Charine Tan and Dr Matthew Horkey, the duo behind Exotic Wine Travel, have just released part 4 of their 4-part series about Istria. it’s a great video that will introduce you to Istria’s gastronomic treasures, the region’s wines from Teran and Malvazija, and a few organic winemakers including Dimitri Brečević from Piquentum.
“Piquentum wines are made with little or no intervention,” narrates Matthew Horkey. “They’re fermented with native yeast. We’re usually fond of the Piquentum Teran and Refosk but today we’re very impressed by his Sv. Vital Malvazija. It’s a reserve wine made from vines over 40 years of age.”
Malvazija Istarska is one of the oldest Croatian grape varieties. Being grown in the Istrian peninsula since the ancient Greeks, it produces fresh and mineral white wines of floral and citrus character. But the quality of Malvazija wines greatly depends on the terroir.
Characterized by medium-deep red soil, the Sv. Vital terroir is rich in bauxite and planted with 40-year-old vines that are farmed organically. The climate is Mediterranean with hot and dry summers tempered by the sea. On the label, the dots represent the level of rainfall from October of the previous year to September, month of the harvest.
After a short maceration, the Malvazija grapes go though a spontaneous fermentation and then are aged 12 months in oak barrel.
Showing a deep golden color, the wine is rich, smoky, savory, with a vibrant acidity and an incredibly silky texture on the palate. It’s a very special wine made in very limited quantities (only 1245 bottles produced). The wine is great with seafood of course but try it also with mushroom-based dishes (especially truffles) and soft washed-rind cheese.
And don’t forget to watch Charine Tan and Dr Matthew Horkey’s video. They will take you on a spearfishing trip in the Adriatic Sea and to one of the most famous Istrian restaurants. You’ll also meet a few of the best Istrian winemakers in their cellars and their vineyards:
Take a good dose of nationalism, a slightly larger dollop of history, and fuse it with taking the best from what’s around you and creating something new. This Slovenian and Istrian container is emblematic of changing flags and political systems forcing winemakers to make something that can’t be taken away from them. New co-fermented liters from Štajerska and Dolenjsko. Sanguine Teran, Refošk, Malvazija and Vitovska from both Istria and the Kras. The singular (and extremely limited) Batič wines from Vipavska Dolina. And finally, an iconic example of the most planted grape in Croatia. The borders move around, but the land and people often don’t.
In 1993, Željko Adžić scored for the Croatian National soccer team and helped defeat Ukraine 3-1 — hero status in Croatia! In 1998, he left soccer to follow his larger passion for making wine in Kutjevo (interior Croatia), working with his father Antun full time. Slightly prior to 1993, Cistercian monks founded a winery in Kutjevo in 1232. It still stands and produces Graševina (Grash-eh-veena), the most planted grape in Croatia. The Adžić family continues this tradition. Graševina is high in acidity, has great weight, and carries both residual sugar and botrytis well. In Kutjevo, where large portions and hospitality reign supreme, it makes the local “Švargla” (mixed pork scraps and trimmings with buckwheat and spices) taste refreshing. Back in the US, wherever there is BYOB at a killer ethnic restaurant, the 2017 Adžić Graševina is a bottle to bring.
Piquentum is the classic tale of a son of a Frenchwoman (Jurançon) and an Istrian father making wine in an old Mussolini era concrete water tank. Pre water tank, Dimitri Brečević studied oenology in France and then worked harvests in Australia, New Zealand, Bordeaux, and Burgundy. In 2004 he settled in Buzet, Croatia and founded Piquentum — the town’s Latin name. The focus is on native grapes like Malvazija Istarska, Teran and Refošk and a humble commitment to better understanding the red iron rich “Terra Rossa” and white marl/karst soils of Istria. Water is another focus, and he’s changed his labels to literally show the level of rainfall in liters from October of the previous year to September harvest. Reading left to right, you can immediately get a sense of the whole vintage. Back to the wines, the Teran and Refošk are the perfect matchs for my personal favorite, and somewhat unofficial, Croatian hair of the dog called “Istarska supa.” A slightly warmed broth of red wine, toasted country bread, olive oil, sugar, and black pepper. Brings you back to life. The Malvazija Istarska, despite only 2-3 days maceration, is like opening your car window in Buzet — salt and forest. It also hints at Istria being ground zero for truffles and olive oil in Croatia.
