A Report from the 2011 Zagreb Wine Gourmet Festival – Part 3

Text and photos (unless otherwise noted) Copyright © Cliff Rames 

Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb (photo by Igor Franic)

In Part 2 of this 3-part report, we went inside the festival to explore the venue, meet the VIP guests, and hear about the round table workshop. In Part 3, we provide some general observations about the wines, offer some “names to watch out for”, and mourn a missed opportunity to leave the festival in style. Živjeli!

[Note: The views presented here are strictly my own and are in no way intended to reflect the views of the festival organizers or its sponsors and partners]

Photo by Siniša Škaberna

The Wines

Let me begin by saying, two days was not enough time to taste everything, even if it were not for the crowds and the less-than-ideal tasting conditions. Perhaps the organizers would consider extending the festival by one day next year? Just an idea….

Based on what I succeeded in tasting (see special note below), it was clear the quality of Croatian wines continues to rise. While a few of clunkers could be found here and there, a greater number of delicious treasures could be discovered and enjoyed at nearly every table. Overall the wines were well-made, full of character, expressive of a unique terroir, and very drinkable.

It was also great to see so many of the well-established, bigger wineries investing in new winery technology, newly designed packaging, and updated marketing strategies – thereby demonstrating an understanding that they cannot rest on their laurels if they are to survive in the current market environment.Agrokor Vina, a conglomerate that owns several wineries and nearly 1,700 hectares of vineyards, has recently invested heavily in redefining its brands and market presence. The results are now in bottle: many of their brands are very approachable, value-driven, quality wines with attractive packages offered at affordable prices. This could easily propel Agrokor to the lead as a producer of competitive, value-driven gateway wines, especially for the export market.

Not to be outdone, many of the traditional industry-leaders and well-established wineries have stepped up their games, becoming more active with social media, introducing new wines and labels, and taking steps to ready themselves for the international market.

Krauthaker wines

These key players include: Krauthaker (the man who put premium Graševina on the map and whose TBA Graševina landed a much-celebrated place on the wine list of Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck  in London)….

Photo courtesy of Feravino winery

Feravino (their new “Dika” and “Miraz” Graševina labels are very approachable and tasty); and Kozlovic (his 2009 Malvazija was the stand-out favorite of Decanter’s Sarah Kemp)… 

  
 

Matošević wines (photo by Jeff Tureaud)

Matosevic (watch out for his new “Grimalda” wines, a red “Super Istrian” blend and a white Malvazija/Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc blend); Kutjevacki Podrum (their “De Gotho Aureus” 2009 Chardonnay just took the silver medal at the 2011 Chardonnay Du Monde competition in France)….

Kutjevo award-winning Chardonnay

Then there’s: Bura-Mokalo (this dynamic duo of a brother/sister winemaking team are the early pioneers of “cult” Plavac Mali wines; watch out for a new Zinfandel release this year); BIBICh (his new limestone “kamenica”-fermented, long-macerated Debit may take the orange wine category to new heights)….

Winemaker Ivo Carić

Caric (produces a lovely, fresh, seafood-friendly white from Bogdanuša, an indigenous variety native to Hvar island; also produces an interesting Beaujolais-style young Plavac Mali called “Novello”; just introduced some very cool new labels too!); and Zlatan Otok (their first-ever commercial production of Crljenak Kašelanski has been scoring very well and is making history as the first-ever commercial production of the “original Zinfandel”).

Even more exciting was to see a new generation of rising-star winemakers who are truly making names for themselves with wines that are clean, well-made, expressive of place, and cleverly and attractively packaged.

Piquentum Malvazija label

Names that come to mind as examples in this category are: Dimitri Brečević (his “Piquentum” Teran and Malvazija wines from Istria are generating a lot of excitement); and Benvenuti (making some very impressive sweet wines from Malvazija Istriana and Muscat of Momjan under the “San Salvatore” label).

