Winemaking on Hvar: From Ancient Greece Until Now (Part I)

 

 

 

 

Share

Text by Ivana Krstulović Carić, dipl.ing.agr.

Edited by Cliff Rames, Wines of Croatia

Photos by Ivana Krstulović Carić (unless otherwise noted)

 

Since the arrival of Greek colonists in 385 B.C., the Dalmatian island of Hvar, Croatia has endured many changes. Rulers, empires and foreign armies have come and gone. Today the marks and scars of these events remain a part of the island’s cultural-historical identity and economic position in the region, and the ethnic composition of the island reflects the genetic patchwork left behind by the influx of settlers over time.

But one thing remains virtually unchanged. This is a tale about the continuity of winegrowing and winemaking on Hvar, which has survived the many rises and falls caused by wars, social unrest, vineyard scourges, and economic hardship.   

In the beginning, From the Aegian island of Paros the Greeks brought grapevines and planted them in the fields of Stari Grad, thus establishing the island’s first vineyards.  The Greeks then divided the fields of Stari Grad*, also known as Ager (originally named Chora) into 73 equal parcels and allocated them to the local settlers.  

The fields of Stari Grad
One year after their arrival, a conflict between the Greek settlers and the local Illyrian tribes broke out. With the help of Dionysius I of Syracuse’s fleet (winner in the war against Carthage and ruler of Sicily), the Greeks were able to defeat the Illyrians and strengthen their hold on the island. 

According to Roman historian, Appian, the Illyrian mainland tribes considered wine from Hvar a valuable commodity. Clay amphora bearing the seal of Pharos, which were recently excavated near the Neretva River in southern Dalmatia, affirms the importance of wine in the cultural-historic lifestyle of the region.

Greek amfora

During the time of Demetrius of Hvar, a great soldier and confidant to Queen Teuta of Illyria, Hvar returned to Illyrian rule. 

In the 2nd century B.C. the Romans conquered Hvar and brought with them the methods to improve the local production of wine. The Romans built many villae rusticae in the fields of Stari Grad and elsewhere on the island, where the owners would reside for the greater part of the year. 

Remains of villae rusticae at Kupinovnik, Stari Grad fields, Hvar (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

During this time, in the city of Salona, the capital of the Roman region of Dalmatia, a Christian group was founded and guided by Domnius of Antioch (better known locally as Saint Duje). Since Hvar was a major port between Salona and major cities of the Mediterranean, the teachings of the Christian Gospel quickly spread among the islanders, an influence that remains today.

Roman ruins at Salona, Croatia (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

After the fall of Salona (7th century A.D.), some of the city resident fled to the islands, subsequently followed by the Slavic tribe, the Croats. The Croats soon adopted the traditions and winemaking skills that would sustain the continuity of grape cultivation and wine production until the present day.

During the Middle Ages, Hvar was subjected to a revolving door of rulers: the Neretvans*, Croatian kings, Byzantine, Hungarian, Croatian-Hungarian kings, and finally the Venetian Republic all took their turns. 

Despite all the turmoil, vine cultivation and winemaking endured and continued to be the backbone of the local economy. In the Middle Ages, two-thirds of arable land was owned by the Hvar Commune, and the remaining third belonged to royalty and the Church. 

Stari Grad fields

Public lands were offered for rent to the workers, royalty and the Church. Strict rules governed the division of property and the payment of land rent. Grape growers were required to pay 1/6 of the yield to the royalty and the Church. Discontent led to unrest, and under the leadership of Matija Ivanić, a civil uprising (1510-1514) broke out. The mission: to secure equality between the common folk and the royalty.

The uprising was followed by a period of Turkish incursions. The Turks raze the towns of Hvar, Stari Grad and Vrboska. Turkish invasions all along the coast led to demographic changes, as a large number of Croats from the Neretva region and the Makarska coast fled to Hvar in search of safety.

Hvar eventually came under control of the Venetians and continued to develop – despite ups and downs – as an economic center of Dalmatia. Wine exports were the leading source of revenue, although Hvar was also well known for its production and export of dried figs, olive oil, almonds, carob and other Mediterranean produce.

