What makes Croatia’s wines, distinctive? I couldn’t tell you the answer, until recently, when I attended Vina Croatia, the 2nd Annual Grand Portfolio Tasting, at the Aster Center in Manhattan. Croatia, officially the Republic of Croatia, is a unitary democratic parliamentary republic in Europe at the crossroads of Central Europe, the Balkans, and the Mediterranean. Its capital and largest city is Zagreb. From the invention of the necktie and the optical lens to the discovery of the fingerprint, Croatia has always been full of innovators. And, like elsewhere in the world, wine is a popular drink. In Croatia, the locals often dilute it either still or sparkling water – producing a drink known as gemišt (a combination of white wine and carbonated water), and bevanda (a combination of red wine and still water). But with or without water, I’ve learned that Croatia has some distinctive and lovely wines.
At the Vina Croatia event, there were over 100 wines from 30 of Croatia’s leading producers, plus a chance to taste some light appetizers. There was also the opportunity to attend a master class seminar, moderated by Croatian wine expert Cliff Rames and presented by the “World Wine Guys” Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen. Although I missed the seminar, the walk-around tasting really opened my eyes to a new realm of possibilities, when choosing wine.
Before I tell you about some specific wineries and wines, you might want to know something about the terroir (the special characteristics of the geography, geology and climate of a certain place). There are two distinct wine-producing regions in Croatia. The continental region in the north-east of the country produces white wines that reminded me of crisp, fruity, semi-dry Alsatian Reislings. The North coast of Croatia produced wines that are similar to Italian wines, while the more Southern regions offer similarities to Mediterranean-style reds. The Dalmatian coast features distinct micro-climates and local grapes that are very unique. As I wandered around, looking, smelling, tasting, it seemed clear that the majority of wines showcased (67%) of wine produced ) were crisp, light, fruity and white. There are red wines too of course, along with some rose, and some dessert and sparkling wines, plus grappa. Most of these were not prominent in this particular tasting, although I did find some lovely dessert wines to sample (more below).
One of the things that is a bit daunting about Croatian wines is that the grape varietals, and even the very names of the wineries, can be hard for Americans to pronounce (e.g. Plavic Mali, Pošip, Teran, Malvasia Istriana, Graševina, Babi, Žlahtina, Kvarner, and Gegi). But apart from the fact that you might feel like you have a mouthful of marbles as you strive to say their names, you may have an even more difficult task finding the actual wines in the United States. A number of the wineries exhibiting displayed little cardboard signs indicating that they were seeking representation. If you want to try wines from Croatia however, there are still plenty to choose from.
As I have often mentioned in my wine-related articles, when you go to a large showcase of wine, you either have to avail yourself of the proverbial “spit bucket” or be selective in the type and amount of wine you sample. Many of the Croatian wines have unusual names and use grape varieties you may not be familiar with, but they’re quite a lovely surprise!
Wine, like fragrance and food, are highly subjective. What I like isn’t necessarily what you, or someone else, might choose. That being said, here are a few wines that were, for me, stand-outs from the tasting:
Grgic is a family owned winery established in 1996 by legendary winemaker Miljenko “Mike” Grigch and Violet Grgich. Mike was inducted into the Vinter Hall of Fame for his contribution to the world of wine, and his Grigic Hills winery in Rutherford California, also produces amazingly tasty wines. Grgic Croatia uses local Croatian wine varieties you might not ever have heard of, including Posip and Plavac Mali. The grapes are grown organically, and housed for 20 months in French oak. the 15.4% alcohol by volume produces a wine that has lots of fruit on the nose. The 100% Plavac Mali is a a red wine that is full-bodied and well-balanced with smooth tannins. If you swirl and sniff, then taste, you might find notes of dried strawberry, raspberry and even a hint of spice, such as licorice. This wine is great for cocktail hour, especially served with grilled and cured meats (e.g. the chicken Kebabs that were served at the tasting), hard cheeses (also served as the tasting) and even, pizza.
Bodren is a winery that specializes in Ice & Sweet wines. The winery, in the region of Hrvatsko Zagorje, is best known for a number of castles, and highly acidic wines, But Borris Drenski, Bodren’s founder, has taken advantage of the region’s micro-climates to create well balanced dessert wines that are sweet, but also quite crisp. The wines are grown in environmentally friendly ways. His Croatian ice and dessert wines have won the winery six gold medals at the prestigious Decanter World Wine Awards in 2008 and 2009. Once you open a bottle of ice wine it really only lasts about a week, so invite some friends, and open up a bottle of this award winning wine at the end of your meal, or just to celebrate TGIF!
The Bibich winery in Plastovo, Pirovac-Skradin wine-growing hills, is in the Northern Dalmatia sub-region, Coastal Croatia, produces a number of very drink-able wines that would work with a variety of different types of food. Alen Bibić creates high quality wines using underrated local varieties to create wines that include: R7 Riserva (a blend of babić, lasin & plavina); Debit; Debit Lučica; R5 Riserva (a blend of debit, maraština, pošip, pinot gris & chardonnay); G6 Grenache; Sangreal Shiraz; Sangreal Merlot;Harlekin (a blend of syrah, babić, & plavina); and Ambra, a dessert wine made from dried grapes. Bibić also produces brandies and grappa. was one of the first exporters of Croatian wine to the USA. These wines taste like they are quite expensive, but a quick check on the Internet yielded availability at just around $15.00 a bottle!
If this article makes you curious, why not add some wines from Croatia to your cellar, or just bring one home for dinner tonight!