Vina Croatia Annual Tasting 2013

Croatian wine

Croatia has a wine tradition dating back 2500 years. With a hot Mediterranean climate in the south and colder Alpine weather in the north, the country is divided into four wine regions with their own geographical and climatic features, sixteen sub-regions and 66 appellations. A wide variety of wine styles is produced from approximately 200 grape varieties, of which at least 60 are indigenous. Three of these - Graševina, Malvazija and Plavac Mali – account for nearly half of the vineyard plantings. Another, Crljenak, is regarded as the original Zinfandel.

This year’s Vina Croatia Annual Tasting, which took place on 17th October at The Westbury Hotel in London, allowed a fascinating insight into the individualistic wine styles this country offers. Although my main focus was on the Plavac Mali grape, I managed to try some other wines too. Here is my selection from the show:-

Malvazija Istarska (Istrian Malvasia) can be fresh, crisp, fragrant, fruity and mineral or aged in oak for a more opulent style. In other words, plenty of expressions are possible and this is illustrated beautifully by Vina Cattunar’s, two contrasting examples. Their Malvazija 2012 (13.3% ABV) is crisp, fresh, aromatic and dry with a slightly herbaceous note and could be drunk on its own or with food. However, their Malvazija Collina 2010 (14.9%), made from old vines and aged for one year in Austrian oak, is much more of a food wine. With notes of peach and gentle woody/smoky characteristics, this is a much richer expression of the grape. At £15 and £20.85 respectively from PC Wines, they are also relatively good value for money, given the quality.

Teran is a native grape of Istria. Dark, iron–rich with high natural acidity and good ageing potential, the resultant wines can display a mix of fruit and spice flavours or, as was described to me, "should smell of blood and mulberries!" Indeed, this description was not completely off the mark when I tried Cattunar’s superb Teran Barrique 2007 (13.2% ABV), which spent 3½ years in oak. This is a big powerful wine (£27 from PC Wines), which will easily keep for several years. Notes of plum and chocolate on the nose and palate were immediately obvious, but an earthy, blood and iron character was also there, making this wine a good match for strongly-flavoured game dishes, for example.

Graševina is the most common grape variety in Croatia and produces an array of styles from dry to sweet wines. Often characterised by floral aromas, apple, stone fruit or citrus notes, it is the Croatian name for Welschriesling. One of the more interesting examples was provided by Vina Belje. Their Goldberg Graševina 2012 (15.6% ABV) is rich, powerful and mineral with notes of apple and honey. The wine, made from grapes manually harvested at different stages of maturation, is aged on its lees for eight months in large Slavonian oak barrels and stainless steel tanks with no malolactic fermentation. This allows for a combination of acidic freshness and a fuller, rounded mouth feel. Although the wine may be too powerful and alcoholic for some consumers, I think it is nevertheless a noteworthy and characterful expression of this grape variety. The ex-cellar price category is listed as £10-£14.99.

Bodren makes award-winning sweet predicate wines, i.e. from overripe or very ripe grapes with high sugar content, picked after the normal vintage time. They use several international grape varieties to create both Icewine and Trockenbeerenauslese styles. The "driest" of their range is the 100% Riesling Rajnski Rizling 2010 Trockenbeerenauslese (8.5% ABV), which has cooked apples on the nose, followed by toffee apples, spice and pears on the palate. Their intensely fragrant and unctuously sweet 100% Gewürtztraminer Traminac 2011 Ice wine (6%) is a mélange of peach, apple, tropical fruit and honey aromas and flavours. The website prices for these wines are listed as €30.06 and €43.42, respectively.

Plavac Mali is an indigenous grape of Croatia, capable of producing a wide gamut of styles, from powerful, full-bodied, high alcohol wines, especially near the southern Dalmatian coast, to lighter and fruitier expressions from further inland. Jako Vino’s Stina Plavac Mali Remek Djelo 2009 (15% ABV) is only made in the best years and from the finest vineyard grapes, spending 24 months in new oak, followed by 1 year in bottle. It has a complex nose and palate, exhibiting notes of cherries, plums, gentle wood and spice with good tannins and will certainly age well. In total contrast, the same winery’s Stina Prošek 2010 (15% ABV), made from 25% Pošip – a native white grape – and 75% Plavac Mali, is a traditional Dalmatian dessert wine made from grapes dried in the sun to concentrate their juice, resulting in approximately 70g residual sugar content. With a plum, dried fruits and caramel character, this is a sweet wine which has a slightly bitter finish reminiscent of Campari, making it particularly refreshing at the end of a meal. The UK importer for Jako Vino is Vino Nostro, but prices are unavailable at this time for these two excellent wines.

Croatian wine

A selection of Miloš wines.

One winery that particularly impressed me was Miloš. Their vineyards benefit from a nutrient-rich sandy soil on a bed of dolomite rocks plus an ideal climate, which contribute to superb growing conditions for Plavac Mali. In keeping with their ecological and partly organic approach to winemaking, using natural methods where they can, vineyard sprayings and sulphite levels are kept to a minimum. Additionally, they never use new barrels for wine ageing, as they do not want fresh oak influences. The result is a choice of delicious, yet contrasting, 100% Plavac Mali wines, which are available in the UK from PC Wines. Labelling is modern, clean and attractive too.

Miloš wines

The same company also makes superb olive oil, full of peppery olive flavour and utterly delicious.

Croatian wine deserves to be more widely known and adventurous, boutique or informed wine buyers will be tempted by the quality on offer. However, there are many challenges facing Croatian wine producers in the UK market, not least being consumers’ unfamiliarity with the country’s wine and indigenous grapes, in addition to relatively high price points. Indeed, as a report in the drinks business highlighted, grape variety is the most important factor influencing wine purchases in the UK, affecting 70% of consumers. When faced with a choice of recognisable and pronounceable wine styles, it would appear that the old favourites reign supreme, especially in times of financial austerity, so the bottle label, in particular, can be expected to have a significant impact on buying patterns. This is especially true for off-trade sales and may be an area for further consideration by Croatian wine makers seeking UK export opportunities. However, high alcohol levels and powerful structure make most of these wines easier to drink and appreciate with food. Thus, on-trade sales, particularly the restaurant sector, could potentially benefit the most from increased knowledge of this market.

This article was first published on The Alcohol Professor website.