Experience Croatia and Slovenia’s Istria Region in the Flesh!

Being able to meet the people, eat the local food, attempt the language, and imbue every glass of wine with first hand experiences is why we got into the wine business. Context makes everything taste better. Plus, once you’ve visited, every time you have a wine from that place you’re immediately transported back.

With this in mind, everyone at Blue Danube is happy to announce a partnership with Savor The Experience Tours, a company that has been running small group tours to Slovenia and Croatia for the past 9 years. As a Blue Danube Supporter, you’ll get 11 nights of winery visits, special feasts, and olive oil while staying with family run B&B’s. And once you return, you’ll have a gift certificate with us to purchase the wines stateside and relive the whole thing over again with friends and family.

Harvest Tour

This October, don’t miss this unique opportunity to meet with some of Blue Danube’s best producers: Kabaj, Piquentum, and Kogl. For more information please contact info@savortheexperiencetours.com or call 206.529.4237.

NYT Resolution for 2014: drink adventurously, drink Kabaj!

Kabaj Ravan

Here is New York Times columnist Eric Asimov’s latest New Year resolution: 20 adventurous wines for $20 to drink this winter. Some are white, some are red, and all should warm your heart but they should also stretch your comfort zone: they will introduce you to intriguing grapes as well as little-known appellations from wine-growing regions rich in history and culture and long wine-making traditions.

Besides the 2010 Kabaj Ravan from Goriška Brda in Slovenia listed in the article—“zesty and fresh with persistent, tangy flavors”—our portfolio contains plenty of intriguing wines for you to discover this winter.

With fresh oysters on the half shell and crabs, enjoy a crisp and mineral Hárslevelű from Hungary.

Experiment with skin macerated whites and try them with Swiss fondue or raclette.

Consider the Croatian grapes Plavac Mali and Babić as delicious alternative to Zinfandel.

Anyway, have fun! Happy Drinking and Happy New Year!

Beyond Italian Borders : Wines Of Croatia & Slovenia

Map of Croatia

When I first started selling wines from Croatia and Slovenia nearly four years ago, the myriad of Italian restaurants almost mocked me as I rolled my bag down the streets of New York City. Very often their food and quality of service were just begging to be married with the flavors and level sophistication of the bottles I had on hand. Yet, to get the Sommelier to even consider tasting was nearly impossible. “Sorry, Italian only wine list, no exceptions.” It’s not as if I was trying to pawn some New York State Riesling or Merlot onto their focused and curated list, these were wines that had an equally long tradition in the same regions as everything on their menu and these were the flavors that were meant for their food.

Italy, perhaps more than any other country, embodies a strong sense of regional pride. All 20 regions have held fast to their gastronomic cultures, preserving their distinct styles of wine and food. Over the centuries the regions formed their unique cuisines based on what was available in their land. This is why ingredients like truffles are hallmarks of Piedmonte while a dish like veal Marsala is unmistakably Sicilian. It’s no wonder that serious Italian establishments in one of the cultural capitals of the world seek to preserve these regional essences. What’s not so clear is that modern political borders should shape the centuries old traditions.

It seemed to me that in an attempt to preserve the Italian culture, many sommeliers were missing an opportunity to be authentic by incorporating traditional grape varieties and styles. At the time when the regional food and wine cultures were forming, many of the current political borders were not in place. Even so, political borders are just that, political. Especially in an area like Collio and Brda, both meaning ‘hill’ in Italian and Slovenian respectively, it is the same hill, and the vines do not recognize the theoretical boundaries.

Map of Slovenia

Keith Beavers, owner of In Vino, an Italian restaurant and winebar in NYC’s East Village, recalls the moment the scale tipped for him:

“I was tasting wine with Stetson while I was eating, and he poured me a glass of Kabaj Rebula, I took a bite of risotto and a sip of this wine, and I thought, there’s no reason not to have these wines on the list. We started talking about borders and terroir, and of course I knew Slovenia was right around the corner, but it wasn’t until the moment I tasted them together I realized I had to celebrate these wines on my list and that political borders do not define terroir.”

Almost paradoxically, by incorporating wines from just beyond the borders of current day Italy, a more authentic profile of flavors is achieved. Since incorporating Blue Danube Wines onto his Italian list, In Vino now features at least one white and one red by the glass from Croatia and/or Slovenia and will soon be dedicating an entire section of his list to these extended regions.

At the Northern tip of the Adriatic, Slovenia, Croatia and Italy converge, sharing terroir and centuries of history. Blue Danube has always focused on sourcing the best wines in their traditional styles from all of the regions they represent. Not surprisingly, this makes many of the Croatian and Slovenian selections ideal for Italian focused restaurants.