Photo by Peter Higgins, http://www.Art.com

In the time leading up to the mid-19th century, Hvar was again subject to periodic regime change, coming under control of the Austrians and subsequently the French (beginning of the 19th century). It also came under attack by the British and Russians, during which time commerce was interrupted and the local economy stagnated.

Austria again gained control of Hvar in the middle of the 19th century. As a result, Hvar gained access to new markets in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which boosted the importance and production of wine.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the scourges of phylloxera, peronospera (downy mildew) and oidium (powdery mildew), devastated and ruined the vineyards of France and Western Europe. Wine from Dalmatia suddenly came under higher demand, prompting the residents of Hvar to expand their vineyard holdings to 5,750 hectares. With the increased production and revenues, many wine-growers enlarged their homes and converted the ground floors into wine cellars. The future suddenly seemed bright, and Hvar enjoyed newfound prosperity.

Grapevine under attack by Phylloxera

To minimize the power of and offset any threat from the buyers and traders, many of the smaller local wine growers decided to organize themselves into the first island cooperatives. One such cooperative, Svirče *, remains today.

photo by Cliff Rames

But the unfortunate cycles of history soon took a turn, and the economic boon turned into catastrophe. The Wine Clause, a mandate that allowed Austria to import cheaper wines from Italy, forced a drastic and devastating 350-500% decrease in the price of Hvar’s wines.

If that were not enough, the vineyards of Dalmatia – including Hvar – were also attacked by peronospera and oidium, followed in 1909 by the ravaging effects of phylloxera. The glory days of viticulture on Hvar seemed to die a slow death, leaving the population without the means to earn a living, and the local economy teetered on the verge of collapse.

A record of these dark days is still visible, engraved in 1901 in a stone panel on the chapel in the village of Ivan Dolac*, which says:

In honor of the Mother of God, this Church was built by Ivan Carić of the late Juraj.  Since 1852 oidium and peronospera have ruined the grapes. These were hard times.  Root pests came from Zadar, and the vines whithered.  In fear we await our doom.  My People! Devastated by this affront from God, heed the Virgin Mother Mary.  And may God protect us from these three evils.

 (To be continued…)

Link to original article in Croatian: http://www.supermarketi.info/index.php?mod=intervju&interId=11

www.winesofcroatia.com

www.Facebook.com/winesofcroatia

www.Twitter.com/winesofcroatia

Share

Perfect Food & Wine Pairings in Dalmatia, Croatia

 Share

(Original content by Cliff Rames; competition results translated & adapted by Cliff Rames from the report by Dalmacija Wine Expo. Original report can be viewed at: http://www.dalmacijawineexpo.com/novosti/perfect_matsch/)

Now for something short and sweet!

One of the more interesting events at the recent Dalmacija Wine Expo, held May 13-15, 2010 in the seaside resort town of Makarska, Croatia, was the “Perfect Match” wine and food pairing competition.

photo courtesy of Dalmacija Wine Expo

Some of the most experienced chefs from some of Croatia’s best restaurants in Dalmatia joined together to prepare a selection of traditional gastronomic delights that are representative of Croatia’s seaside cuisine.

photo courtesy of Dalmacija Wine Expo

These dishes were then paired with various wines from the different wine regions of Croatia. Then a panel of 30 judges, which included chefs and journalists, rated the pairings and chose the top 5 perfect matches.

photo courtesy of Dalmacija Wine Expo

Below are the results of the match up, one in each of five wine-style categories. Most interestingly is the fact that one winning “perfect match” (#1) was a pairing between a traditional coastal seafood dish and a wine from the continental (inland) region of Croatia. Another winning match was a wine made from an international variety and not an indigenous grape, paired with a domestic specialty from the Dalmatia region.

photo by Cliff Rames

As they say, sometimes the best marriage is one of opposites!

