

Arman Teran

Coronica, Gran Teran 2007 Western Istria 16 Drink 2010-2012
A little leafy, and pretty dry. Fresh but could perhaps do with a little more ripeness to balance the tannins? Very juicy and fresh and fruit gets sweeter at the end but tannins slightly prominent for its age and only moderate fruit weight. (JH) 13.5%

Istravino, Dajla Teran 2007 Western Istria 16.5 Drink 2010-2012
Leafy with both red and black fruit. Fine freshness, balance and good fruit. Not complex but a real whole and very youthful with a long fresh aftertaste. Tannins are present but add freshness rather than astringency. (JH) 12.5%

Istravino Dajla wines

Matošević, Grimalda 2008 Central Istria 16.5 Drink 2010-2012
85% Merlot, 15% Teran. Zesty and lightly peppered red fruit. Really juicy: dry and fresh and jumps out of the glass with energy. Structured without being tannic. Mouthwateringly fresh. (JH) 13.8%

Roxanich, RE Teran 2007 Western Istria 16.5+ Drink 2011-2015
Quite reductive at first on the nose. Very tight and fresh, maybe could do with a little more flesh but there is an elegance and a naturalness that shines through. Aged in big oak. Dry and demanding tannins but not harsh. Needs food. (JH) 13.4%

PLAVAC MALI

Korta Katarina, Reuben’s Private Reserve Plavac Mali 2006 Pelješac 15.5 Drink 2010-2013
Medium  garnet. Soft, sweet, Rioja-like nose. But then that grip! Firm and dry tannins but still has sweet juicy fruit. Food needed! (JH) 14.2%

Korta Katarina, Plavac Mali 2007 Pelješac 16 Drink 2011-2013
Bright mid garnet, wild red fruits, spicy, dry and tense. Tannins still have a firm grip and the texture is rustic but the flavour lively. (JH) 14.7%

Korta Katarina (Plavac Mali on right)

Miličić, Dingac Plavac Mali 2006 Pelješac 15.5 Drink 2010-2012
Quite perfumed, almost floral nose. Much softer than the Postup Mare wine. Smooth and flavourful though perhaps a little sweet-tasting on the finish (as opposed to savoury). (JH) 14.5%

Postup Mare Plavac Mali 2006 Pelješac 14 Drink 2012-2014
Odd and marked green bean nose, still very grippy tannins. No fun with high acid to exaggerate the tannins. Needs a good steak to make it more palatable but that wouldn’t really improve the aromas. (JH) 15%

Saint’s Hill, Dingač Plavac Mali 2007 Pelješac 16.5 Drink 2009-2013
Mid garnet. Sweet. soft, blueberry/blackberry fruit. Contrast between sweet almost toffeed fruit and dry but smooth/savoury tannins. Fresh and flavourful but a bit hot on the finish. Distincitve, a little rustic and then a sweet/sour aftertaste. (JH) 15.5%

Saints Hills Dingac

Zlatan, Barrique Plavac Mali 2007 Hvar 16 Drink 2011-2013
Bright mid garnet, wild red fruits, spicy, dry and tense. Tannins still have a firm grip and the texture is rustic but the flavour lively. (JH) 14.7%

Zlatan, Grand Cru Plavac Mali 2007 Hvar 17+ Drink 2012-2017
Mix of French and Slavonian oak. This is more selective than the Barrique version. Smoky, savoury nose. Powerful, dry and very fine fruit. Firm but not harsh tannins. Needs a lot more time but has all the components to age well. (JH) 14.5%

 
 

Zlatan Otok wines

OTHER REDS

Enjingi, Venje Barrique 2003 Kutjevo 14 Drink 2008-2011
Zweigelt, Crni Pinot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Frankovka blend. A slightly stinky reductive aroma. Then very sweet and a bit leafy. Very strange and too sweet-tasting. (JH) 14.2%

Feravino Frankovka 2008 Feričanci 16.5 Drink 2010-2012
Frankovka = Blaufränkisch. 50% new oak. Half French, half Slavonian. Pure sweet ripe red fruit. Distinctive fresh fruit with a lovely bite on the back palate, almost a note of citrus. Perhaps a little rustic but in an attractive characterful way. Zesty and fresh. (JH) 13.7%

Feravino Zweigelt 2008 Feričanci 15.5 Drink 2010-2012
Aged in Slavonian oak. Sweet coconut aroma on the nose with lots of dark berry fruit. Straightforward but that coconut sweetness is too much for my taste. (JH)