“For our restaurant, Danube wines are a natural match. Our chef, Nick Balla, lived in Hungary during high school and our menu shows Eastern European influence in the cuisine. Blue Danube offers the most meaningful selection from this part of the world.” Mary Christie of Bar Tartine in San Francisco.

Another attribute of these wines is their relative value compared to wines from regions that have more name recognition, and therefore command higher price points. Both buyers and customers have been pleased to find a high quality to price ratio in these off-the-beaten-path varieties and styles.

“Blue Danube’s book is a treasure trove of gems from Croatia and Slovenia. The wines are vibrant, pure, well made and exciting. And there are many great value wines that work well with our mostly by the glass list. They give our guests an opportunity to try something new and exciting that really highlights and compliments the food.” Ben McGroarty of Superba Snack Bar in Los Angeles.

“The quality of the products are top notch and yet the wines cost a fraction of what I am paying for the more esteemed appellations of Italy, France and Spain. People commonly say “Wines from Slovenia? …No way!” Which I find funny as these regions are just as ancestral in their winemaking traditions as say Burgundy. At the end of the day, it is nice to be able to offer affordable indigenous wine flavor in a world clogged with expensive and homogenized wine style. This is especially true if the wine flavor is delicious.” Maxwell Leer of Bestia in Los Angeles.

Ultimately these wines appeal to people and establishments that embody an enthusiasm and passion for educating their customers and offering something new and exciting.

“As Americans enter a new phase in our wine drinking, I find that more and more people have the courage and confidence to explore regions and grapes unknown to them. It makes for a lot of learning and a lot of fun!” Mary Christie of Bar Tartine in San Francisco.

I’m delighted to see that nearly four years later, it is not uncommon to see Slovenian and Croatian wines on the bottle and glass lists of Italian “only” and Italian focused restaurants and winebars. In fact, I’d say it’s becoming the status quo.

Leo Gracin on how to grow Babić

Babic Terroir

Dr. Leo Gracin, a professor and enologist at the Faculty of Food Technology and Biotechnology in Zagreb is a specialist of Babić, a indigenous variety that grows primarily in Central Dalmatia, near the towns of Šibenik and Primošten. The wine he produces, Gracin Babić, is actually considered one of the finest red Croatian wines today.

Babić is believed to be genetically related to the more widely planted variety Plavac Mali through their common parent, the ancient wine grape Dobričić. Although the vines are very vigorous, like Plavac Mali, they can produce great wines when growing in extreme conditions: sun-drenched slopes and poor, rocky soils, which gives lower yields and more concentrated flavors. The resulting wine is dark, full-bodied, quite earthy and tannic, with more acidity than Plavac Mali. It is also well suited to barrel aging.

Watch Enologist and Winemaker Dr. Leo Gracin explain how to farm Babić in his Primošten vineyard:

Dossier Zinfandel: Zinfandel’s Origins Demystified

Dossier Zinfandel Panel
Discussion panel after the screening of Dossier Zinfandel: Dr Carole Meredith (right), David Gates from Ridge Vineyards (left), and Yountville former mayor in red.

Last thursday was the premiere screening of Dossier Zinfandel at the third annual Napa Valley Film Festival. Directed by Mika Barisic, the documentary tells the compelling story of Zinfandel, “California’s own grape,” and the search for its mysterious origins.

When Croatian-born winemaker Mike Grgich arrived in Napa Valley in 1958, he noticed that the Zinfandel vines looked familiar and very similar to Plavac Mali, a native variety from the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia. He was convinced at the time that Plavac Mali and Zinfandel were the same grape.

Mike Grgich
Mike Grgich at the Dossier Zinfandel reception hosted by Grgich Hills Estate

With his support, UC Davis professor and grapevine geneticist Carole Meredith started a collaboration with the University of Zagreb. In May 1998, she traveled to Croatia to meet scientists Ivan Pejic and Edi Maletic and the three of them started exploring the Dalmatian coast. Eventually, they collected 150 samples that Dr Meredith brought back to UC Davis so that they could be identified in her lab using DNA fingerprinting.

Carole Meredith
Carole Meredith at the Dossier Zinfandel reception

While Meredith’s team was able to confirm that the Italian grape Primitivo and Zinfandel were clones of the same variety, they found out that Plavac Mali was not a good match. Instead, they identified the Croatian grape as an offspring of Primitivo/Zinfandel.

