From Istria with Love: Malvazija

By Cliff Rames © 2013

One of the many things that delight me on warm sunny days is the moment I crack open a cold, thirst quenching bottle of white wine, preferably out on a veranda or beach. The way it refreshes and revives my spirit is like daybreak itself. Or a walk in a spring flower garden. Or a tantalizing dip in the cool waters of a favorite lake or sea.

Simple pleasures, for sure. If anyone ever asks you about the meaning of life, you tell them that. It’s all about simple pleasures. And being kind to each other….

Back to wine. There are of course so many delicious bottles from which to choose. Such multitudes in fact that I can never adequately answer that oft-asked (and maddening) question: What is your favorite? Preferences abound for sure, from earthy reds to cheeky rosés to funky orange wines. But when the sultry days of summer strike, white cold n’ crispy is how I like them. Albariño, Chablis, chenin blanc, dry riesling, Sancerre, Santorini, and Vinho Verde are all companions who chill with me on boozy flip-flop days.

(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)

Yet in life there are casual friends who pop in and out of your life, perhaps bringing zippy moments of pleasure, fun and good times. More often than not they are unremarkable encounters that leave no lasting mark. For instance that certain $9 bottle I consumed a few evenings ago. What was it again?

Then there are dear old friends. The proverbial best buds and soul mates. Stalwart bonds that endure through thick and thin in the intimate places of your heart and mind, even when communication and visitations are missed for long periods of time.

Among these old friends I count many Croatian wines. Together we share a sweet history, know each others’ secrets, our moments of silliness and celebration, sadness and humiliation. Side-by-side we’ve experienced triumph and failure, been inspired to laughter and dance, been comforted in tears and heartbreak. And we go on loving each other even when times are tough and bottles get broken.

One of these darlings is malvazija istarska – or malvasia istriana.

Like albariño is to the seaside shores of Galicia in Spain, malvazija is the signature white wine of Istria, an axe-shaped peninsula that slices into the Adriatic Sea along Croatia’s northern coast. Here malvazija vineyards stand like sentinels not far from the rugged, salty shore and then majestically rise up the pastoral highlands of the interior, where they thrive alongside acacia trees, olive groves, and truffle oak forests in the region’s patchwork of red, white, brown and grey soils – each to subtly different effect.

(Map courtesy of istra-zivot.com)
(Map courtesy of istra-zivot.com)

Despite the name that would place the variety among the branches of the very large malvasia bianca family tree, malvazija istarska is specific to Istria, although the variety can also be found in the neighboring Koper appellation in Slovenia, as well as in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia area of Italy.

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Malvazija Istarska

Malvazija ranks as Croatia’s second most planted wine grape variety. Because it has a tendency to over crop, malvazija can yield insipid, uninteresting wines (as was the case for many years during the era of Socialsim). Drought or extreme heat can quickly cause the delicate fruit flavors to mute, sugars to spike and acids to drop, leading to one-dimensional swill best suited for bulk sale or distillation.

But when the weather is right, vineyard management techniques hit the mark, and the terroir tenders its sweet spot, something magical and mystical happens (see Matošević ‘s Magical Mystical Tour of the James Beard House), and malvazija reveals its many charms and depths.

(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)

Often referred to as liquid gold (although some would rightfully argue that the excellent local olive oils share that distinction), malvazija is Istria’s pride and joy, its medal champion, and best hope for international recognition from global wine lovers and foodies. No surprise then that a single vineyard malvazija from Kozlović won Gold and Trophy awards at the 2013 International Wine Challenge, and eight single-varietal malvazija istarska wines from Croatia won medals at the 2013  Decanter World Wine Awards.

decanter 2013-b

In a recent article for the Croatian press, the American food and wine writing duo Jeff Jenssen and Mike DiSimone (aka the World Wine Guys) asserted that the world is ready for malvazija; that the time has come for Istria’s flagship wine to join the ranks of the fabulous and the famous.

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That the Istrians are ready for the world is undisputed. With their own successful technical assistance and marketing association established in 1995, Vinistra, an annual World of Malvazija competition and wine expo, an “Istrian Quality” label designation program for top wines, and a legion of young, talented, innovative and enthusiastic winemakers, it seems inevitable that Istria and malvazija will soon take their rightful places among the stars.

