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01.13.2009

Croatian Wine: Some Tasting Notes

There are a lot of wine regions I have yet to visit in the world, and with a young child I don't think I'll be getting to many in the next few years. But now that I've ticked South Africa off the list (a list that I've never really sat down to write), the region at the top may very well be Croatia.

And this was before I tasted through the recent case of Croatian wines that arrived on my doorstep. Now that I've tasted them, I'm kicking myself for not dragging myself and Ruth there while we were childless. Beautiful rocky coastlines, a mild climate, great food, good tourist infrastructure, reasonable prices, excellent weather, a few World Heritage Sites, croatian_flag.jpgand, as I've discovered, great wine. What's not to love?

I've no intention of turning this piece into a tourist brochure for the country, but that's the background to my excitement at the opportunity to sample some top Croatian wines.

Croatia, is, of course, a small country tucked in on the northeast corner of the Adriatic sea, across from Italy and squashed like a compressed neck vertebrae between Slovenia on the northwest Hungary on the east, and Bosnia and Serbia to the south and East. It's most distinctive geographical feature, however, is the long dagger-like coast of Dalmatia that angles down the Adriatic towards Montenegro, peppered along the way with hundreds of small islands.

The winemaking traditions in this region of the world that is now called Croatia (the modern country broke away from what was then Yugoslavia in 1991) go back well before the Roman Empire, though it was the Romans who brought significant rigor, scale, and methodology to the production of grapes in the area. Croatia happens to be home to some of the best Slavonian oak forests in the world (favored by many winemakers around Europe, including old school producers of Brunello), and like many areas of central and eastern Europe, has some very interesting indigenous varietals. The winemaking traditions in the region were strong enough (like its neighbors Austria and Hungary) to survive through the ages, even through the anti-alcohol policies of the Ottoman empire.

Over the last thousand years, at least since the Ottomans finished marching about in central Europe, life in the fishing villages of Dalmatia was pretty idyllic by anyone's standards. But then one day a little guy named Napoleon arrived in the late 18th century and started making everyone's life a bit more difficult again. One of the things the Emperor demanded, of course, were the payment of taxes, and not having much else besides small quantities of fish and vegetables, which the French had plenty of anyway, the Croatians opted to pay with a certain wine grape, which to this day has been known as Debit.

Debit is one of several grape varieties that are producing some very interesting and high quality wines in Croatia, including most notably the red grape Plavac Mali, an indigenous varietal that Croatia sees as its primary calling card in the world of wine.

From a classification standpoint as a wine, the country is divided effectively between its continental inland portion and its coastal region. Each of these two areas are further divided into sub-regions, of which Central Dalmatia, Southern Dalmatia, Istria, and Slavonia are widely regarded as the most mature and important regions. And within Southern Dalmatia, the appellations of Hvar, Korcula, and the Peljesac peninsula are perhaps the most important.

Like many lesser known wine regions, Croatia can be a dizzying maze for the uninitiated, especially as the names for the regions and the grapes are quite difficult to read and pronounce. The fact that the country also produces a lot of quite ordinary and unremarkable wine can mean lots of misses for exploratory wine lovers. Luckily the country has developed a classification system that clearly distinguishes between different quality levels. Only about 5% of the country's wines qualify for the "Vrhunsko Vino" or "Premium Quality Wine" designation. A slightly larger percentage are classified as "Kvalitetno Vino" or "Quality Wine," and the remaining wine is labeled "Stolno Vino" or "Table Wine" which is basic jug wine and ideally should be avoided. All of these designations should appear on the label of the wine, so they can be used to pick out the better wines.

These aren't the first Croatian wines I've tasted, but they are certainly some of the best. And refreshingly, they are quite unique in character. I taste an awful lot of California wine, which I love, but I do pretty much know what to expect from a Cabernet Sauvignon at this point. The opportunity to let my palate take a spin on completely new varieties like Posip or Plavac Mali is a real treat, and this diversity alone would be enough to recommend them to you. All the better that some of them are as excellent as they are unique.

And I'm sure that there are a lot of fabulous wines that don't make it out of the country, thanks to relatively light demand in the marketplace. Which means that I'll definitely need to get there eventually, but probably not before you might.

Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.

