We caught up with our friend, and New York based sommelier, Cliff Rames, recently to share his thoughts on Croatian wine with you. Cliff also writes the popular blog, Wines of Croatia, which we encourage you to follow!
1. What makes you so passionate about Croatian wine?
Well first, my father is from Croatia, so it’s in my blood I guess. When I was 16 years old my dad asked me if I wanted to go visit his birthplace, a small island called Murter off the Dalmatian coast. I said yes, and it forever changed my life. There I learned to drink Turkish coffee and “bevanda” – a mixture of red wine (usually homemade) and water. That kicked off my fascination with the local wine customs and traditions. It was then I also first heard of a mythological place called Dingač, the place from which (I was told by relatives) Croatia’s greatest wine came. I also began to hear words like Plavina, Debit, Babić, Plavac Mali, Pošip – the names of local grape varieties used to make wine. The more I heard and learned, the more I wanted to know! After that, back in the U.S., I found myself searching for these wines because I wanted to have that taste of Croatia again. But at the time I couldn’t find them anywhere! Croatia opened the door for me to the world of wine, which eventually led to me becoming a sommelier. Once in the wine business, I made it my mission to tell people about Croatian wines and do whatever I could to help make them accessible and successful here in the U.S.
2. What are some of the varietals you think Americans should know about? Why?
Nothing gets me more excited than talking about little-known, indigenous varieties, and there are lots of them in Croatia. My personal favorites are Babić, Lasina, Plavac Mali, and Teran from the reds, and Graševina, Grk, Pošip, and Škrlet from the whites. Many Americans have already fallen in love with Plavac Mali – especially the easy drinking, affordable “Peljesac” label imported by Blue Danube. Perhaps it has something to do with Plavac’s relationship to Zinfandel, which we now know originated in Croatia and is closely related to Plavac Mali. And Pošip, from the island of Korčula is gaining a fan club for its deliciousness and ability to pair so well with seafood. Grk is a rare, often overlooked wine from Korčula that really gets some of my sommelier and wine geek friends jazzed whenever I have a bottle to share. And I am really looking forward to tasting and sharing more Lasina. This wine has the potential to stake a claim as the “Pinot Noir of Dalmatia”.
3. What are you currently excited about drinking?
Well, it was a long, cold winter but now it’s finally summer. And that means rosé! In a blog post I wrote last year, I said that I think the “next big thing” from Croatia is rosé. I think the conditions exist, particularly in some parts of Dalmatia, to produce world class rosés. And I am thrilled that Blue Danube Wine is now importing the Miloš rosé – a great wine from a great producer and a must try! The BIBICh Sparkling Rosé is another great buy if you like bubbles. I hope to pop one in the 4th of July!
4. Looking ahead, what do you think the future of Croatian wine looks like?
Croatia is blessed with such a beautiful natural landscape, from the rolling, golden plains of Slavonia, to the pastoral, green hills of the Uplands, to the olive tree and truffle woods of Istria, to the sparkling azure Adriatic Sea and white islands of Dalmatia. In each of these gorgeous regions great wines are produced by amazing people with stories to tell. Despite this, the wine can’t sell itself, no matter how beautiful the vineyard and how delicious the wine. Someone needs to tell the story of these regions, these producers, these unique grape varieties, and these world-worthy wines every day, in a sustained, approachable, and strategic way that connects with buyers and consumers. Without marketing, promotion, brand ambassadors, and constant messaging, the wines will just sit on the shelf. The future of Croatian wine depends on this. The quality and stories are there. We just need the right messaging, the right storytellers, the right marketing approach, and a sustained commitment by all – producers, winemakers’ associations, importers and distributors, and the Croatian government – to spread the word, organize more tasting events (one Grand Tasting every two years is not close enough), and convince more buyers and consumers that Croatian wines are worthy of their hard-earned dollars and will delight their palates, too! In this respect, I think you folks at Blue Danube Wine are doing a great job of messaging, promoting, and sharing the love for the producers and wines you represent!
5. Tell us a little bit about Wines of Croatia. What is your mission?
Wines of Croatia remains my labor of love and an independent platform from which I share my passion and admiration for the country and its wines through social media, the blog, and announcements about events and latest news. It is important to me to remain independent and non-governmental. But with that come challenges, primarily financial. It costs money to operate a website and other activities. So I am constantly thinking about ways to generate income, offset costs, and ensure the sustainability of the project. I hope to refresh the brand and complete the website this year, and then from there figure out what’s next. A lot of people don’t realize that Wines of Croatia is manly a one-man-show, and I guess that is a compliment. But it is not ideal, and I hope to change that eventually. Until then I will continue to do whatever I can – whenever I can – to help promote the wines of Croatia and lend whatever passion, expertise, and sweat I can muster to writing about them, representing them at tastings, talking to buyers or consumers about them, and in general supporting others who feel the same way. Perhaps someday I will be able to earn a grand living from this and retire to a vineyard-covered island in Dalmatia. That is a dream worth pursuing! But if not, that’s okay too. No matter how you turn it, the journey will be blessed with many delicious bottles of Croatian wine, and that’s not bad at all!