Sunday, November 7, 2010

Treasures from Croatia

Ivica Matosevic, Matosevic Wines
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

The world's a big place and it seems that in most countries that offer a hospitable climate, wine is produced. Given that, it seems that every six months or so, we're hearing about a new wine region that has become an overnight success, despite the fact the growers and producers have been at this for a few decades (or centuries, in some cases).

The latest collection of wines I was introduced to quite recently were those from Croatia. This country, located near the Adriatic Sea, a bit east of Italy and west of Serbia, enjoys a continental climate where summers are warm and winters are cold, much like certain wine zones of northern Italy as well as parts of France. To date, the best known thing about the wines of Croatia has been the Plavac Mali grape, originally thought to be a descendant of the Zinfandel grape, but is in reality a cross between Zinfandel and the Croatian indigenous variety Dobričić.

Despite this, the white wines were the ones that most impressed me at the tasting of the newest releases from two of the country's best producers, Matosevic and Saints Hills. The mix here was both indigenous and international varieties, but the stylings were very European in their manner, with an eye on the latest technology in the cellar.

First, the wines of Matosevic, who specializes in Malvasia and Chardonnay. He has two lines, one labeled Aura, which refers to wines aged in stainless steel and the other labeled Alba, which are wines that have been fermented and aged in oak. My favorites here were the Malvasia, especially the 2009 Aura ($24), with its perfumes of pear and peony, lively acidity and finesse; this is showing beautifully now (as is the 2008, also tasted this day) and will drink well over the next 2-3 years. (I love non-oak aromatic whites such as this with Thai or Oriental cuisine, but there are a variety of options for these bottlings.)

While I normally prefer steel-aged versions of Malvasia, I was quite impressed with the barrique-aged rendering produced by Matosevic. The 2008 displays a light nuttiness in the aromas along with notes of dried pear and caramel. The mid-palate is quite rich and there is a long finish with lively acidity. This is an excellent wine with beautiful complexity; I'd love to try this wine with seafood or even poultry or lighter veal; it should drink well over the next 3-5 years. (The $25 retail price makes this a fine value.)

Matosevic also has a white blend known as Grimalda ($28), a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Malvasia. The wine was aged for one year in barrique and one year in stainless steel and displays aromas of spiced pear and anise and is quite rich on the palate. Nicely balanced, this has good acidity and a full finish; enjoy this over the next 2-3 years with most pork or most seafood.

Ernest Tolj, Saints Hills
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

The finest white at this tasting was from Ernest Tolj of Saints Hills, who showed his 2009 Nevina, a blend of Malvasia and Chardonnay. Sporting aromas of chamomile tea and dried pear, this is a powerful white that explodes on the palate and has a long, long finish with distinct minerality. This is an impressive wine that compares to the finest blended whites of Friuli and is nicely priced between $30-$35. This needs strong seafood with a rich sauce - perhaps scallops with ginger or swordfish with rosemary.

There were two reds sampled at this event: the Matosevic Grimalda Red and the Saints Hills Dingac. The former, a blend of Merlot and Terano, has aromas of black plum and anise and is medium-full with good acidity and elegant tannins. There is delicate spice, but this is a fruit-driven wine with subdued wood notes. Enjoy this over the next 5-7 years with most red meats ($30).

The latter is made from Plavac Mali and is a more powerful red with big spice (somewhat reminiscent of a Barbera from Piemonte), good acidity and plenty of black plum fruit. This definitely needs game or grilled red meat to accompany it and it will have its fans. I enjoyed the wine and think it will drink well over the next 5-7 years - it will need a few years to settle down - but I found it lacked some finesse and elegance. Perhaps with time, that will come. The suggested retail price of $54-$60 seems a bit high to me and will make this a difficult sell.

So my first encounter with the wines of Croatia was quite enjoyable. The wines are not only well made, but offer beautiful complexity and best of all, a sense of place; these are clearly not made to garner points in a wine magazine, but are meant to be enjoyed at the table with food. These producers have their priorities straight and I look forward to sampling more wines from Croatia very soon.

P.S. One final note. This was a small event at Tru Restaurant in Chicago with lovely foodstuffs to accompany the wines. I was able to meet the two vintners and ask them questions. They were very helpful in helping me learn about their particular wines, so overall I was happy with the event. But I'd love to learn a lot more about Croatia and I think all of us would. Many people don't know where the country is, much less the wine zones, so a bit more information, such as maps or a guide to the varieties used in Croatia would have been of great value.

Hopefully Wines of Croatia will be able to organize some bigger tastings in the future with more producers and perhaps even a seminar on this country's viticulture. The wines are the first step in education and they were wonderful this day. Now there needs to be more input on the part of Wines of Croatia if they are to get a foothold in the country. As I wrote at the outset, there are wines from all over the world, so to sell your products, you have to tell people about them.


  1. Sounds like a great tasting. I am really excited to get to Croatia one of these days. In particular, I want to try wines made with the Crljenak Kaštelanski grape, which I believe is the original Zinfandel. Whats the deal with Dobričić? Is it an even earlier ancestor of Zin?

  2. Good question- I'll see what I can find out or maybe a reader can help with the answer.

  3. :-) It seems You are both right regarding "ancestors" of Zin. Crljenak kaštelanski shares identical genetic profile with Zinfandel and this variety crossed with Dobričić to gave us Plavac Mali. Also close relative to Primitivo...
    But this is least important. Do not expect to sample some extreme Zinfandel, especially not the "crowd pleasing" style. Rather open Your senses to something utterly different at its best.