Sansigot: A Story of Grape Rescue on the Island of Krk

Ivica DobrinčićHistorically, politics and wine make a bad pairing—and the combination certainly hasn’t favored the survival of indigenous grape varieties. Think of the vinepulling and planting schemes around the world that largely promoted high yields or courted commercial trends. Communism, in some countries, presented a different challenge: populations migrated to the cities or left altogether, viticulture languished, and vine varieties dwindled to a select few. The Sansigot grape, traditionally grown on the island of Krk just off the Croatian coastline, was one of Communism’s casualties until Ivica Dobrinčić of Šipun winery set about reviving the diversity of grapes that once grew on the island.

Sansigot is a black variety that, before the 1950s, made up about 20 percent of black grapes growing on Krk. It has also grown on the tiny island of Susak to the southwest, where it is described as yielding “deeply colored, full-bodied wines” (Robinson, et al, Wine Grapes). On Krk, Sipun and one other winery make a varietal Sansigot that is light-bodied, with a delicate floral aroma and low tannins—a difference Ivica attributes to the separate location and new winemaking technology.

During Communism, industrialization was the national priority, with the result that people moved to the cities to work, or emigrated. The few who remained in rural areas continued to make wine or sell harvests to the cooperative wineries, but even this died out without a market to support production.

As Ivica explains, “Due to this situation some grape varieties completely disappeared, only Žlahtina survived in a greater quantity. There were no agricultural incentives from the government so people continued being employed in foreign countries. More [Croatians] were living and working outside of Croatia than within, especially those from the islands.”

Dobrinčić on boat
Ivica Dobrinčić with Vrbnik in the background

By 1997, when Ivica returned to Krk from Zagreb, where he had studied viticulture, rural communities were revitalizing and the government was once again investing
in them. As Ivica set about formalizing and expanding the family business in viticulture, other young people were returning to the islands and to traditional livelihoods, as well as beginning a tourism industry. Ivica’s father had grown Sansigot on Krk, and Ivica knew of other native varieties, such as Vrbić, Brajdica, Kamenina, Debejan, and the grape known variously as Susac, Bašćan, or Pravi Par, that still hid in long-unworked vineyards, family plots, and backyard gardens. Today, in addition to growing Žlahtina and Sansigot, he is propagating twenty other varieties for reintroduction, and has high expectations for Vrbić as the next to reach the market. “It is interesting to offer the marketplace something that only exists here, originally from this area, which has been used and produced for hundreds of years,” Ivica says.

Šipun winery is based in the medieval coastal town of Vrbnik, with half of its vineyard in the valley just to the west, and the other half in hillside sites, where the bura, the brisk north wind that scours the island, keeps fungus from the grapes. In these rocky hillside vineyards, grapes ripen well, for full-bodied wines with higher alcohol. In the valley, iron oxide tints the soils red, and wines are generally fresh and light, with less alcohol, body, and acidity.

Vrbnik
The medieval coastal town of Vrbnik

Ivica is optimistic about the future of his hometown, citing its lack of development as a plus. “Vrbnik today has preserved ancient architecture, superb wine and gastronomic products, history and culture. Winemakers here produce wine using traditional methods in combination with technological improvements to make the best quality wine possible.” Ivica himself is part of this new wave of winemakers who look back to traditional grapes and methods as well as ahead to technology to introduce new possibilities. Indeed, as he propagates historic varieties to one side of Vrbnik, 32 meters beneath the water on the other side, he matures a thousand bottles of sparkling wine from Žlahtina and Sansigot in a cage that will be raised in two to three years to see what has developed. Not one to take an opportunity for granted, Ivica will continue to experiment with history and technology, with politics finally on his side.