However, Dimitri Brečević, a 34-year old French-Croatian who studied winemaking in Bordeaux before moving to Istria in 2004 to start his own winery and successful Piquentum label, feels that malvazija – as good as it is now – still hides its full potential.

“I would say that we still have a lot of work to do,” he says. “We have to work a lot on vinification to adapt more to this variety, but also we have to learn more about our terroir – particularly the red soils”.

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Dimitri Brečević (right)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)

Brečević also wonders about the potential benefits of blending malvazija with other varieties. “But which one?” he muses. “I am not so sure about chardonnay. I would prefer an old local variety. But we are still working on that. All this research is the price to pay if we want to improve quality and reach world class status”.

When seeking out a malvazija wine a buyer should be aware that styles range from young and fresh to French or Slavonian oak or acacia wood-aged versions, to high alcohol extended skin maceration “orange” wines from producers such as Clai, Kabola, and Roxanich that are cult favorites among some consumers (reportedly these wines pair wonderfully with cigars, a subject advocated each year during a special “Habanos Moments” session at Vinistra).

Cigars and Malvazija (Photo: Cliff Rames)
Cigars and Malvazija
(Photo: Cliff Rames)

Sparkling malvazija wines are also bottled by a handful of producers, most notably one of Croatia’s leading female winemakers, Ana Peršurić.

However, most malvazija produced in Istria is the straight-forward, early-drinking, food-friendly “naked” style that is zesty, moderately alcoholic, sometimes effervescent, and slightly bitter with subdued fruit (apple, apricot), raw almond and acacia flower floral notes, and – in good vintages – distinctly saline and mineral-driven. In other words, perfect alongside summery seafood fare.

Acacia flowers, Istria, Croatia (Photo: Cliff Rames)
Acacia flowers, Istria, Croatia
(Photo: Cliff Rames)

If all of this makes you curious and thirsty, let’s get to the whole point of this article:  Ready or not, Istrian malvazija is already available in many markets around the world.

In the U.S. consumers have access to nearly 10 different labels, including Bastianich Adriatico, Cattunar, Clai, Coronica, Kozlović, Matosević, Piquentum, Saints Hills (blended with Chardonnay), Terzolo, and Trapan.

In the U.K., Pacta Connect offers a number of delicious malvazija wines in its portfolio, including Cattunar, Clai, Gerzinić, Piquentum, and Peršurić.

With the waning days of summer in mind, recently I gathered a few old friends (of the human kind and the malvazija kind) for a soirée of sipping, swirling and pontificating. The bottles were chosen at random based on what I could get my hands on; some are imported to the U.S., others extracted from my private cellar. Below are some notes that I managed to remember.

When drinking malvazija – or any wine – please don’t get bogged down by lofty descriptors and 100-point assessments. Wine deserves better than that. But do sit back, kick up your bare feet, raise your glass and take a sip, and enjoy what the wine has to offer, the stories it has to tell, the memories or images it evokes, and the songs it may sing for you.

In the end, perhaps a few of these beauties will become your friends too. And friends of your friends. And friends of their friends. Before you know it, it’s a party.

So let us go forth as denizens and disciples of the finer things in life, singing and shouting out proclamations of love with mouthfuls of malvazija. Because it’s delicious. And because it’s the next Big Thing – or should be.

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Benvenuti 2010 Malvazija Istarska

Creamy and viscous with a soft yet zesty attack and talcum powder mineral presence, all rounded out with essence of apricot, golden apple, and citrus blossom. Simple style yet pleasant example of white soil malvazija.

Coronica 2011 Istrain Malvasia

Tight, steely and chock full of minerals, this is not malvazija for the masses. Elusive citrus notes wrap around a structured mineral core, surrounded by an aura of blazing acidity. Not for the feint of heart or sufferers of acid reflux. But if you love this style, pair it with grilled sardines, linguini with clam sauce, or raw oysters and you will be very happy indeed.

Degrassi “Bomarchese” 2009 Malazija Istarska

The most aromatic and tropical of the lot. Loads of stone fruit with a hint of gooseberry and orange blossom. Nicely structured with a long finish.