Galić Pinot Noir 2008 Kutjevo 14 Drink 2010-2011
Sweet fruit, a little toffeed and then hot on the finish. Fresh enough but not much fun. (JH) 13.5%

Roxanich, Superistrian 2006 Western Istria 17 Drink 2010-2015
Merlot 40%, Cabernet Sauvignon 40%, Borgonja (Gamay x Pinot) 20%. 36 months in big oak. You can certainly smell the cassis of the Cabernet here. Sweet dark fruit, a touch leafy, rich and dense and masses of fruit. Lovely freshness, very youthful, very clean and pretty sophisticated. Bright and healthy and youthful. (JH) 13.5%

Suha Punta Babić 2007 Primošten 16.5 Drink 2010-2012
Distinctive yet hard-to-describe aroma: peppery, dry and dense. Seems to have quality potential. Spicy and tense and yet has lovely crunchy berry fruit. Bags of flavour with that peppery aftertaste. I’d like to taste some more examples of this variety. (JH) 14%

Gracin wines (photo courtesy of http://www.secretdalmatia.com)

www.winesofcroatia.com

 

Tasting Plešivica: From Above & Below (Part 2 – Tomac)

Tomislav Tomac is an intense fellow. A trained enologist, he oversees the winery with his father, Zvonimir, and lovely wife, Martina. From our first handshake forward his restrained passion, precise sense of purpose, and deep devotion to achieving authenticity in his wine captured my imagination.

Tomac Winery

The Tomac family has been making wine in Plešivica for over 200 years, riding the currents of history through good and bad times, to emerge – somewhat ironically – as a pioneering force of traditional winemaking in the present-day Croatian wine scene.

With 5.5 hectares of vineyards, and production of 40,000 bottles a year, Tomac is a relatively small producer. Yet his ambitions loom large, inciting curiosity and respect among some, and raising brows among others. It was in this spirit that he recently decided to discontinue production of his much-loved basic Chardonnay (the Chardonnay Premier will continue to be produced only in the best vintage years) to make room for a new and completely different wine (more on that in a moment) that may not have as wide an appeal.

Traditional Oak Casks

Listening to Tomislav explain why he doesn’t own a single stainless steel tank (he ferments most of his wines in giant oak casks in the traditional manner), and how he uses only native yeasts, and how his vineyards harbor an array (over 4,000 vines) of ancient indigenous grape varieties from the Plešivica wine region, I couldn’t help but notice how he rarely stops moving and fussing about, his eyes frequently darting around the room, his presence marked by a sort of heightened awareness and kinetic energy that seemed to be infused with a mix of excitement, anxiety, annoyance and impatience.

But I was about to learn, on the contrary, just how patient he is.

While best known in Croatia for sparkling wines (“Millennium”, “Tomac Classic” “Tom” and “Rosé”), and excellent white wines (Chardonnay Premier, Graševina, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc), the wine I came to taste wasn’t in any vat, barrel, or bottle – it wasn’t even in the winery. Few people outside the family had ever tasted it. News of its existence was hushed and shrouded in mystery. This wine, the first ever of its type produced by Tomac, was buried in the ground in the yard.

Tasting Room, Tomac Winery

But I would have to wait to find out more. The perfect hosts that they are, Tomislav and Martina insisted that I eat lunch with them first: delicious roast veal that was until recently (I was told) happily grazing on grasses in the neighbor’s field. There were potatoes and vegetables from the family garden. Bread freshly baked by a relative. Locally-made cheese. And of course a fine selection of wines made from grapes that grow just up the hill from where we were sitting.

The Slow Food movement is nothing new in Plešivica: it is a traditional way of life.

In between chewing and chatting, we tasted the core Tomac line-up: the “Classic” sparkling wine and Sauvignon Blanc served as perfect aperitifs, the Classic showing yeasty apple and citrus notes, and the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc delivering a fruity (mango and peach), mineral quality with a subtle note of yellow flowers. The 2008 Riesling (fermented in wood) was fragrant with unusual aromas of strawberry and banana and a haunting note of spice – nutmeg, perhaps.

The 2005 Chardonnay Premier Sur Lie was perfect with the milky veal and roasted potatoes, offering a creamy pear and butterscotch profile couched in a rich, buttery texture kept lively by zesty acidity.

Eager with anticipation I stopped chewing and nodded a smile when Tomislav finally said, with a sudden gleam in his eye, the magic words: “Would you like to try the Amfora?”