1. In the category of fresh, young, light-bodied wines, the winner is:

Cmrečnjak Silvanac Zeleni ’09 (Sylvaner) paired with cuttlefish salad with an emulsion of olive oil and citrus.  (Runners-up in this category included Grabovac 2009 Kujundžuša & Štampar 2009 Sauvignon Blanc.) 

photo courtesy of http://www.coolinarika.com

2. In the category of fresh yet mature, full-bodied wines, the winner is:

Kunjas Pošip ’08 paired with marinated Bonito fish with roasted pine nuts, shallots & raisins.  (The runner-up in this category was Grk Pillos Bire 2008.)

  
 
 
 
 

photo courtesy of http://www.coolinarika.com

3. In the category of mature, full-bodied white wine & rosé, the winner is:

Grabovac 2008 Chardonnay sur lie Grand Reserva paired with homemade pasta tossed with shrimp and asparagus. (The runner-up in this category was Krauthaker 2008 Chardonnay Rosenberg.)

Photo © Flickr user Allerina and Glen MacLarty

4. In the category of mature yet soft red wines with predominately fruity character, the winner is:

Kunjas 2008 Pagadebit paired with lamb, fava beans and peas. (Runners-up in this category included Crvik Canavia 2008 Merlot; Festigia 2008 Merlot; & Plavac P.Z. Kuna 2008.)

   
 

photo courtesy of http://www.coolinarika.com

5. In the category of mature, full-bodied red wine, the unanimous winner is:

photo by Cliff Rames

Saints Hills Winery 2008 Dingač (Plavac Mali) paired with veal cheeks a’la pašticada (a traditional piquant sauce made with tomatoes, red wine, Prošek, Mediterranean herbs and spices). 

photo courtesy of http://www.coolinarika.com

Now imagine we are by the Adriatic Sea in an outdoor café filled with friends and lovers; a full moon is shining; the evening breezes are cooling our sun-warmed skin; live Klapa music is playing (it’s ok to sing along!); and all of the food and wine mentioned above is spread out before us on the table….Perfect indeed!

photo courtesy of http://www.digitaljournal.com

I hope to see you there….

www.winesofcroatia.com

www.Facebook.com/winesofcroatia

www.Twitter.com/winesofcroatia

Share

A Report From Vinistra (PART II)

Share

Text and photos by Cliff Rames, Wines of Croatia (unless otherwise noted)

17th annual Vinistra wine expo was held April 29 – May 2, 2010 in Poreč, Croatia. Organized by the eponymous regional association of winegrowers and winemakers, Vinistra (http://vinistra.com/), this year’s expo featured 130 exhibitors and 535 wines.

Below is Part II of my report from Vinistra. If you missed Part I, you can find it here: https://winesofcroatia.wordpress.com/2010/05/19/a-report-from-vinistra-part-i/

 

The Wines

Without doubt most of the wines I tasted were serious, well-crafted products that came very close to delivering authentic, world-class representations of Istria’s unique terroir. Taste after taste I was struck by the consistency of quality and the emergence of a distinct “Istrian style”, particularly in regard to Malvazija and Teran, the two distinctly indigenous grapes in the region.

 

Malvazija Istarska (Malvasia Istriana): As Croatia’s second most widely-planted grape variety (after Grasevina), Malvazija is certainly one of the most important players in Croatia’s impressive portfolio of native varieties. Vast improvements in wine making over the last 10-15 years, as well as the successful promotional initiatives and quality control program implemented by Vinistra, have resulted in Malvazija emerging to the forefront as one of Croatia’s most recognized and respected wine offerings.

Malvazija has definitely arrived on the scene, and my impression is that most producers are successfully achieving excellent expressions of the grape in three distinct styles: fresh and early drinking; mature and heavily extracted; and sweet.

 

The majority of Malvazija on display at Vinistra reflected the fresh, early-drinking style that is more approachable to the average consumer: dry, crisp, lighly aromatic with notes of citrus, apple, green herb, and raw almond – a real palate cleanser and perfect pairing with the regional delectable seafood dishes.

I was particularly surprised by the wines of Franko Radovan, a producer with whom I was previously unfamiliar. His fresh 2009 Malvazija was focused and lean, showing a pure fruit, refreshing and vibrant character with a stiff mineral backbone for structure. If I had to describe his winemaking style in a word, it would be “precise”. Cool label, too!    