Winemaker Marko Geržinić (Photo courtesy of http://www.Facebook.com/tasteofcroatia)

Then there’s: Marko Gerzinic (noted for his beautiful stainless-steel fermented Teran and consistently good Malvazija); Franco Radovan (his young Malvazija wine is incredibly pure and fresh; cute label too!)…

Bruno Trapan

Bruno Trapan (with cigar in hand, this young upstart winemaker has rocked the domestic wine scene with a number of recent awards and high scores, especially for his macerated and mature Malvazija wine, “Uroboros”; he recently opened a brand new winery and tasting room in the style of a train depot, called “Wine Station Trapan”)….

Bire Grk

Watch out for the “other” white wine of Korčula island (more commonly known for the Pošip grape), made from the indigenous Grk variety (producers Cebalo and Bire are pioneers of Grk wine and are working hard to revive interest in the grape and the quality of the wines); and Grabovac (one of the only producers of sparkling wine in the Dalmatia region, Grabovac is noted for their unique wines made from Kujundžuša and Trnjak – two obscure native grape varieties from the Dalmatian hinterland).

Other names to watch out for: Roxanich (a winery with a rockin’ name, owner Mladen Rožanić is considered the father of the “Super Istrian” red blend; he also makes a wonderful extended skin maceration, wood-aged “Antica” Malvazija that is almost an orange wine;); Moreno Coronica (his ’07 “Gran Teran” is a profound expression of Istria’s native son red grape); Velimir Korak (making elegant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the cool Plešivica region); Boris Drenški “Bodren” (for award-winning TBA and ice wines)…

Clai Sveti Jakov Malvazija (image courtesy of Clai winery)

Giorgio Clai (an organic/biodynamic winemaker who produces somewhat inconsistent yet fascinating, terroir-driven wines); Moreno DeGrassi (his “Terre Bianche” blend of Malvazija, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier was the fan favorite at the Gala Dinner).

More names to watch: Leo Gracin (“the Professor”; a consultant and winemaking pioneer of the indigenous Babić red variety of northern Dalmatia; his 2008 vintage was another favorite of Decanter’s Sarah Kemp); Frano Milos (long considered a “traditionalist” among Plavac Mali producers, the increasing involvement of his very attractive, twenty-something son and daughter in his marketing and social media activities has injected new energy into his brand; his “Stagnum” Plavac Mali is a cult favorite)….

Luka Krajančić (photo by Željko Tutnjević)

Luka Krajančić (his Pošip “Intrada” and “Sur Lie” is taking the native Pošip white grape from Korčula island to a whole new level; world class juice!)….

(image courtesy of Saints Hills winery)

Finally, there’s Saints Hills , whose “Nevina” and “Dingač” wines are well on their way to achieving cult status (Ernest Tolj’s winery now stands poised to release a new and exciting Plavac Mali rosé this spring, “St. Heels” with a sexy, craftily cheeky and irreverent label depicting a pair of women’s high heel shoes. We also eagerly await the first-ever vintage [2010] Plavac Mali wine from the new “St. Roko” vineyard at Komarna).  

Saints Hills St. Roko vineyard at Komarna

[Special Note: To all the winemakers I didn’t meet, I’m sorry! It was impossible to make it to every table, and my selection of who to visit was completely random, subject to the surges of the crowd, and dependent upon how much time I had between meetings in the café. I didn’t mean to miss this opportunity to meet you and taste your wines. For what it’s worth, I am very aware of whom I missed, and I hope to one day have another chance to visit you and taste your wines.]

The Food

Okay, how can I put this diplomatically….? I spent most of the time at ZWGF starving.

Starving is an odd way to pass the time at a festival that touts the word “gourmet” in its title. The fact is, there was very little to eat, at least I couldn’t find much. Yes, there were the 16 food vendors with their tooth-pick-harpooned nibbles and bites, and the 15 Kuna sandwiches at the café bar….But it was the “gourmet” part that I needed – and was so sadly missing.

Okay, yes – there was the cooking demonstration tent. A couple of us, lured by the scrumptious aromas coming from within, tried unsuccessfully to grab a plate or two of the gourmet dishes prepared by guest chefs. These small plates were randomly handed out to lucky mouths in the audience (the system for receiving one of these tasty-looking offerings seemed to entail being in the right place at the right time) – but not to us.