Gerzinić 2010 Malvazija

Leesy and elegant, with notes of Bosc pear, Golden Delicious apple, and honeysuckle. Smooth and refined on the palate, with soft acids, a chalky mineral presence, and a satisfying finish.

Kozlović Malvazija 2012

Clean, crisp and taught with pear fruit and dusty straw followed by a bitter almond finish. A benchmark malvazija – and a great value.

Saints Hills 2010 Nevina

Fermented in small oak barrels and blended with a small amount of Chardonnay. Creamy yet vibrant on the palate with rich notes of ripe Bartlett pear, banana, and butter toasted hazelnuts, all supported on a frame of saline minerality. Elegant and sophisticated yet approachable now.

Terzolo Malvazija Istarska 2010

Zippy and refreshing with crackling acidity and delicate fruit aromas (citrus; starfruit), pungent green notes of cut grass, fig leaf and herbs with a hint of white acacia flowers. Nicely structured with a sharp mineral core of crushed sea shells and metal ore, finishing up with that distinctive bitter almond bite.

Trapan Ponete Malvazija Istarska 2012

Crystalline and refined with delicate, tight notes of dusty pear skins, kaffir lime, apricot, marzipan and acacia flowers. Still young and taught, this is the most polished but perhaps most textbook example of the lot – the closest we’ll come (for now) to mainstream malvazija.

[**For current availability, prices and vintages for the wines mentioned in this article, please check with Blue Danube Wine Co. (Coronica, Piquentum, Saints Hills, Terzolo); CroMade (Cattunar; Matosevic); Dark Star Imports (Bastianich); Louis/Dressner (Clai); Pacta Connect (Cattunar, Clai, Gerzinic, Piquentum, Peršurić); Vinum USA (Kozlović); and Winebow (Trapan).]

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(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Jeff Tureaud)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)

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A Taste of Dalmatia – Without Leaving Home

Croatia’s Plavac Mali grape can be complex, versatile and friendly.

Every once in a while a wine comes along like an old friend and delivers a surprise.  Not a box of chocolates.  Not the phone number of that person you’re in love with but didn’t know how to contact.  And not a mullet-haired photo from your high school days.  But a new insight into something you thought you already knew everything about.

That’s what happened in a New York City wine shop when I exchanged $21 for a bottle of PZ Putnikovici 2007 “Lirica” red wine from Croatia.  While I was familiar with the grape variety, Plavac Mali [a native Croatian red grape that is the offspring of the original Zinfandel – Crljenak Kaštelanski (tsirl-YEN-ak kash-tel-LAHN-skee)], I had never tried this proprietary label from Vinum USA imports.  It felt like adventure time!

Over the years, my extensive drinking experience had taught me that wines from Plavac Mali can manifest themselves in a range of very diverse expressions, from fruitier, sometimes off-dry, food-friendly Cooperative styles to richly extracted, dark and brooding, oak-infused, high-alcohol, tannic creations from single-vineyard sites and boutique wineries.  As I pulled the cork, my mind was drifting through the possibilities: what would I find here?

Plavac Mali grapes, Dingač

The Lirica label provided a clue: most Croatian wines labeled as Plavac Mali – or more simply, Plavac – tend to be simpler, lighter, less tannic, lower in alcohol and lightly oaked – or completely un-oaked.  Happily my Lirica delivered characteristics somewhere in the middle between the two extremes, offering a perfect balance between fruit, food-friendliness and distinctive terroir-infused complexity.

The PZ Putnikovici 2007 “Lirica” Plavac Mali comes from grapes grown on Pelješac, a long, mountainous peninsula that stretches almost 40 miles (63 km) out into the Adriatic Sea just north of Dubrovnik in the Southern Dalmatia wine region of Croatia.

Map of Peljesac, Croatia

Some of Croatia’s most magnificent vineyards – and arguably best red wines – come from Pelješac, especially from the steep, sun-drenched rocky slopes along its southwest and south-facing shores – an area that in ways reminds me of the dramatic hillsides of Portugal’s Duoro Valley, and the Mosel vineyards of Germany, and the roasted slopes of the northern Rhone Valley.

