Croatia is a beautiful land. Not many Americans are familiar with the country unless they have Croatian friends and colleagues who introduce them to the wines and foods of Croatia or unless they have heard Lidia Bastianich discuss her Istrian heritage. Istria is in the North-Western section of Croatia. You can be sure when Croatia becomes part of the European Union in July, promotional marketing for the country will abound and you will wish that you had visited before it became incorporated into one of Europe’s most hectic and busy tourist destinations.
Croatia once a territory in the former Yugoslavia, above all is a crossroads. It is where East meets West. It is where the foodie cultures have merged and various fare from surrounding countries have melded to create lovely, distinctive cuisine. It is also where the hot Mediterranean climate meets the cold Alpine climate. And these variations in climate and terroir have produced unique environmental zones that are great for growing a number of grape varietals that for centuries have become acclimated to the unusual growing conditions. As the vines adapted, they grew strong and thrived so that the wines produced from them have a distinct, delicious and discrete flavor that is wholly and unmistakably Croatian. Amazingly, some of the hardy vines are centuries old yet still produce grapes. Indeed Croatian wine production is ancient, dating to a time well before the Roman empire.
Croatia’s beauty from upland mountains to the Dalmatian coast and numerous islands in the Adriatic and Mediterranean is apparent even from stills. The country, now coming into its own, is moving rapidly to innovate and blossom into one of Europe’s most unique treasures. It has positioned itself for a continued prosperity after having gone through the upheavals and cataclysms during and after the fall of Communism, and the troubles leading up to Croatia’s War of Independence. Since 1998 Croatia has been peacefully enjoying its sovereign status as an independent republic, continuing to reconstruct, rebuild and develop its infrastructure, industry and tourism after the devastation of the 1990s.
Threaded all through Croatia’s turbulent history, has been the fabulous wine making culture and the pleasures of experiencing a rich heritage and lifestyle of great food and wine. The Communists could never dampen Croatian wineries’ good wines, but the prevalent socialist concept was quantity over quality, the mass production for mass consumption all over Yugoslavia. Now that the Republic of Croatia has its full lead, the emphasis has changed and the paradigm has shifted to focus on quality fine wines, boutique wineries and fine dining. As the younger generation takes over innovates and implements newer wine making techniques, the wines the country is currently producing will continue to manifest some of the highest quality wines Europe can offer. OMG. Who knew?
Having never been introduced to imported Croatian wine and never having visited Croatia, I consider myself fortunate to have been available to attend the Vina Croatia wine tasting event at the Astor Center. Not only was it fun, but I became educated to some of the best wines coming out of the country, wines which I will look to purchase in the U.S. in the near future. However, it would be even more fun to visit some of the friendly Croatian vintners back in their country where I could go on a wine tour and take the proper amount of time to do wine tastings, coupled with food pairings, as many wineries have restaurants attached to b Dalmatiast demonstrate their delicious wines. Food and wine cannot be appreciated without each other as any gourmand or food and wine lover knows.
During the tasting, I took a few classes to become better educated in the Croatian wine making regions. The first class, “Vina Croatia: Taste the Place” was taught by The Wine Guys, Mike DeSimone an Jeff Jenssen wide travelers and jocund wine writers. The second class, “Beyond Plavic Mali: Croatia’s Other Indigenous Varietal Wines’ was by Cliff Rames, a sommelier who was an expert in Croatian wines. The speakers proved knowledgeable and informative as they lead the tasting through the four wine regions: Dalmatia, Istria and Kvarner, Slavonia and the Croatian Danube and the Croatian Uplands.These regions are further divided into sixteen sub-regions and 66 appellations. Because each sub-region has grape varietals that are only unique and distinct to that region, the wines produced there cannot be gotten anywhere else in the world. These are tastes that are more then special and unique; they are gold. And the Croatians have been enjoying some of these wines for centuries; it is the vino locale they drink with every day meals and the vina for festivals and celebrations. Of course, the clergy have been having a ball for as long as there has been a church, making their own wines and using them for sacramental purposes.
