The Croatian Wine Experience on Swiss Soil
It has been quite a while since I had an experience like the one I was permitted last week. As a busy wine professional who travels a great deal, it isn’t often that I get to try a number of wines from a region that is completely new to me – let alone an entire country. Croatia sent 17 producers, representing all four of the wine-producing zones, to the Zunfthaus zur Waag in Zurich to pour wines for an appreciative, international crowd of wine lovers and wine professionals. There was also an excellent seminar hosted by Ivan Barbic MW and Thomas Vaterlaus, and a superb dinner with wine pairings after the tasting.
It’s a small country by most standards – certainly by Canadian standards – with just 20,885 hectares of land under vine and 16 protected designations in four wine-producing zones. If you haven’t tried any of the wines from the country, it won’t surprise many Croatians; until the fall of communism and the break-up of Yugoslavia, almost all commercial production was performed by huge state-run cooperatives, with individual producers making wine only for their families and friends instead of for export. Since Croatian independence, this has been changing. Now it is the most successful wine-producing country to emerge from the former Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, finding wines from this small Eastern European nation on the Adriatic sea is a bit of a challenge in Western Europe.
For such a small country, it certainly has a wealth of grape varieties: over 120 by some estimates, with some 40 of those being native varieties. Only a few of these are currently of more than local importance. Fewer still are known by their Croatian name beyond the borders of the country. But there is one…
Tribidrag Puts Croatia Back on the (Wine) Map
If there is one that you have almost certainly heard of, however, it is Tribidrag. You may know it better as Zinfandel or Primitivo. Yes, these are all the same grape variety. Rocketing to fame at the turn of the millennium due to the decades of diligent research and DNA testing by Carole Meredith and her team (drawn from the University of California at Davis and the University of Zagreb), just nine vines of Tribidrag were discovered in a single vineyard owned by Ivica Radunić, where it was known as Crljenak Kaštelanski – now numbering somewhat over 350,000 thanks to efforts to revitalise the variety. Efforts that are very worthwhile, in my opinion.
In addition to being an interesting – even historic – grape variety in its own right, Tribidrag also has the double distinction of being both one of the oldest varieties we are aware of and a progenitor of an array of other grapes grown throughout central Europe. The most significant of these just happens to be Croatia’s most important red variety: Plavac Mali.
A Grape Rundown
With so many native varieties, it is worth getting to know a few of the more important ones. Interestingly for such a warm region, most of the more important ones are, in fact, white – even if the two varieties for which the country is winning recognition are both red. Only in Dalmatia are red varieties more prevalent than white. Coincidentally, Dalmatia is also the region with the most indigenous grape varieties.
A Few Whites
Pošip: almost certainly originating off the Dalmatian coast on the island of Korčula, which is also the name (and the location) for the appellation created for the grape, due to its high quality. The wines can be fresh but substantial, with good body and dense texture – which leads to comparisons with Viognier. Good examples can age for years.
Graševina: may not, in fact, be native to Croatia, but it almost certainly originates in the Danube basin. It is planted all over central Europe, where its synonyms often contain the word “Riesling”. It is not, however, related to true Riesling, no matter what some people will try to tell you. To many German-speakers and fans of Germanic wines, it is called Welschriesling. In Austria it is often used to make dessert wine – notably by Kracher in Austria’s Burgenland. It is considered a semi-aromatic variety and like Riesling, which is a true aromatic variety, the grape can be vinified into nearly any style from the most dry and mineral to Late-Harvest, botrytized sweet wines similar to a German Trockenbeerenauslese. It is fair to say, too, that Croatia takes the grape more seriously than any of the other countries where it can be found, and they say that it has “found its home” with them. In Croatia, the variety accounts for nearly 25% of the total area under vine, making it the most significant grape.
Malvazija Istarska (Istriana): currently the most successful grape variety grown in Croatia, occupying place No. 2 after Graševina for planting area. There are many Malvasia Somethings in the world. Wine Grapes lists 25 different named examples, Italy alone counts ten major different white varietals called Malvasia. One of them is, in fact, this Malvazija Istarska. It is known in Italy as Malvasia Istriana. And that shouldn’t be too surprising, because the variety originates on the Istrian peninsula, which used to be part of Italy. Now, of course, it is part of Croatia. These days, it is grown in Friuli, Italy’s Northeasternmost province – and the one closest to Croatia. This variety produces aromatic wines ranging from lighter, high-acid fruity delights to more brooding, spicy, “serious” wines – possibly with oak. Many examples can age for a decade or more.