 

Less present but hard to ignore was a small number of fascinating Malvazija wines in the mature (“zrela”) style. I found these “yellow wines” to be complex (hence easily misunderstood) creatures, showing a highly extracted and viscous expression of the grape that is unique, deeply fascinating and delicious. If I had to categorize the style of these mature Malvazijas, I would struggle but be tempted to compare them to Vernacchia di San Gimignano from Tuscany (for the tamer versions) or the white wines of the Jura or Savennières (for the more extreme versions).

 

Oak and acacia (or a combination of the two) are the typical woods used for barrel aging Malvazija. I find acacia wood and Malvazija to be an intriguing combination, and when controlled and done right it is a marriage made in heaven: the bride voluptuous and sexy in veils perfumed with acacia flowers, dried honey, orange zest and spiced pear. Too much acacia and the wine will become distractingly smoky with a distinct bacon aroma. Standouts in my tastings included Roxanich 2006 “Antica”, Trapan 2008 “Uroborus” (a Gold Medal winner with 85.5 points), and Kozlović 2001 “Santa Lucia”.  

 

The only sweet Malvazija I managed to tasted was the Benvenuti 2009 (a Gold Medal winner with 86 points), which was pleasant and easily drinkable. However, to my taste it did not offer the same depth of character, structure, sizzling acidity and luscious fruit that the fabulous 2007 Benvenuti sweet Muscat “Momjanski” (also a Gold Medal winner with 88.17 points) delivered.   

One curious note: the oldest Malvazija to receive a medal in the adjunct World of Malvazija competition (see below) was the vintage 2000 Kabaj from Slovenia, which received a Silver Medal. The oldest Croatian Malvazija was from Matošević, the 2005 Alba Robinia, which ranked in 6th place and also received a Gold Medal. The majority of Malvazija medal winners were wines from the 2009 vintage, including the #1 wine, Ma-De-Ba-Ko (see below).  

 

Teran: A difficult variety to nurture and harness, in the right hands Teran will produce a deliciously food-friendly and serious wine. But poor viticulture practices and inattentive winemaking can result in astringent, overly-acidic and thin wines best mixed with the local olive oil and utilized as vinaigrette for salad.

To my great satisfaction, none of the Teran wines I tried at Vinistra fell into this condemning category. Most were well-balanced and firmly-structured, with a striking harmony between the black cherry and black raspberry fruit character, a savory, cured meat wildness, refreshing acidity, and rustic yet not over-bearing tannins.

 

Simple Teran wines are typically pleasantly ruby red in color, translucent and unpretentious, somewhat like basic Chianti. However, I was intrigued by how many of the Terans I tried at Vinistra were showing a more serious dimension: these were very richly colored – nearly black and opaque – wines, with a mouth-filling presence, and a brambly black fruit, savory meat, smoky quality.

However, many of the Terans I tried were still tightly wound-up and unrestrained – really wild beasts, which I surmised may indicate some potential for cellar aging, at least for 3-4 years. Even so-called “Table Wine” versions, like the “Piquentum Teranum” from Vinski Podrum Buzet, were richly satisfying stuff.

Arman vineyards

Istria is often called the “Tuscany of Croatia”. Could Teran become the Sangiovese of Istria? And could the better versions from specific Terre Rosse locations achieve a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano comparison? Hmm…I’m not sure. I find that there is also Northern Rhone Syrah quality to some of these wines with their gamey, black pepper notes.

 

However you want to see it, one can’t deny that something special is happening here with Teran. I believe that Teran is well on its way to becoming a world-class product from a region that until now has been primarily known for its white wines (Malvazija, Muscat and Chardonnay).

 

Teran from Istria is definitely a WTW (“Wine to Watch”) in my book. Excellent examples include Arman (Teran Barrique), Cattunar, Istravino, Legović and Tomaz.

WoM Logo courtesy of Vinistra

World of Malvazija Competition

During the week prior to Vinistra, the organizers hold the annual World of Malvazija (“Svijet Malvazija”) competition, whereby Malvazija producers are invited to submit their wines, which are then tasted blind and rated by a panel of judges. The winners are announced just prior to the start of Vinistra.

