An Elixir for the Ages: 1963 Kutjevo Graševina from Croatia

Photos and text by Cliff Rames © 2013

(Note: In the summer of 2012 I was asked to contribute a piece for the next edition of the “Every Wine Tells a Story” book compiled annually by Tara O’Leary. Unfortunately, the book was never published, but here is what I wrote for it, now shared for you here. I hope you enjoy it. ~Cliff)

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THEY SAY THAT LIFE is made up of moments. That at the end when we look back on our individual lives certain fragments of time will blink like stars in a dark sky. That along the timeline of our lives certain small personal interactions or experiences will be recalled with laser clarity: distinct milestones – either meaningful or nostalgic – that we may or may not have noticed at the instant of their occasion.

Every once in a while, a lucky wine lover will encounter a certain vino that changes the game, shifts the boundaries of perception, and leaves one stunned, mystified… Gaping like a beached fish, overwhelmed by the mysteries of the universe, by the inexplicable ways that wine evolves in the bottle. A wine that transcends this world and dispatches the drinker’s consciousness into a parallel dimension where muses enlighten, angels and deities celebrate, and the sands of time flow not to make us old but to revive us with revelations and new discoveries.  

In 2012, I had the honor of being visited by one such wine – a 1963 Graševina “Arhivsko vino” (archive wine) from the Kutjevo winery (a historic bastion of cellared treasures in the Slavonia region of Croatia) on two separate and equally memorable occasions: once at the winery, and subsequently at a vertical tasting workshop of aged graševina wines called “Wine of Grace” at the Zagreb Wine Gourmet Weekend in Croatia.

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Tasting the same wine on two separate occasions did not diminish the profundity of my experience but reaffirmed it. Indeed both encounters left me paralyzed in awe, helpless to summon my professional sommelier training to conduct a point-by-point assessment and expound pretentiously upon the wine’s merits and misdemeanors.

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Instead I sat there dreamy-eyed, slack-jawed and loose-limbed, struggling to suppress the urge to whimper and weep like a baby. Lost in this dumbfounded comprehension of the implications associated with being touched by such a wonder of creation, I yielded to its mysteries and allowed myself to be absorbed.

Forty-nine years of dormancy and leisure in a mold-crusted cellar deposited a patina of fossilized dust and organic matter on the bottle, cloaking it in ash-colored velvet. I watched with mixed emotions (excitement, sorrow, anticipation, unworthiness) as the bottle was opened, revealing a cork that was amber and black with age, ripe and moist.

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What emerged from within was a beautiful liquid genie: older and wiser, perhaps, but no less enchanting with sultry hues of gold, a brilliant clarity and regal structure. Now exhumed from her confines, this “wine of grace” released – or rather, bestowed upon us like a cherished, granted wish – an alluring, continuously unfolding tapestry of rich aromas: honey, roasted nuts, candied citrus peels, autumn bouquet, buttered forest mushrooms, something akin to apricot cobbler….

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Ensconced as I was in such a blissful stupor – sniffing, swirling, marveling – I quietly flipped back pages of history. Over the decades in which the 1963 Graševina laid still in the damp darkness of its lonely old cellar in Kutjevo,  the world outside the cold stone walls was bustling, with many things coming to pass: my parents’ marriage; my birth; Beatle Mania; the deaths of Elvis and John Lennon; the Vietnam war; Jimi Hendrix’s ascent to guitar god; Watergate; Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong; the heady days of Led Zeppelin; the ’69 Mets; the first Apple computer; Disco; mullet haircuts; Jaws; the Space Shuttle; Michael Jackson’s lifetime; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the break-up of Yugoslavia and the war in Croatia; Seinfeld; cell phones and smart tablets; the Millennium; September 11th; endless wars in the Middle East; Facebook and memes; the unrealized Mayan prophesies; the first African-American U.S. president…..

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Like wrinkles and wisdom, history was now woven into the wine’s fabric. While graševina is not a wine noted for its noble pedigree or ability for long-term aging, the 1963 from Kutjevo winery decisively dispelled any generalized notion about the inability of certain white wines to age. Barely frayed or faded, it was clearly still a living thing, delivering layer upon layer of rich texture, exotic nuance, and vibrant character.

I was not the only one to notice. Judging by the reflective silence and mesmerized faces of those with me, the moment in time we collectively shared while in the throes of vinous enlightenment was truly an enchanting and unforgettable experience.

