Wine Wanderlust: 7 Tour Operators in Croatia

Text and photos by Cliff Rames © 2015

It’s inevitable this time of year. Suddenly you notice passenger planes and the drift of jet trails among the clouds. You linger a bit longer than usual in daydreams. Bird songs awaken dormant desires to let loose and fly. You pine; an unsettled, almost haunting feeling settles in your breast. Call it an itchiness of the soul. You sense subliminal messages embedded in the whispers of warm breezes, summoning you: Go, they say. Make plans. Travel!

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Paul McCartney once sang of this condition: “Light out, wanderlust…help us to be free…light out, wanderlust…head us out to sea…what better time to find a brand new day…oh, wanderlust away…”

And just as dandelions and pollen are harbingers of the season, so too are the numerous emails that arrive in my mailbox, sent by intrepid people bitten by the wanderlust bug. Any recommendations for winery visits, they ask. Best wine regions to explore in Croatia? Suggestions for wine tour operators?

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Reflections on the 2012 Zagreb Wine Gourmet Weekend – Part I

By Cliff Rames © 2012

Once there was a Big Bang. The resulting release of energy and matter went hurling out into the dark undeveloped universe, where it swirled around aimlessly for a while. Eventually these building blocks organized themselves into neat systems where Life could take root. Order was created. Man was born. Grapevines grew. The hand of Man eventually discovered how to make wine from grapes. An industry arose and prospered. Festivals and expositions unveiled the many ways Man could pay homage to and revel in the magic of wine. Glasses were raised in salute (or is that “salut”?) and song.

In the living yet still nascent system of Croatian wine festivals, three entities eventually emerged as the reigning forces for vinous celebration. Call them the Big Three: Vinistra; the Dalmatia Wine Expo; and the Zagreb Wine Gourmet Weekend.

Founded in 1994 as a platform to showcase the wines from the Istria region of northern coastal Croatia (particularly malvasia istriana), Vinistra is by far the most mature, successful and important wine festival in Croatia. Each year it attracts even greater numbers of international visitors and hundreds of producers (not just from Istria). This year Vinistra will be held May 11-13, 2012 in Porec, Croatia.

The youngest and self-proclaimed “most charming” festival is the Dalmatia Wine Expo. Having just concluded its second annual presentation, the DWE is the only significant wine festival in the Dalmatia region of coastal Croatia, held each April in the lovely seaside town of Makarska. While showcasing a series of seminars, workshops and over 150 producers of wine, olive oil and other delicacies, DWE is (for now) the least “international” of the three events, seemingly more focused on regional participation and raising the standard of quality wine awareness among domestic consumers and home-grown hospitality professionals (which is actually a very good thing, but that’s another subject for another time).

Throughout Croatia a smattering of other smaller, regional wine festivals – such as PosaVina and the Festival Graševine – are equally passionate about presenting their local wines and culinary specialties but none have yet to wield any influence or gain international attraction.

(photo by Cliff Rames)

Only four years old, the Zagreb Wine Gourmet Weekend is quickly and forcefully establishing itself as a primary contender for the most “international” and perhaps most important wine festival in Croatia. Not a regional presentation, ZWGW has smartly positioned itself to be the Place where Croatian wines from all wine-producing regions of Croatia can be showcased and put in context alongside quality wines from neighboring countries and better-known regions such as Bordeaux and Napa Valley. The organizers also take great care to invite international journalists, bloggers, and VIP wine professionals from important foreign markets.

(photo by Cliff Rames)
(photo by Cliff Rames)

This year’s Zagreb Wine Gourmet Weekend was held April 13-15, 2012 and featured over 130 producers of wine, olive oil and other delicacies representing over 200 premium brands. Croatian wineries of course formed the majority of exhibitors, with nearly 70 producers on hand and every Croatian winemaking region represented. Most were pouring their new vintages, although treats could be found on occasion as some winemakers discreetly offered older vintages. Frano Miloš, a poet winemaker from the Pelješac peninsula, made me quiver when he poured me a taste of his 1994 Stagnum Plavac Mali, a wine that beautifully debunked some theories that Plavac Mali is incapable of long-term aging.

Frano Miloš (left)

Interspersed throughout the tasting halls was an impressive assortment of other regional and international wine producers from countries such as Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Italy, Austria, France and South Africa. A half dozen or so distributors were also present.

Let the tasting begin! (photo by Cliff Rames)
(photo by Cliff Rames)

The Organizers

While the brains and brut behind ZWGW is the dynamic team comprised of Dražen Lazić, Festival Director; Tomislav Ricov, Vice President of the Organizing Committee, Ingrid Badurina Danielsson, who was last year’s ZWGW director and has now taken on the role of Director of International Relations, and Irina Ban, International Public Relations Manager.