This year, there were 215 submitted wines. Of these, 30% – or 64 wines, received a Gold or Silver medal. You can view the results here: http://vinistra.com/wom/rezultati-2010

 

MA-DE-BA-KO

The somewhat surprising World of Malvazija first place award (with 88.2 points) for dry Malvazija went to the newly released “Ma-De-Ba-Ko” 2009 Malvazija. This is quite an honor for a wine that has not yet reached the consumer market. But with its distinguished pedigree (it is a joint project between four winemakers, Matošević, Degrassi, Kozlović & Joe Bastianich), and the marketing resources and prowess that comes along with the Bastianich name, it was probably an inevitable result.

I found the wine to be very light and easy drinking, not heavily extracted or alcoholic, if somewhat simple and clinical. Plans are to send 10,000 of the 15,000 bottle production to the U.S. (via Dark Star Imports in NYC), where it will retail for about $15. Perhaps Ma-De-Ba-Ko Malvazija will serve as a quality “gateway wine” that Croatia needs for export, a wine that will open doors for consumers to enter the world of the Wines of Croatia. Let’s hope!    

                                                        ******************

While it would be impossible to report on every producer present at Vinistra, I feel compelled to mention three here, for different reasons:

 

Benvenuti

I had heard about the two Benvenuti brothers even before I arrived at their booth. “All the girls love them”, they said. “They are so handsome – like models!”

I must say, after trying their wines, I’m in love with them too. Okay, maybe not them physically (as handsome as they really are), but their wines, especially the luscious Muskat Momjanski dessert wine (which by the way just won a Silver Medal at the Decanter World Wine Awards).

photo courtesy of Istra-Gourmet.com

Clai

I mention Giorgio Clai not for his participation in Vinistra but for his absence. Where was he? I was shocked to learn that he did not have a booth at Vinistra, apparently because of some rules regarding wine classification. While his extreme winemaking style may not be to everyone’s taste, few people can disagree that the man is a great winemaker and an asset to the Croatian brand. Let’s hope that whatever conditions prevented him from representing his wines at Vinistra are rectified next year.

On a positive note, I had the great honor of meeting Mr. Clai on the floor of main hall, and he was as charming and friendly as can be. Unfortunately I did not have time to take him up on his invitation to visit his winery near Bijele Zemlje, which I’m certain would have been quite an amazing experience. Rumor has it that there are some interesting new wines cooking in his cellar.

Mladen Rožanić

Roxanich (Rožanić)

While present at Vinistra with a highly-trafficked booth, Roxanich strangely did not receive a single medal and was not mentioned in the official Vinistra catalogue of awarded wines. This is especially relevant given the fact that Mr. Rožanić just received two 2010 Decanter World Wine Awards medals, a Bronze for his 2006 Merlot, and a Commended for his 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon.

I’m not sure what the story is behind the Roxanich’s lack of Vinistra awards, but I suspect it might be another classification issue. If anyone knows the answer to this Vinistra mystery, please let us know (I have also sent an email to the winery requesting their perspective).

                                                                   ***********

photo courtesy of Wines of Serbia on Twitter

Guest Regions

A unique and charming touch to this year’s show was the inclusion of Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) as “guest regions”. These up-and-coming wine countries also have a number of interesting indigenous varieties, and the quality of their wines is definitely on the rise.

Producers from Serbia included Božidar Aleksandrović, Miodrag Radovanović, Miroslav Kovačević, and Word of Wine by Živojin Đorđević. Montenegro was represented by Plantaže, Tažex–biotehnički institut, Burić, and Vučinić.

From BiH, guest wineries included Josip Brkić, Zdravko Rožić, Manastir Tvrdoš, and Radovan Vukoje.

I certainly appreciated the spirit with which these formal arch-rivals were invited to come together under one room to celebrate their common love of wine. It reminded me of the old quotation: “Water divides nations, but wine unites them”.

