A Summer Send-off with Škrlet

By Cliff Rames © 2014

Just because the sunsets arrive earlier, the shadows cast longer, the nights undulate with the mating songs of crickets and the haunting bumps of falling acorns, does not mean that it is suddenly unacceptable to drink white wine.

True, my craving for red wine – suppressed in the oppressive heat of summer – is beginning to awaken and warm my veins. Nonetheless, autumn and winter are still fine times to crack open a white wine – preferably one of fuller body – when the urge strikes or menu demands.

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Sunday Snapshot: Zagorje

Zagorje is a wine growing region nestled in the cool, green rolling hills of northern Croatia, just beyond the capital city, Zagreb, and Medvednica mountain. Slovenia lies to the north.

The region is noted for the cultivation of cool climate grapes, about 90% of which are whites varieties such as graševina, pušiplje (aka moslavac or šipon), kerner, gewürztraminer, müller-thurgau (aka: rizvanac), yellow muscat, pinot blanc, pinot gris, riesling, sauvignon blanc, and sylvaner.

Red varieties include blaufrankisch, gamay, pinot noir, portugieser, cabernet franc, and cabernet sauvignon.

Enjoy the view – and try to taste these refreshing and food-friendly wines if you can! Cheers!

photo © Cliff Rames
photo © 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! 🙂

Valentine’s Day with the Donkey, the Poet and the Saint

By Cliff Rames © 2012

Indisputably the color of Valentine’s Day is red. Red hearts. Red roses. Red candy. Red velvet. Red blushing of the cheeks when one is happily asked by a secret admirer or sweetheart to “be my Valentine”.

Often the wine of the day is red too. Malbec, pinot noir, Rioja, Barolo, merlot and cabs are perennial favorites among mainstream consumers. While some of those wines may be fine choices, if you’re looking to impress your sweetheart with your creativity and red wine savvy, why not go with something a bit more adventurous and unique – like plavac mali from Croatia. 🙂

Exceptions to the February 14th red wine rule exist, of course. Last week Wine Spectator magazine published an article entitled “Oysters, Caviar and Sauvignon Blanc for Valentine’s Day” – a tempting and sexy suggestion that is bound to excite and convince some red wine drinkers to break with tradition and cross over to the white side.

Valentine’s Day is also a time when there is much chatter – and debate and disagreement – about wine and chocolate pairing. Is it a match made in heaven? The answer – especially in regard to dry wines – is probably not. Very sweet foods will make dry wine taste astringent and bitter. Wines with some residual sugar sweetness may succeed, but it’s hit or miss. To paraphrase a famous quote from Forrest Gump, when it comes to wine and chocolate pairing, “you never know what you’re gonna get”.  😉

But in case you’re really curious, we already did some of the matchmaking work for you – with mixed results – in an earlier post, Wine & Chocolate: Can Bura Dingac Find True Love This Valentine’s Day? Check it out and let us know if you have had luck with other wine and chocolate combinations. If you still remain a skeptic about the merits of the pairing, you have an ally in Remy Charest, whose excellent article called About That Wine and Chocolate Thing is quite educational and compelling.  

By far the most intriguing argument in favor of red wine at Valentine’s Day stems from a widely-circulated article in Wine Enthusiast Magazine called “Women and Wine: Red-Rules”. The article cites a study from the University of Florence (Italy) in which it was discovered that moderate consumption of red wine seems to increase a woman’s libido: “Women who consumed one to two glasses of wine a day reported an enhanced sexual appetite and improved sexual performance… researchers from the University of Florence study believe certain chemical compounds in red wine increased (sic) blood flow to one’s erogenous areas, ultimately causing an influx of sexual stimulation.”

Very interesting, indeed!  🙂

So – if you are now convinced that red wine is the way to go on Valentine’s Day, below you’ll find three Croatian red wine suggestions – all made from the indigenous plavac mali grape – to help tickle your fancy this Valentine’s Day. We’ve nicknamed them “the Donkey”, “the Poet” and “the Saint”, for reasons you’ll soon discover.

(photo by Cliff Rames)

Your choice of which wine to serve will depend on your mood, expectations and needs. If you want to release your inner animal and really romp, go for the playful power of the Donkey. If a more romantic, nuanced and sensitive approach is appropriate, let the Poet serenade and seduce you. If the evening demands a little divine intervention or magic touch, call upon the Saint.