Official responsibility for the organization went to Digitel Group, a Zagreb-based marketing and communications firm. You can read more about the ZWGW organizers and official partners in this press release.

This year’s event was obviously a massive undertaking and logistical nightmare, and an event of this magnitude is bound to suffer from hiccups and oversights. But in general I give Digitel and their team high marks for a pretty enjoyable festival that was marked by just a few glitches. Most complaints that I heard were – like last year – related to the venue.

Glyptotheque building (photo courtesy of ZWGW)

The Venue

The Glyptotheque building of the Academy of Arts and Sciences was an interesting and okay (I think) venue. It is a sprawling old ivy-covered brick building in the upper reaches of the old town in Zagreb, about a 15-minute walk from the city center and Trg bana Josipa Jelačića square. Inside there were many different room on a number of different floors accessible by lots of stairs. At first it was a bit confusing, and I have to admit that I missed some events and tasting rooms because of wrong turns and distractions along the way. But eventually the layout made sense, although I feel that too much time and energy was spent figuring out where to go.

Masterclass with Ivo Jeramaz of Grgich Hills (photo by Cliff Rames)

What made things more confusing was that key seminars and workshops were located in an annexed space at an adjacent shopping mall, the Centar Kaptol. As perplexing as it seems, it is true: discussions of terroir and other high-brow wine topics were occurring in shopping mall conference rooms and a movie theater. To get to these events, one had to navigate escalators filled with shoppers, meander past Fossil and other luxury goods outlets, dodge the lady who was enthusiastically spraying passersby with perfume samples, and resist the café bar with the alluring aroma of fresh brewed expresso.

It was a surreal experience. But I eventually accepted it all and took it as a challenge: Find the seminar. Don’t get lost. See what is behind this door, up those stairs, around that corner….I felt like I was on a treasure hunt, and indeed there were many treasures to be found once I learned to navigate the various levels and locations.  🙂

For what it is worth, my only advice for the organizers would be this: If you decide to hold the 2013 ZWGW at this venue (which is a good idea for the sake of consistency and proximity to the city center and hotels), everyone should receive a more detailed map as part of the welcome package. While this year’s packet did include a color-coded map, it was small and didn’t really give me a good sense of the relationship between the different spaces in terms of distances, direction, and importance. For example, it was not until nearly the end of the festival that I found the hall where the specialty food vendors were located (and by then I was already half-starved). And judging by the low attendance at the panel discussions and seminars held in the movie theater, it seems likely many people either could not find them or didn’t know where they were, being so far removed from the tasting room halls.

(photo by Cliff Rames)

Overall I liked the Glyptotheque venue. It allowed for good flow of the crowds and a diversity of programming (such as a series of wine-related films in the Centar Kaptol movie theaters). Better maps and directions would help to save critical time and hopefully improve attendance at some of the more off-site events.

Food

Maybe it was me. Perhaps I was too busy, too distracted, a little too overly saturated with wine. But I could not find anything to eat at this so-called “wine gourmet” festival. Yes, there were vendors selling fig cakes and hand-made chocolates and rustic cured meats and sea salt. All great stuff! But I needed some wholesome and hearty sustenance. A burger. Soup. Some fried calamari perhaps. Something to ward off the encroaching effects of too much wine.

This week I attended the Wine Spectator magazine “Grand Tour 2012” gala tasting in New York City, where over 200 of the world’s finest wines were flowing. At the back of the main tasting hall was a large area full with buffet tables: cheeses, prosciutto, braised short ribs, grilled vegetables, gnocchi in a tomato cream truffle sauce, Asian dumplings….You get the picture. Where there is much wine, there must also be much food.

Chocolate!

Perhaps hot food vendors should be allowed to set up stands and sell their products at the next ZWGW? Just an idea to consider…. I know I would have happily stopped in between tastings and seminars to pay a few Kunas for a quick bite of something substantive to eat.

You?

(to be continued…)

(photo by Cliff Rames)

Wines of Croatia News Round-Up for March 18, 2012

In case you missed anything, here is a round-up of the latest links to the news articles, blog posts and videos that highlighted Croatia, its wine or wine culture.

1. The Image Pantry.com: On Green Lycra, German Riesling and Other Fashion Victims

March 4, 2012

A review of Bolfan Primus Riesling, included in the Image Pantry’s round-up of “some of the best rieslings central Europe has to offer”. 

2. Grape Experiences: Wine Blogs I Actually Read and You Should Too

March 5, 2012

The Wines of Croatia blog makes the Grape Experiences list of five wine blogs that should be followed.

