By Geoffrey Dean, 2015.
Tom Cannavan’s detailed précis of the Croatian wine industry after his 2011 visit to the country affords readers all the background they need to know. Since then, wines and winemaking in Croatia have continued to make significant advances as I found on an eight-day trip there in May as a guest of the Croatian Tourist Board, when I drove more than 1500km and visited 18 leading wineries. These were situated in Baranje/Srijem, Istria and Dalmatia, all regions of striking beauty and great historical interest or importance. Throw in some impressive hotels (listed at the end are those where I stayed, all recommended); outstanding cuisine, a string of lovely coastal towns and idyllic islands, and you have all the ingredients for one of the best wine tourism holidays. In short, Croatia is a place that should be high on a wine-lover’s must-visit list.
BARANJA & SRIJEM
If you think of Croatia as the shape of a horseshoe, these two regions lie in the bottom right leg of it – the south-eastern extremity. Baranja is part of Slavonia, where many top producers make wine in the sub-district of Kutjevo, but Srijem is a separate and tiny region that forms the easternmost part of Croatia. Surrounded on three sides by Serbia, it was occupied by the Serbs from 1991-8 in the Balkan War. So too was Baranja, where I visited two contrasting vineyards – the one owned by an artisanal winemaker of great repute, Mikhael Gerštmajer, who produces 50,000 litres per annum, and the other, a large-scale concern named Belje, whose proprietor is the richest man in Croatia, Ivan Todoric. Last year, it made 3.5m litres but its premium wines are top-notch.
“Forget Jose Mourinho; Gerštmajer is ‘The Special One’,” a Zagreb sommelier who was at the winery when I visited, told me. “We adore him not just because he is a very nice guy but because no one can change his philosophy. Croatians like high alcohol wine and he gives us those.” Gerštmajer certainly does for some of his wines – witness the Rajnski Riesling ’08 (16.1% abv), the Traminac ’08 (16.2%) and the Chardonnay 2011 (15%). These were all dry, but it was his more balanced sweeter wines that really impressed. A late harvest Graševina (Welsch Riesling) 2013, which was 12.8% abv and had 58g/l residual sugar, was complex and long, while his botrytised Chardonnay 2010 (135g/l RS and 13.1% abv) had fabulous concentration with a lengthy finish.
A 20-million Euro winery, built in 2011, with a total of 247 100,000 litre stainless steel tanks and a bottling line with a capacity of 4,500 bottles per hour. Belje has 600 acres under vine, of which 90% are white grapes. While it is primarily an entry-level producer for the domestic market, exporting only small quantities, it makes some good mid-market wines and some excellent premium ones from its Goldberg blocks. These included a rich off-dry Graševina 2013, made from forty-year old vines and aged in old oak. It was no surprise to hear that an earlier vintage had won best regional wine at the 2014 Decanter Awards. The Goldberg Chardonnay 2008 ice wine was a delight while an off-dry Pinot Noir, with 15.5% abv, was notably big. Right: the vineyards in winter courtesy Vina Belje.
Wine was first produced by the Romans in the third century in Ilok, a small town by the Danube, right by the Serbian border, that was overrun by the Yugoslav army when war broke out in 1991. The famous old Iločki Podrumi (or Ilok Cellars) winery, whose dry Traminer was served at the Queen’s Coronation in 1953, was occupied, causing wine production to cease between 1991-8 when 90% of the 10,000 population fled. The occupying Serbs drained all 25 of the 15,000 litre foudres in the splendid 16th century winery cellars to make brandy, but mistakenly decided that the 2,500 bottles of off-dry Graševina 1983 were oxidised, and left the lot. There was nothing wrong with the wine, as I discovered when tasting it (notes below). Whether it is worth the current cellar door price of £125 is in the eye of the beholder. Good value were the off-dry Traminac 2011 (£14) and the ice wine Traminac 2008 (£42), both from the top Principovac vineyards. 60% of Iločki Podrumi’s 4.5m litres annual production is quaffable every day-drinking, dry Graševina, while the dry Traminer is a light and refreshing mid-market steal. About 6% of production is exported, but none to the UK.