Judith Burns of Pacta Connect ponders the 1963.
Judith Burns of Pacta Connect ponders the 1963.

A wine of such grace and rarity may not come our way everyday. But if you ever have the opportunity to discover an older vintage or indulge in a unique bottle of some strange varietal wine from a far-off land, please don’t miss it. The experience may turn out to be one of those moments in life that you will treasure forever.

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IF THIS WINE were a celebrity it would be Meryl Streep: an actress of such grace and charm who grows more lovely, sophisticated and relevant with age. Like Mona Lisa on canvass, on screen Meryl shines with just the right balance of profundity, grace and sass, coddling the soul, providing comfort to the heart, and stoking the fires of imagination – all this while defying the ravages of time with her elegant poise, child-like charms and timeless beauty. (Note to Meryl: I still have one more bottle of the 1963 Kutjevo Graševina in my cellar. Stop by anytime. I’d be happy to open it for you.  🙂 )

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A Report from the 2011 Zagreb Wine Gourmet Festival – Part 1

Text & Photos (unless otherwise noted) Copyright © Cliff Rames

Much has already been written and posted about the 35th Annual Zagreb Wine Gourmet Festival (ZWGF), held February 24-25 in Zagreb, Croatia, but a little more attention for such an important and well-attended event can’t hurt.  So, without further adieu, and recognizing that the window for timely discourse is quickly closing, here are a few short observations from the ZWGF, presented here for posterity and – hopefully – your enjoyment.

[In full disclosure, I must state here that the organizers of ZWGF funded my trip to Zagreb. In return, I agreed to be a presenter at a round table discussion regarding the international potential and marketing of Croatian wines (see below). 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 Organizers & Sponsors

At several points during the two days I spent at ZWGF, I unexpectedly found myself being asked by a number of  guests to explain who had organized the event.

Apparently, this question was the catalyst of some minor confusion, which I suppose is understandable, since most of these guests were non-Croatian speakers who had only recently touched down in Zagreb for the first time. Since many of them knew me as the chap behind Wines of Croatia, and ZWGF was clearly not a “Wines of Croatia” event, then the question of who did organize ZWGF was somewhat reasonable.

So, here’s the story: ZWGF was sponsored by a consortium of public/private partners, some of which were government ministries and agencies, along with a few private corporations.

To their credit, the organizers DID print a list of the sponsors and partners on the back cover of the official ZWGF program booklet. The primary sponsors included: The Croatian Ministry of Tourism; the Ministry of Agriculture; the City of Zagreb; the Tourist Office of the City of Zagreb; the Croatian National Tourism Board; Privredna Banka Zagreb; PBZ Card – American Express; and Generali Insurance. Media sponsors were Gloria and Jutarnji List. More information can be gathered at the festival’s website.

As for the grueling work of actually organizing such a monumental event, that job went to Laniva d.o.o. “1001 delicija” and in particular, the dynamic duo of Ingrid Badurina Danielssson and Irina Ban, who also received assistance from sommelier Željko Bročilović Carlos. Without doubt, the task of organizing such a large event was surely enormous.

Ingrid Badurina Danielssson (left)

While there were a few minor glitches and complaints to be found here and there, in general the event was well executed and presented. The sheer number of Croatian winemakers, wines, international guests, break-out sessions, and visitors could have easily overwhelmed a less capable team. Bravo to you, Ingrid, Irina and Željko!

 The Gala Dinner

To celebrate the official start of the festival, about 200 invited guests gathered on the evening of February 24, 2011 in one of the stunning ballrooms on the 17th floor of the Westin Zagreb hotel for the Gala Dinner. Large glass windows provided us a bird’s eye view over the Zagreb skyline and added to the festive spirit of the occasion, and the selection of amuse-bouche appetizers prepared by Chef Deniz Zembo of Le Mandrać restaurant set the stage for a an evening of culinary exploration and delight.      

Photo courtesy of Siniša Škaberna

The 5-course dinner was a classy, delicious affair full with delicacies and dishes prepared by a stellar team of chefs from Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, France (via the French Mission to the International Organizations, Vienna), and Sweden, each presenting one of the courses.

The detailed list of chefs and the full menu with wines are available here.

