Thanksgiving Wines for my Family’s Table (Heard of these Grapes?)

This year I’m really excited about a couple of wines that I will be bringing to Thanksgiving, departures from my tried and true faves (on and off the holiday table), which are Riesling, Pinot Noir, Gamay (not, ahem, you-know-what which is being “released” today), and Gruner Veltliner. But these, rather, are a couple wines I’ve enjoyed recently and that I want to share with family and friends.

The first is the one I’ll refer to as good ol’ Homeslice. It’s Vignoles (veen-yole) produced here in Stillwater, Minnesota by a winery called Saint Croix Vineyards.


Saint Croix Vineyards Vignoles 2013

The nose evokes lilac and cherry blossoms, and the palate is rich and round with a delicate thread of acidity that keeps it feeling balanced, as it does bear a little sweetness.

The second one is from Sicily, a producer called Valle dell’Acate and the wine is called il Frappato, from the Frappato grape.

Valle dell'Acate Il Frappato 2013

Valle dell’Acate Il Frappato 2013

It’s absolutely delightful, with a pervasive wild blueberry character on a silky, textural body that has soft tannins and lifted acidity. It has inspired me to enter the unspoken family stuffing contest with a wild rice/dried blueberry/sage/ginger recipe I created.

Blueberry Wild Rice Stuffing

Cook a 12 oz package of long grain Minnesota wild rice and let cool (I used my rice cooker- worked perfectly). I sautéed two finely chopped celery stalks, a quarter of a large onion and about a teaspoon of garlic in olive oil and hit it with white wine when liquids got low. Took that off the heat and mixed in about 2 Tbsp fresh minced ginger and about ¼ cup chopped fresh sage. Then added in about a cup of freeze dried blueberries, didn’t want to use frozen as I was pretty sure the whole dish would turn magenta. And added in a grated green apple.

Note added on Friday, Nov 28th : It was dynamite! (I think I won- wink wink).

Happy Holidays!


Some Italian Vino I’ve been Sipping this Week

This time of year is no different from others. I’m thinking of VinItaly and sad that it’s the first time I’ve missed this fair in 4 years. But I can always drum up a little Italy love in my own wine glass as I think back to some of these wineries that I’ve had the incredibly good fortune to visit.

Stylistically, this time of year, I want my reds to bring texture and lightness but not too much weight. And I want freshness and brightness in the whites, but an element of complexity and nothing too fruity. Here’s what I’m working with this week…

From Italy’s northeast, in the Veneto region:

Remo Farina Bianco di Custoza 2011. This is a bright, crisp white wine made with a blend of the five regional white grapes of the region. Orchard fruit from ripe yellow apple to creamy peach, this is a crowd pleasing white wine that has an incredible capacity to serve both as a cocktail wine or would work well with poultry, shellfish or spring vegetable dishes.

From Alto Adige, in Italy’s Dolomite mountains.

eti terlan b

Cantina Terlano Terlaner Classico

Cantina Terlano “Terlaner Classico” 2012. Rich and textural, this is a multi-faceted blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon, and Pinot Bianco. Each of these grapes makes its way into their own bottlings at Cantina Terlano. This proprietary blend of the three has been a perpetual favorite wine of mine since it first hit my lips around 2007. Fruit notes are ripe apple and sutle pear, and it bears a very rich mouthfeel without the weight of having been thumped with oak. A pretty phenomenal bottle of wine for this “classic” range of wines from Terlano. Almost everybody falls in love with this wine, including people who often fancy themselves exclusive red wine drinkersPaolo_LangheBianco_bottle


From the northwest, in the Piedmont region, famed for the rich Barolo wines:

Paolo Scavino Langhe Bianco DOC 2012. This wine wine glistens with fresh acidity and international styling. It makes perfect sense when you think of the people who live in this region, farmers at heart, but with an incredible reverence for the land and blessed with some of the most incredible culinary riches in the world, including earthy and decadent truffles and chingale, or wild boar. This region is also famed for Barolo wines, beautiful and elegant wines made in either a modern or more traditional style, but these are wines that are quite contemplative and require years to mature. So, often the people here reach for something easy and refreshing, like this Langhe bianco, which is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Delicious and citrus-toned with an incredible backbone of minerality and a brave streak of acidity.