Vino Ivan Buhač
Ivan and his son, Domagos, then aged 8, fled Ilok in 1991 at the outbreak of war, and when they returned in 1998, found that the Serbs who had lived in their house had stripped it completely bare. Almost all their vines had died, but have since been replanted and are producing some excellent fruit. Domagos has become one of the best young boutique winemakers in the region, crafting fine Graševina, Rhine Riesling and Merlot. He has the highest vineyard locally (263m). A heart-warming story of a family who came home with nothing but have bounced back. They even sell their wine to the Serbs now, as well as the Russians, who like the fact ‘BuhaBuhačc’ means ‘chronically alcoholic’ in Russian.
This stunning region on the Adriatic in the north-western corner of Croatia near Italy and Slovenia is one of Europe’s most interesting wine-producing destinations. Some steeply hilly scenery, characterful inland villages and stunning coastal towns, rich in history and architecture like Pula (with its magnificent Roman amphitheatre), Poreč and Rovinj combine delightfully. There are many eminent winemakers who, in this area, specialise in Malvasia and Teran (a black grape), and who craft some superb wines. Two soil types are found in the region – soft, white stone known as ‘flish’ (which is very poor and offers freshness and minerality); and red earth which contains more iron, which works well with black grapes, giving them better structure.
Olivio Benvenuti, and his two sons, Nikola and Albert, are a top-quality team who fashion some outstanding dry and sweet wines. Their Malvasia Anno Domini comes from vines planted in 1946, with the yield of the just-released 2011 a mere 30hl/ha. Fifteen days of skin contact give this wine a golden colour. Aged in old oak foudres for two years, it is full-bodied and complex with apricot and peach notes, the abv of 14% counter-balanced by a low pH of 3.2. Very much a food wine – “good with white truffles and pasta” Nikola advised, adding that the forest by the nearby town of Motovun is the best for truffles in Croatia. The 2010 Malvasia straw wine (13%, 150g/l RS) and the Muscat 2011 (14%, 180g/l RS) both showed fabulous concentration and length, while the sweet Teran 2011 was an unexpected boon (notes below). The dry Teran 2012, which had two years in oak (10% new) had soft tannins, bright fresh red fruit and good length. Sales to UK were started last year.
Gianfranco Kozlović is one of Croatia’s most accomplished winemakers, producing 200,000 bottles per year, 70% of which is Malvasia. The rest is Teran and Muscat from the rare Muscat Momjanski clone. All his vines are grown on ‘white’ soils, with the oldest dating back to 1960. His three different Malvasias are exported to the UK on-trade, and all are made from the Malvaziya Istriana clone. “This variety is very important to our region, and we’re lucky to have it,” he said. “It’s a good fit here and is part of our tradition. It has potential for ageing. The climate works well and is similar to Friuli, where they have a bit of the same clone.” Right: the view from the winery, courtesy Kozlović.
The first winery to be certified organic in Istria (in 2009), it also has vines up to 50 years age. Three different Malvasias are made – one in stainless steel, one in old 3,200-litre oak foudres and one in clay amphoras for six months. The latter wine also spent that time on the skins before going into old oak for 12 months and into bottle for 18 months before release. The 2009 (14.6% abv) was complex and very full-bodied with good length and balance despite the high alcohol. No one else in Istria uses this method of production.
A serious producer near Umag on the coast with as many as 27 different labels as well as grappa. Winemaker, Moreno Degrassi, has 28 hectares under vine with a dozen cultivars including traditional Croatian grapes and the Bordeaux red varietals as well as syrah, pinot noir, viognier and chardonnay. His sweet passito style Petit Manseng/Malvasia has wonderful length and concentration, coming from very low-yielding vines.
A more engaging host than Moreno Coronica would be hard to find in Istria. He is also a very fine winemaker with some attractive vineyards a couple of kilometres from the sea. Minerality is his watchword, which he thinks derives from a low humus content (1%) in his very deep red soils. Some fifty-year-old vines help provide complexity to his Malvasia, Teran and Cabernet-Merlot wines. Exports 20% of his 140,000 bottle production to Europe and North America, with plans for the UK soon.
Top-class producer who exports a quarter of his wines to as many as 20 countries, including the UK. “My philosophy is drinkability, not high alcohol, so I pick early,” Nica Matošević says. Extensive range of wines from clean single varietal Malvasia to a concentrated Merlot-Teran blend. In contrast to Coronica, 95% of his soils are white, and he likes to use both oak and acacia barrels.