Mouths watering and defeated, we went to the information booth to ask about our dining options in the vicinity. The friendly (English-speaking)information desk girl told us to go to the shopping center across the highway, where (we were told) there were surely some fast food places….

Having learned my lesson, the next morning I really filled-up at the breakfast buffet in the Westin Zagreb hotel. For an inclusive hotel breakfast, it was really quite an extensive and satiating spread. 

The Slide

It was not until the festival was over that I realized my greatest disappointment of the trip: I had missed “the Slide”.

The Slide? Is it an art exhibit? A secret restaurant?  

Nope. It’s a huge metal tube that corkscrews all the way through the center of the Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb, traveling down from the 4th floor to street level. Given the opportunity, a person could slip into the shiny tube and slide all the way down to the bottom, where he/she would be spit out onto the sidewalk outside the museum. The slide looks like this:  

(Photo courtesy of http://gallery-photo.net)

Riding that slide down and out would have been the grandest and most memorable exit from any wine festival ever, anywhere, anytime! Period.

Maybe the museum is not such a bad venue after all. Maybe the organizers will decide to hold ZWGF there next year.

The crowds? Who cares! The hunger? Never mind!

A good whirl on that giant silver slide would have made all of those things just a second thought…a pesky inconvenience…the price of greatness!

In fact it should be mandatory. Everyone should be asked to leave the festival on the slide. What a hoot that would be!

In a recent article for Wine Spectator, Matt Kramer wrote that “terroir” is no longer enough to sell wine; most wine regions today hold some claim or another to terroir. What we need more of (writes Kramer) is “narrative”. The question then becomes, what “stories” do the wines or wine-producing regions have to tell?

Photo courtesy of http://www.fightpink.org

As silly as it may seem, I mention the slide here because (for me) it suddenly became such a wonderful component of Croatia’s somewhat quirky and complex wine story – a memorable detail that sets ZWGF apart from many other wine expos and festivals.

Despite a few minor glitches and lessons learned, ZWGF demonstrated that Croatian wine producers are ready and able to join hands with the world of wine and take the plunge into the future. While the journey has just begun, the twisting way forward – if smartly navigated with poise and passion – promises to be a lip-smacking, exhilarating ride.

A Report from the 2011 Zagreb Wine Gourmet Festival – Part 2

Text and photos (unless otherwise noted) Copyright © Cliff RamesIn Part I of this 3-part report, we offered some insights into the story behind the festival’s organization, shared details about the yummy opening Gala Dinner, and revealed who was the winner of the Wine of the Year. In Part 2, we go inside the festival to explore the venue, meet the VIP guests, and hear about the round table workshop….Enjoy!

 [Note: The views presented here are strictly my own and are in no way intended to reflect the views of the festival organizers or its sponsors and partners]

The Venue 

Okay, I know: It was too crowded. Too packed. Too small. Too hot and noisy. All those dead-end alleys stuffed with herds of winos, unable to move or escape. Winemakers unable to hear or speak with the guests; sometimes unable to access their stock of fresh bottles when faced with empties; unable to retreat to the bathroom…..

Photo by Siniša Škaberna

And yes, the coat room would completely filled-up by noon, forcing many guests to carry their heavy winter coats (it was cold in Zagreb!), scarves and bags around the tasting room floor.

And the last shuttle bus of the festival, in the cold night after a long day of tasting, apparently never showed up – forcing several guests (including me) to chase down taxis back to the hotel….

It’s all been said already.

Photo by Igor Franic

But let me add this nugget: The festival was a victim of its own success.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb, where the festival was held, is a lovely facility that was barely adequate to accommodate the crowd that turned out to discover the wines within.  Interest was obviously high, and it seems likely that the organizers underestimated the potential number of attendees. While open to the public, tickets were not cheap (150 Kuna, or about $30 – a lot of money for many Croatians), thereby screening out many (although not all) individuals who might otherwise see the event as a great way to have a drinking party with pals and buddies. Nonetheless, hundreds of people paid the money in exchange for a chance to taste some awesome juice and meet the faces behind the labels.