From the heart of Tuscany, three wines from Italy’s own Sangiovese:

Ali Sangiovese 2012 is a bottle of wine that holds it’s own on a weeknight with easygoing counterparts like pizza or burgers. The fruit shines, with bright red fruit like cranberry and Bing cherry and tannins are soft and medium-bodied. Great value and easy to like!

Alteo Chianti DOCG 2012 is pleasant and fruity with more elements of earth and ripe fruit, like blackberry and black cherry. Tannins are smooth but add great texture. This would be a great accompaniment to grilled red meats, grilled vegetables or pasta in a tomato-based sauce.

Bramosia Chianti Classico DOCG 2011 is a wine that wears its pedigree well and stikes a great balance between tannin and acidity, offering a complexity on the palate that well belies its low price tag. It shows nice earthy notes of forest floor, but is clean and bright and is definitely in the camp of modern style Chiantis. The oak barrel aging adds nice spice notes, like nutmeg and cinnamon and just a hint of vanilla. The fruit is mature and reminiscent of black cherry and plums.

Back to the Veneto for this red:
Remo Farina Valpolicella Ripasso Classico Superiore 2012. Here’s a wine that seems to blow everybody away! Made from grapes that have been partially dried prior to pressing, the natural sweetness of the grapes is enhanced and the concentration is richer. The juice is passed over the dried grape skins one more time (ripasso = re-passed) to extract even more of the baked fruit concentration and the resulting wine is a velvety combination of rich baked fruit and beautiful brown spices like cardamom, cinnamon and also brings forth elements of cigar box and cedar. Tannins are very fine and the wine is medium in weight, perfect for a spring/summer red. Made up of a blend of Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara.

Sushi, Meet your Match.

In Minnesota, we like to open conversations by talking about the weather. For better or worse it’s what we do, and at present there is ample opportunity to discuss just how crappy and disappointing ours has been. However, I’m not about to ramble on about that. Or rant about the fact that I’ve only sat on one restaurant patio so far this year, shivering and too proud to make for the warm indoor dining room because HECK, the sun was shining on that fine day and the fact that the patio was open was reason enough for me and my pasty, pale skin to clamor for a spot in the sun. This is Minnesota and sometimes the weather sucks. Sometimes it sucks an entire season right out of existence.

Nonetheless, I’m determined to remain positive and turn my thoughts to summer. That leads to daydreaming about the pleasure of eating long stretched out meals of sushi.  Which leads to thinking about which of my favorite wines to drink during the aforementioned meals. We all know that sake and shochu are classic pairings for Japanese fare like sushi, but wine can also be an amazing pairing. It can, in fact, rocket the entire culinary tango of eating and drinking into blissful nirvana.

Today I experienced an exaltation of sorts with a most unique wine, a wine I knew would be the perfect vessel for this sushi and wine marriage. It was a dry version, two of them actually, of Furmint from Hungary.  You might be familiar with Furmint as the grape that is used in the famous Tokaj dessert wines, and indeed it’s the same grape from the same region, but in this application it’s made into a couple of beautiful dry white wines.


The wines at hand are brought to the US through an importer called Boutique Wines and their tagline is “Love Over Money.” Never met the folks but I like their philosophy. The wines are known by their proprietary names, “Evolúció” and “Affinitás”.


Evolúció is made of 100% Furmint and has a gorgeous textural richness to accompany the delicate floral aromas and less-than-subtle tangerine aromas. It’s hard to say at 13% abv that it’s off-dry, but it definitely doesn’t strike the palate as being bone dry either. The acidity is soft, which makes it such a lovely accompaniment to sashimi, as there’s not a lot of fat that needs to be ripped through. The wine itself kind of reminds me of the way your hands smell after you’ve been handling clementines, with notes of honeysuckle, lilac and white peach also present on the palate.