Whatever your choice, each of these wines is delicious in its own right, full of character, charm, and mystique. All three wines are bursting with sexy, sun-drenched flavors of Croatia’s Dalmatian coast – where there just happens to be a heart-shaped island. You certainly can’t get hotter than that for Valentine’s Day!

1. “The Donkey”: Vinarija Dingac 2006 Dingač. This is the original, timeless Croatian classic with the donkey mascot on the label. It’s packed with savory fruit and earth aromas of dried fig and plum, brambly blackberries and cherry, licorice, rusted iron and iodine mineral notes, and a touch of leather. Funky yet friendly, this premium wine from the local cooperative on the Pelješac peninsula was aged in large, old wooden vats and has a touch of residual sugar that helps offset the dry, dusty tannins and gives roundness to the slightly baked fruit flavors. At 14% alcohol, it’s big but not overly powerful and shows a beautiful translucent garnet color. Enjoy with steak with black truffle butter and grilled portabella mushrooms or seafood risotto. And yes, there is enough viscosity and sweetness in the wine to hold up to a mild dessert. It works particularly well with the beloved hazelnut nougat chocolate from Croatia called Bajadera.  🙂

(photo by Cliff Rames)

2. “The Poet”: Miloš 2006 Plavac. Proprietor and winemaker Frano Miloš is known to recite his poetry for lucky visitors to his winery in Ston on the southern-most shores of the Pelješac peninsula. And like the man, his wines are sublime and slow to open. But when they do, they speak candidly and romantically of the place from which they came and of the struggle to remain kind and gentle in such a harsh, rustic and unforgiving landscape. “In hues the colors pour through the glass, reflecting shades in motion. In their layers they speak, narrate, whisper of a time of hardship” writes Frano. The 2006 Miloš Plavac delivers “garnet color with a salmon edge. Nose of red roses, autumn floor, mushrooms, and earth give way to red fruits and well rounded tannins. Frano oversees a simple vinification with natural yeasts, and 12 months in neutral Slavonian oak followed by 24 months bottle aging before release” (tasting notes by Blue Danube Wine Company).

(By the way: That earlier reference to oysters and Sauvignon Blanc? The good news is that Plavac Mali seems to be one of the rare red wines that can successfully pair with oysters. Read about it here and decide for yourself: Shucking Plavac.)

3. “The Saint”: Saints Hills 2008 Dingač, St. Lucia vineyard. The latest heir to the cult wine throne in Croatia, its prestige further fueled by famous wine consultant Michel Rolland’s involvement with the winery. This single-vineyard wine is made from plavac mali grapes grown on the steep, sun-drenched, seaside slopes of Croatia’s most-prized vineyard appellation: Dingač. Fermented in large wooden vats and aged for 15 months in French oak barrels, this full-bodied wine is rich with sun-baked black fruits, roasted herbs, dried fig, licorice and spice. Powerful (15.5% ABV) yet soft and elegant, this wine would do well to accompany braised beef short ribs, roast lamb, wood fire-grilled meats and fish, aged hard cheeses – and even dark bittersweet chocolate.  🙂

(photo by Cliff Rames)

Documenting History: The First Wines of Croatia Grand Tasting in NYC

(While this in fairly old news now, for the sake of posterity and future curious minds – and anyone who might have missed it all – here is a recap of the Wines of Croatia Grand Portfolio Tasting event in New York City back in June, along with two videos of the festivities.  It was a great day, one that we hope to repeat next year and on in other locations. Stay tuned – and enjoy this look back in time.)

On June 13, 2011, Wines of Croatia – in partnership with the Association of Winemakers at the Croatian Chamber of Economy (Hrvatska Gospodarska Komora) and the Consulate General of the Republic of Croatia in New York – held the first-ever Grand Portfolio Tasting of the country’s top wines.

The event, held at Hudson Terrace in New York City, was attended by 120 sommeliers, wine buyers, journalists, bloggers and other trade personnel.

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At this historic invitation-only tasting, nearly a dozen producers from Croatia’s leading boutique wineries poured their terroir-specific wines from the continental and coastal regions of Croatia.