Kit Camargo

Ivica Dobrinčić and family
Ivica Dobrinčić and his family

#WineStudio – Croatian Wines on Twitter

PROTOCOL wine studio is dedicated to exploring the culture of wine via educational events. As we lay our roots, we’re exploring various concepts in group wine experiences. We invite you to review our event schedule and attend:

#WineStudio
protocol

Led by successful local Social Media guru Bill Eyer of The Cuvee Corner Wine Blog, PROTOCOL wine studio presents a twitter-based educational program where we engage our brains and palates! “Meet” and taste with other wine-minded folks throughout the country and beyond. Contact us for more info.

Hashtag: #winestudio
6:00pm – 7:00pm Pacific Time Mondays

Session III – Croatia
We’ll tackle five producers and taste grapes that we can’t pronounce without pronunciation keys! We’ll also host a few guests who just returned from the International Wine Tourism Conference – stay tuned! If you’d like to taste the below wines along with the studio gang, connect with us.

4/8: Sipun Zlahtina 2011 Blanc
4/15: Piquentum Malvasia 2011 Blanc
4/22: Daruvar Grasevina 2011 Blanc
4/29: Dingac Plavac 2010 Red
5/6: Bibich R6 Riserva 2009 Rouge

For more information see: Croatian Wines and other Unpronounceable Things

Adopt-a-vine

After a long chain of embarrassing late arrivals to appointments with producers and an exasperating hike up a steep snowy hillside vineyard during our visit to Tokaj this past February, my team of adventuresome Danubians – Michael Newsome (Sales LA), Henry Beylin (Gjelina – Venice Beach, CA), Matt Stinton (Terroir/Hearth – NYC, NY) and 2 of Tokaj’s most iconic producers shared a special moment together in the vineyard of Hatari. Had we been on time for our appointments, it would not have been so special.

Judit Bodo & the Blue Danubians
Judit Bodo & the Blue Danubians in Tokaj

Just before, we were among Judit Bodo‘s vines in Csontos. The full moon began to rise and we left for wild pheasant soup at her house, or so I thought. But then she pulled off the bumpy road for one even rougher and icier, and rumbled us towards a man standing by a van in a giant furry Russian snow hat—which I discovered is called “ushanka”. Although it was already dark, the hat made the outline unmistakably Samuel Tinon.

Moonlit VineyardWe were supposed to visit his vineyard earlier, but since things had gotten so late and Judit and he had been in contact, I assumed she had canceled the meeting for us. Not the case. Samuel filled up a thermos with hot coffee for the night chill and insisted we should still meet. So there we were, winded and cold at the top of Hatari with Judit and Samuel, both of whom farm the historic vineyard.

The moonlit vineyard was silent and beautiful. We could see the Bodrog river in the distance surrounded by snow covered fields. Samuel pulled out a handful of teaspoons and a tiny bottle unlike any wine bottle I had ever seen and said, “would anyone like some Eszencia?” Any regret towards this trek evaporated. We all huddled around together and Samuel carefully poured a golden liquid into our shivering spoons, which would not have been possible if the Eszencia was not so thick. The wine moved, literally, like honey. A few drops spilled on the snow and we all cried, and laughed. There was more flavor in one single spoon than 1000 bottles of great wine. It was magic.

Eszencia

We all buzzed for a few seconds, quieted by what we had shared and then walked further towards the top of the hill.

Stetson's vine in February 2013
Stetson's vine in February 2003
Samuel explained that that part of the vineyard needed to be replanted but he was planning to do it in the “old manner”. This means much more work and some people think it’s just about crazy, but Samuel believes that it is his responsibility to maintain the traditions specific to the vineyards he tends. This is information distilled from centuries of human experience and no matter how attractive the alternatives might be, he must. Otherwise, who will?

After we finished our coffee and began our cold but happy descent back to the cars, Samuel stopped us and said: “I have an idea. Select a vine and every so often, I will take a picture of it and send it to you by email.” He pointed us to an area particularly suited for botrytis and we marked a few vines. As Samuel sends new shots they will be added to this post.