Affinitás is based on Furmint, making up 85% of the blend, and the other 15% comes from Yellow Muscat, a grape I saw in play quite a bit while I was living in Croatia. At first sip the Affinitás was quiet on the palate, then it stretched out and woke up. It is a little more wound up than the Evolúció, with brighter acidity, more complexity and some stony minerality to its character. I gotta admit, the opening aromas and flavors are of crushed baby aspirin, and in case that comes off as a negative comment, I’d like to set the record straight: I was very excited about this. I’m not a closet pill popper, and I guess if I was this would be proof that I’m a pretty lame amateur, but I love me some baby aspirin with it’s subtle orange-iness and chalky finish. My lunch date concurred that a) baby aspirin is delicious and b) this wine is also delicious and a brilliant combination with the more complex futomaki rolls and their various flavor components. The Affinitás delivers textural breadth as well, but more in the realm of broad, sweeping acidity. More citrus aromas evolved on the palate as well as the wine opened up, primarily to the orangey citrus fruits, but also key lime and lemon. Chalky minerality makes waves through the palate too. It’s an incredibly alluring wine with plenty of complexity, in fact much more than you would expect for the price.

Both of the wines we tasted today were from the 2011 vintage, and are drinking beautifully. The fine folks at Masu Sushi and Robata in Northeast were kind enough to let me explore this burgeoning obsession idea of pairing these wines with sushi, bringing in my own bottles while they indeed have their own lovely drink program, including some dynamite cocktails. If you’re reading from the Minneapolis area, get yourself over there for an awesome meal or their rockstar happy hour.

If you’re inclined to try these lovely wines, try tracking them down at your favorite local retailer. They should be able to order them even if they don’t carry them at present. They’re brand new to the MN market. The Evolúció is a freakin steal at $10.99 and so is the Affinitás at $12.99. You’ll regret picking up anything less than 6 bottles of each.

Some of the shops in the Twin Cities that carry one or both of these wines:

Lowertown Wine and Spirits

The Wine Thief, St. Paul

Tournament Liquor, Blaine

MT Liquor, Mahtomedi

Paolo Scavino Barolo on a Beautiful Day

I. Love. Barolo.  I especially love Paolo Scavino Barolos.

I can’t think of many ways I’d rather spend an afternoon than hanging out with Elisa Scavino and her family’s gorgeous wines.  Specifically their Barolos, which in my opinion reign supreme in Piemonte, in terms of purity and elegance.

I had the very good fortune to visit their winery in 2010, and embark on a highly memorable multi-course dinner which started in the neighborhood of eleven p.m. and ended many wines, many courses, and many hours later.  It followed a day of tasting Barolo at their winery, which was also one of the most memorable winery experiences I have ever had.

Elisa’s father Enrico Scavino is at the helm of operations, with 2012 being his 61st harvest. I remember thinking him the most meticulous winemaker I’d ever met, with the cleanest and most pristine winery, hoses suspended in the air by big metal hooks, so that they don’t touch the floor. He rarely lets others in the cellar, working only with two others.  And he often subjects his family to blind tastings of the wines during various phases of production, so they can single out not just which vineyards they think are producing the best quality, but various plots within single vineyards. They separate the wheat from the chaff (though I doubt the chaff is very low qual) and sell the juice they won’t use.

The Scavinos produce wine from an astounding six of the 11 villages in Barolo, and 19 of the 21 vineyards they get grapes from are owned by the family. They work with 18 different Crus in all. They produce seven different styles of Barolo, including four single vineyard Barolos. Try keeping track of that.

Elisa sharing the stories of the wines and showing us the various regions and vineyards of Barolo in Piedmont.

History and principles aside, today was a beautiful sunny day in Minneapolis, and even more so because the lovely Elisa was with us sharing wine and her stories. She managed to pull away from Piedmont for a quick wine tour through the States, despite the fact that the winery is in full operational mode and has begun harvesting.

And again, Miss Elisa.

Today’s lineup started off with the Langhe Bianco 2011, which is a super drinkable blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. It leads with pretty floral aromatics and soft tropical fruits, like baked pineapple. On the palate it’s broad and even a little oily, offering a full mouthfeel but none of the weight of an oaked white. The Sauvignon aromas are well behaved, simply bringing forth some herbal notes that persist on the incredibly long finish. I could drink this wine all spring and summer.

