A Weekend at The Farm – Part Deux, Croatian Wines

When we first started to look at wines for the program at Autre Monde, our goal was to bring original, affordable wines, showcasing the rich variety of the Mediterranean to our guests. We also plan to showcase some domestic and even Midwestern wines, ( Michigan and Ohio are doing some nice Italian varietals – story for another entry). Wine is one of those things where local, in the Midwest is still a bit hard to achieve if you want to have a serious wine program. Our criteria with winemakers will focus more on the technique and farming practices of the vineyards on our list.

With that said, at the outset however, we had not considered Croatian wines. Not because they aren’t a fit, the Adriatic Coast of Croatia is across the water from Italy where the coastline of Slovenia and modern day Croatia is a mirror image of the boot. However, the long and difficult history of the former Yugoslavia, meant that the coast of Croatia remained a relatively closed society that only recently became a real tourist destination. The country has much of the same charm, cuisine and dedication to all things grape and olive as its neighbor across the sea. Jackie Kennedy is rumored to have favored it over all other places when visiting the Mediterranean.

Our interest is personal as well. My husband John has family near Split on the Adriatic Coast. On his first visit to Vinitaly, he and our friend Henry Bishop took a side trip to visit them and try some wine back in 2003. Henry helmed the wine program at Spiaggia for menu years and knows the wines from Italy about as well as anyone could. Just a short ferry ride from Ancona to the Croatian coast, they found a place where a new generation of wine makers are reinventing classic styles and making some exciting wines. Henry was as interested and impressed as we were and actually brought a few Slovenian whites and a Dignac back for the Spiaggia list. While they raved about the trip, I drooled over the video of the haltingly beautiful, unspoiled coastline. In the past few weeks, we happened upon an importer who is bringing in a number of Croatian wines and we quickly signed up for a tasting. What we enjoyed with Sasha confirmed that these wines are really coming into their own and will be a great addition to our list.

Croatian wine has only recently started to be imported to the US with any serious effort. On the eve of what they hope will be admittance to the EU, Croatian tariffs and other impediments should ease, opening up their wine to the world a bit more. Additionally, a number of creative winemakers have entered the region from other more venerated wine cultures such as France and Italy and have begun to cultivate wines that will appeal to an international audience. Slovenia, to the north, boarders Fruili – Venezia, one of the most prolific white wine regions in the world. Slovenian whites can be more rustic in character but are evolving to demonstrate some of the great complexity that is possible from white grapes in this cooler climate.

Heading down the coast of Croatia, as in Italy, red grapes take over as the primary cultivars in this warmer climate. The reds include such varietals as Pinot Noir, some Bordeaux reds (cab sauvignon etc.) Plavac Mali (the genetic ancestor of modern day Zinfandel). This grape is also the main one Dignac and Postup which can produce serious reds. There are a whole host of other wines made with a wide variety of local grapes, but production for many of these vineyards is so small that they do not export.

We tasted several interesting Croatian wines during our first round and singled out one vineyard Piquentum that is creating some really exciting wines. Run by a Croatian family and led by Winemaker Dimitri Brecevic, wh returned to Croatia after a childhood spent in the Basque Country of France. He studied Vitculture in Bordeaux and is known as an innovator with the traditional grapes of Istria (Malvasia and Teran). His techniques yield softer, more aromatic wines than many traditional wineries in the region. He ferments his Malvasia Sur Lie (on the lees), which limits the amount of processing required and brings out the complexity of the flavors in the wine. We have not yet tried his most recent introduction Terre9, his first run at Refosco, but we are hearing good things and can’t wait to try. His wines are a natural fit for us, from the cool labels to the organic practices and innovative techniques Mr. Brecevic embraces in producing his wines.

We also tasted an interesting Blaufrankish (a pre-mediaval varietal which hails from Austria). This varietal is being grown with increasing attention in other locations such as Croatia, Hungary, Fruili, Slovenia & the Pacific Northwest. Blaufrankish has high acidity and intense fruit and can range from being very heavy in character to being intensely floral, with a nose of violets & roses. A few of the white varietals indigenous to Croatia, such as Grasvina (often marketed under the decidedly less elegant name Welsh Reisling) are also interesting. An ancient varietal from the Roman Empire it yields big, rich wines with a deep color and heavy mineral character due to the limestone soil. We also tasted some Traminer and a few other wines from the area. While not all are refined, there seem to be a few that are becoming more balanced and hold exciting possibilities as they continue to evolve. The mineral character of these whites, made us wish we had a plate of oysters in front of us. The wines did yield some interesting pairings with the menu items we tried at the farm this weekend. Malvasia pairing well with the bright acidity of the vinaigrettes and reds that held up to the rich, grilled and smoked flavors of the meat dishes.

So when all was said and done, we are intrigued and plan on including the Piquentum wines as part of our line up to begin and we will continue to pursue interesting wines and dishes from the Croatian Coast. We are also planning a trip to the Zagreb Wine & Food festival in 2012, an emerging trade show similar to Vinitaly (although much younger and smaller). So as we find new and exciting wines from this region we will bring them to you. Until then raise a glass of what every you are drinking and give a Croatian toast, Zivala!