Since many of the words below will be foreign to most wine lovers, I'll take this opportunity to remind you that I standardize wine names as follows:

YEAR - Producer Name - "Name of the wine (if any)" - Grape Variety, - Appellation or region

WHITE WINES

2006 Zlatan Plenkovic "Zlatan Otok Hvar" White Blend, Hvar
Light gold in color, this wine smells of bee pollen, candle wax, and yellow flowers. In the mouth it is slick and satin textured, with a nice weight on the tongue and flavors of melons, wet stones, and kumquats. Unusual in a very good way. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $22. Where to buy?

2004 Ivan Enjingi Riesling, Kutjevo
Light to medium gold in color, this wine has a very aromatic nose of diesel fumes, spiced pears, and beeswax. In the mouth it is smooth and silky on the tongue with a nice weight to it. Excellent acidity buoys up flavors of pears, wet slate, ripe yellow apples, and mysterious, distant dark honey flavor that really is an aroma that lingers on the palate. Very intriguing and delicious. Score: around 9. Cost: $25. Where to buy?

2006 Toljanic Zlahtina, Krk
Light gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of apple pie and baked pears. In the mouth it is bright and smooth, with a crystalline quality. Refreshing acidity and mineral, apple, and pear flavors make it a zesty and delicious pour. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $13. Where to buy?

2005 P.Z. Cara "Marco Polo" Posip, Korcula
Light green-gold in color, this wine has a nose of watermelon seeds and sarsaparilla. In the mouth it is beautifully textured, nicely balanced, and offers flavors of spiced apples, crisp pears, and rainwater, with hints of white flowers emerging on the finish. Excellent. Score: around 9. Cost: $19. Where to buy?

2006 Bibich "Lucica" Debit, North Dalmatia
Light gold in the glass, this wine has an incredibly aromatic nose of fresh apple pie with cinnamon, with an edge of crushed yellow flowers and a strong vanilla component. In the mouth it is bright with acid, tart, and smooth on the tongue, with ambiguous flavors that range from roasted apples to paraffin, to crushed stones, to saffron. This is a strikingly unique wine with incredible personality, and quite unlike anything I've tasted before. Excellent. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50. Where to buy?


2006 Kozlovic Malvasia, Istria
Light yellow-gold in color, this wine has a nose of yellow flowers and warm felt. In the mouth it is smooth and silky, with flavors of quince, and hints of dirty socks. No denying it, there's a light funkiness to this wine, but it's one of those elements that hangs back from the edge of unpleasantness and lingers in the realm of interesting. Score: around 8. Cost: $22. Where to buy?


RED WINES

2006 P.Z. Svirce "Plavac Hvar" Plavac Mali, Hvar
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of sour cherries and apple skin. In the mouth it is dry and light, with basic cherry and cedar qualities and a sense of simple earthy clarity that makes it clear this wine is not trying to be anything other than what it is. It reminds me of a nice chianti -- simple, quaffable, and while not profound, tasty and food friendly. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $14. Where to buy?


2005 Bura "Dingac" Plavac Mali, Peljesac
Medium garnet in color, this wine has a nose of dried cherries and spiced orange peel. In the mouth it reminds me slightly of Zinfandel, and with good reason given that it's made of Plavac Mali which is a cross between Zinfandel and Dobrovic. Spicy with mulberry, cassis, and blackberry flavors, the wine has a black pepper note that creeps into the finish. Distinctive and tasty. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $60. Where to buy?


2005 Vinarija Dingac "Postup" Plavac Mali, Peljesac
Medium ruby in color and fading towards the rim, this wine has a nose of dried cherries and jaw droppingly, lilacs in full bloom. In the mouth it is medium bodied and nicely balanced with dusty tannins and an equally stunning aromatic flavor profile of lilacs, mulberries, and blueberries that lingers into a long finish. One of the most distinctive and surprising wines I've had in some time. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $20. Where to buy?


2005 Vinarija Dingac "Dingac" Plavac Mali, Peljesac
Medium ruby in color this wine has a nose of mulberries and molasses. In the mouth it reveals flavors of molasses, dark plum, and sawdust, with leathery tannins and a woody quality on the finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $20. Where to buy?