A recommendation for next year: Reserve 2-3 hours in the morning exclusively for accredited members of the trade and media to walk through, taste, chat with winemakers, and network with like-minded peers without the throng of public attendees (who could be admitted afterwards). Many tastings and expos I have attended over the years are organized in this fashion. It seems to work well.

To their credit, the organizers DID on the first day try to offer a solution by scheduling a 3-hour “by invitation only workshop” for “foreign wine journalists and wine buyers”. I was invited but honestly forgot about it in the swirl of activity and meetings. I also wonder who attended it, since most of the action and winemakers were out on the public floor.

The Café Bar

A refuge from the sensory overload and crushing grind of the tasting hall was the museum’s little café bar, a quiet place where exhausted refugees huddled to recharge their palates by drinking coffee, sparkling water – and beer. The little café was also a popular spot to hold business meetings (I had about 6 of them there), as well as a reliable source of fast, cheap eats in the form of sandwiches at 15 Kuna each (more about the general food situation in Part 3).

The VIP Guests

Each year the ZWGF seems to become a little bit less insulated and more outward focused. And that’s a great thing, as Croatia is an exciting emerging winemaking country that should be blowing its trumpets and utilizing all its tools and resources to draw attention to its fabulous winemaking history and culture.

This year was especially exciting, as the guest list included many interesting and important VIPs from the international wine trade and media. Among the VIP guests were Sarah Kemp and Christelle Guibert, respectively the Publishing Editor and the Tasting Editor from Decanter magazine; Gabriella and Ryan Opaz, founders of Catavino and the European Wine Bloggers Conference; Peter Moser, Editor-in-Chief of Falstaff; Dr. Josef Schuller, Master of Wine; Lynne Sherriff, Master of Wine and Chairwoman of the Institute of Masters of Wine; and Nicolas Joly, legendary French winemaker and current godfather of the biodynamic movement, who conducted a fascinating seminar called “Biodynamics in Wine Growing”.     

Nicolas Joly

[One note for the record: Somewhere in the official ZWGF press materials and program booklet, I am listed as “Master Sommelier”. I am NOT a Master Sommelier but rather a “Certified Sommelier”. Out of reverent respect for the brilliant and hard-won achievements of real Master Sommeliers, my conscious demanded that I make this correction. I am, however, a master at consuming large amounts of wine; a master of procrastination; and master at a few other nasty habits. Yet a Master Sommelier I am not – but I hope to become one when I grow up.]

The Round Table Workshop

Another really interesting event at the festival was the Round Table Workshop, scheduled for the morning of Friday, February 25th. Unfortunately, the space for the workshop was again inadequate for the large number of people in attendance. It was also very noisy (one side wall was open and funneled all the noise from the main tasting hall into the workshop room). I found out afterwards that a number of people in the rear of the room could not hear the presenters, despite attempts to use a microphone, and left in frustration. 

From left: Ryan Opaz; Irina Ban; Duro Horvat; Sarah Kemp; Tony Hodges; Ivica Matošević; Saša Špiranec

That is a pity, because the subject of the round table – “Perspective and real Potential of Croatian Wine and Wine Tourism” – was very important and interesting. Presenters included an eclectic mix of trade professionals: Saša Špiranec, Croatian wine reviewer and writer, gave an overview of Croatia’s wine regions, annual production, and grape varieties; Sarah Kemp provided perspective on the world of wine and how Croatia could become a player on the international market; Mr. Tony Hodges, Chairman of the London-based P.R. firm, brandstory, spoke of the power of storytelling in marketing; Duro Horvat, Managing Director for Agrokor (one of Croatia’s largest wineries), and winemaker Ivica Matošević provided some perspective from the viewpoints of their respective large and small wineries; Mr. Matošević also spoke of his marketing success as president of the Association of Winegrowers and Winemakers of Istria, Vinistra; and Ryan Opaz from Catavino spoke about the importance of social media in the wine trade.   

The subject of my piece of the round table presentation was entitled, “The Openness of the U.S. Market to New Wine Regions” – like Croatia. You can watch a video of my presentation here on YouTube.

