When was the last time that you opened a bottle of Plavac Mali, Grasevina, Malvazija or that splendid vowel-deprived white varietal called Grk from the island of the same name? If you can put your hand on your heart and say, “Not since lunch,” I’ll believe you; otherwise, you’re missing out on the Next Big Thing.
These are all wines from Croatia whose appearance in our market is all too rare. The Serbo-Croatian war of 1991 to 1995 set back the wine industry in both countries and only now are they making efforts to export them — a mere 15 per cent of Croatia’s wine currently leaves the country. Like the better-known European regions to the west, Croatia’s vineyards were decimated by the phylloxera scourge in the 1860s. An equally disastrous blight occurred after World War II when the Soviets took over and nationalized wine estates, turning them into collective farms. Then, one year after the fall of Communism in Croatia, the country was plunged into a five-year sectarian war. The result is that today there is less vineyard surface than before World War II, currently measured at 32,500 hectares.
The major hurdle for Croatian producers placing their wines in North American markets is the difficulty we have with the names of grapes, the producers and the regions. Who but the most adventurous would pluck from the shelves a wine labelled Matošević Alba Malvazija Istarska or Daruvarska Izborna Berba Bobica Graševina? And if on a dare you ordered a bottle of Crljenak Kaštelanski from a restaurant wine list, did you know that you’d be getting Zinfandel?
While Croatia’s forward-thinking producers have planted Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir (called locally Pinot Crni), the glory of the region’s wines are the indigenous varieties with taste profiles I have found nowhere else. And in these days of international wines with homogenized flavours this is a blessing indeed.
Rajnski Rizling is, of course, the Rhine Riesling we know. Graševina, the most widely planted grape in Croatia, is actually Welschriesling or Riesling Italico which can make wines ranging from stonily dry to semi-sweet to Icewine. As a dry wine it can resemble Pinot Gris or Pinot Blanc. The Krauthaker Graševina Mitrovac 2008 I tasted at a gourmet dinner in Zagreb went beautifully with a fillet of Adriatic tuna.
Malvazija (Malvasia) is grown mainly in Istria and has a peachy, minerally flavour. It can take on spicy, honeysuckle, Viognier-like notes as Roxanich Malvazija Antica 2006, a wine that accompanied a vol-au-vent of foie gras served with black summer truffle shavings, a dish I enjoyed at the same dinner.
Plavac Mali (pronounced Plah-vatz Mahli and translates as ‘small blue berries’) is a major red variety grown in the warmer regions along the Dalmatian coast. Confusingly, it can also be labelled as Dingač or Postup, Ivan Dolac or Zlatan Plavac. The flavour profile is blackberries, black cherries, pepper and spice with bracing tannins. The grape is a cross between Zinfandel (Crljenak Kaštelanski) and Dobričić, an ancient red variety from the island of Šolta off the Dalmatian coast. Because of their firm tannins, these wines age very well. Two of them were standouts at a tasting I had at the Westin Zagreb in July.
90 Dignac Matsuko Reserva 2004
Dense purple-ruby, very youthful colour; high toned, vanilla oak with a floral note; sweet black cherry, porty, chocolate flavour; full-bodied with lively acidity; firm structure; good length.
90 Korta Katarina Plavac Mali 2006
Deep ruby; cedar, currants, sweet fruit, elegant, firmly structured with a tannic life on the finish. A very polished wine.
At Coronica winery in the village of Koroniki, Moreno Coronica offered me a taste of his carefully crafted Teran 2007 not yet in bottle — a wine that we know as the Italian Refosco. In the extreme east of the country, at the border with Serbia overlooking the Danube, is the hill town of Ilok. This is Gewürztraminer country, known in Croatia as Traminac. At Iločki Podrumi, the second largest winery in Croatia with its 13th century cellar, they produce a range of quintessential Gewürz right up to Icewine level.
So, watch for wines from Croatia. There’s more to them than unpronounceable labels.
For a diary on Tony’s trip to Croatia visit tonyaspler.com