2005 Zlatan Plenkovic "Zlatan Plavac Grand Cru "Plavac Mali, Hvar
Dark garnet in the glass this wine has a nose of dusty cedar and mulberry aromas. In the mouth it is explosively juicy, even as mouth enveloping tannins coat the palate in a soft velvety grip. Flavors of plum, exotic berries, flowers, and dried fruits permeate this expansive wine that soars into a long finish with the kind of aromatics found in the best Aglianicos from Italy. Fantastic. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $60. Where to buy?


2006 Bibich "Riserva" Red Blend, North Dalmatia
Light ruby in the glass, this wine has a nose of spicy cassis and grapey aromas. In the mouth its dusty tannins grip flavors of sawdust, cassis, and black cherry, and holds them through the moderate finish. The wine seems somehow disjointed -- all its components are pleasurable, but it doesn't smoothly integrate. Score: between 7.5 and 8. Cost: $17. Where to buy?

Comments (22)

St.John Smithfield wrote:
01.14.09 at 6:42 AM

Dear Vinography,

It was a nice surprise to have read your Croatian reviews.

However, as a native, I have to say that - apart from two or so bottles - the list consists of quite mediocre labels. I'm a bit disappointed that it did not include producers such as Giorgio Clai (Gravner/Radikon influenced), Frano Milos, Vlado Krauthaker and Meneghetti (produced in cooperation with Movia, from neighbouring Slovenia) or Korta Katarina labels. Compared to these winemakers, I believe most of your grades should be half the size.

This is not to say that your notification of Croatia is a negative one. Quite the opposite!

Keep up the good work.

Best from Zagreb :)

Tannat wrote:
01.14.09 at 7:59 AM

Ok, so who imports these bad boys?

01.14.09 at 8:03 AM

Thanks Alder, for taking the time to taste our wines and to write up your notes. I always appreciate your interest and insight for wines from yet undiscovered regions.

@St.John Smithfield, your statement that the list of wines Alder tasted "consists of quite mediocre labels - apart from two or so bottles" can only be qualified as pompous posturing.

Just two indications to make my point:
- The list contains 7(!) Premium Quality wines (Vrhunsko), a category reserved for only the top 5% of Croatian wines.
- This is like a Who-is-Who of well known and highly respected Croatian wine makers: Zlatan Plenkovic, Gianfranco Kozlovic, Ivan Enjingi, Alen Bibich, P.Z. Cara Posip, P.Z. Svirce Hvar, Dingac Vinarija, and Niko Bura.

Yet, this list and this tasting are not at all comprehensive and there are surely other good producers. But this is a pretty decent introduction to what Croatian wine has to offer the world.
Full disclosure: I am the importer and distributor of all of these wines based in California. As such we are actually very proud that we have been able to build our portfolio and make these rare wines with their unique flavors accessible to the U.S. wine lover.

01.14.09 at 8:17 AM

Here is the short list of importers of Croatian wines:

Vinum USA, NJ - www.vinumusa.com - ilyaATvinumusaDOTcom
Vallis Aurea, NY - Angie Pasa - angiepasaATmsnDOTcom
Oenocentric, NY - Daniel Pedisich - danielpedisichATgmailDOTcom
Blue Danube Wine Co, CA - www.BlueDanubeWine.com - frankATbluedanubewineDOTcom

Cheers,
Frank

St.John Smithfield wrote:
01.14.09 at 8:35 AM

Tannat,

My guess would be that they're not available in the states right now. But the point being that by giving 9 or 9.5 to these guys might indicate that this is the best Croatia has to offer. These grades are maybe right when it comes to measuring them against each other (save for Bura, which is a great let down, as far as I am concerned), but I do not think it applies to overall country profile.

Blue danube frank,

I do think it is very much an admirable effort you are making importing Croatian wines. Some of them are actually cheaper than locally! And I fully agree that this is a pretty decent introduction to Croats - that's for sure.

But, as stated above, if I was in a position of someone who has never had the chance to taste Croatian wines, I would be misled that this is the best the country can offer – and it is not, it is just a start, mostly not 8-10 grade category. I do believe that this is an incomplete Who-is-Who and missing key players I've mentioned (I hope you can agree that no W-i-W is incomplete without Milos, at least). And I do consider a good deal of these mediocre and overrated, despite their PQ seal.