Langhe Bianco 2011

We tasted the Langhe Nebbiolo, Rosso di Tavola, Barbera d’Alba, and Dolcetto d’Alba.  All tasty and fun, especially the uber-approachable Barbera which is so drinkable it doesn’t require food.  And my perpetual friend, the Langhe Nebbiolo, which is more budget friendly than Barolo but brings plenty of moxie to the table.

Langhe Nebbiolo 2008

Barolos (brief tasting notes follow):

Barolo 2007- At first whiff, lots of violet and soft florals. Tannins are soft and silky, this is an approachable style of Barolo, bringing together the finer qualities of their various vineyards.

Carobric 2007- This blend (Ca + Ro + Bric) is jammed full of bright anise notes on a mineral and herbal core. Acid and tannin, check.  Not a pedestrian Barolo by any stretch, this blend brings forth some of the best qualities in this style of wine, including the classic rose petal notes and dusty cocoa.

Scavino Barolos from 2007

Bricco Ambrosio 2007- Single vineyard from Rotti village. It’s the only cru in the village, and makes a fatter, fleshed out style of Barolo (relatively speaking, of course). Softer acidity and more fruity than it’s counterparts, still a force to be reckoned with.

Monvigliero 2007- The first release of this wine, it’s a new single vineyard from Verduno in the northern region. The fruit comes from .5 hectare of 45 year-old vines. The nose has lots of black pepper followed by anise and followed by eucalyptus.  It’s really pretty.

Cannubi 2007- Coming from the center of the cru Barolo village, this is more fleshy and shows more fruit, specifically black fruits and crushed raspberry. I love the way this wine feels in my mouth, the tannins are tight and grippy (is that a word?) but they coat my mouth like a big velvet blanket. Elisa describes this wine as having a typical Balsamic aroma. I just know that I love it.

Bric del Fiasc

Bric del Fiasc 2007- I actually made some kind of audible (and therefore embarrassing) sigh when I smelled this wine. Gorgeous leaps out of the glass. The ball starts rolling with peppermint, young raspberry, candy cane, leather, tar and black licorice. I know that sounds kind of freakishly unappetizing, but it was a truly well-woven and elegant wine. My pen couldn’t even keep up with my senses as I was trying to record my impressions of this wine, there were so many layers of aroma, flavor and texture. I wish I had a lifetime supply.

We were also really lucky today to taste the 2000 vintage of Carobric, which is remarkably fresh but shows lots of mature fruit and all the sweetness of the wet forest floor. Delicious.

And the Rocche dell’Annunziata Riserva 2005, which is the current release. Is that sick or what? It was so beautiful, really classic with crushed rose petal, graphite and wet leather notes. Lots of eucalyptus here too. Simply a breathtaking wine and a luxury to drink.

These three can come over to my house to play anytime.

Loved the food that accompanied the tasting today, all prepared by Broder’s Pasta Bar in Minneapolis.

A good mix of snacks for partnering with the wines.

Pesto pizza

And special thanks to Bourget Imports for putting this tasting together with Banville and Jones, who imports the wine from Italy.  It was excellent!

More information about the Scavino Estate can be found here. I hope you have luck finding the wines locally (make the investment, you will not regret it). Unfortunately, the winery is only open to the trade by appointment.

Snapshots from Istria Wine Trip, October 2011

In October 2011, Brava Wine Company took the first group of travelers through Istria to experience the beautiful wines and the culinary riches. It’s also truffle season and time for the olive harvest, so we had a very full weekend of amazing food and wine!  A similar trip will be repeated again several times in October.

You can read all about this trip here or join us in Istria for a weekend in October of 2012- more information about upcoming trips can be found here.

Arriving at the Truffle Festival…

…on a crisp autumn day, one traveler is saving his energy for the truffle tasting.

The group in Livade for the Zigante Tartufi festival

At Misal Winery

Ana pours sparkling wine at her family winery.

A long day of truffles, wine and fresh air calls for pizza and… more wine!

The pizza wiz

The next day, we are enjoying a four course traditional wine lunch in Višnan.

Joined by Peter Poletti who introduces us to his delightful wines.

Helping Poletti pour for my guests.

Muškat Ruža to go with the fritule we brought back to his winery.