Again I was reminded that there are no stainless steel tanks at the Tomac winery, just giant oak vats and an assortment of small barrels and casks.  And starting with the 2007 vintage,  six clay amphora (“amfora”) fermentation vessels joined the ranks.  Tomislav and his father had traveled to the Republic of Georgia, where they met with the makers of these antiquated pieces of winemaking history, and shipped six of them back to Croatia. Inside these vessels, now buried in the ground just beyond the winery parking lot, approximately 20,000 liters of Tomac Amfora wine waited to emerge from its dark seclusion.

Tomislav & the Amphora

Tomislav disappeared from the room for a few minutes and came back with an unlabeled, clear bottle, filled with beautiful amber-colored nectar. I felt nervous and honored to behold it at last. My mouth was watering.

“Here it is; still a little young”, he said rather sheepishly. “We’ll bottle it in a few weeks.”

Tomac Amfora is made using winemaking methods that date back 5,000 years – and recently made famous by Josko Gravner (a good friend of the Tomac family).  The must is fermented for 6 months in hand-made clay amphora buried underground.  During the first four weeks of fermentation, the must is stirred on a daily basis to ensure maximum skin contact and extraction.  After four weeks the amphora are sealed and no further human intervention occurs until 6 months later, when the wine is moved into oak barrels, where it will spend another 1.5 years.

Wine at rest, Tomac cellar

The wine Tomislav poured into my glass was the first result of that wait. Made primarily from Chardonnay (50%), Amfora also includes a field blend of grape varieties that are traditional in the Plešivica region: Graševina, Roter Veltliner, Plavec žuti, Sylvaner, Neuburger, Kraljevina and štajerska Belina.

Unusually beautiful in color and aroma, the Amfora offered a seductive bouquet of primary and tertiary aromas that were all at once alluring, haunting and comforting: warm winter spices, caramel, wet terra cotta, orange blossoms, ripe pear and apple, and a distinctive Sherry-like oxidative note. On the palate it was zesty and dry with a powerful acidity that strips the palate clean with every sip. Yet I didn’t find the wine to be astringent; in fact, it was soft – almost oily – on the finish, with a long spiced orange, stewed apple, and almond aftertaste.

Photo curtesy of http://www.jutarnji.hr

Like its historical pedigree implies, the Tomac Amfora is a wine for the ages. I expect that this wine will last for decades in the bottle and become richer, more seductive, complex and beautiful with age. Shouldn’t we all be so lucky?

Ah yes, how sweet it is to be around at that moment when the old becomes new again; when something beautiful that was forgotten is found again; when traditional ways suddenly seem “cool” to modern minds. I left Tomac winery feeling happy and excited about the future of wine in Croatia, and as I drove away I remembered that old quote from Victor Hugo: “God made only water, but man made wine.”

Divers in the Adriatic Sea sometimes find old amphora vessels that the Romans once used for wine. Elsewhere in our day, arguments brew over the merits of screw caps versus corks, plastic versus glass versus bag-in-the-box, and French versus American versus Hungarian or Slavonian oak (let’s not mention oak chips). Through all of this, as the centuries pass us by, one thing stands true: great wine happens when that perfect balance is struck between nature giving us her best efforts, and the winemaker knowing when to intercede and – most importantly – when to back-off and wait.

The Tomac 2007 Amfora is a charming example of when that happens. Great job, guys.

Note: The Tomac 2007 Amfora will make one of its first public appearances at the upcoming Zagreb Wine Gourmet Festival in Zagreb, Croatia on February 12 & 13, 2010. More info here: http://zagrebwinegourmet.com/

Text and Photos by Cliff Rames (except where noted), www.WinesofCroatia.com

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Tasting Plešivica: From Above & Below (Part 1 – Korak)

A FIRE softly glowed, warming the rustic tasting room at the Korak winery. Polished wine glasses stood like good soldiers on long, wooden tables, ready to fulfill their mission.
Tasting Room, Korak Winery

Outside a damp low-hanging sky clung like layers of smoke on the upper slopes of the hills of Plešivica. I imagined that Ernest Hemingway, sitting here sipping a glass of wine, would have called them “hills like white elephants”. But that’s another story….

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Exit: Croatia – In Search of Portugieser

 

In all my years of traveling throughout Croatia, I have often buzzed down the Zagreb-Rijeka-Split highway (in more recent years courtesy of a 4-cylinder, manual 5-speed rent-a-car), carefully avoiding the steady swish of shiny black Mercedes and Audis streaking by me at breakneck speeds (their wind blasts rocking my little Fiat or Opel at regular intervals) on their way to weekend houses on the coast or heading back to their garages in Zagreb.

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