Another Name to Note: Žlahtina – light, delicate and tropically fruity,
A Few Reds
Tribidrag: once found along the entire Dalmatian coast, then nearly wiped out (directly and indirectly) by phylloxera. After that plague destroyed the vineyards of Tribidrag, replanting was done with Plavac Mali, as it was more disease and pest-resistant, and generally easier to handle. Now it is on the resurgence, thanks to research, the fame of Zinfandel and Primitivo – and huge efforts by the Project for the Revitalisation of this variety. Interestingly, the Croatian vines (and winemaking) produce wines that are different in style to both Italian Primitivo and Zinfandel from California, making it somewhat difficult to identify them as the same grape in a blind tasting. Nevertheless, wines with good fruit, decent tannic structure and good balance are being made. I’m looking forward to tasting much more of this grape.
Plavac Mali: this grape is really the red wine jewel of Croatia, reaching its greatest potential on the steep, rocky vineyards of the sunny south of the country – the Dalmatian coast, again. Many of the greatest wines of Croatia are made with this variety, and they can be mighty wines with high alcohol, fierce tannin and roaring acidity. Barriques and larger barrels are often used for aging; the grape variety takes very well to wood. But the grape is also capable of lighter, fruitier wines – and even rosés can be interesting. Although many producers struggled with brettanomyces for a long time, increasingly the wines are very clean and very exciting. Look for the Dingač appellation for some of the country’s finest examples.
Babić: I haven’t had the opportunity to try this grape yet, but that will hopefully change very soon. At any rate, it seems to have found some real popularity already with some of the big movers and shakers of the wine press, being rated very highly by Sarah Kemp writing for Decanter, as well as Oz Clark. Yet another variety originating in Dalmatia, this one is a little lighter, less tannic and maintains its acidity better than Plavac Mali when the grapes have been hanging on the vines late into the season. To look for, especially if it comes from Primošten.
Another Name to Note: Teran – high acidity, dark colour and huge aging potential;
Croatian Regions and the 16 Appellations
Slavonia and the Croatian Danube – inland, flat part of Croatia. Also the source of all that Slavonian oak you hear about in Italy. Long, warm autumns mean sweet, often botrytized wines are a staple of wine production.
- Eastern Continental Croatia
- Croatian Danube
Croatian Uplands – inland, coldest part of the country, mostly international varieties planted – but also some “locally international” varieties, such as Furmint (called Moslavac in Croatia). Some nice sparkling wines are being produced.
- Western Continental Croatia
Istria and Kvarner – Mediterranean climate with cool air influence from the Alps. Soils are predominantly iron-rich.
- Primorska Hrvatska (Coastal Region of Croatia)
- Croatian Istria
- Hrvatsko Primorje (Croation Coast)
Dalmatia – southernmost region with all the important islands, including Hvar, which has the UNESCO-listed Stari Grad plain. This plain is considered the oldest continually-cultivated wine grape site in the world, stretching back to the fourth century BCE. Steep, rocky and very sunny.
- Northern Dalmatia
- Dalmatinska Zagora (Dalmatian Hinterland)
- Middle and Southern Dalmatia
The tasting room was reasonably-sized, and it was, happily, a very well-attended tasting. The event was organised with the Croatian Chamber of Economy together with Mettler-Vaterlaus, a Swiss wine agency that organises a fair number of very interesting tastings, seminars and other events. Everyone was pleasantly surprised by the turnout. I was really only interested in tasting wines made with the native grapes, so I only had a few wines made with international varieties like Chardonnay, Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon. Of all the 17 producers, there were six with wines that really stood out for quality:
From the Istria and Kvarner region. This producer has two very fine Malvazijas that I enjoyed a great deal.
Alba 2016: all steel tank. Floral and salty, with candied citrus and extraordinary acidity and minerality. For a “simple” wine, this was also one of my favourites of the entire evening.
Alba Robinia 2014: beautiful minerality and firm, but not overstated, acidity. Floral and elegant, with a fine, salty finish.