The Exhibitors

According to the ZWGF website, the festival featured over 130 exhibitors and included “crème de la crème” among Croatian wine and culinary stars (the official ZWGF roster included 76 Croatian wineries).

Vesna Clai

Over 500 wines from eight Croatian wine-growing regions were presented, as well as a selection of wines from Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Germany, Italy, Montenegro, New Zealand, Slovenia, and South Africa.

In addition, about 16 vendors of food products and delicacies were among the exhibitors. From them I was able to secure a few slivers of prosciutto and salami when I was starving (which was always), washing them down with a cube or two of bread dipped in olive oil.  

Next: The wines….

End of Part 2. Part 3 will follow very soon. Stay tuned! 

 

Michel Rolland Discovers Malvasia Istriana from Croatia

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Translated and edited by Cliff Rames from the original Vinistra press release (in Croatian):  http://vinistra.com/news/for-media

Michel Rolland, the world’s leading wine consultant and enologists, recently toured a few wine regions of Croatia. On July 2, 2010, he also attended a tasting of 28 Malvasia Istriana (Malvazija Istarska) wines at San Rocco restaurant in the Istrian town of Brtonigla. 

photo courtesy of Vinistra

The tasting, organized by Saints Hills Winery with the support of the association of Istrian winemakers, Vinistra, was also attended by a dozen Croatian winemakers, enologists and experts in the field.

photo courtesy of Vinistra

After the tasting, Mr. Rolland said that, in his assessment, the 28 Malvasia wines he tried were well-made, refreshing and very approachable. He added that with Malvasia Croatian winemakers have an opportunity to present the international market with a unique wine of a specific character.

photo courtesy of Vinistra

The goal of the tasting was to present Mr. Rolland with a cross-section of Malvasia wines that are representative of the wide range of styles available of the market, ranging from simple, refreshing, early-drinking wines to highly extracted, wood-aged versions.

“Malvasia wines are very well made, fresh and refreshing. They are all good, with different characteristics. None of the wines were flawed, which is very good for the future of winemaking in Croatia. Paired with the food I tried in the past few days, the wines were perfect,” Rolland said – adding that still there is room for improving their quality.

Bruno Trapan & Michel Rolland ( photo courtesy of Vinistra)

Mr. Rolland also had the opportunity to meet with a number of local winemakers and enologists to discuss the history and conditions of winemaking in Istria, characteristics of the grape variety, winemaking techniques, different approaches of vinification, and the long-term the potential of Malvasia. 

Ernest Tolj & Michel Rolland (photo courtesy of Vinistra)

Among the producers represented at the tasting were Benvenuti, Brčić, Coronica, Clai, Degrassi, Franc Arman, Geržinić, Kabola, Kozlović, Prince, Krulčić, MaDeBaKo, Matošević, Pilato, Piquentum, Poletti, Radovan, Roxanich, Saints Hills and Trapan.

Michel Rolland traveled to Croatia at the invitation of Ernest Tolj of Saints Hills Winery. Support for the Malvasia tasting was provided under the umbrella of the Istrian winemakers association, Vinistra. 

Tolj & Rolland at Dingac (photo courtesy of Saints Hills Winery)

Saints Hills Winery, which was established in 2006, owns three vineyards and two wineries, one in Istria and one in Dalmatia (where it produces wine from two distinct vineyards sites, Dingač and Komarna).

Mr. Rolland began consulting for Saints Hills winery two harvests ago. Mr. Rolland’s mission is to assist Saints Hills – in the vineyard and the cellar – to produce wines for the domestic and international markets that are the best expression of indigenous varieties they represent and the unique terroir represented in each of the three vineyard sites where the grapes grow. 

Saints Hills "Nevina" (blend of Malvasia & Chardonnay)

“Croatia has several positive conditions for wine production. First of all, it’s a fantastic tourist destination. More and more people are traveling to Croatia, and there they are drinking Croatian wines, which is the best publicity. Once they return home, these tourists will talk about their Croatian wine experience. Secondly, the wines are original and should be in the international market. For international buyers there is always a curiosity factor, because people like new wines from new places. Of course, the bottle should contain good wine!” Rolland explained.