The Fakin family – Marko is winemaker and and father Elio cellar-master – have been on their picturesque farm near the walled castle town of Motovun since the 18th century. They are a fine boutique producer, making around 50,000l per annum from 15 hectares from six grapes. Their three different Malvasias make an interesting contrast – one matured in stainless steel; one in old acacia barrels; and another in new acacia ones for a year before six months in stainless steel.
Rino Prelac, who farms ten hectares right by the Slovenian border, is another noteworthy boutique winemaker. His fresh, citrusy whites (Malvasia, and Chardonnay) are unoaked, while his reds (Refosco and Cabernet, both under 13% abv) see old oak and sell well in his on-site restaurant, which is famous for its meats (including his donkey goulash).
The Pelješac Peninsula and the island of Hvar feature some of the most dramatically beautiful vineyards in Europe. The former is home to wines from Dingac, a small top-quality denomination with exceptionally steep, south-facing vineyards overlooking the sea where Croatia’s celebrated black grape, Plavac Mali, is grown. It also thrives on Hvar, a two-hour ferry ride south of Split. Other Dalmatian islands such as Pag and Korcula are likewise home to some quality wines.
The family, who have been producing wine for 150 years, built a winery and atmospheric 40m-long cellar (with dining alcoves in the Roman manner) into the side of a hill on the edge of the pretty town of Jelsa in 2007. Eighty per cent of their production of 120,000 bottles per annum is red wine. White is made from Bogdanusa, the island’s indigenous grape, and Pošip. Reds only are exported to the UK. The flagship red is called ‘Kaplar’, a blend of Plavac Mali and Cabernet Sauvignon (50:50), matured in 100% new oak. Light in colour with elegance and minerality, it is ‘produced as a combination of Hvar, love and knowledge’ (so the label says in Croat). Interesting range of wines with excellent single variety Plavac and a superb late harvest white, made up of Bogdanusa and Marastina.
A lengthy and beautiful drive (that includes going through a mile-long tunnel wide enough for one vehicle only) takes you to the southern side of Hvar Island, where the remarkable Plenković winery is situated as close to the sea as you could possibly get. In fact, they keep some bottles actually in the sea. This top producer is renowned for its peachy Pošip and outstanding Plavac Mali. The grapes for the latter are grown on rocky vineyards with a 30-50% gradient. Exports to the UK as well as the US and Germany.
New high-end winery built by the stunningly-located Riviera Hotel site that is being reopened next year in the pretty town of Orebic. Lovely views towards the island of Korcula, whose dolomite and limestone soil is ideal for Pošip, Croatia’s best-known indigenous white grape. Korta Karolina’s Pošip 2013 comes from Korcula and has lovely intensity of flavour and good length. Twelve hours on the skins gives it some complexity and body, enhanced by 50% spending time in oak (10% new). Complex and elegant Plavac Mali 2010 comes from low-yielding, steep, hillside rocky vineyards overlooking Orebic. Owners are Croat expatriates based in the US, one of 25 countries to which exports are made. Not the UK yet though.
Ritzy inland winery between Orebic and Trpanj completed last year following major recent investment from a wealthy Zagreb businessman. It has an English name owing to the owner’s love of saints (his four children are named after them) with local law precluding use of Croatian word for ‘saint’ on the label without church permission. Fine Malvasia/Chardonnay blend and Plavac Mali produced, with 50% exported (not yet to UK).
Marto Matuško is one of the most flamboyant winemakers in Croatia – he looks like he could have been one of their national footballers with his long, straggly hair and Maserati parked outside the winery. He has a speedboat and two motorbikes as well, and was hobbling around after falling off one when I met him. His 1500 square metre cellar is the biggest in Dalmatia, and he produces 500,000 litres per annum (90% red wine). He exports about 10%, with a small amount going to the UK. He has 11 hectares of his own Dingac under vine, and buys fruit in from the area. Plavac Mali is his specialty, and he has entry-level, mid-market and premium/super-premium examples of it. His Dingac Reserva spends five years in barrel (25-30% new) as does his Royal Dingac, which is not made every year. A sweet Plavac Mali with 22g/l residual sugar and 16.4% abv is his most expensive wine (â‚¬90), while a sparkling wine (66% Plavac Mali and 34% Schipon) showed well. Above, one of Matuško’s vineyards, pic courtesy Matuško. Grgić
Small-scale but high quality winery opened up in 1996 by Mike Grgić, who found fame in California after emigrating there in 1958 aged 35. He did not return to Croatia till 1991 and still lives in the US. Two wines only made – Pošip, whose fruit comes from Korcula Island, which has complexity and minerality; and Plavac Mali from nearby vineyards. An old-fashioned label for the latter features artwork with the sea and a yacht, with the winery and vineyards in the background.