It is only in 2001 that Pejic and Maletic finally discovered the correct match when they sampled an almost extinct indigenous grape called Crljenak Kaštelanski (Kaštela Red) in an old vineyard in Kaštel Novi in Central Dalmatia. Only nine Crljenak Kaštelanski vines were found in the vineyards. More vines known locally as Pribidrag were eventually discovered near the coastal town of Omiš. Finally, they were able to identify a 90-year-old dried Tribidrag leaf from the Natural History Museum in Split as being identical to Pribidrag/Crljenak Kaštelanski/Primitivo/Zinfandel.

There are references of Tribidrag being cultivated in Croatia as far back as the early 15th century. At the time, Tribidrag was an important part of the wine trade between Dalmatia and Venice, which makes Zinfandel one of the oldest grape varietals from which wine is still being made.

Ridge Vineyards played a crucial role in the import of the Croatian grapes to California via the Foundation Plant Services at UC Davis. After undergoing virus elimination treatment, these grapes are now available for planting. The Crljenak Kaštelanski clone is called Zinfandel 42.1 and the Pribidrag clones are called Zinfandel 43.1 and Zinfandel 44.1.

Meanwhile in Croatia, Zinfandel is back to its roots. Zinfandel, Primitivo, and virus-free Crljenak Kaštelanski from UC Davis are now planted side by side in an experimental vineyard where Pejic and Maletic are studying how each clone behaves on the same terroir and in the same climate.

David Gates
David Gates, Vice President, Vineyard Operations at Ridge Vineyards, and Frank at the Dossier Zinfandel reception

Curious & Thirsty – Magic Wine: Tokaji

After communism ended in the 1990’s, a rush of investors, both foreign and domestic, bought up vineyards with the intention of resurrecting this dormant legend. The potential in the wine was re-realized almost immediately. However, the world’s thirst for sweet wines had turned dry. A blessing in disguise, clever producers began to experiment with making dry wines. Today, it is the dry wines that offer winemakers and enthusiasts the greatest insight into the character of the specific vineyards.

The Csontos vineyard
The volcanic Csontos vineyard

In addition to the classical aszú and modern dry wines, adventuresome wine makers are reviving almost forgotten traditional styles and experimenting with new styles. What is most amazing, is that regardless of forms, the distinct signature Tokaj leaves on its wines dominate. The natural conditions in the region are so unique, nothing like Tokaji can be produced elsewhere—even with all the knowledge and technology available now. There is a Renaissance under way in Tokaji, unlike any the wine world has ever seen. It is quite possibly the most exciting place to be drinking from today. Read the full story…

Culture connections

Samuel Tinon Dry Szamorodni
With Sherry fest in full swing in NYC , here is an unexpected connection worth sharing.

A few months ago at a Wine and Spirits magazine event, I had the pleasure of pouring the 2007 Samuel Tinon Dry Szamorodni for Sherry aficionado and Spanish chef Alex Raij of Basque restaurants Txikito and La Vara. Like dry Sherry, the distinctive character of the Szamorodni is partly derived from a veil of natural yeast—called flor in Spanish—that develops on the surface of the wine as it ages.

As a special example of the maligned style of dry Szamorodni, the Tinon spoke to her. In the spring of 2014, it will be paired with a dish Chef Raij will prepare as part of a James Beard House dinner. She also recently added the Tinon to the wine list at La Vara. I find it inspiring that one of New York City’s most discerning Spanish chefs sees connections and harmony between Spanish cuisine and a little known style of Hungarian white wine. Connecting seemingly disparate cultures in this way is good. It enhances their appreciation and hopefully inspires others to see associations that are less than apparent.

Tokaji and Sherry are more alike than meets the eye. Despite many fundamental differences such as climate, geology, alcoholic fortification, botrytis, culture, and latitude, the two wines and regions mirror each other in beautiful ways. Jerez has Palomino, whereas Tokaj has Furmint. Muscat surprisingly, vitis vinifera’s forgotten king, is shared by both. Their vineyards grow only white grapes and are affected by bodies of water. The unmistakeable character of a great Sherry or Tokaji derives from the anomalously biologically active cellars these wines are raised in.

Uncompromising in style, singular in experience, both can be found arrestingly dry, sweeter than honey, and all permutations in-between. Like Sherry, durability allowed Tokaji to rise to legend status. Impervious to oxidation, infinite in complexity, capable of lasting into eternity, if you drink Sherry, drink Tokaji and visa versa.

Kabaj: TOP 100 Winery of the Year!

Kabaj W&S TOP 100

Congratulations Jean-Michel Morel!