Despite my comments, I appreaciate the efforts you're making in promoting these and overall Croatian wine culture. Would love to hear what people think of them. To those interested in digging deeper, I also suggest checking out archives of Decanter Croatia awards.

Morton Lesllie wrote:
01.14.09 at 9:39 AM

I would be interested if there are any wines imported made on the island of Brač. A good friend's Grandfather (boompa) emigrated to the US as a teenager and I knew him when he was in his 80's. He bought Amador County Zin and made a barrel each year in his basement. He swore to me that his Calif. wine was exactly like they made at "home." In light of Zin's revealed Dalmatian ancestry, he may have been right.

Alder wrote:
01.14.09 at 10:13 AM

St.John,

Thanks so much for your comments on Croatian wines, and I look forward to the opportunity someday to taste the wines that you hold in such high regard. I don't rate wines on a curve. My scores are accurate and are my fully informed opinion of the wines based on their individual merits in my mouth, so to speak. You're free to disagree with them, of course. I also don't give out scores like party favors. A score of "between 9 and 9.5" doesn't mean anything more than my evaluation of the quality of that wine, period. Anyone who tries to read into such a score that "this must be the best the country can produce" is both misconstruing the role of a score in my review, as well as (I would say) misunderstanding the fundamental principle behind numeric scores.

alen wrote:
01.14.09 at 11:29 AM

Dragi moji,
kao i obicno Hrvat je Hrvatu pas. Glede toga nemam komentara. S druge strane molim vase tasting notes o hr vinima za koje mislite da su bolja od navedenih. I trece, sva navedena vina su u prodaji u USA niz godina na za zadovoljstvo uvoznika, proizvodjaca i kupaca.
Lijepi pozdrav svima, posebice poznaveteljima vina u Hr.

Alen Bibich
Vina Bibich pto
Skradin - Dalmatia

St.John Smithfield wrote:
01.14.09 at 11:41 AM

Alder,

Reply much appreciated. Get in touch if you're ever touring this part of the world.

BTW. thumbs up for Vodopivec review. Good stuff!

All the best.

St.John Smithfield wrote:
01.14.09 at 11:43 AM

Alen,

On the contrary! I was actually being patriotic and saying there is better stuff from where these came from.

Keep up the good spirit.

Mokalo wrote:
01.14.09 at 2:02 PM


It is great to see such a nice review on Croatian wines. I know how hard this vintners, along with importers, have worked to present Croatia as "Wine Country" past 7-8 years when noone even knows what Croatia is. Everyone who now is not at this tasting list will come at soon. I assure all of you that Croatian wines are better and better every year, also many new producers are coming, we will have more and more good grades in future.
So please Croats enjoy the day!
Regards
from Peljesac, Croatia

Dylan wrote:
01.14.09 at 5:12 PM

Alder,

As usual, thanks for the research and background you've put into this wine review. I always enjoy when you're able to go further back into the historical context of a wine's heritage.

Miquel wrote:
01.15.09 at 3:03 PM

Well, for anyone who does visit Croatia and the Dalmatian coast, my wife and I wrote a book called, Vinologue: Dalmatia-Herzegovina. We cover the background and winemakers of the area, as well as popping across the border to Bosnia & Herzegovina to dig in to the very, very undiscovered Herzegovian wines.

Alder, I agree with most all of your points, but I give the Bibich Riserva higher marks. I find it to be one of my favorite wines around lately, although it is true that the flavors will change with what's imported vs. drinking it straight at the source in Skradin, but that really isn't always an option obviously.

El Tvrle wrote:
01.21.09 at 5:35 AM

@Alder
An interesting, well-written piece, thanks!

El Tvrle wrote:
01.21.09 at 5:37 AM

@Miquel

"although it is true that the flavors will change with what's imported vs. drinking it straight at the source in Skradin, but that really isn't always an option obviously."
Among those producers in Croatia who have access to foreign markets, there is a third category that needs introducing: (imported vs. at the source vs.) wines released to the local market. Based on my experience, it would appear that the latter is sometimes a very shady area...