Mr. Rolland said that marketing and positioning will play a key role in the international market, which will very quickly define the price it is willing to pay for Croatian wines.

photo courtesy of Vinistra

“Croatia’s baseline market is Croatia, which is also a very beautiful environment in which to promote wine”, concluded Rolland.

(Born in 1947, Michel Rolland is the world’s leading wine consultant and enologist. He has 100 clients in 13 countries and is known for his unique style of consultation in the world of viticulture and winemaking.)  

 

 

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

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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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Newly planted vineyards in Dalmatia. Photo by Cliff Rames

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

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

Export of Croatian Wine

2004 = 52.802hl

2006 = 31.311 hl

2008 = 28.564 hl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Steven Spurrier at LIWF. Photo courtesy of Ernest Tolj

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

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A Report From Vinistra (PART II)

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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!

 

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A Report from Vinistra (PART I)

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

 

17 must be a lucky number. Not only was the 17th annual Vinistra wine expo considered by many attendees to be one of the best ever. It was also my first time in attendance. How lucky can you get!?

 

Held April 29 – May 2, 2010 in Poreč, Croatia, Vinistra (http://vinistra.com/) is the annual wine expo organized by the eponymous regional association of winegrowers and winemakers. Founded in 1994, Vinistra currently has over 100 members, making it the largest membership-driven association in Croatia that represents a regional body of wine producers.  Vinslavonija? Vindalmacija? Not yet….

photo courtesy of Vinistra

The 17th Vinistra wine expo featured 130 exhibitors and 535 wines, of which 215 were wines produced from Malvazija Istarska (Malvasia Istriana), the local indigenous grape which accounts for the majority of white wine production in the region. The other “signature” wine of the region is Teran, made from the red Teran grape, thought to be closely related to but genetically distinct from Italian Refosco.

 

To my freshman eyes, the array of sites, sounds, aromas, flavors and other sensual delights on display at Vinistra – such as olive oils, cheeses and fig products – were irresistible and amazing. I was in heaven!

 

While it was impossible to note every detail and visit every stand at Vinistra, I can offer some general information, observations and opinions – some of which were made after hours of continuous swirling, sipping, tasting and swallowing (for some reason, call it “the spirit of the moment”, I did not strictly abide by my no-swallow rule. Combined with the jet lag, I may have distorted or missed a few things…).

 

The Opening Ceremony

April 29, 2010, around 13:00. The Istrian sun was blazingly hot, especially for those of us standing under it in suits and ties. It all started with the obligatory singing of “Lijepa Nasa” by a lovely girl in a red dress. By the time the obligatory speeches began, most people around me had broken out into a noticeable sweat and were patting brows with handkerchiefs. Yet given the recent downpours, water spouts and flooding in Istria, I guess we got lucky. 

 

Regarding the opening ceremony, there are two things of note:  

1) Missing from the official opening ceremony was a vital member of the planned delegation, Croatian Minister of Agriculture Petar čobanković. His absence significantly dampened the overarching hopes that the Ministry would be inspired by Vinistra to take a more proactive role in the promotion and marketing of Croatian wines.  

photo courtesy of Vinistra

2) Ivica Matošević, who is the current president of Vinistra, did not give a speech or make welcoming remarks at the opening ceremony, even though he was standing near the microphone. I was disappointed. Mr. Matošević is a very charming, witty and iconic figure among Croatian winemakers, and I was looking forward to hear his remarks, especially in light of the apparent snub by the Minister of Agriculture.   

The Venue

The expo was housed in the Žatika Sport Centre, a relatively new multi-purpose facility near the town center in Poreč. The expo hall was brightly lit and festive, with red the dominating color and giant grape-cluster-shaped balloons hanging from the ceiling – a memorable and endearing touch.

 

Off to the sides of the main hall were small conference rooms, where the organizers of Vinistra conducted various seminars and workshops – including a round table discussion centered on the theme of the “International Branding of Croatian Wines” (see below).