On Pelješac Plavac Mali grapes thrive and reach their pinnacle of perfection, especially in the vineyard areas called Dingač and Postup.  Wines from these two prime wine-growing regions, which total about 80 hectares (200 acres), have been prized for centuries. In fact, in 1961 the Dingač vineyards received protected status under the international Geneva Convention; Dingač is Croatia’s first wine with “protected geographical origin” classification.

The PZ Putnikovici vineyards lie just south of the prestigious slopes of Dingač, facing the pristine Adriatic Sea, with a fabulous view of the island, Mljet.  While the terrain is similar and the climate identical, the Lirica must be labeled as Plavac Mali because its vineyards lie beyond the boundaries of Dingač and Postup.

The Croatian coastline, especially in the central and southern regions of Dalmatia, is one of the Mediterranean basin’s most eco-clean and naturally beautiful vineyard areas.  It is also an area that enjoys a perfect Mediterranean climate, with long, blazingly hot and dry summers followed by relatively short, mild yet windy winters.  This ideal package of sun, sea, soil, geography and climate naturally finds its way into the local gastro and “vinsko” offerings, such as artisanal cheeses, honey, fish, olive oil and of course, wine.

Dingač vineyards

The vineyards of the Dalmatian coast are special and deliver  wild, natural expressions of the region’s terroir: scrub brush, wild rosemary, thyme, curry plant and anise growing between the bleached white stones, perfuming the air; olive and fig trees, their branches full with fruit; and vines perched on impossibly steep hillsides that tumble down into the magnificently blue Adriatic Sea, their leaves shimmering white and green in the summer breeze, their bunches purple and raisined, thick with sugar and must.

It was with these idyllic images in my mind that I considered my glass of Lirica.

One of the first things I noticed about the Lirica was how the saturated color left a ruby residue on the sides of my glass – a sign of something substantive to come.

On the nose, initial fruity notes of fresh-squeezed cherry juice, both black and red, gave way to more complex notes of plum jam, violets, savory rhubarb, roasted herbs and earthy licorice fruit.  A noticeable but fleeting alcoholic vapor (the wine is 14.1% ABV) rose from the glass but quickly blew off, revealing a softer, rounder aroma profile that was sweet and seductive with old world charms: Mediterranean spice jar, sun-ripened black fruits, and an alluring earthiness.   A very pleasant nose; I imagined that its perfume could only get more interesting if it were lightly dabbed behind a lovely lady’s ear….

But I digress…

In my mouth this wine was all about ripe, sweet Morello cherries backed up by a harmony section comprised of dried figs, plums preserves, and a touch of cinnamon stick.  A decisive hint of residual sugar (perhaps a bit too much for my taste) fills out the body and holds the medium-plus acidity in check while maintaining a zippy cherry freshness.  On the finish, the soft, round tannins lingered and co-mingled with a pleasantly long finish that coated my tongue with a viscous perception of sweetness.  Lirica is not oaked, but did spend some time in large old neutral wood vats.

Yes, I really enjoyed this wine.  But let’s also be clear-headed: this is an affordable and somewhat pedestrian expression of Plavac Mali, not a knock-your-socks-off, extreme extraction, multi-layered and densely packed creation that needs years in the cellar to settle down; it will never be granted access to Christie’s auction house.  While Plavac Mali, in the hands of producers such as Bura, Duboković, Korta Katarina, Madirazza, Miličić, Miloš and Plenković can deliver wines that will rock your world, Lirica is simply a focused, easy-drinking and accessible wine that will comfort and please you with its tasty, sophisticated rusticity.

And it’s welcome through the doors of my house anytime….    

Pair this wine with Salumi and cured hams; feta or hard saline cheeses, and roasted sweet red peppers for a true taste of the Mediterranean life.  It’s also a winner with grilled lamb chops, osso buco – and pizza!  I had it with a bowl full of steaming steak strips tossed with Mediterranean vegetables, herbs and pasta, with a big chunk of crusty bread.  Life is good sometimes!

The PZ Putnikovici 2007 “Lirica” Plavac Mali is imported by Vinum USA (www.vinumusa.com) of Madison, NJ and retails between $18-$21.

Full disclosure: I purchased the first bottle of 2007 Lirica, reviewed here; a second bottle was given to me by the importer as a sample and will be opened at a later time in the interest of research to see how the wine progresses in bottle.  

 Photos and text by Cliff Rames, www.winesofcroatia.com