 
 
 

photo courtesy of Vinistra

In the End

Vinistra was a great experience, and I am thankful to the organizers for inviting me to participate in the round table discussion.

photo courtesy of Vinistra

Of course the biggest honor and thrill for me was meeting many of the region’s top winemakers and their teams, all of whom were friendly, generous with their pours, and eager to share their insights, knowledge and – more often than not – fabulous senses of humor. 

Bruno Trapan

Fact is, I spent more time talking than tasting, which was fine except that now I regret not trying wines from the other 80 or so exhibitors I missed. Without doubt, two days at Vinistra was not enough. Maybe 18 will be a luckier number!

If you made it this far, thanks for reading!

 

www.winesofcroatia.com

www.Facebook.com/winesofcroatia

www.Twitter.com/winesofcroatia

The Donkey Delivers: Dingač Plavac Mali “Kolekcija 04”

Facing the blue, blue Adriatic Sea, the sun-drenched limestone karst slopes of the Pelješac peninsula are a sight to see: tumble-down white stones and jagged outcrops lie interspersed with olive trees, drought-stricken Mediterranean scrub brush (rosemary, thyme, oregano, curry-plant) and perilously-perched and un-trellised vineyards.

Dingač vineyards

Welcome to Dingač (“Ding-gahch”), the most prestigious of all Croatia’s wine regions, where Croatia’s most revered – and eponymously-named – wine is made from Plavac Mali, Croatia’s most-cultivated red grape variety.   

 

History

Croatia – especially the coastal region and islands – has a cultural history that for centuries has revolved around the traditions of viticulture and wine-drinking. Historical records indicate that grapes were cultivated in the area as early as a few centuries before Christ. Wine jugs (amphora), goblets and coins adorned with grape motifs excavated in the region reveal the integral importance of wine in daily ancient life. The earliest written mention of the Plavac Mali grape was in 1821.

Old vine Plavac Mali at Dingač

Today, Plavac Mali vines of a hundred or more years old can still be found scattered throughout the region.

 The Region

In 1961 Dingač became Croatia’s first recognized appellation with “Protected Geographical Origin” (followed in 1967 by a neighboring area, Postup).

 

Dingač is a small, dangerously steep area of vineyards interspersed on the south-facing slopes of Pelješac, a long, mountainous peninsula that stretches almost 40 miles (63 km) into the Adriatic Sea just north of the historic walled city, Dubrovnik, in the Southern Dalmatia wine region.

photo courtesy of http://www.BlueDanubeWine.com

The vineyards are only accessible via a single-lane, unlit tunnel excavated in 1973. While driving through it, I found myself praying against earthquakes. But that’s another story…

The Dingač Tunnel

While an exact size of the Dingač appellation is uncertain due to the fragmented way the vineyards are planted, it is estimated that the total area under vine is no larger than 200 acres (80 hectares), with most individual plots consisting of just a couple acres each scattered across the mountainside. 

The Wine

Dingač – the wine – is made from the primary native red grape of the region, Plavac Mali, a grape that resulted from a spontaneous crossing of Crljenak Kaštelanski (Zinfandel) and Dobričić.

 

With the vines positioned at 20-34 degree angles toward in the hot Mediterranean sun, Plavac Mali from the Dingač slopes achieves extreme ripeness from direct sunlight, as well as light reflected off the white stones and sparkling sea. The extreme light, heat and summer drought conditions frequently cause the berries to shriveled and raisin.

Plavac Mali vines in September

Wines from these intensely sweet, prime grapes can be big and luxurious, delivering dark, dried-fruit flavors on an off-dry to dry, tannic, full-bodied and often alcoholic frame. These are among some of the most expensive cult wines in Croatia.

The Dingač Winery

While some of the most highly regarded Dingač wines are made by small, family-owned wineries (e.g. Bura; Miličić), the biggest and best-known winery in the area is Vinarija Dingač, a cooperative owned by Badel 1862 that produces about half a million liters of wine a year.

Vinarija Dingač

The large winery can be seen just to the left of the entrance of the Dingač tunnel. Its line-up includes five Plavac Mali wines: the basic “Plavac”, the young, fruity and off-dry “Pelješac”, “Postup”, “Dingač”, and “Dingač Kolekcija”. These labels are commonly – and sometimes affectionately – referred to as the “donkey” wines.

