The Youthful Evolution of Dalmatia

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It was back in 2007 that I set about to write the first edition of my Dalmatian wine guide. Since then, I’ve fully updated it four times to arrive at the current edition. I realize of course that even the most recent edition will need updating again as these wines are constantly in s state of flux, especially when taken in the context of watching this evolution for the last decade.

I was in Dalmatia for the Dalmacija Wine Expo this year. While it was my first time, the event has been going on for the last six years or so, first further south in Makarska and then for the last two years with a couple of additional days spent in Dalmatia’s much easier to reach capital, Split. People naturally told me that the event in Makarska sees more winemakers and is much more of a party. Maybe at some point I’ll find the time to make it there but what I saw and tasted in Split was plenty to re-acquaint myself with wineries I’ve gotten to know well over the years.

The biggest thing to note in Dalmatia wine has been the evolution of most winemakers’ portfolios. For me, the sign of a mature winemaking region is if you can find a line of affordable everyday wines, a more mature aged line, and then a line of top-end singularities. Overall, Dalmatia is closing in on this moment of maturity. At the moment, the catch is that you rarely find all three of these levels in the same cellar.

Young wine or svježe vino (literally “fresh wine”) as the Croats like to call them are much easier to find these days. This is one of the rather positive outcomes of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008/09 in that wine regions all over the world needed to start producing more of these affordable wines. In this moment I saw a sudden burst of good quality wines, usually only aged in stainless steel or a dash of barrel for less than 10€ in-country. This was unheard of in Dalmatia just a few years back.

Whether it was due to wineries feeling that there was no need to make anything but a 35€ wine or that the young wines weren’t bottled and only sold as bulk, I don’t know. I’ve never gotten a particular good answer to this question and other regions of Croatia like Istria who see the sense in it, have always had this level of wine in their portfolio. These are not the glamorous, “money shot” wines but they keep the lights on and work to introduce people to the world of Croatian wines and more importantly, the grapes.

Vuina winery is a touch west of Split in Kaštel Štafilić. This region is better known in recent years for being where they found those few old vines of original Zinfandel, which at the time were called, Crljenak Kaštelanski. I’ve tasted their wines on several occasions in recent years and have found their young offer to be quite solid. While the Crljenak Rosé, Babica, and Plavac are all accessible, at times I do find them a touch rustic. The Pošip 2013 however is a different story and offers up a profile of what I consider to be perfect Pošip with lemon peel and orange pith alongside limestone minerality and medium acidity that lingers wonderfully in the finish.

Prović was a new name to me and as they’re making wines in the Neretva Delta that was also something new. This plain a bit to the north of Dubrovnik was once a hotbed of malaria and foulness that was drained and then turned in to excellent agricultural land. The catch was that it wasn’t really grape-growing land given the highly fertile nature of what was once a river floodplain. As an ironic aside, Mike Grgich of Napa Valley fame is actually from this region originally but makes his wines a stone’s throw away on the Pelješac Peninsula.

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So it’s only natural that Prović would plant not the native varietals that are accustomed to the hard, limestone “soil” of Dalmatia but French varieties that thrive in terrains such as these. While they may produce more wines, what was on offer was their Chardonnay and Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon blend. Of the two, the Chardonnay 2013 I found to be the most mature in terms of style. Fully integrated aromatically, it carried excellent acidity and while most definitely no Chablis in terms of profile it didn’t suffer the overblown, hot climate aspects found in California Chardonnay in years past.

A new project that I happened upon was called Marslais. I know very little about them other than they started about five years ago. Unfortunately, as is often the case with Croatian winemakers, their digital presence is non-existent. Despite this, the Plavac Mali 2012 they make from grapes in Pelješac is easily one the of the best price/quality ratio wines to be found in the region today at something like 6.50€. With stony minerality and rose petal aromatics, it offered up a Plavac that was light in body and fresh in finish that was an excellent take on a grape that can get quite weighty if made in more traditional manners, although it still held a very respectable 14.4% alcohol.

Then of course we come to the wines of Bibich. I always find myself coming back to these wines as Alen Bibić is such a welcoming host and has probably done more than any other winemaker in Dalmatia to reach out to the international market. This year, along with 75% of the Taste of Croatia crew, I finally made a visit to his winery after the fair, although that’s an article in and of itself.

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Alen now has a dizzying line of 20-odd wines. Given that, he has a little of something for everyone including his sparkling, Bibich Brut. But in terms of young wines, Alen has never been lacking and indeed he was one of the first Dalmatian winemakers to see the point of giving those who don’t know your winery, region, or even your native grapes, a wallet-friendly point of discovery.

The Debit and Riserva R6 have always been solid wines. The 2014 of the Debit is a fine wine to drink as a starter with steely notes and limestone minerality along with this saline tang and brisk acidity although it has a shorter finish than in years past. The Riserva R6 2013 was, as in pretty much every year I’ve tasted it, a solid wine. This is a wonderfully expressive wine with a little bit of stoniness to it, red fruits, wild herbs, and a full, structured body that doesn’t go over the top. A blend of only local grapes, Plavina, Lasina, and Babić, Alen has and continues to show what potential there is in Dalmatia and he does so at a very attractive price.

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Thankfully, we’re at a point where I can say that this is but a sample of many more young wines that one can find in Dalmatia these days. The region at large still has more work cut out for it but there is no longer the desperate need to modernize or catch up like there was in the mid-1990s. Now it’s a matter of refining what they have and building further upon their ancient wine tradition in the context of our modern times.

Miquel Hudin is a wine journalist and Certified Sommelier based in Priorat, Spain. He founded the Vinologue series of wine & travel guides and blogs regularly at Wine on VI.