Reimagine Croatian Wines

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Croatia has the right tools of a wine-producing region and with entry pending into the EU, it's redefining its international wine image.
By Amy Payne September 2011 Wine

With a rich history of winemaking that goes back to the fourth century B.C. and a blank canvas on which to rediscover itself since gaining independence 20 years ago, Croatia seems poised for success as a quality wine-producing region.

Add in a Mediterranean climate, indigenous grapes growing in stunningly beautiful landscapes, and a romantic history. Pending entry into the European Union further accentuates its image as an emerging wine region.

Croatian wines are generating a lot of buzz recently. Much of it stems from the social networking and promotional activities of Wines of Croatia, an organization founded in 2009 by New York City-based certified sommelier Cliff Rames. In recent months Croatian wines have been featured at the first ever Wines of Croatia Grand Portfolio Tasting in New York City, at the North American Wine Bloggers Conference, and in a full-color spread in Wine Enthusiast magazine. This year, several wineries partnered with the Croatian Chamber of the Economy to establish the first ever Association of Winemakers of Croatia. The mission of the association will be to support Wines of Croatia and further develop ongoing promotional activities and events to showcase Croatian wines.

Sommeliers, including Chantelle Pabros, owner of Chicago-based VINERA wine consulting company, are spreading the word about Croatian wines. For Pabros, it was love at first sight. In fact, the name of her company originates from the sailboat she was aboard during her first visit to Croatia in 2007.

“Once you have it, you can never forget it,” Pabros says. “When you are a sommelier, you are an ambassador to the farmer. You appreciate the blood, sweat and tears that go into every wine that is made.”

The paradoxical advantage for Croatian winemakers is starting from scratch after gaining independence in 1991, but also having an extensive history. Young winemakers are traveling the world to discover modern technologies and apply them in Croatia. Experimentation with winemaking, such as oak usage or concrete egg fermentation tanks, is allowing them to find their unique style. Indigenous varieties, such as Plavac Mali, thrive in the parched limestone soils of the coast, providing a strong sense of terroir.

Most red wine production is on the southwestern coast and Dalmatian Islands, where Plavac Mali (pronounced plah-vahtz mah-lee) grapes cover the steep slopes overlooking the crystal turquoise blue sea. The narrow, mountainous Pelješac peninsula is four miles wide at its broadest point, and 40 miles long and home to Dingač, Croatia’s first protected wine region since 1961. Hvar Island is known for lush vineyards, rocky terrain, abundant olive groves, and endless fields of lavender. Its wine complements some of the freshest seafood that the Mediterranean has to offer.

Bruno Trapan, owner of Trapan winery in Istria, attributes his success to being stubborn. “…I had something to prove.”
In 2010 Trapan’s acacia-oaked Malvasia wine received 90 points by e-Robert Parker.

The main challenges facing Croatian wines on the international market include lower-quality producers, a language barrier and skeptical wine buyers. There are many mass-produced wines that tarnish the image, similar to what Yellow Tail did for Australia. Croatia is rich with indigenous grape varieties that grow nowhere else in the world and deliver characteristics that many wine lovers have never discovered before. For this reason, Croatian wines must be hand sold by sommeliers and retailers.

According to Daniel Pedisich, owner of Oenocentric, the consumer reaction to Croatian wines is much better than that of wine buyers. The New York City-based importing company carries nine producers from Croatia, including Ernest Tolj’s Saint Hills winery from Dingač.

“Restaurant wine buyers are skeptical that Croatian wine will sell successfully,” Pedisich says. “Nine times out of 10, the wines will be successful as long as you have people backing them and educating their guests.”

Tolj invited world-famous wine consultant Michel Rolland to Croatia to make the best wine possible. Having never heard about or tasted Croatian wine before, Rolland accepted out of curiosity even though he was not interested in taking on any new projects. When he visited Dingač he was stunned by the beauty: sun, sea and soil. He sat on a rock and called his wife to say: “Honey, This is where I want to die!” He turned to Tolj and announced: “I am in! I thought you were crazy, but if I don't make the best wine here, I quit my job!”

The rest is history, or at least history in the making. Saint Hills Dingač Plavac Mali is fermented in large wooden vats and aged in new French oak barrels for 18 months. According to Tolj, when he started making wine he knew his market niche: low yield, high quality, the best terroir and technology combined with Rolland’s knowledge and skills.

Some markets have been quicker than others to jump on the Croatian wine boat. Arthur Hon, wine buyer at Sepia restaurant in Chicago, says he has always found current emerging European wine regions fascinating, including Croatia’s.

“Part of the reason that they really pique my interest is because I find these areas obscure the stereotypical wine distinctions between ‘Old World’ and ‘New World,’” Hon says. “The practicality of Croatian wines I have listed work really well with a wide range of dishes.”

Croatian wines to look for include Plavac Mali grown on Hvar Island and Pelješac, including Dingač and Postup; Malvasia from Istria; Babić from Primošten; and Pošip from Korčula Island. Vlado Krauthaker, Alen Bibich, Ivica Matošević, Andro Tomić, Korta Katarina, Saint Hills, Bruno Trapan, Luka Krajančić and Zlatan Plenkovic are just a few examples of cutting-edge winemakers and wineries in Croatia.

“Restaurant owners and beverage directors should always look at ways to make their wine lists more interesting and ‘buzz worthy,’” Rames says. “Croatian wines add an element of coolness, diversity, and off-the-beaten-path open-mindedness to a wine list.”