Also from Istria and Kvarner, and they make almost exclusively white wines. They likewise had two lovely Malvazijas that impressed.
Malvazija 2016: creamy and fruity, with restrained acidity and a light finish. Very easy to enjoy.
Malvazija Santa Lucia 2015: had a four-day maceration on the grape skins and then was aged in big wooden barrels. Very creamy, smooth and fleshy, lightly floral, with excellent length and a spicy minerality that was delicious.
From the Croatian Uplands region, with vineyards on predominantly limestone soils. Organic and all work done by hand. Pošip and Plavac Mali were particularly good.
Primus Plavac Mali 2015: 12 months in barrel. Firm, smooth tannin and very good dark fruit, long and spicy, and offering good balance. Comparatively restrained alcohol levels.
Pošip 2016: full of juice and minerals, the wine was also quite structured, giving it layers of complexity that I wasn’t expecting. Definitely my favourite Pošip at the tasting, and one I’d really like to find in Germany.
Croatian Uplands. All the wines from this organic producer were made with Plavac Mali – but wow, such wines! Unique – at least at the tasting – for a few reasons: they had a rosé and a red dessert wine, and both of the “standard” red wines they had were older than every other wine at the tasting.
Stagnum Rosé 2016: medium-weight and with bucketloads of fruit. Soft, smooth and gulpably delicious.
Stagnum 2008: aged for 6 years in barrel, followed by four in bottle before it is released – which will be next year. An excellent wine, with fine, supple tannin, extraordinary depth of fruit and spice and a finish that went on for ages. Still has lots of time.
Stagnum 2007: aged for 4 years in barrel, followed by several more in bottle. It was showing much more age than the 2008, but was still plenty young and fresh. Slightly more wood flavour, interestingly, but plenty of dark fruit and spices, with a lighter finish than its younger sibling. Elegance.
If there is a legendary Croatian producer, this would be one of the candidates on the shortlist for the title. They produce a lot of wine and are one of the most-exported producers – and the wines I tried were universally well-made at the very least. From Dalmatia.
Zlatan Crljenak 2011: here it is, the best Tribidrag (Crljenak) at the tasting. Very good dark fruit that were not jammy in any way, good, firm tannin – but not overdone. Enough freshness to go well with food, and to keep the wine from being heavy. Dark. Brooding. Lovely!
Zlatan Plavac Grand Cru 2011: don’t let the name deceive you; Croatia does not have any legal framework to define “Cru” in their winemaking regions. But the winemaker considers this the top wine, and so it is the Grand Cru. I can’t say that I blame him: this Plavac Mali has seen 44 months of wood ageing and profited from every day of it. The wood is astonishingly well-integrated, the tannins are fine and supple. There is plenty of dark berry fruit, decent freshness and excellent texture. The wine is complex, interesting and eminently enjoyable.
Also from Dalmatia, and the only producer at the tasting with wines from the Dingač appellation. Particularly interesting since they offered two quality levels of Plavac Mali from two different zones, including Dingač.
Plavac Premium 2016: vinified in steel and sealed under screwcap, the wine was a bit reductive at first. But it was lively, fruity and with very good length. With such a young vintage from such a tannic variety, I was pretty impressed that it could be so approachable and tasty.
Dingač 2015: spent nine months in wood, and was a very pretty, elegant wine. Tannins were fine and a bit chewy, there was more than enough fruit and there was an excellent sense of why the appellation was created already at this, the entry-level bottling.
Dingač Reserva 2013: 15 months in wood, which definitely helped to knock the corners off the tannins. This wine has really big potential; very firm structure, but the acidity and tannin are in excellent balance, there is fruit, but it is a bit closed at the moment. And it is so superbly spicy! Great stuff.
The Last Word
I was optimistic about the tasting and seminar to begin with, but I wasn’t prepared for how truly excellent some of the wines were. There are a large number of fascinating, unusual grape varieties and the will to do something with them. I will certainly need to find out more about the country and its wines in the next while, but getting the wines is going to be tricky. Croatian wines are not unknown on the Swiss market – due in a large part to one particular importer who just happens to be of Croatian extraction. Now they are being brought in by several other importers as well. But the German market is a bit more challenging. I have only managed to find one importer at all, and they don’t have a very large selection of wines. We’ll just have to see about that.