My passion for wine turned serious when I accidently attended a members-only tasting at Barnard Griffin Winery in Washington State. My interest in wine from Croatia was initiated one evening while sharing a bottle of Merlot with Tony Butala. Tony has owned a vineyard in Southern California since 1969, but the Butala Vineyard name has existed for over a hundred and forty-six years.
The first Butala Vineyard was owned and run by Tony’s great-grandfather Josip, in the town of Skakavac in the area of Karlovac, Croatia, a small country in Eastern Europe along the Adriatic Coast. When Tony’s grandfather, Miko, migrated to the United States, he carried with him the knowledge of viticulture and enology he learned from his father. Miko settled in Sharon, PA in 1913 and planted some vineyards from native vines he brought with him from Croatia.
With a lack of interest from his children, including Tony’s father, John, it was Tony, age 3, to whom his grandfather chose to impart his love of grapes and winemaking. As Tony grew, his knowledge increased and he enthusiastically helped his grandfather try to improve the quality of his homeland Plavic Mali grape by grafting it to native east coast rootstock. Tony also learned winemaking with his grandfather from grapes Miko had shipped by train from California to Pennsylvania.
At age 11, Tony moved to California. He continued his tutelage in winemaking with frequent trips back to see Miko in Pennsylvania. Tony remembers making a promise to his grandfather whose dying wish to his thirteen year-old grandson was to “never, ever forget the grapevines.” Tony’s purchase of the vineyard in 1987 in Napa Valley, CA was the keeping of that promise to Miko and continuing the Butala Vineyard name.
Croatia is located in Central and Southeast Europe, bordering Hungary to the northeast, Serbia to the east, Bosnia and Herzegovina to the southeast, Montenegro to the southeast, the Adriatic Sea to the southwest, and Slovenia to the northwest. About 62% of the country drains into the Black Sea and the rest drains into the Adriatic Sea. The mean monthly temperature ranges from 27 degrees to 64 degrees.
Croatia has a rich and storied history. It is a country of twenty counties and about 21,000 square miles. It has a long coastline on the Adriatic Sea, encompassing more than a thousand islands. The major coastal city, Dubrovnik, has massive 16th-century walls encircling an old town with gothic and renaissance buildings. Its inland capital, Zagreb, is distinguished by its medieval Gornji Grad (Upper Town) and diverse museums.
Grapes and wine have existed in Croatia for over 2,000 years, dating as far back as the Ancient Greeks. There are two principle wine-producing regions in Croatia. The first is the continental region in the northeast of the country (Plješivica, Prigorje, Varaždin, Međimurje, Pokuplje en Moslavina) and northwest (Slavonia and Dunav), which produces rich, fruity white wines, similar in style to the neighboring areas of Slovenia, Austria, and Hungary.
The second wine region is the coastal region, which runs from Istria in the north to Dalmatia in the south. The Mediterranean climate with long, hot, dry summers and mild, short, wet winters is particularly well-suited for wine production.
On the north coast, Istrian wines are similar to those produced in neighboring Italy, while further south (Dalmatia), production is more towards big Mediterranean-style reds. On the south coast, the islands and hillsides have an infinite variety of microclimates resulting in a wine-growing area where terroir is a crucially important factor. A wide range of indigenous grape varietals are grown here – the best known being Plavac Mali, which produces a wine similar to Malbec.
White wine is dominant in Croatia (around two of every three bottles), particularly in inland regions where only 10% of the total annual production is red. Popular indigenous grape varietals used for white wines are Grasevina (Welschriesling), Bogdanusa (a vine so reliable and prolific that its name means “godsend”), Grasevina, Malvazija, and Pošip.
As a new trend, Croatian wine makers are producing more and more gorgeous rosé wines. One of the best grapes for the production of excellent wines is the popular grape variety Frankovka, also known as Blaufränkisch. These wines are mainly produced in the Slavonia inlands of Croatia.
Ok, so if you go looking for a wine from Croatia, what should you look for and how will it taste?
Needless to say, wines from Croatia can be a bit difficult to buy in the tri-state area. Family Beer and Liqour was able to find me a bottle of 2014 Ponente Trapan Estate Istrian Malvazija. Trapan Estate is located in the southern part of the Istrian Peninsula in the region of Pula. The grape, Malvazija (pronounced Mal-Va-Zi-a) is an old, indigenous grape. The wine was fermented in stainless steel. It most closely resembles a cross between Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. It had the crispness of a Sauvignon Blanc with a bit of the mouthfeel of a Chardonnay. I sensed a fruity bouquet with a bit of wet stone on the palate and an almond finish. I found this Malvazija wine very pleasant and feel it would go well with a seafood or pasta dish.
If you like Chardonnay, you’ll enjoy a trip to Croatia as there is Chardonnay growing all over Croatia. Even the mother grape of Chardonnay is Croatian. A little grape called Stajerska Belina – or Gouais Blanc – is thought to have crossed with a Pinot and together they created Chardonnay.
While quality is sporadic, delicious chardonnay wines are produced throughout Croatia – from the very northern coast in the Adriatic (called the “Tuscany of Croatia” by the New York Times), to the northern continental region and the sea soils of the south-eastern region of Slavonia.
But how do some of the other wines actually taste? Let me compare some of the Croatian wines with those with which you are familiar.
