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Exploring Balkan Wines

As a part of our companion series for Wine Wednesday our Sommelier John Aranza, is writing companion pieces to give you an overview of the region we are exploring and what we taste. Read on for an exploration of Balkan Wines, and join us this month for Wine Wednesdays!

Today we are going to skip across the Adriatic to the Balkans. Formerly Yugoslavia, this area had been cloistered from the rest of the world of wine export for some time until the late 1990’s. It was then with the independence of Croatia, Slovenia, Montengro that these long standing wine producing arease were able to bring their wares west.

The Balkans refer to the range of mountains that extend inland across these Eastern European lands. It is just now being made aware that wine has been made here for centuries with the same intensity & warmth that many familiar producers display in France and Italy. Today we are going to talk about three characters in this play that have often been snubbed by the Oscar’s, but deserve a nod for their continued, expressive roles in the Balkan wine community.

The First, is from Ilocki Podrumi. A combined effort of Cabernet Sauvignon & an Austrian/Hungarian descendant called Blaufrankisch. BF is a late ripening, tannin-realized red grape. Expressive on its own, and possibly explosive with CS, but this invocation is soft in the hands of one of Croatia’s oldest producers. In the glass it is Burgundian, in a sense, with its soft balance & red fruit delivery. Perhaps this is why IP wines were served at the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II

Next we travel to Montenegro. Off the shores of Lake Skadar, which borders Albania & Montenegro claiming the largest lake in the Balkan Peninsula. From the cool, Mediterranean climate comes Vranac (translated black stallion) from producer Monte Cheval. Firm in tannins, this fruit-forward workhorse dates back to Roman plantings. This medium bodied red can be found throughout the region and further inland in Serbia as well. Familiar to residents of the Balkans, this is the favorite son served usually fresh from the producer in local Konoba’s! Red meat and game are a perfect match for the dark-horse of grapes!

Lastly we travel a bit inland, completely land-locked to the Mostar region and the limestone plateau’s of Citluk in Herzegovina. Zilavka is the grape, and aromatic is the name. Tropical fruit, and hints of grass dominate this white. Reminiscent of Pinot-Gris in its earthy tones, it pulls from its stony roots…literally…and delivers a wine that has been schooled in the cool mountain evenings and bathed in its sunny afternoons.

Having family roots in Croatia I appreciate the education these wines deliver at the table. A history of a people & terroir that is just now being realized by discerning palates that have been denied these pleasures for far too long. Enjoy all, join us for dinner one evening and raise a glass. It’s an affordable trip to a magic place.


Wine Recommendations & Recipe for A Gnocchi Side

Thanksgiving is just around the corner and as Shakespeare said ” Dining is always a great artistic opportunity” and in that spirit we are suggesting some inspirations to change up your usual turkey day table.
We began by talking with our Wine Director, John Aranza, about some different ideas to change up your wine selections. These are not the usual pairings but make for some fresh new flavors to pair with the usual fare. He has selected a white, and two reds from lesser known producers in the Mediterranean, which will pair nicely with the usual suspects on your Thanksgiving table. We also have included a recipe for our butternut squash gnocchi, a wonderful change up to the usual mashed potato or stuffing side. Several guests have asked for the recipe so here it is…happy hunting and Happy Thanksgiving!

For a departure from the usual chardonnay or pinot gris you might choose for your table, we suggest a tasty Pecorino. Our list includes a very full bodied example from Jasci, called Atteso. This particular Pecorino has an uncommon sweet & savory quality that will really punch up a pairing with poultry. For reds he recommends the 2007 Lini Lambrusco (on the lighter side) and a Teranum from Croatia (for a fuller bodied red).

The Lambrusco is spritzy and a little sweet with hints of stone fruit while the 2008 Piquentum Teranum is earthy and fuller bodied with lush fruit, great with Turkey or game meats. The grape in the Teranum is a kissing cousing to Italian Refosco.

So that takes care of the drinks….now on to the recipe for our Butternut Squash Gnocchi with Brussels Sprout leaves and Mushrooms, courtesy of our Sous Chef Matt Saccaro…..Making gnocchi is not for the faint of heart, but if you can master it, it makes a great new addition to your sides. So here we go……..

(makes an 8 oz portion so adjust up if you need to make a bigger batch)

30 oz. Roasted butternut squash
2 Cups whole Milk
2 Cups Semolina Flour
1 Cup All Purpose Flour
3 Eggs
2 Oz Butter
Pinch of Nutmeg

Place all ingredients into a wide flat pan. Cook over low heat constantly spreading mixture around the pan until it forms a tight dough and there are no lumps. It should be just slightly tacky. While hot, roll out dough into strands about 1/2 inch in diameter. Cut into half inch rounds. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Ingredients for sauce

4 oz Mushroom Stock*
1/4 cup sliced yellow onion
1 handful of picked brussels sprout leaves
1/2 cup sauteed cremini mushrooms
1 oz. butter
Handful of Sage Leaves (roughly chopped)
Olive Oil
Grated Pecorino


In medium saute pan pour about 2 tbsp. olive oil and heat. Add onions, cook onions over medium heat until lightly browned (caramelized). Add add brussels sprout leaves and 4 oz. of mushroom stock ( Recipe below) to pan until leaves are gently wilted. Add 1/4 cup sauteed mushrooms and a few leaves of chopped sage. Add gnocchi (make sure that heat is not to high or gnocchi will stick to pan). Cook until liquid is reduced by 2/3rds. Finish sauce with one ounce of butter. Pour mixture into serving vessel and garnish with grated pecorino. Serve.

Mushroom Stock

8 oz dried Porcini mushrooms
4 cups water
2 onions diced
1 carrot diced
3 stalks celery diced
4 Sprigs Thyme
5 bay leaves
1 head of garlic – crushed
Tbls Black Peppercorns

Combine all ingredients in stock pot, brink to simmer and reduce to three cups. Strain and set aside.

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. (more…)