Kabaj wines have been praised by many wine critics and publications including Ed Behr’s “The Art of Eating”, Eric Asimov of the New York Times, Wine Enthusiast, Tasting Table National. Now we are thrilled that Wine & Spirits Magazine recently named KABAJ TOP 100 Winery of the Year.

Jean-Michel and his family farm small plots of vineyards, where the Alps meet the Adriatic, on the Slovenian/Italian border in Goriška Brda, Slovenia. The name of the winery, Kabaj, is his wife Katja’s maiden name; Brda is their terroir: a special intersection of climate, geology, and culture that Jean intertwines into wine. Reflective of the diversity of their origin, there is something primal about them. Kabaj makes no fresh wine. Everything is aged and made to age. Dense in character, but never heavy, tension is drawn from minerality and grape tannin more than acidity. Less fruity than savory, the whites often have a textural quality akin to fine tea. They hate to be cold and typically show their best just below the temperature of their environment and company. The reds, made primarily from Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, are vinified in typical Bordeaux fashion and are intensely mineral and savory. Bordeaux varieties have been planted in Brda so long they are considered the local red sort.

The W&S TOP 100 wineries of the Year are the 100 from around the world that got the best overall results in W&S tastings throughout the year. They will be profiled in the Winter issue of Wine & Spirits Magazine and honored at the annual 10th annual Top 100 Tasting in San Francisco on Tuesday, October 15th.

Here are Kabaj’s W&S tasting notes:

2010 Kabaj Ravan: 91 points
“If you have no patience for oxidative whites, steer clear. But if you’re open to the charms of this wine, it delivers remarkable freshness. Look past the resinous, tree-sap aroma and you’ll find a rich, earthy wine with yellow spices and flavors that are more wheat berry than nutty. Its mineral character would meld with a mushroom pilaf with fresh thyme and sage.”

2010 Kabaj Rebula: 92 points
“A woman walked into a bar and said, “I’ll have an orange.” The bartender looked confused. “Orange wine?” he asked. “Yes, an orange,” she said. True story, and a strong case for a glass of this ribolla, which is neither red nor white. The color is spot-on orange, the aromas and pleasantly bitter flavors hover between white flowers, dried pear, orange pith, the pink of peach pit, and red notes of bosky cherries. The wine’s direction and freshness seems to come from its pithy tannins rather than acidity, confounding any categorization other than orange. ”

2008 Kabaj Merlot: 92 points
“Gamey and closed off when first poured, this is all about structure, a dark, savory red with scents of tree bark and fresh pomegranate, amaro spices and meaty black juice. Some acidity brightens the wine, shot through its black tannins, lending a clean, fresh appeal. Serve with a well-aged cheese, like Vella Jack.”

2007 Kabaj Cuvée Morel: 92 points
“From the compelling herbal aroma to the generously textured fruit, this melds the best elements of merlot (60 percent of the blend) with cabernets sauvignon and franc and a small addition of petit verdot (4 percent). It’s as dark and savory as a digestif of herbal bitters, balanced by dark fruit that lasts with freshness. Decant it for venison or other robust game.”

A year in the life of a Tokaji vine

This is a follow-up from the previous post Adopt a Vine.

Gifted Tokaj vigneron Samuel Tinon charts the life of a traditionally cultivated vine planted on the slopes of the classified vineyard of Hatari between the villages of Olaszliszka and Erdőbénye in the year of 2013. It is a vine that our band of merry Blue Danubian’s selected on their trip this past January to the legendary appellation to be charted through the vintage. Here are his photos and his words.

September update

Vine September 4 2013

September 4 2013,

6:00AM at sunrise. Wonderful! We are very close to having a top dry furmint base and start studying the terroir of a first class vineyard. Also, we have to decide today wether to harvest next week for an Auction lot in 2014. Only one week to wait.

We had another GOOD rain on September 1st.

Samuel

Vine September 4Vine September 4 2013

 

Vine September 4 2013Vine September 4 2013

 

August update

Vine August 8 2013

August 8 2013,

This summer is too hot and I have a bad feeling about this. Even the color of the vine in the picture indicates that it is too dry and hot.

Samuel

Vine August 8 2013Vine August 25 2013

 

Vine August 8 2013

August 25 2013,

These pictures were made just before the first quality rain (around 30l/m2)… The vintage starts to move in a very good direction. The Orbánc is stopped.

Samuel

Vine August 25 2013Vine August 25 2013

 

Vine August 28 2013

August 28 2013,

With a group of top sommeliers from Germany. Nice conversation around your vine…:):):)

Samuel

Vine August 28 2013Vine August 28 2013

 

July update

Vine July 3 2013

July 3 2013,

Ready for the 4th of July!