“Stracotto” of Boškarin Beef

 My favorite dish of the night was the “Stracotto” of Boškarin Beef with a potato and truffle cream, served with a whole salted, roast onion. This fabulous dish was prepared by Chef Robert Perić of LF Catering in Pula, Croatia, and was notable for two reasons:

1)     Boškarin beef is an ancient, protected breed of ox native to the Istria region of Croatia. The animal is marked by long, lyre-shaped white horns and a huge, thick neck. Once a beast of burden used to pull plows, modernized farming and an impure gene-pool nearly drove the ox to extinction (in 1994, there were only 112 remaining animals). Luckily, swift action by an alliance of Istrian cattle breeders and government agencies saved the Boškarin, and the ox is making a comeback as an indigenous agro-tourism curiosity and source of flavorful, “slow food” meat from animals raised on mother’s milk and Istrian meadow grass.

Boškarin ox on a Croatian stamp (photo courtesy of http://www.posta.hr)

 2)     The whole salted roast onion (see photo above). What a curious creation! The onion was roasted in its skin, dusted with a crackle of sea salt, and served with the skins still attached. It was the most unusual, profoundly scrumptious thing that I tasted in recent memory.    

The ONE criticism of the night (and I am not the only one who was disturbed by this fact) is this: Only three of the six wines that were paired with the appetizer and 5-course dinner were from Croatia. The other three were Italian.

Being the certified wine hound that I am, I normally would not mind being served a little Franciacorta sparkling wine or Italian red with dinner, and the Italian selections were certainly tasty.

But here’s the issue: This was the Gala Dinner for the Zagreb Wine Gourmet Festival, attended by some of Croatia’s most important winemakers, members of the government, President Josipović (see below), and – more importantly – international VIP guests who were there to discover what all the chatter about wines from Croatia is about. Yet there they were, being served Italian Chardonnay with the artichoke and scampi risotto, and (gasp!) Feudo Antico-Abruzzo rosso with the proudly Istrian Boškarin beef entreé (instead of, let’s say, a nice Istrian Teran).

Forgive me, but really – it should have been an all Croatian wine line-up. Why so many worthy Croatian wines were passed over for the wine pairing in favor of Italian wines, we’ll probably never know. But it’s missteps like this that make the difficult job of promoting Croatian wines in the world even harder. To make others believe that Croatian wines are fabulous and worth seeking out, we Croatians have to believe it first – and shout it from the mountain tops at every opportunity!   

The Gala Dinner Gang at Table 3 (photo courtesy of Siniša Škaberna)

 Thankfully, my stellar line-up of companions at Table #3 distracted me from dwelling too long on this missed opportunity to showcase Croatian wines with world-class cuisine. “Thank you” to Ivica Matošević, Moreno DeGrassi, Frank Dietrich, Stetson Robbins, Daniel Pedisich, Dee Radovich, and Siniša Škaberna for being such great dinner companions! It was a blast!  

 President Josipović

At one point during the dinner reception, there was a commotion in the room, and I turned to see Croatian president Ivo Josipović standing about two meters away from me, with a flute of Franciacorta poised in hand.

the back of President Josipović's head

Having never met the president before, it seemed like a good time to thank him for his symbolic support of initiatives by Croatian winemakers to garner government funding for wine marketing activities.

Disregarding any obvious or implied protocol, I began the difficult task of elbowing my way over to him, smiling at a few security agents on the way. The president (I noticed) was being chaperoned by the indomitable Ingrid Badurina, who (happily for me) noticed that I was circling about, vying for the president’s attention; she halted him with a tug on the elbow and introduced me (thank you, Ingrid!).

 It was obvious that the president’s mind was a million miles away, occupied with complex Affairs of the State – or perhaps a particularly lifting refrain from some distant piano concerto (he’s a classically trained pianist and composer). I quickly spit out a few words to draw his attention to the herculean task of promoting Croatian wines in the world. He nodded and smiled, murmured a few words of understanding and support, took my card, glanced at it, and stuck it in his pocket. Then in a blur he was whisked away by another guest (who surely needed to advise him on more urgent matters of the homeland).

 So it goes.

 Wine of the Year

The gala dinner program included a number of small side events, one of which was the announcement and presentation of the “Wine of the Year”. This year’s award went to the Tomić 2007 Plavac Mali “barrique”, a red wine made by winemaker Andro Tomić, whose vineyards and winery are on the southern Dalmatian island of Hvar.

Tomić accepting his prize for "Wine of the Year"

End of Part 1. Part 2 will follow very soon. Stay tuned!