Because you need to go there or go to the next year’s Vina Croatia wine tasting event in New York City or another area of the country, I will just whet your drinking lusts with some of the wines I adored during the classes. From Dalmatia, there are the world heritage wines some of which have been produced on the island of Hvar, get this now, the world’ oldest continuously cultivated vineyard. We are talking about 2,500 y ears of production, folks. No wonder this area is protected by UNESCO. Wonderful red wines I tasted from DALMATIA were the BIBIch R6 2009 (red grape varieties: Babic, Lasina, Plavina) the Babic Vrhunski 2009 (Babic) the Grgic Plavac Mali 2008 (Plavac Mali) Korta Katarina Reuben’s Private Reserve 2007 (Plavac Mali) and three white wines Boškinac Gegic 2011 (Gegic) Korta Katarina Pošip 2010 (Pošip) and Bodren Triptih 2010 (ice wine grape varietals-Müller Thurgau, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc). The pictures below show the grape varietals, both white and red from Dalmatia.
From Lidia’s birthplace, ISTRIA AND KVARNER, the milder climate produces more lush environs than the rocky Dalmatian coast. The grapes that have adapted to this climate are the Malvasia Istriana (white) and Teran varietals (red). White wines I enjoyed were Trapan Malvazija Ponente 2011, Damjanic Malvazija 2001, Nada Zlahtina 2011 (Zlahtina grape varietal) and Matoševic Antiqua 2008 (Malvasia Istriana). Red wines I tasted and enjoyed were the Franc Arman Teran 2009 and Kozlovic Teran 2011. Interesting note. British wine critic, Oz Clarck reported that Istria was Europe’s no. 2 terroir for Merlot. Not jammy it has a freshness and when young is fruity; when aged it has an elegant, intense bouquet. Like other Bordeaux varieties it is blended with a local varietal, in this case, Teran (great potential for aging with notes of fruit and pepper) offering a very interesting combination.
From SLOVANIA AND THE CROATIAN DANUBE, a region characterized by plains covered in golden fields of wheat and the three rivers that surround it (the Danube, Drava and Sava) Croatia’s principal grape variety is found, Graševina. Slavonia is home to the species of oak used to make the barrels that age Italian wines (Barolo and Barbaresco). Croatian winemakers also use this oak especially for larger barrels. White wines I enjoyed from this region were Krauthaker Graševina 2011, Kutjevo Graševina Vrhunska 2011, and Ilocki Podrumi Traminac Kvalitetni 2011 (Gewürtzreminer).
The CROATIAN UPLANDS include the hilly, picturesque ranges dotted with family-owned vineyards that surround Croatia’s capital, Zagreb. It is the coldest wine region in Croatia. Though there are not many native varieties here, the international varieties like Pinot, Riesling or Sauvignon are doing well because the chilly climate and very cold winters allow the wines to preserve intense aromas and high levels of acidity (which bring longer aging periods). The higher elevations offer an abundant amount of sun and wind to cure and rest the vines. The Reisling I tasted from this region was delicious: Bolfan Rajnski Rizling 2011. The Pinot noir I tasted, the Bolfan Primus Pino Crni 2009 was very good, distinctive.
In my second article, Part II of the Vina Croatia wine tasting event, I review my walk around tasting where I had the opportunity to speak to some of the vintners themselves and hear stories of their techniques and struggle with the land to tease out the finest selection of grapes, usually hand picked for their harvest to make the best wines. As one of my oenophile friends tells me (CBlack an oenophile, contributor to this article and photographer of many of the photos in David Copp’s, Tokaj: A Companion For The Bibulous Traveller) speaking with the boutique vintners, especially on their home turf, is an unforgettable experience. (I was just glad to meet a few at this tasting. I will eventually travel to their home turf for the full experience.) However, even in brief discussions I had with wine lovers, producers, agents and the Wine Guys at the classes, the love of sterling wines is always manifest. Sharing that love and gaining new information about the next trend in fine wines is what brings folks out despite crowds and inconveniences. It is all in the name of the fast growing global wine community achieving greater wine drinking pleasure. Count me in!
For more information about Croatian wines, check out the next article in this series. And check out the website of Blue Danube Wine Company for online orders. In the U.S. they are based in Los Altos, California. If you are on Facebook you can locate them by using the search feature and just typing in their name (or click the Facebook link here.). They are also on Twitter: click here for Twitter page if you are on Twitter.)