3. Istria Travel.com: Baptising Wine Among Other Things

March 5, 2012

The Clumsy Traveler learns about colorful local traditions in Istrian wine country.  

4. Total Hvar.com: Where is the Largest Island Vineyard in the Mediterranean?

March 6, 2012

A report about the new Plančić vineyard on Hvar that will eventually produce 2 million bottles of Plavac Mali and Bogdanuša.

5. The Croatian Times.com: Croatian Wines Appreciation Growing on German and UK Markets

March 7, 2012

New data about Croatia wine exports to Europe.

6. Gourmand Awards News: World Cookbook Awards Winners

March 7, 2012

Croatia’s premier food & wine magazine, Iće & piće (“Eat & Drink”) wins Third Place in the “Book & Trade Magazine” category (Page 81 on the slide show) at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.

7. Thirst for Wine: Tonight’s Croatian Wine – Thanks to Mountain Valley Wines

March 8, 2012

U.K. wine writer, Robert McIntosh, reviews Pelješac Plavac Mali 2010.

8. The Daily Meal.com: Wine Tasting in Croatia

March 9, 2012

A hop across Croatia to visit some of its wineries on “the road less traveled in Europe”.  

9. IWINETC.com: All Aboard the Orient Express to Zagreb’s Regent-Esplanade for IWINETC 2013

March 10, 2012

Wine Pleasures.com announces that the 5th edition of the International Wine Tourism Conference and Workshop will be held in Zagreb, Croatia in March 2013.

10. Pacta Connect Blog: Tasting Istrian Malvazija

March 12, 2012

As the season of Malvasia Istriana (Malvazija istarska) begins, the team from Pacta Connect provides this primer about Istria’s flagship wine and recommends a few producers for your drinking pleasure.  

11. Total Hvar.com: 21st Century Planting Planting Planting

March 12, 2012

A report about Hvar winemaker Andro Tomić’s Bastijana vineyards expansion project.

12. Istriaficionado.com: Giorgio Clai of Istria Nominated as Wine-Newcomer of the Year by Der Feinschmecker

March 12, 2012

A report about Istrian biodynamic winemaker Giorgio Clai being nominated by German lifestyle magazine Der Feinschmeker as “Newcomer of the Year” in the Wine Awards 2012 competition.

13. Wines of Croatia Blog: Blood from Stone: Stina Wine from Brač – Best New Label Design

March 16, 2012

This new wine label design from JAKO VINO Winery really caught our eye. Find out why.

14. Balkan Travellers.com: Croatian Wine for Beginners

March 18, 2012

A repackaged and republished introduction to Croatian wines by Austrian wine writer, Peter Moser.

P.S. We love to hear from you!

If you have comments or other news to share, please comment on this post or email us at info@winesofcroatia.com

 

News Bulletin: Vinistra to Host the First “En Primeur” Tasting of Malvasia Wine in Croatia

 

As part of an ongoing series of events leading up to the 19th annual Vinistra wine expo in May 2012, the Association of Winegrowers and Winemakers of Istria  (Vinistra) announced the first-ever “en primeur” degustation of young Malvasia Istriana (Malvazija istarska) wines from the 2011 vintage.

The en primeur event will be held on Monday, February 13, 2012 at the Regent Esplanade hotel in Croatia’s capital city, Zagreb. It will be open to the trade from 2pm till 4pm and to the public from 4pm till 7pm.

This historical first en primeur exploration of the 2011 Malvasia Istriana vintage will provide members of the trade – such as sommeliers, wine buyers, restaurateurs, and chefs – with the opportunity to assess the potential of the vintage and help facilitate their investment in the wines.

With the example set by this type of event, Vinistra also hopes to further raise the profile and credibility of the Association as a leader of innovative and creative programs that showcase the region’s best wines, terroir and lifestyle.

Ivica Matosević

“The focus of Vinistra has always been on new, innovative and straightforward ways to promote Istrian winemakers and the Istrian way of life”, said Ivica Matosević, president of Vinistra. “I think that with this new approach we can help raise the bar for all the other Croatian wine regions and ensure that we keep pace with the international wine scene.”

Thirty-six Istrian wineries are scheduled to participate and pour their 2011 Malvasia wines, including Agrolaguna, Agroprodukt, Franc Arman, Marijan Arman, Benvenuti, Capo, Cattunar, Commot, Coronica, Cossetto, Damijanić Robi, Damjanić Ivan, Degrassi, Devalentinis, Ferenac, Geržinić, Kabola, Kalavojna, Kozlović, Legović, Matić, Matošević, Meneghetti, Pilato, Poletti, Prodan, Radovan, Ritoša, San Tommaso, Sirotić Dario, Tercolo, Tomaz, Trapan, Vinobile, Vino P&P, and Vivoda.