El Tvrle wrote:
01.21.09 at 5:40 AM

@Alen Bibich

"kao i obicno Hrvat je Hrvatu pas."
Last time I looked, this was a place for wine-related discussion and not for world-weary musings on some half-baked, simplistic notions of patriotism. The former also implies the freedom to express opinions on wines from one's own, as Saint John just did, or other countries without some misguided zealot swooping down on you.

"Glede toga nemam komentara."
What do you mean you have no comment? Your previous sentence is as sweeping a comment as they come.

"S druge strane molim vase tasting notes o hr vinima za koje mislite da su bolja od navedenih."
Assuming someone actually had sufficient time to spare to provide those TNs at your urging, what exactly do you think that would prove?!

"I trece, sva navedena vina su u prodaji u USA niz godina na za zadovoljstvo uvoznika, proizvodjaca i kupaca."
Indeed. So, apparently, is Yellow Tail.

El Tvrle wrote:
01.21.09 at 5:45 AM

@Blue Danube Frank

"@St.John Smithfield, your statement that the list of wines Alder tasted "consists of quite mediocre labels - apart from two or so bottles" can only be qualified as pompous posturing." That's a bit strong, Frank. Like it or lump it, but the statement is actually more reflective of the 'situation on the ground' and of what you might hear from a fair number of other genuinely well-informed, Croatia-based wine lovers. Saint John and I have had more than our share of wine-related disagreements elsewhere, but, in this instance, he appears to have managed to keep his foot well away from his mouth.

"Just two indications to make my point:
- The list contains 7(!) Premium Quality wines (Vrhunsko), a category reserved for only the top 5% of Croatian wines."
You are having us on, right? That seal covers a multitude of sins, but then Croatia is hardly a world-wide exception in that respect.

"- This is like a Who-is-Who of well known and highly respected Croatian wine makers: Zlatan Plenkovic, Gianfranco Kozlovic, Ivan Enjingi, Alen Bibich, P.Z. Cara Posip, P.Z. Svirce Hvar, Dingac Vinarija, and Niko Bura."
Well, again, sorry to say, Frank, to my untrained eye it simply reads like a mixed bag, if ever there was one: some top-notch and some... well... shall we say not so top-notch.

"Yet, this list and this tasting are not at all comprehensive and there are surely other good producers. But this is a pretty decent introduction to what Croatian wine has to offer the world."
Yes, Frank, but the problem is, claiming that a list is like a "who-is-who of well-known and highly respected Croatian winemakers" is not exactly the same as simply calling it "a pretty decent introduction", is it? I'd definitely agree with the latter, less assuming, qualification.

Mark wrote:
02.16.09 at 12:56 PM

Interesting comments.

DONNA wrote:
08.19.09 at 5:35 PM

ZDRAVO! I was thrilled to learn of this website and have enjoyed reading the blogs. Having recently returned from my 4th trip to CROATIA, I'm still going through withdraws of the awesome beauty of CROATIA, the delicious foods and excellent wines! We enjoyed touring Croatia and toasting at two vineyards - NEZIC wine(TOMINDAR & GRASEVINA) and HARAMIJA wine (RAJNSKI RIZLING & CHARDONNAY) in Jaskabarsko. The wines were absolutely delicious and very much enjoyed. The 2008 vintage is incredible! I very much agree with one of the blogs I read: THE CROATIAN WINE GETS BETTER EVERY YEAR. HVALA LJEPA FOR THE WEBSITE AND BRINGING OUR CROATIAN WINE REVIEW TO AMERICA. BOK!

Istravino wrote:
01.31.10 at 4:05 AM

From my personal point of view I would recommend few regions in Croatia that produce very good wine. The sorts would would be in Istria (Teran, Malvazija, Refosk), Dalmatia (babic, debit, posip, plavac, bogdanusa, prosek i dingac), Slavonija (Frankovka, Grasevina).

Gospodin Bond wrote:
08.26.10 at 2:50 PM

St John or is that sveti? No mention of Stari Ribar...must be an oversight.
Many good wines these days...don't forget Traminec from Ilok or Posip Cara.

10.16.14 at 4:47 AM

Spot on with this write-up, I actually think this site needs a loot ore attention. I'll probably be back again to see
more, thanks for the information!

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