 

The Donkey

In the old days, local vineyard workers would utilize horses and donkeys to tend the vineyards on the Dingač slopes, as well as to cart the grapes to Potomje, the town on the opposite side of the mountain where the Vinarija Dingač stands today. While beasts of burden are no longer used to harvest grapes at Dingač, the donkey is still a common sight: on the labels of Vinarija Dingač wines.

“Kolekcija 04”  

Last Sunday, Easter 2010, I treated myself to a bottle of Vinarija Dingač “Kolokcija | 04”, the winery’s rarest and most expensive bottling. The “04” designates the year in which the wine was bottled; the vintage was 2002, meaning the wine was aged in barrel for two years.  My bottle was numbered #821 of 16,100 bottles (500 ml size) produced.

 

Medium garnet in color, the wine was translucent and beautiful in appearance – like a ruby that has collected the light of an orange setting sun.

 

Even more striking was the nose: the wine cast off aromas like a series of veils shed by a beautiful princess: aromas of dried fig, rosehip preserves, plum and carob were lifted on a cloud of menthol vapor that carried hints of licorice, wet iron, old wood, and sweet Mediterranean spices. So refined, elegant and pretty -I was in love and couldn’t stop sniffing its perfume. Even more amazing, I could detect the aromas leaping from the glass from half a meter away.

 

On the palate the wine delivered an interesting array of sensations: elegant yet rustic, sweet yet savory, it tasted of dried dark fruits, cured meat, and licorice bark couched in a mineral-driven frame with soft, smooth tannins. The long finish left a Port-like sweetness (the wine is dry) that was completely and utterly delicious.

At 13.5% alcohol, the donkey delivers the goods. Very impressive!  

 

Pair with aged hard cheeses and a few very special friends.

While “Kolokcija | 04” is not imported in the US, the other wines in Vinarija Dingač’s line-up are. You can find them via www.BlueDanubeWine.com (west coast) and http://oenocentric.com/ (east coast).

Text and photos by Cliff Rames (except where indicated)

Related Posts:

https://winesofcroatia.wordpress.com/2009/12/21/a-taste-of-dalmatia-%E2%80%93-without-leaving-home/

https://winesofcroatia.wordpress.com/2010/02/11/wine-chocolate-can-bura-dingac-find-true-love-this-valentines-day/

Related Links:

www.winesofcroatia.com

www.Facebook.com/winesofcroatia

www.Twitter.com/winesofcroatia

The 1985 Dingač

Wine & Chocolate: Can Bura Dingač Find True Love this Valentines Day?

If red wine and chocolate were potential mates searching for each other on eHarmony, some would undoubtedly question their compatibility. Certainly the jury is still out on whether red wine and chocolate is a match made in heaven or a disastrous waste of talent.

Among some wine writers and critics (e.g. Eric Asimov, NY Times), the mention of such a pairing evokes gasps of horror. This group would seemingly prefer that the two swinging singles remain as they should be: happily separate.

Other voices (Paul Grieco, owner of Hearth restaurant and Terroir wine bar in NYC) praise and adore the decadent intersection of the two dark masters.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, and Blogs and Tweets are abuzz with the subject, I decided to find out for myself.

There was never a question about which red wine I would choose: Without a moment’s hesitation I opened the Bura 2007 from the Dingač region of Pelješac, a peninsula on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. The Bura Dingač is made from the primary native red grape of the region, Plavac Mali (an offspring of Zinfandel) and is a luxurious, cult, premium wine that delivers bold flavors on an off-dry, gently tannic, full-bodied frame. And at 16% alcohol, it is almost Port-like in character. I just had a feeling it would work.

I also knew that the Bura Dingač is the perfect Valentine’s Day wine. At $55 it is expensive, true. But on Valentine’s Day, aren’t we supposed to splurge on our sweeties?