A worthy wine from each producer
Belje, Goldberg Chardonnay Ice Wine 2013
13.5%, 50g/l residual sugar. Figs and honey notes, wonderful concentration and long length. 93/100.
Gerštmajer, Chardonnay 2010
13.1%, 135g/l RS. 60% from botrytised grapes, very low yield (20hl/ha), fantastic concentration, last year this wine made. 96/100.
Ilocki Podrumi, Graševina 1983
13%, 7g/l RS. Light gold colour, pear notes, notable acidity, impressive length, some complexity. Has aged very well. 92/100.
Ivan Buhac, Merlot 2013
13.5%. Juicy red fruit with pronounced intensity of flavour, vibrant acidity, approachable tannins. 90/100.
Benvenuti, Teran straw wine 2011
15%, 130g/l RS. Fruit left for 3 months to dry on straw, aged 24 months in old oak, fresh acidity balances high abv (TA 7.6g/l), round and soft. 92/100.
Prelac, Refosco 2013
12.7%. Bright red fruit, soft tannins, brisk acidity, good length and pleasing intensity of flavour, very drinkable. 90/100.
Kabola, Dolce Muscat Momjanski 2012
15.4%, 30g/l RS. Big production mid-market dessert wine with exports to UK and rest of Europe, great value at â‚¬8 cellar door (375cl). 90/100.
Kozlović, Santa Lucia Malvaziya 2006
13.5% abv. 5 days on skins & 12 months in large old oak vessels, notable acidity balances high abv (15%), highly complex with bready notes. 96/100.
Degrassi, Passito Terre Bianche 2011
16.5%, 30g/l RS. 70% Petit Manseng, 30% Malvasia, apricot/figs, very long and concentrated. 93/100.
Coronica, Gran Teran 2011
14.8%. Vibrant red fruit, well-integrated tannins, big yet elegant. 94/100.
Matošević, Grimalda white blend 2011
13.5%.: Chardonnay (45%), Malvasia (40), sauvignon bkanc (15), one year in French oak (20% new), long finish with minerality and some complexity, £15-16 RRP in UK. 92/100.
Tomić, Piosek Hectovevich Late Harvest 2007
15% abv, 106g/l RS. Blend of Bogdanusa & Marastina. Fabulous concentration and length. 92/100.
Zlatan Plenković, Grand Cru Plavac 2010
15%. 18-24 months in barriques (65% new), best fruit & barrels, wild yeasts increase complexity, good balance despite high abv. 94/100.
Korta Katarina, Pošip 2013
13%. Half in stainless steel, half in oak (10% new), 12 hours on skins add complexity and body (full), lovely intensity of flavour and good finish, 93/100.
Saints Hills, Nevina Istra 2012
13.6%. Blend of Malvasia (70%) & Chardonnay (30), 6 months in oak (25% new), best fruit from St Ante vineyard, complex and long, 91/100.
Matuško, Royal Dingac 2007
15.7%. Five years in barrel (30% new), best Plavac Mali fruit from best sites, some tartaric acid added to counter high abv but no spikiness, overt tannins but well-integrated, powerful & classy with real concentration, 95/100.
Grgić, Plavac Mali 2009
15%. Half fruit from Dingac and half from Trsrenik, two years in oak (30% new), overt tannins need more time, long finish and plenty of complexity, 93/100.
Hotel Osijek, Osijek (Baranje)
Beautifully appointed, by river, in university town with fine architecture.
Villa Iva, Ilok (Srijem)
Comfortable, small hotel in middle of border town.
San Rocco, Brtonigla (Istria)
Charming boutique hotel with superb cuisine in village near coast
Hotel Indijan, Orebic (Dalmatia)
Stunning sea views from modern hotel in resort town on Pelješac Peninsula
Valamar Lacroma, Dubrovnik (Dalmatia)
Well-located five-star ten minutes drive from the old town and its multiple attractions. Easy commute to Pelješac Peninsula.