To register for the en primeur tasting, please go to the Vinistra website or follow this link.

Croatia Scores with Feature Story in Wine Enthusiast Magazine

 

For the first-time ever, Croatia finds itself featured in a prominent mainstream U.S. wine magazine.

Wine Enthusiast, one of the leading wine journals in the English language, published three articles in the September 2011 print and online issues, all dedicated to Croatia and its wines, food culture, and appeal as a travel destination.

The September issue, which pronounces Croatia as “An Historic Wine Lovers Paradise” on the cover page, also includes reviews of 16 Croatian wines, as well as hotel, restaurant and winery recommendations by region.

Encompassing seven full-color pages (in the print edition), the lead story by Wine Enthusiast Contributing Editors, Lifestyle & Entertaining, Mike Desimone and Jeff Jenssen (AKA: World Wine Guys) is entitled “Croatia – In Living Color”.

In the article the Wine Guys detail their “journey from north to south along the Adriatic coast”, which they describe as an “underexplored jewel by the sea” that “offers rich history, splendid scenery and epicurean delights—starting in Istria, and then down the Dalmatian Coast, with its 1,000 islands”.

The online version of the magazine offers two additional articles. The first is written by Desimone and Jenssen and is called “Exploring Croatia”.

The article provides detailed hotel, restaurant and winery recommendations based on Desimone’s and Jenssen’s experience while traveling in Croatia in October 2010, when they spent a week visiting Croatia’s capital city, Zagreb, as well as Istria and Dalmatia on the coast – regions they described as “a wine and food lover’s paradise”.

The online version of Wine Enthusiast contains a third article by Kristin Vuković with the mouth-watering title, “Consuming Croatia” highlighting some of the “gastronomical delights” one can experience in Croatia. Inside you’ll find two scrumptious recipes, one for Palačinke (Croatian crêpes) and one for Grilled Mediterranean Branzino with Blitva (Sea Bass with Chard).

Kristin’s yummy recipes are matched with wine pairing suggestions by Certified Sommelier and founder of Wines of Croatia, Cliff Rames.

Wine Enthusiast is a wine magazine, so let us not forget the best part: the wines! The September issue contains scores for 16 Croatian wines in its Buying Guide, including labels from Agrolaguna, Belje, BIBICh, Dingač Winery, Grgić, Iločki Podrumi, Istravino, Korta Katarina, Matošević, and Piližota. All wines were reviewed by Wine Enthusiast Tasting Coordinator, Anna Lee Iijima.

Six of the best-scoring wines are highlighted in the magazine under the headline, “Top Wines of Croatia”. Most notably, two wines were awarded 90-points: Grgić Vina 2009 Pošip and Korta Katarina 2006 Plavac Mali.

 

If you can, we strongly recommend that you pick-up a copy of the September issue and read all about it. Or check it out online (links embedded above). May we also suggest that when you open this historic issue of Wine Enthusiast, you raise your favorite glass of Croatian wine. It is certainly a time to celebrate!

They say that every journey begins with a single step. The publication of these three articles may have been one small step for Wine Enthusiast magazine, but it was a giant leap for the Croatian wine industry.

From this new height the stars on which so many dreams are planted today seem a little closer. To reach them will require much more hard work, a smart and effective marketing strategy, and new investment in people, ideas, tools and material. Beyond the star that is Wine Enthusiast magazine lie many more stars, solar systems and galaxies. Collectively they form the heavens.

Do we have what it takes to get there?

One additional note: We applaud Korta Katarina Winery for having the foresight and business savvy (and resources) to recognize an opportunity. The winery invested some serious cash to purchase a full-page color advertisement in the September issue for its 2010 Rosé. Readers of the magazine – who may feel compelled to seek out a Croatian wine or two – will in the preceding pages notice a very juicy ad for an excellent Croatian Rosé – one that just happens to be available in the U.S. and other export markets.

With that, Korta Katarina became the first Croatian winery to advertise in a mainstream American wine magazine. The bar has been raised; let us strive to leap higher still!

(photos by Cliff Rames)

A Waltz through Wines of Croatia History: A Tweet Heard by No One

Text by Cliff Rames, © 2011

Some of the greatest vineyards on the planet were once just humble fields or plots of undeveloped land, fallow and overgrown with brush, or planted with generic crops or fruit trees. Others were once cattle ranches or sheep pastures, moonscapes or volcano slopes.