 

While we are on the subject of the Venue, there is one more thing I must mention:

The Dust: Okay, this is silly but worth mentioning: Leading to the steps of the Žatika Sports Hall is a long pedestrian promenade that seemed mismatched with the sleek, shining metal sides of the building. Instead of an equally pristine walkway of concrete or asphalt, the hall’s promenade was laid with crushed stone and gravel that was heavily interspersed with white, chalky dust. This dust, to the dismay of many of Vinistra’s well-appointed visitors, had a penchant for clinging to clothing and shoes. It was especially visible on dark surfaces like the once-shiny black shoes I was wearing.

As proof of my accusation against the dust, I offer the following evidence: a photo of Croatian president Ivo Josipović. Now, I’m not certain of the president’s every move during his short stay at Vinistra, but I couldn’t help but notice the incriminating white ring around the bottom of his shoes in this picture:     

photo courtesy of Vinistra

The Round Table

While there were several mini-seminars and round table discussions during Vinistra, the highlight was on Friday, April 30, when a comprehensive discussion about the “International Branding of Croatian Wines” was held for the public & press. Again, the presentation was designed to adress the Minister of Agriculture and other key government officials in the hope that they would become motivated and create a government-sponsored wine marketing board. As I previously noted, these key individuals did not show up. But it was a solid discussion that was well-covered by the press, so hopefully the message was transmitted beyond the walls of the meeting room.  

photo courtesy of Jutarnji List

For more information about the round table discussion, please see our previous post:  https://winesofcroatia.wordpress.com/2010/05/12/vinistra-2010-round-table-international-branding-of-croatian-wine/)

Another fascinating seminar was conducted by Croatian wine writer and consultant, Saša Špiranec, about the aging potential of Malvazija Istarska. Mr. Špiranec comparatively tasted Malvazija from a number of different vintages going back to 2000 from several different producers in search of the sweet spot – the age and wood-treatment (oak versus acacia) that best delivered Malvazija’s true potential.

My hands-down favorite in the comparison was the Kozlović 2001 Santa Lucia Malvazija, a coupage of wine ages in oak, acacia and stainless steel that showed beautiful oxidized notes of orange candy, vanilla, dried flowers, caramel and honey. 

 

(to be continued…)

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VINISTRA 2010 Round Table: INTERNATIONAL BRANDING OF CROATIAN WINE

Presentation by Cliff Rames, Wines of Croatia, on Friday, April 30, 2010 at Vinistra in Poreč, Croatia.  (Note: this is the complete presentation, presented here for posterity. Not everything in the presentation was articulated at the round table due to technical issues with the slide projector.)

photo courtesy of Jutarnji List

INTRODUCTION – the Time is Now

Anyone who ever has surfed the waves knows: timing is everything. If you don’t catch the wave at the right moment, it passes you and is gone.

The time is now. The wave has arrived. It is time for Croatia to commit to branding its wines for the international market through a well-funded and professional strategy of promotion, education and branding.

A general rule to keep in mind:

Good Timing + Quality Product + Successful Marketing = Sales $$$$ (helps Croatian economy & sustains wineries)

TIMING

>USA now #3 in wine consumption (hectoliters); wine consumption growing every year.  

>Wine Consumption per capita in USA:

  • 1999: 2.02 gallons (7.65 liters)
  • 2009: 2.50 gallons (9.46 liters)

>10 year growth of 24%.

>Imports account for 31% of total U.S. wine sales.

>Wine sales in U.S. have surpassed beer in total sales $$$.  

>Wine awareness among Americans is growing:

  • Many new wine schools & wine education programs.
  • Many new, young sommeliers.      
  • New sommeliers are thirsty for discovery – wines that are off the beaten path and non-traditional. 
  •                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                >Fastest growing market segment is the 70 million people that make up the “Millennial” generation (Gen X) (age 23 to 30)

    >This group:

    • Is plugged into social networking (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc.)
    • They want to interact with what they are interested in.
    • They seek AUTHENTICITY.
    • They want an excellent quality to price ratio.

    >Gary Vaynerchuck of Wine Library has built on Empire by marketing wine to this group.

    Wine Library TV – Episode #798: Tasting the Wines of Croatia

     

    CHALLENGES TO MARKETING

    1. Croatia is an unknown entity. Most people don’t know where Croatia is or that the country produces wine.  Its native grape varieties and names of producers are hard for non-Croatian speakers to pronounce.

