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.