Samuel

Vine July 3 2013

 

Vine July 31 2013

July 31 2013,

July was just hot and sunny. Our first good rain came only yesterday (30 liters/m2) (see the picture below). The flowering result is ok but notice some huge differences in berry size. The vines also caught Orbánc (this is unusual and I am trying to stop it).

One month to go and then we will have some sugar in the berries.

Samuel

Rain July 31 2013Farm July 31 2013

 

Vine Detail July 31 2013Vine Detail July 31 2013

 

June update

tinon_stetson_vine_june
The vine June 2 2013
02 June 2013

Flowering… this is GOOD news, for You, For Me, for All. From now on, we can estimate 100 days to get mature grapes, which takes us to around september 10th…

This is just prefect, not too early, not too late. If we have some good rain at the equinox, it will be in the pocket.

Samuel

tinon_vine_june_detailtinon_vine_june_small

 

tinon_stetson_vine_june_detail

 

tinon_vine_june_berries10 June 2013

Mother nature is doing its job. You can see the berries now.

To be honest, I am scared about the weather situation: some crops were totally destroyed last week by botrytis! Botrytis was on the grape, before flowering, like in 2010. Today we finished our second spray.

We will have some almond, cherry and wild strawberry too…

Samuel

tinon_vine_june_strawberry

 

tinon_vine_june_vineyard

 

Vine June 2013

 

Vine June 2013Vine June 2013

 

Vine June 2013Vine June 2013

 

May update

Stetson's vine May 1 2013
The vine May 1 2013
01 May 2013

I will send you a photo every other day as this is actually too much work.

You can already notice the new grapes.

Meanwhile, the second market started yesterday following the auction. I’ll call you tomorrow.

Good luck with today’s wine presentation.

 

 

Stetson's vine May 3 2013
The vine May 3 2013
03 May 2013

Keep going… Hopefully, we will have time to clean up your vine this weekend.

Samuel

 

April update

Stetson's vine April 13 2013
The vine April 13 2013
13 April 2013

Spring arrived in Europe on Saturday 13th. In less than 2 weeks, nature exploded and we believe again: a crop is possibly coming along.

Just in time.

With this temperature, we’ll be busy next week on all fronts.

Next Saturday, on April 27th, we’ll have our Tokaj Spring Wine Auction. The Gala is fully booked. And we are closing today for the blind tasting.

Probably lucky with the weather.

Vineyard early April

 

Stetson's vine April 29 2013
The vine April 29 2013
29 April 2013

We have a huge acceleration of vine growth thanks to ideal temperatures (30°C-18°C), which gives the plant a phenomenal growing potential.

So that I can share this feeling with you, I’ll try to send you a picture every day this week.

Last Saturday, on April 27th, we had our First Tokaj wine auction and it was a complete success:
http://tokajiborlovagrend.hu/en/category/rendezveny/

More news tomorrow.

Vineyard end of April

 

March update

Vine March 2013
The vine pruned in March

 

The WildWux Project

Wildwux Project

Founded by Ilse Maier of Geyerhof and her friend of many years, Burgenland red wine specialist Birgit Braunstein, the WildWux project takes a holistic approach to wildlife and environmental protection. The goal of the project is to go beyond organic viticulture and give back part of the vineyard to nature under the supervision of wildlife specialists. 30% of the vineyard is been restored into a wildlife corridor that preserves biological diversity and protects local species such as the red-backed shrike, the inches ios, the European tree frog, the bumble bee, and the spermophilus, in their natural habitat.

“Preserving nature and utilizing the vitality of the soil” is Ilse Maier’s motto at Geyerhof. The family has been managing vineyards organically for many years, focusing on a sound eco-system and healthy soils.

Organic viticulture is much more than avoiding chemicals. For the Maier family, it is a trapeze act without a safety net. The vineyards need to be continuously monitored in order to catch diseases in their earliest stages. Small failures can have disastrous consequences and sometimes, it’s too late to implement remedying measures.

“We have worked on specialized know-how during the last fifteen years and this has taken a great deal of hard learning, courage and patience,” says Ilse Maier.

Once the grapes are harvested and brought in the cellar, there’s not much to add or alter to make the wine and only a limited amount of sulfites are added during wine production.

We are excited to introduce to the US one of the two wines released by the Wildwux project (there is also a Red Cuvée produced by Birgit Braunstein): the 2012 Geyerhof Wildwux. Made with organic Grüner Veltliner, it is quite restrained, harmonious, and complex, with a refreshing acidity and high minerality.