The Batič family has been making wines since 1592. Wedged between Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia, the Vipavska Dolina (Vipava Valley) lies within the Primorje wine growing region of Western Slovenia, right along the Italian border. When you drive up, the lush diversity of the Demeter Certified vineyards are palpable. We were once warned never to trust a quiet vineyard. At Batič, you have to shout over the birds and bugs to hear one another. Miha and his father Ivan make a range of wines from slightly macerated, macerated co-fermentations (open vat), a rare Cabernet Franc (only certain vintages) and a passito like barrel aged white blend. My last visit was mainly listening to Led Zeppelin on vinyl, tasting other wines from the appellation in concert with his own, walking vineyards overlooking the valley, and eating a Slovenian surf and turf given their proximity to both the Julian Alps and the Mediterranean. All of the wines worked with everything and were as bright as the ingredients were fresh. Quantities are very limited.
For over 200 years, the Štoka farm has been nestled northeast of Trieste about 5 miles from the Adriatic in the village of Krajna Vas. The Kras, or “Carso” as it is called in nearby Italy, is Europe’s first recognized cross border wine region where only 600 hectares of vines are planted between the two countries. The tiny amount of fertile soil is the result of various human and natural events. Old oak forests dominated the land until the Venetians deforested nearly everything. Erosion and the famously strong “burja” winds caused huge amounts of topsoil to simply blow away. People learned how to build stonewalls called “griže” to protect against the wind and small manmade lakes to gather rain called “kali” to keep crops alive. The confluence of these factors plus the Maraska cherry orchards and ubiquitous Istarski pršut (prosciutto) hanging from every rafter make you see and smell the flavors of the wines all around you. Plenty of acid for sparkling wines, enough ripeness for extended maceration, and despite looking rich in the glass, the alcohol levels are counterintuitively low. Deft pairing wines that has that otherness without losing the deliciousness. One brand new addition is the “Teranov Liker.” This is an aromatized Refošk, slightly boiled with cinnamon and cloves in the Apéritif/digestif vein.
The 2017 Črnko Jereninčan is our house white. It pulls together many of things we’ve become addicted to in Viennese Gemischter Satz and adds some spice and bright aromatics from Štajerska all in a crown capped liter. The main grapes in play are Laški Rizling (aka Graševina), Sauvignon Blanc, and Rizvanec (Müller-Thurgau) but there are many muscat family grapes and others as well. Until 1918 this area was known as Lower Styria (formally Austria) and had been for many centuries. Grapes have been cultivated here for over 2,000 years alongside famed aromatic hop fields and rich pumpkin seed oil. In addition to wine, Silvo also raises a variety of livestock for milk, meat, cheese and eggs. The family also preserves and pickles a wide range of fruits and vegetables from their own garden and orchards and bakes bread daily from grains they grow and mill themselves. All in all, this is a liter that keeps us connected to the proud culture of always having a hand harvested table wine made with the same honesty and attention to detail as a single vineyard selection.
No discussion of quality table wines is complete without mentioning the 2017 Martinčič Cviček. The name Cviček (Zvee-Check) is basically Slovenian for “very sour wine.” Hailing from southern Slovenia in the Dolenjsko region, Cviček is a blend of native red and white varieties (Kraljevina, Laški Riesling, Sylvaner, Žlahtnina, Ranfol, Lipna, Žametovka, Franconian, Portugalka etc…) that cannot exceed 10% alcohol and must be dry. The color looks like something in between a Poulsard and cherry juice. Cviček is typically served slightly chilled with traditional Dolenjsko dishes like “štruklji” (rolled dumplings), suckling pig, “krvavice” (blood suasages), a St. Martin’s goose with “mlinci” (Slovene pasta), cured meat dishes, etc. Jernej Martinčič’s grandfather France likens the family wines as “Better less and better.” Sums of Cviček perfectly.
Just a few weeks ago, the Blue Danube Wine Co. team was happy to visit the beautifully preserved Shavnabada Monastery and taste its traditionally made wines with winemaker Giorgi Abramashvili.
Shavnabada Monastery is a medieval Georgian Orthodox monastery on top of a mountain of the same name. Located 15 miles south of Tbilisi, it was built in honor of St. George who, according to legend, wore a black cloak (shavi nabadi in Georgian) when leading the armies of the King of Georgia.
The monastery has also been renowned for its wines made by the Monks and aged in traditional qvevris.
Today, Giorgi Abramashvili is in charge of the winemaking with the help of the Monks. The monastery owns vineyards in the Kakheti wine region in Eastern Georgia that are organically farmed under the supervision of the Monks. It also uses grapes from nearby vineyards owned by friends.
After the harvest, the grapes are foot trodden in the “Satsnakheli”, a traditional wooden press, and then poured into qvevris where they macerate with their skins. In the monastery’s marani (cellar), the wines can age in qvevri for many years, sometimes up to twelve years like the 2003 Rkatsiteli.
The monastery has its own beehives and makes beeswax that they use to seal bottles and make church candles. They also make some delicious honey.