By understanding and enjoying wines of tradition like those of Samuel and Judit, we are helping to preserve them while enriching our own lives and giving purpose to the lives of the winemakers. Considering the low yields of these vineyards, purchasing one or two bottles of these wines amounts to adopting a vine and playing a role in the preservation of Tokaj traditions.

Stetson's vine in March
Stetson's vine pruned in March

 

Follow the life of the vine in our post A year in the life of a Tokaji vine.

 

2006 Monastery Tvrdos Vranac: Twice as Nice

Until I began working for Blue Danube, I, like the majority of Americans, had never tasted a wine from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Clearly, I was missing out; the region is steeped in ancient winemaking tradition. By comparison, these Balkan countries make France seem very New-World. The reason grapes have been cultivated here for thousands of years is simple: their terroir, the confluence of the sunny maritime climate and mountains produces robust grapes. This entry focuses on the 2006 Vranac from Monastery Tvrdos of the Trebinje region of Herzegovina.

Tvrdos Manastir

The Tvrdos Monastery sits on the banks of the picturesque Trebišnjica river, 15 miles as the crow flies or, due to circuitous roads, a two hours drive from the Adriatic coast. It is here that the river erodes topsoil, creating the fields of karst endemic to this region. Although hot summers and mild winters characterize the region, winds blow simultaneously from both the nearby Dinaric mountains and the Adriatic. The indigenous grapes, the white varietal, ŽZilavka, and Vranac have been grown in the region for centuries. Vranac is a supposed relative of the Croatian Plavac Mali, the ancestor of the Californian Zinfandel.

Tvrdos Vineyard

The monastery is perched on the foundation of a 4th-century Roman church that is still visible today. For centuries the monks of the monastery have grown grapes, but previously had only produced enough wine for their own consumption. Fortunately for us, they have increased their production and are shipping it stateside.

The first time I tried the Tvrdos Vranac 2006, it was accompanied by a Greek-inspired lentil soup. The wine was pleasant, but the soup amplified the wine’s acidity. Mea culpa. The second time around with a cheese plate as accompaniment, the wine was in its element. Well-done Catherine! It was a true testament to subtle art of food and wine pairing.

The wine showed a deep garnet in the glass and smelled of sour cherries and smoke. Instead of the simple cranberry flavored wine it was, this time, the wine tasted richer, filled out by savory nuances of dirt, bitter chocolate and touches of cinnamon.

Its bright acidity sidled right up to the ripened creamy blue goat cheese and the aged cheddar. However, in the end, the winning couple couple of the night was the Vranac and Roquefort. The wine’s acidity and the light tannins matched the piquant quality of the cheese. The Vranac was the ideal weight for the cheese, delicate enough to allow the cheese to shine in all its fruity splendor, but also strong enough to its match piquant quality. The Roquefort also emphasized the dusty quality of the wine. The tannins were present in the finish, no doubt softened by short-term bottle aging. The Tvrdos was truly the darling of the tasting. If you are a history nerd like me, taste this ancient culture and try a Herzegovinian wine.

Wine: a cultural preservative?

Ivica Dobrinčić
Ivica Dobrinčić
The last few weeks have been particularly active for us, even nuts. We are in the middle of a visit from Ivica Dobrinčić of Šipun and Alen Bibić of Bibich Winery in NYC for Vina Croatia. In the air right now are Judit and Jozsef Bodó of Bott Pince in Tokaj who will visit us in NY first then SF and LA.

Finally I take a moment to read the pamphlets Ivica brought to promote his wines at the various tastings. Nice pictures, good information, nicely written, and then the last few sentences made me stop to share. He is writing in reference to the wines of his native Krk, “The traditional, but sometimes neglected viticulture and wine production have recently evolved in a modern technologically sophisticated and promising industry, Such a development has improved the existence of many domestic families. It has also prevented people from leaving their birthplace, and at the same time generated superior results.”