Overwhelmingly the deciding factor was this: Bura Dingač is simply a stunningly pretty wine. It is beautiful in a steamy yet approachable, voluptuous yet elegant, deeply brooding yet spry, fabulously irresistible kind of way. It makes me think of love and romance, of that scene from “American Beauty” where is Mena Suvari lying naked, covered in rose petals. Does not chocolate evoke similar fantasies?

And then there’s the wine’s bouquet: Striking with sweet stewed fruit and spice aromas (black cherry, plum, fig, black currant jam, anise) with distinctive floral and earthy herbal notes – I detect a sexy, seductive mix of rose petals, lavender, black olive, pine wood, and – dark chocolate.

So far so good. My instincts told me that this wine would totally rise to the orgasmic when paired with one of my all-time favorite dishes from the Dalmatian islands: black risotto with squid (I also find that Bura Dingač displays a distinct note of iodine on the nose and really reminds me of the Adriatic Sea). But how would it perform against chocolate?

To find out I went to my local gourmet supermarket and chose four different varieties: 1) Lindt milk chocolate with liquid cherry filling; 2) Ghirardelli dark chocolate with raspberry cream filling; 3) Lindt dark chocolate with Fleur de Sel sea salt crystals; and 4) Dagoba organic dark chocolate with wild blueberries and lavender essence.

Here are the findings:

1) I chose the Lindt milk with dark cherry liquor because I thought the dark cherry would accent the similar notes in the wine while the smooth, creamy milk chocolate would match the texture of the wine. To some extent this held up in the tasting, and the cherry notes in both wine and chocolate really popped. But the overly sweet flavors in the chocolate suppressed the complexity of the wine and made it seem slightly astringent.  Rating: 2.5 (out of 5)

2) As with number 1, I felt that the raspberry notes in the Ghirardelli would nicely accentuate the luscious fruit character of the Bura, and the less sugary, earthier nature of the dark chocolate would allow more room for the wine to assert itself and find balance on the palate. The wine brought out the fruit notes in the chocolate but it lost a lot of its middle depth and became more tannic. Not that exciting. Rating: 2 (out of 5)

3) This is my favorite chocolate bar in the world: Lindt dark with sea salt. It’s lightly sweet with a good tooth bite that gives way to creaminess on the tongue, accented by the saline crunch of sea salt crystals. Divine! I hoped that the mix of sweet and savory notes would highlight the similar qualities in the Bura. To my relief, this pairing performed better, with both the chocolate and wine holding up their ends of the deal and allowing each other to sing their respective parts. This was a sort of “nothing lost, nothing gained” match, with the wine becoming a bit more focused and fruity under the influence of the savory, earthy tones of the Lindt. Perfect pairing? No. But it’s interesting, fun and delicious. Rating: 3.5 (out of 5)

4) I’ll get right to the point: This is the hands down winner. The rule of thumb for any wine and food pairing is that each should not only compliment the other but raise the eating/drinking experience to another level. The Dagoba dark chocolate with wild blueberries and lavender essence is an unusual treat, but it delivered just the right combination of subtle sweetness, earthiness, fruit and floral notes to stand up to and highlight the similar profile of the Bura. No doubt, the lavender/blueberry duo (lavender grows wild in many of the fields that surround Plavac Mali vineyards in Croatia) lifts the same Mediterranean notes out of the wine and makes them dance on the palate. The transition is seamless: there is no looking for why this pairing should work. The magic just happens as the two sensations become one in a splendid, harmonious and deeply satisfying act of love-making. Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)

Like two people in any relationship, there are personality traits that are desired, admired and loved, and there are characteristics that repel, discourage and disappoint. Wine and chocolate, it seems, are no different. But find the right combination of traits and it is possible that, despite the odds, something wonderful can happen.

So introduce yourself to red wine and chocolate and see what happens. If all else fails, there’s always a dozen roses.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Text and Bura wine photos by Cliff Rames, Wines of Croatia

www.winesofcroatia.com; www.Facebook.com/winesofcroatia; www.Twitter.com/winesofcroatia

The Bura Dingač is imported by VinumUSA.

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

www.Facebook.com/winesofcroatia; www.Twitter.com/winesofcroatia