The Shavnabada Rkatsiteli 2007 underwent a 5-month maceration and then spent 9 years buried in earth. This amazing deep golden wine opens up to honeyed, nutty aromas and long-lasting savory flavors. It is remarkable that after all these years in qvevri, there’s still lots of freshness in its mouth-filling texture. It is the kind of wine you want with aged cheese, grilled spice-rubbed meat, or a walnut-based dish like Chicken with Satsivi (Georgian walnut sauce).
Saperavi, one of Georgia’s oldest grape varieties, usually produces serious, deep-colored wines with high acidity and tannin. But two Frenchmen, Vincent Jullien et Guillaume Gouerou, have decided to transform the varietal into a fresh and fun wine Beaujolais-style. This Saperavi is called Lapati Super Ravi , a pun that means “very happy” in French.
Aged in qvevri, Super Ravi is fully Georgian but with a French twist, as it is vinified using carbonic maceration like in Beaujolais. Whole clusters were fermented for 2 weeks with carbonic gas then destemmed and crushed after 2 weeks. The final juice was aged in qvevri for 6 months before being bottled.
The resulting wine is lively and fruity with low tannins. Best enjoyed with friends and slightly chilled, it will make you cheerful and super ravi. Santé! Gaumarjos!
Today we had the privilege to meet Aleksi Tsikhelishvili at his home near Telavi in Kakheti, Georgia. Learning winemaking from his mother, Aleksi started making wines when he was 10-year-old. Today, he makes wonderful organic qvevri wines from Rkatsiteli, the “White King of Kakheti” as he calls the most established white variety of Kakheti, and from the more delicate Mtsvane, the “White Queen of Kakheti”. His amber wines are deeply colored, tannic, savory, and incredibly multilayed. They can also age very well.
He also makes a unique red wine from the rare Jghia grape. The varietal is the opposite of Kakheti’s “Red King”, the full-bodied Saperavi. It has a thin skin and produces a lightly colored red wine with distinctive spicy aromas. It is a lovely wine, fragrant and very well balanced.
Of course, we couldn’t leave without tasting his homemade Chacha—the Georgian grappa—and making several toasts to friendship. After several hugs, we were sad to go but we promised to come back so that we could taste Aleksi’s special Georgian recipe.
The Serbian Orthodox Monastery Tvrdoš is located in southeastern Herzegovina, 2.5 miles west of the old town of Trebinje and less than 20 miles from the Adriatic Sea. Dedicated to The Dominion of the Mother of God, it was built in the late 13th century above the right bank of the Trebisnica river on the foundations of a 4th century Roman church.
The region’s winegrowing tradition dates back to the first hellenic colonies on the Adriatic Coast. The climate is submediterranean with hot summers and mild winters. The Herzegovinian karst soil is shallow, mixed with white crushed stones. These warm and dry conditions are particularly well suited to the native grape varieties Žilavka and Vranac.
Vranac was introduced to South Herzegovina during the AustroHungarian Empire. The name “Vranac”, which means “black horse”, highlights the grape’s dark color as well as its strength and power. When grown on the rocky grounds of Tvrdoš created by a washout of the soil from the surrounding hills, Vranac shows distinctive acids and intense fruity aromas.
Aged for 24 months in old monastic oak barrels, the Monastery Tvrdoš Vranac exhibits a purple red color and savory, earthy aromas on the nose. The palate has a good structure with some tannins and a lively acidity with notes of crushed cassis and blueberry and a nice finish. Try it with grilled lamb chops.
As you drive up and down the Croatian coast and up into the Karst ridden hinterlands of Bosnia and Herzegovina, there is one constant smell: the combination of herbs and rocks. What “Garrigue” is to the French, “Friškina” is to the Balkans – herbs, rocks and salt baking under the sun. It’s also oddly refreshing. Maybe it’s the ocean air, and maybe it’s the super counterintuitive acidity of the wines and olive oils. Whatever it is, very few smells trigger our olfactory memory so violently. We want Brudet (fish stew), Crni Rižoto (squid ink risotto), octopus cooked under “Peka,” Palačinka (crepes) filled with small fish, and everything bathed in Dalmatian olive oil.
Focusing on the Dalmatian coast with a quick jump into Bosnia and Herzegovina (Istrian and Slavonian wines arrive in June), please consider these wines as ideal lubricates for our transition into Spring.
Starting on the Island of Korčula off the Southern Dalmatian Coast, three new Pošips from Frano Banicević’s Toreta winery. Pošip is a white grape that can muster a ton of acidity and alcohol if left unchecked. Farmed well on the windy island it can produce salty, aromatic and lively wines. From stainless steel to acacia fermented, they are a proper introduction to this former Venetian island in the Adriatic.
Back on the mainland south of Dubrovnik in the cooler climate of the Konavle area comes the 2015 Dubrovački Podrumi Crljenak Kaštelanski. AKA Tribidrag. AKA Zinfandel. Grown on impossibly stony terraced vineyards, the result is ripeness that retains its freshness.