    2. U.S. importers of Croatian wines are small and have limited resources for promotion. Wines are “hand sold” door-to-door without any advertising or marketing budgets. 

     

    POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS 

    1. Expand current promotional activities, implement a marketing strategy, and create a public-private source of funding for promotional activities conducted by Wines of Croatia, Vinistra, Fine Wine Croatia, and others.
    2. Tell Croatia’s wine story. The STORY MUST BE TOLD in a simple, attractive and professional way!

    THE POWER OF THE STORY 

    A. Good Story = Brand Interest

    B. Excellent Quality to Price Ratio  =  Positive Consumer Experience

    A + B = Brand Loyalty

    American market is very democratic; Americans are very brand loyal consumers. Americans appreciate AUTHENTICITY. But they are FICKLE: they know if the product fails them, there are thousands of other choices.

    U.S. consumer expectations:

    1. A Good Story (AUTHENTICITY)

    2. Consistency of Quality

    3. Value (excellent Price to Quality Ratio)

    Important note: “Value” does not have to mean “cheap”; but the wine should have a “WOW factor” – it should be BETTER or MORE INTERESTING for the price than other international wines at the same price.

     **You can have best story in the world, but if product does not deliver positive experience at a VALUE PRICE, then you lose the consumer.

    IMPORTANT TAKING POINTS FOR CROATIA’S STORY 

    1. Croatia has a Wine Heritage & Tradition, which = Authenticity.
    2. Croatia has specific & unique “Terroir”. 
    3. Croatia has Unique Grape Varieties that grow nowhere else in the world.
    4. Croatia has the “Zinfandel Story”.

    A good story should provide details or facts that relate to something the consumer can understand (e.g., the “Zinfandel Story”).

    The STORY must answer the question: Why should I care?

    Then the PRODUCT must deliver the answer to: “Why should I buy this again?”

    A good story must also successfully balance: Romance + IntrigueFacts & Useful Information

    THE TIME IS NOW TO TELL THE CROATIAN WINE STORY!

    Remember:

    Old saying: “A rolling stone gathers no moss”.  

    New saying: “A wine bottle with a great marketing campaign gathers no dust”.

    Wines that have a strategic marketing plan and a well-told story sell better than wines without a support from a wine marketing board. 

     

    A WINE MARKETING BOARD FOR CROATIA? 

    Ideally, any wine marketing board should be a public-private partnership; meaning, partially government (public) funds and partially private (wineries, other vested interests) funds. 

    The model exists; it is not new! Many major wine-producing countries have state-sponsored wine marketing boards:

    Argentina: http://www.winesofargentina.org/en 

    Austria: http://www.austrian.wine.co.at/eindex.html 

    Chile: http://www.winesofchile.org/ 

    Germany: http://www.germanwineusa.com/ 

    Greece: http://www.allaboutgreekwine.com/ 

    Hungary: http://www.winesofhungary.com/ 

    Spain: http://www.winesfromspainusa.com/WFSUSA/WFSUSA.htm

    Even Macedonia! http://www.winemk.com/

    SUPPORT THE TROOPS

    The Wines of Croatia (www.winesofcroatia.com) and Fine Wine Croatia (www.finewinecroatia.com) projects have made some progress, but it is not enough. We need support from the government and wineries to launch a large-scale, professional and well-funded marketing campaign that utilizes various channels of communication, such as:

    >Social Networking/Websites

    >Written and Video Blogs

    >Advertisements in Wine Journals & Websites

    >Organized Tasting Events

    >Sponsored Trips to Croatian Wine Regions for International Sommeliers, Journalists & High-Profile Members of the Trade.  

    THE MARKETING CAMPAIGN 

    Should be:  Smart. Professional. Sustainable.

    Smart: Answers questions; Relates to consumer; Interactive

    Professional: High quality production/publications; Articulate; Attractive

    Sustainable: Seizes the momentum (“catch the wave”); Builds new momentum; Has long-term commitment & strategy.

    It will be hard work, but together we can make it happen. The time is now!

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