Guests of the Grand Tasting were treated to wines produced from an array of indigenous grape varieties, including Malvasia Istriana, Pošip, Teran, Plavac Mali, Graševina, Malvasia of Dubrovnik, Babić, Debit, Crljenak Kaštelanski, and Žlahtina, as well as international varieties like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling.

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Prior to the rooftop walk-around tasting, an educational seminar was conducted by Certified Sommelier and Wines of Croatia founder, Cliff Rames. Guest speakers at the seminar included Joe Campanale, sommelier and co-owner of Anfora Wine Bar in New York City, and winemaker Ivica Matošević.

The seminar, with Cliff Rames (Copyright All rights reserved by Hanna Lee Communications, Inc.)
Joe Campanale (Copyright All rights reserved by Hanna Lee Communications, Inc.)
Ivica Matosevic (Copyright All rights reserved by Hanna Lee Communications, Inc.)
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Here is a really cool video documenting the day’s events:

 

Winemakers in attendance included Boris Drenški of Bodren winery; Bruno Trapan of Trapan winery; Ernest Tolj of Saints Hills winery; Franjo Toljanić of Toljanic winery; Ivica Matošević of Matosevic winery; Ivan and Klemetina Juranić of Nada winery; Katharine Anderson Groethe of Korta Katarina winery; and Mladen Rožanić of Roxanich winery.

Mladen Rozanic (Copyright All rights reserved by Hanna Lee Communications, Inc.)
Frano Toljanic (Copyright All rights reserved by Hanna Lee Communications, Inc.)
Bruno Trapan (Copyright All rights reserved by Hanna Lee Communications, Inc.)
Ernest Tolj (Copyright All rights reserved by Hanna Lee Communications, Inc.)
Moreno Degrassi (Copyright All rights reserved by Hanna Lee Communications, Inc.)
Boris Drenski (Bodren) (Copyright All rights reserved by Hanna Lee Communications, Inc.)

Here is the full list of wineries represented at the Grand Tasting: Agrokor vina, Badel 1862, Bibich, Bodren, Bura-Mokalo, Cattunar, Coronica, Degrassi, Enjingi, Grgić, Antun Katunar, Ivan Katunar, Karaman, Katunar, Korta Katarina, Kozlović, Krajančić, Krauthaker, Matošević, Miloš, Nada, Pavlomir, Piližota, Piquentum, PZ Čara, PZ Dingač, PZ Gospoja, PZ Putnikovići, PZ Svirče, PZ Vrbnik, Roxanich, Saints Hills, Šipun, Terzolo, Tomić, Trapan, and Zlatan Otok.

Other exhibitors and special guests included Siniša Škaberna of Degrassi winery; Anthony Ritossa of Ritossa Olive Oil ; and Simon Kerr and Šime Gligora of Sirana Gligora (producer of Paški cheese), and representatives of Blue Danube Wine Company, Dalmata Import, Oenocentric, Tasty Wine Company, Vallis Aurea, and VinumUSA (importers).

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Representatives of the Croatia Chamber of Economy included Davor Komerički, Morana Stinčić, Igor Barbarić, Ivona Grgan, and Božica Marković. Representing the Consulate General of the Republic of Croatia in New York and joining us as honorary guest was Consul General, Marijan Gubić.

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To salute Croatia’s status as a truffle-producing nation, a noted truffle hunter from Tartufino was also on hand to discuss Croatia’s deep historic connection with truffles from the Istria region.

To showcase the versatility of Croatia’s wines, chefs from Veslo restaurant, Ditch Plains, and Luke’s Lobster prepared fresh delicacies and finger foods.

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Here’s a link to one more (less refined) video from StyleMTV with extended play of the day’s action.

And here’s a couple more links to some coverage:

Croatian Chronicle: Wines of Croatia First Ever Grand Portfolio Tasting  

A Winestory: Wines of Croatia First Ever Grand Portfolio Tasting

The Wine Hub: The Croatian Wine Invasion

Beverage Media, August 2011 Issue, Page 72

A HUGE thank you to everyone who joined us on June 13. We look forward to doing it again and sharing more of these wines with you!

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Hanna Lee Communications handled the event management and public relations for the Grand Tasting. A big thank you and BRAVO to Hanna and her team!

Davor Komericki, Marijan Gubic, Hanna Lee, Cliff Rames
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