A Day in the Golden Valley (part 1: Krauthaker)

A Day in the Golden Valley (part 1: Krauthaker)
After a comprehensive tasting at the Krauthaker estate.

Too early in the morning, we’re plucked from our hotel in Dubrovnik and deposited at the small airport for our flight north to Zagreb. Just two hours later, we’re on our way by car to Slavonia, in the northeastern leg of Croatia bounded on three sides by Hungary, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. We’re chauffered by the cheerful 23-year-old son of the label designer for Vlado Krauthaker in the town of Kutjevo, considered the center of Slavonian winemaking. The scenery here is very different from the coast, where precipitous, rocky slopes slant down to water’s edge and even inland valleys are ringed by craggy mountain ranges. Here there are vast fields of wheat and what looks like rye, and we’re told that much tobacco, too, is grown along this 55km valley with rounded ranges in the distance, which has been called the golden valley (Vallis Aurea) since Roman times. The vineyards are planted on the south slopes of the Krndija and Papuk mountains at 200 to 400 meters elevation. The region produces 80 to 90% white wine, and is known for elegant wines from the grasevina grape, a.k.a. welschriesling. We visit only two producers here, Krauthaker and Enjingi, but if one thing stands out to us in this region, it is the commitment to experimentation and development.

Our first visit is with Vlado Krauthaker, a serious gentleman highly regarded for his leadership in regional winemaking. As we take a bumpy tour of the vineyards by car, we look to the top of the slopes to a Slavonian oak forest, part of a national park and the source of high-quality Slavonian oak barrels. Vlado Krauthaker has 24 hectares of his own, plus 42 within a sort of labor-sharing partnership that doesn’t quite come clear in translation. Seventy percent of his production is grasevina, which likes the hard clay soil. Only 7% of his production is red, but he’s planting more black grapes to achieve 30 to 40%, and is running experiments in conjunction with the university in Zagreb with 26 black grape varieties to determine what works: merlot, syrah, and cab are performing well so far. Many of the vines we see on the hillside are planted at high density in the French style, and we’re told the land is worked by horses. Everything is hand harvested.

We descend to Krauthaker’s airy new tasting rooms, where we’re treated to dozens of wines. Some of them have recently been imported to the US for the first time and are now available in New York. First is grasevina three ways:

Vlado Krauthaker, one of Croatia’s top wine makers.

GRASEVINA 2006 This spent 4 months on its lees with 50% ML. It has a very citrusy lemon-lime and slightly mineral nose; dry, with high acidity and light to medium body. Creamy citrus and herbs dominate the flavor. This is well done, with a nice mouth-feel.

GRASEVINA 2006, half-dry (5.5 g/l RS). This has a less citrusy nose than the dry version, with mineral; it’s off-dry with high acidity and medium body. Medium-intensity pear, lime, and slight melon on the palate. Nice, but I prefer the dry one.

GRASEVINA 2006, a special selection of old vines. This is a slightly darker lemon hue than the two wines above, with a medium-intensity citrus and mineral nose. A slight spritz leads on the palate of this off-dry wine with medium-high acidity to balance the sweetness, and medium-full body. Herbal, lemony, and nicely made.

MANZONI 2005 (riesling x pinot blanc cross, 1964) Vlado Krauthaker is involved in many experiments, including this stainless-steel fermented batch of 2000 to 3000 bottles. The wine is medium gold with medium-intensity honey and creamy lees aromas (it underwent full ML); dry with medium-high acidity and a fairly full body, slight oxidation, honey, and mineral on the palate with a long honey finish. Very interesting.

ZELENAC 2005 Zelenac is rotgipfler, grown only in Slavonia and the Thermen region in Austria and made only by Krauthaker in Croatia. This example is slightly off-dry (5 g/l RS) with high acidity, full body, and well balanced alcohol. The palate is very mineral, with white fruit and slight honey. Short to med length; well made and interesting.

CHARDONNAY “Rosenberg” 2005 This spent 8-1/2 months on the lees in oak and was bottled unfiltered. It has oak on the nose, with a slight chemical undernote; dry with medium acidity and body, creamy oak and white fruit on the palate. The length is medium and the wine will develop nicely in the bottle judging from the 2004, which now has hazelnut aromas. This is probably the best chardonnay effort we’ve seen in Croatia.

SAUVIGNON BLANC 2005 Lufthansa selected this wine to serve on their international flights. It’s made with 60% stainless-steel and 40% old-barrique fermentation. A medium lemon-gold in color, this has the intense tropical guava and lemongrass aromas of New World sauvignon blanc, with a short to medium length.

At the end of our tasting—all before lunch—we open a dozen experimental bottles of young pinot noir, which are being monitored for their progress. On our way to the restaurant in town, Vlado points out the cooperative winery where he worked for fourteen years during the Communist period before starting his own operation in 1992. After our enjoyable, light meal we make our way to Ivan Enjingi, whose winery building sits just outside the tiny town of Venje (see part 2).

Text and photos by Katherine Camargo, DWS / kcamargo@verizon.net