Island of Krk
Island of Krk

We understand wine as a beverage and a commodity, but cultural preservative, or even cultural booster? When I consider the history and tradition behind these families, hear them share their visionary ideas and then taste their already singular and delicious wines, I say WOAH! This is nuts!! What a joy to taste, watch, and serve as a conduit to this. A cultural conduit, of course.

Furmint February: there’s still time to taste the Bodrog Borműhely Lapis Furmint

Bodrog Borműhely Furmint LapisThere are still a few days left to celebrate Furmint February, a campaign organized throughout Hungary to promote the Furmint grape variety. Distinctively high in acidity and minerality, Furmint faithfully reflects the volcanic soils of the Tokaj region where it is mostly grown. Traditionally blended with Hárslevelű, it provides the backbone for the sweet Aszú wines. It is also increasingly used alone to produce single-varietal dry wines.

Janos Hajduz and Krisztián Farkas, owners of the Bodrog Borműhely winery, farm tiny vineyard parcels and make single vineyard Furmint and Hárslevelű wines in a pure style that best express the terroir and varietal typicity. The other night, I was tasting their 2011 Lapis Furmint from the Lapis vineyard for dinner. The wine displayed aromas of dried herbs and stone fruits on the nose, and a bright acidity combined with a pronounced minerality on the palate that worked amazingly well with our sauteed Brussel sprouts and lardons. By comparison, their 2011 Hárslevelű Dereszla had greater minerality and less fruity aroma. We really enjoyed it with green olives and thin slices of dry salami.

Are orange wines the Kardashians of wine?

Orange WineFor a brief primer on “Orange Wines”, read this article by Richard Betts: Why Tecate Is Greater Than Orange Wine. Tart and pulpy, it strips the veneer of mystique off this totally misunderstood category of wine.

First, it is important to point out that “Orange Wines” are not made out of oranges. They are white wines that are fermented on the skins like red wine, turning orange instead of red. Macerated white wine is the more appropriate term but what a unattractive name for a style.

Not all “Orange Wines” are created equal; some are the product of tradition and experience and some are experiments. Success and failure exists among both schools but I do agree with Betts that most of them can go away. For me, they are too often plagued with any combination of over-extraction, oxidation, volatility, bacteria and sometimes things you can’t identify but do not enjoy. However, when they are right, they are right.

Kabaj—mentioned as one of the exceptions in the article—is one of the masters. Subtlety, elegance, precision, texture, minerality, longevity define their wines. Since I will be there this time next week, now is a good moment to reaffirm my love of the real thing.

Why This Bottle Really? 2010 Kabaj Rebula

why this bottle articleIt was a nice surprise to find the 2010 Kabaj Rebula reviewed in the current issue of The Art of Eating. The Art of Eating is a quarterly publication that has nothing to do with these glossy food magazines that have more ads than recipes. It is instead all about telling stories that underscore the connection between traditions and the sense of place, stories about artisanal food and drinks and the people that make them.

So in some way, this was not so surprising to find the Slovenian winery featured in the magazine. The Kabaj family has been farming vineyards on the terraced hills of Goriška Brda for generations but it is only in 1993 that Katja Kabaj and her French-born husband Jean-Michel Morel released their first vintage.

Jean-Michel MorelJean-Michel Morel, a Bordeaux-educated winemaker, proudly combines traditional winemaking—using some ancient techniques he studied in Georgia— with modern facilities built recently on the property. His approach is not to produce a fresh, crisp, fruit-driven international style. Instead, he vinifies his whites with long skin contact during maceration, goes through full malolactic fermentation on the lees, and ages them at least 12 months in large oak barrels.

The article was written by Joe Appel, who also publishes a weekly wine column in The Portland Press Herald’s. He finds the wine fascinating, with massive structure and longevity thanks to the long maceration with the skins. He detects almonds, green olives and minerality qualities in the wine and also intense flavors that evolve from white peach to fresh grape to marmalade. “Jean-Michel Morel is a crazy genius.” concludes the columnist in his blog.