Moonscape (photo by Cliff Rames)

It takes an open mind, some vision, a willingness to dream, and the stamina to work hard (as well as the capacity to risk much) for a person to be able to look at a parched and barren scrape of dessert, an overgrown plot of scrub brush, or a steep, craggy hillside and say: I can make great wine here.

(photo by Cliff Rames)

While I didn’t realize it at the time, I first cast eyes over the landscape of my future “vineyard” in 1989, when I was an exchange student at the University of Zagreb in the capital city of Croatia. That landscape emitted subliminal messages in the form of little voices that whispered, “Something is going on here; you should pay attention; this is where you need to be”.

Being young and crazy at the time, I heard the message but didn’t think much of it. There was too many other things going on, places to go, people to meet….

Nonetheless it stuck with me and quietly influenced the paths I chose that would eventually lead me to the Promised Land, that place in mind and soul where suddenly everything makes sense. Call it a vineyard.

Okay, I’m not really talking about a real vineyard (at least not yet). The vineyard I refer to is a metaphorical one: it’s a fertile idea. More practically, it’s a project that started out as a single tweet on Twitter – sent out to no one.

Somehow through the mysteries of social networking, that single seed in the form of a tweet (a “tweed”?) has since grown, spread, and wrapped its tendrils around many trellises in the virtual vineyard. Its clusters of fruit symbolize the final product, the idea-made-real. You know it as Wines of Croatia.

Within that tight cluster are many juicy berries, individual parts of one whole. One berry is this blog. Others include the Wines of Croatia Facebook page, Twitter page, and soon-to-be-launched website.

This metaphorical vineyard is heavy work. But it is a labor of love, born out of discovery, nurtured by the collective family of friends and followers (you!), and propelled forward with anticipation and excitement for each new virtual – and real – vintage.

Yes, its seeds were cast upon the fertile land at a time before I knew anything about vineyards or wine. But as is often the case with farming, you learn as you go, pressing out small bits of knowledge and wisdom from nature, the land, and the wine (as well as many books, classes and visits to real vineyards and winemakers).

(photo by Cliff Rames)

It all began one cool, autumn evening in Zagreb, circa 1989. I was sitting in an outdoor pizzeria (which featured amazingly aromatic wood-fired oven pizzas) with a few other American exchange students. While we each came from widely scattered parts of the United States, our little group shared a common purpose: we were all in Croatia (it was still part of Yugoslavia at the time) as part of a program to learn the Croatian language, culture, political life and history.

But that evening – and in many days and nights afterward – I learned something that was not part of my college syllabus: the joys and wonders of Croatian wines.

(photo by Cliff Rames)

As it happened, my hungry companions that evening noticed my fascination and interest in the local wines and appointed me czar of the wine list and asked me to order our dinner bottle. After a few minutes of pretending that I knew what I was doing, I randomly chose a wine called “Laguna”, a 1986 Merlot from the Istria region along the north coast of Croatia (it had a different label back then, a black one I think).

At the time I knew nothing about the producer (Laguna is presently owned by Agrokor Vina, a conglomerate that produces a wide array of decent and fairly accessible wines) or whether or not this particular wine was well-regarded by “critics”. All I knew that evening was the wine rocked my world.

Unlike some of the astringent, undrinkable and cheap plonk I had come to know – and wreck my stomach with – in college, the Laguna Merlot was so soft, smooth and sultry, with a distinctive sweet black fruit and earthy quality. In my memory, I recall that it was a lighter-style Merlot, translucent and garnet – not opaquely purple like many contemporary Merlot wines.

The pizzeria we were sitting in was one of the best at the time, and I’m sure the pizza was awesome, but I don’t remember it at all. The wine had my full attention. Transfixed by it, I couldn’t get enough. The little specks of sediment at the bottom of my glass fascinated me and added allure, convincing me it was not just another industrial wine but was perhaps a “natural wine” – unfiltered and unadulterated.

(photo courtesy of http://www.moja-kuhinja.com)

Was the wine great? Did it deserve impressive scores and flowery tasting notes? I can’t say. It doesn’t really matter now. To my young and admittedly naïve palate, it was delicious, seductive, memorable, and transformative (and a hit with the group, too).

(photo by Cliff Rames)

It can often take a decade or more to plant and nurture a vineyard to the point where the vines are ready to give juice that is worthy of wine. In my case, it would be another 17 years before I became certified as a sommelier and another three years before I sent out the first lonely Wines of Croatia tweet.  

But wine is a product of patience. What matters to me is this: that evening at the Zagreb pizzeria I became a changed person. My eyes (and palate) were forever opened to the magic and romance of wine.

The landscape of my future vineyard called out. Eventually I listened – and started to dream.

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.