Head north toward Dubrovnik but then swerve east for about 30 miles towards the Trebinje river valley. Here you find the 15 th Century Serbian Orthodox Monastery Tvrdoš. From the Brotherhood, we have a fresh 2016 Žilavka, a 2015 Vranac (aged in 100 year old barrels) and given the Monastic heritage, a 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon. Destroyed and rebuilt multiple times since the Middle Ages, winemaking persevered. In fact, proceeds from the wines actually helps rebuild what was destroyed in the 1990s. These are rustic, bright and engaging wines.
Back towards Dubrovnik and a little north we hit the Pelješac Peninsula and the Miloš Winery. There is too much to say here. Iconic terraced vineyards and one of our favorite families to host and visit. 100% Plavac Mali in both their 2015 Plavac and their flagship 2008 Stagnum. In lieu of the texture, acidity and aging potential of Nebbiolo from Piedmont’s, we have Plavac Mali from Miloš.
Now take some Plavac Mali from Vedran Kiridžija’s esteemed Dingač vineyards overlooking the Adriatic and blend it with the acidity and salt from Leo Gracin’s Babič grown up north in Primošten. Both vineyards look like they were based on a dare. Where Dingač is steep, the Bucavac site in Primošten vineyard is up for UNESCO designation due to the human labor involved. Called “Kontra,” this is one of the most elegant (the 6 years of age helped) and concentrated reds we’ve encountered from Croatia.
Our last stop heading north is the town of Skradin and the nearby Bibich Winery. Alen continues his family’s 500 year winemaking tradition and is a benchmark producer of the Debit grape. The new fresh Debit is the Bibich house wine and we’ve restocked the more macerated and oxidatively aged R5 and Lučica. The house red is the 2016 R6 (Babič, Plavina, Lasin) which are all cousins of Zinfandel in a bright and meaty package. There’s also a limited new batch of Ambra – his passito like Debit.
These are wines that inspire travel, cooking something new, and listening to some Balkan Beats.
A couple of months ago, Cliff Rames, founder of Wines of Croatia and also Contributing-Editor-at-Large for The SOMM Journal, led the SommCon San Diego attendees though a Wines of Croatia presentation, pointing out the connection between Croatia and California and recalling the quest for Zinfandel’s origins:
Geographically, Croatia appeared to be a plausible source and once researchers began testing, they found numerous varieties that shared Zinfandel’s genetic material—including Plavac Mali. After years of study, they traced an exact match: seven vines that were locally called Crljenak Kaštelanski (historically known as Tribidrag) in the Dalmatian region of coastal Croatia.
Plavac Mali, native to the Adriatic Coast, is the offspring of Tribidrag and Dobričić. The region’s extremely dry conditions and lack of irrigation make viticulture difficult and Plavac Mali was preferred over Zinfandel.
Cliff presented the Miloš Stagnum 2007 to showcase how well Plavac Mali can age despite its low acidity and higher alcohol content:
Intriguing aromas of mint, clove, and mushroom. On the palate, notes of bay leaf and green figs mingle around a tannic core of light roasted coffee, mint, chocolate, and plum pudding. A fascinating wine considering its maturity.
We just received the Miloš Stagnum 2008, also a very special wine that has aged perfectly well. Check also the Miloš Plavac Mali 2015, a well-balanced wine, rich and elegant, like all the Miloš wines.
Wines from the several types of volcanic soils—lava, pumice, ash, basalt, and more—can vary widely, but most share complex aromas, mouthwatering high acidity, and salty, savory, earthy flavors. The porosity of these soils stores more water, which contributes to the wines’ characteristic freshness and exuberance.
But we shouldn’t underestimate the power of romance:
But the image of volcanoes may be the secret reason these wines are getting buzz. As Eric Guido, director of wine and marketing at Morrell and Co., emailed me: “Just think of the romance that surrounds wines grown in soils born of molten earth and ash!”
She highlights eight volcanic wine regions around the world including Somló, Hungary’s smallest wine region, which lies on the slopes of an extinct volcano:
Though the country’s volcanoes are no longer active, violent eruptions millennia ago left behind spectacular basalt deposits in several parts of the country. Somlo, a single volcanic butte known as the “forgotten hat of God,” produces powerful, distinctive whites. Bottle to try: 2015 Somloi Apatsagi Pince Juhfark Somlo($29) is rich, smoky, and savory and made from an almost extinct grape variety, juhfark, which is exclusive to Somlo.
Romance or not, I think volcanic wines are powerful and distinctive and if you like rich, earthy, mineral whites, you’ll enjoy the wines from Somló. You should also read Elin McCoy’s whole article to get a good overview of some of the world’s best volcanic regions.