The Many Flavors of Tokaj

I’ve always let my taste guide my interest in the world of wine. The flavors that resonate with me most often lead me to esoteric, or at least non-mainstream, regions and styles. One country I cannot get enough of is Hungary. The diversity of flavors and styles offered by traditional varieties and regions is impressive in its own right, but it is the quality and purity of unique flavor that draws me in deeper.

Demeter Zoltan

One of my great interests in Hungarian wine are those of Tokaj. This historically lauded and anciently renowned region produces exceptional wines, both dry and sweet, through traditional techniques and with indigenous varieties. These are the same characteristics of top regions worldwide, and Tokaj is on the fast track to reclaiming its place among them. One thing I love is that you can find wines that are best by the glass and for everyday drinking, as well as a premium wines, at times the most expensive on the list, and worth every sip. The selection at the recent Blue Danube Wine Co. industry tasting at Terroir Tribeca showcased a commitment to a comprehensive sampling of the region’s best. There were wines from 7 different producers, not so much competitors as members of an unofficial collective, supporting each other and celebrating the unique nuances of their terroirs.

Bott Harslevelu

For me what characterized the dry white wines was crisp clean flavors, seering acidity, integration of savoriness and deep complexity. There were four versions of Hárslevelű, one of the major grape varieties of Tokaj. Patricius offers a steely and mineral-driven version, while Bott‘s was more peachy and a touch caramelized; Demeter‘s Hárslevelű, was soft with tart stone fruit flavors, and the one from Nobilis was all about stone fruit rounded out with a touch of residual sugar.

Patricius Hárslevelű

The variations among the Furmint, the region’s leading grape, were similarly discreet and intriguing. Demeter’s briney Furmint screams for lobster to compliment the natural saltiness and richness of the grape, Bott’s was gamey and somehow evocative of animal fat (this was the estate that served their wines alongside roasted goat); and Bodrog Borműhely‘s Furmint stands as a shining example of how a wine can be infinitely refreshing and complex at the same time. There was only one Kövérszőlő, a lesser known grape of the region, from Tokaj Nobilis, again kissed with a touch of sugar to offset the spice.

Nobilis Kövérszőlő

The sweet wines of Tokaj have always been among the most famous, for very good reason. What a treat to be able to taste the selection of Aszu wines! The 3 Puttonyos from Patricius is one of my favorite sweet wines; it is light and refreshing with a harmony of botrytized aromatics to sweetness. Though I prefer it with cheese or spicy noodles, it’s easy to drink on its own. I can imagine how ancient royalty could happily stock up on 3p like this and use it as house wine all day long. The 5 Puttonyos with their thicker intensities and more concentrated flavors pushed the sweetness up to a level that warrants something equally rich, think foie gras, or huitlacotche pate for fusion seekers. By the time I got to the 6 Puttonyos I came prepared with a little piece of blue cheese. If that was beautiful (and it was) what came next was sublime. Eszencia. One drop on my tongue excited every taste bud. It explodes and outwardly reverberates joy and juiciness throughout the body… sound familiar? I literally had to sit down. This needs no other flavor to balance it, just sip and enjoy the euphoria. Both, 6 Puttonyos and Eszencia wines were made by István Dorogi, a young rising star wine maker in Tokaj.

Dorogi Tokaji

The cherry on top of this delicious sampling was the Dry Szamorodni from Samuel Tinon. Dry Szamorodni is a style of wine that uses whole bunches of grapes that have varying degrees of botrytis. This wine was aged under a flor and shows sweet aromas and is dry and tangy on the palate. Evocative of Jerez, though unique unto itself.

Samuel Tinon Tokaji

Anyone who tasted through the two tables of Tokaji wines can easily understand why they are increasingly on the shelves and lists of sommeliers and merchants. While the varying styles may push the boundaries of what we drink day to day the flavors themselves are easy to appreciate. If these wines are any indication of what the region will continue to produce, we have a lot to look forward to. Egészségedre!