If you like Sauvignon Blanc, an excellent wine from Croatia would be the Svirče Hvar. Sauvignon Blanc is usually a light, fresh, dry white wine. Svirče Hvar can also have a semi-sweet aspect to it. So if you enjoy Riesling wine, you might also wish to try Svirče Hvar. The Svirče Hvar is known for lots of fruit and pleasant acidity that makes it excellent as an aperitif and goes well with salads, fish, and poultry. If you like a little more complex wine, choose the Posip.
If your go-to wine is Chardonnay, Grk Bijeli (or simply Grk) is recommended. Grk in Croatian means bitter, though the wine is dry, high in acidity, and somewhat aromatic with hints of pine. Most of the white wines in Croatia don’t have the oak flavor of most of our domestic Chardonnays and should be likened to unoaked Chardonnay.
For those who enjoy the sweeter wines such as Moscato, you’d want to try Hadrian Prošek. This wine is made from the Bogdanuša grape using dried wine grapes. This wine has a raisin taste and borders toward a liqueur.
For those who appreciate Merlot, the Croatian wine for you is Jubo’v. This is a wine made up of 75% Plavac Mali grape, blended with 25% Merlot and Shiraz. The addition of Merlot and Shiraz gives this wine the fullness and soft mouthfeel you’ll appreciate.
Cabernet Sauvignon is not to be left out. Cabernet Sauvignon wines usually have a nice body with noticeable tannins. Croatia has plenty along this line with Plavac, Plavac Mali, Plavac Barrique, or Plavac Reserva. As you can see, these are all based on the Plavac Mali grape. The Plavac (or often spelled Plavic) grape is the predominant red grape of Croatia.
For those who like Syrah and are a fan of more full-bodied wines, an absolute must is the Dingač, one of the most famous wines from Croatia. This wine is made from the Plavac Mali grape, but is not fermented in oak. Another good option is the Plovac Ploški, which is (surprise, surprise) 100% Plavac Mali grapes.
Most Malbec wines are spicy with lots of aromas of plums and berries. If you like this style wine, you could (once again) try the Plavac or Plavac Mali Reserva from Croatia.
Croatia is a land of islands, coastlines, hills, and inlands. The same grape, Plavac Mali, can be grown nearly everywhere in the country, yet has different characteristics determined by the terroir. This is a sense of “somewhereness” that Matt Kramer, author of Making Sense of Wine, refers to when the soil, climate, and weather all come into play with the winemaking process. However, Croatia is really a land of delicious white wine. Go on a quest and see what you find. There is a wine-derful world out there!
Wines I recently tasted:
2013 Evening Land Summum Eola Amity Hills Chardonnay – Dundee, OR
This wine is another one by Rajat Paar. For me, this wine redefined what a Chardonnay should taste like and scored 95 points in Wine Spectator. It has a lovely golden hue with soft notes of white fruit on the nose. On the palate there is some minerality and brightness with only hints of its time in a barrel. 100% Chardonnay – 13.4% ABV.
2014 Ponente Istrian Malvazija – Trapan Estate Istria, Croatia
This was a very crisp, clean, dry white wine. It had a fruity bouquet with a suggestion of almond in the finish. The color offered just a hint of yellow. Contact Tim Althaus at Family Beer for this wine. 100% Istrian Malvazija grape – 12% ABV.
2009 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay – Napa Valley, CA
In 1976, some California wines went head-to-head with French wine in what has become known as the Judgement of Paris. The 1975 Chateau Montlena Chardonnay won out over the French Chardonnay, as did the California Cabernet Sauvignon. This contest would shake up the French wine world and put California as the new kid on the block. Things have never been the same. Mike and Kerry Newland brought the 2009 bottle to our Open That Bottle Night and it was indeed noteworthy! Order from the winery or check with Family Beer. 13.6% ABV.
2014 Monkey Bay Sauvignon Blanc – Marlborough, New Zealand
I found this wine to be crisp with fresh cut grass on the nose and lemon grass on the palate. It had an extended finish of sweet (honey) citrus. For the price, a lovely wine. 11.5% ABV.
Wine Celebration Days
As if we need a reason to drink wine, here is a list of designated holidays to our favorite beverage. So, identify your favorite wine, circle the day on your calendar, and enjoy!
February 6…………………………. National Lambrusco Day
February 18……………………….. National Drink Wine Day
April 17…………………………….. National Malbec Day
April 24…………………………….. National Sauvignon Blanc Day
May 5……………………………….. National Moscato Day
May 21……………………………… National Chardonnay Day
May 25……………………………… National Wine Day
June 6………………………………. National Rosé Day
August 4……………………………. White Wine Day
August 8……………………………. National Albariño Day
August 18………………………….. National Pinot Noir Day
September 3……………………… National Cabernet Sauvignon Day
September 18……………………. National Grenache Day
October 15………………………… Drink Red Wine Day
November 7………………………. National Merlot Day
November 12…………………….. National Tempranillo Day
November 19…………………….. National Zinfandel Day
December 31…………………….. National Champagne/Sparkling Wine Day
Want to learn more about wine?
I am seeking to form a wine tasting group. This group would likely meet monthly and use the occasion to educate our palates, discover and try new wines, visit local wineries, make friends, and more. I’m imaging a group of about 8-12 people who wish to learn more about grapes and wine, and enjoy sharing time with others. We’d likely meet in our homes on a rotating basis on a day and time that works for the group.
Sound like fun? Reply to JuliensJournalWineGuy@gmail.com and tell me a bit about yourself. Couples or singles are welcome!