In Poletti’s winery

Poletti gets up in the archive section to fetch a bottle of wine for us!

Vines. olives and the sea as seen from Višnjan.

Freshly harvested olives to be pressed.

Admiring the olives.

Pouring a bottle of freshly pressed olive oil.

It’s onto Roxanich Winery in Nova Vas

Pouring Roxanich for one of my great guests!

Barrel samples in the winery at Roxanich.

A post-tour glass of wine on the terrace at our place before we head out to dinner. (Sorry boys and girls, the fingerless rainbow gloves aren’t for sale).

Our final dinner at Divino in Poreč, specialized in gourmet preparations of fresh fish.

White Zin… Once in a Blue Moon?

White Zin for the people.

This post is in honor of cousin extraordinaire Aimee Jean.  She’s a connoisseur of adult beverages herself (just don’t ask her to go halfsies on a pear cider). Miss Aimee Jean and I have on multiple holidays had the pleasure of being stuffed into a house crammed to the gills with extended family.  And if we’re not flinging mashed potatoes at each other (actually we only did that once…sorry, grandma) sometimes we’re marveling a what a wonderful, and huge, family we have.

By and large, our family is made up of the type of folks who usually reach into the cooler during the aforementioned holiday get-downs for a reduced-calorie American pilsner. But, once in a blue moon (and there’s one this month, you know), or if it’s a special occasion (i.e. it’s Sunday and the liquor store’s closed) they might also reach for a glass of vino. In which case they open the fridge and pull out the timeless and elegantly packaged box of Franzia White Zinfandel. There are many special things about this wine I’m sure, but the true magic of it is that it manages to offer both refreshment and sweetness, while leaving your breath smelling all boozy and watermelon-laced (this only applies on the way down, teens).  Not to mention, it’s a spot on perfect pairing with tater tot hot dish.

To you and your family, and to my cousin Aimee Jean, on this non-holiday I raise a glass and say CHEERS!

Single Day Trips- Istria by Land and Sea!

Rovinj by Sea

New Single Day Trips Available in July:

“When arriving to Rovinj, dear traveller, please try to make sure that you do so by sea.”

-M. Rakovac

It’s an unforgettable opportunity to see Istria this summer by land and SEA, guided by a local winemaker, sommelier and fishermen!  To see recent photos from this trip click here.

The ultimate in laid back gourmet adventure, your unforgettable day between Istria’s two most beautiful seaside towns of Poreč and Rovinj features everything you love about this area, from two of the most beautiful towns to the best in secret gastronomy, it’s all waiting for you when you book your adventure.

We’ll meet in the morning in Poreč, where we’ll have a short walking tour of this beautiful, historical city.

Fresh oysters just harvested in the Limski Canal. Bring on the bubbly!

Then we’ll board a private boat and head into the Limski Canal, where the beauty of the natural landscape meets the bounty of the sea. We’ll have our first taste of the day with fresh shells harvested moments ago from the very spot that Anthony Bourdain ate fresh oysters on his recently aired TV show, “No Reservations- Croatian Coast.” And we wouldn’t miss the opportunity to pair this with one of Istria’s finest sparkling wines!

From there we’ll travel at our own pace towards Rovinj, the longtime maritime center of Istria, where further adventures await. We’ll embark on an expertly guided walk through this Venetian-inflected old town, stopping to visit some special places which don’t exist in any guide book, like a local spacio. We will have a fresh fish lunch with an excellent local winemaker in the colorful home of a local fisherman and renowned chef, right on the edge of Rovinj’s beautiful marina and nestled between bustling shops and cafes.

Multi-course lunches prepared with fish caught that morning and paired with local wines and olive oils!

After this full, fun day of fresh seafood, fabulous wine, and sightseeing, we’ll get back on the private boat and leisurely make our way back towards Poreč, stopping for a relaxing break on a small island.

This adventure will run from 9 a.m. until around 6 p.m. and is subject to change based on weather or other circumstances. Price is 140 Euros per adult.  Minimum of 4 and maximum of 8 people per tour.  Deposit of 50% is required at least 3 days in advance and is non-refundable.  Payments are possible in cash or bank deposit or on paypal (see below).

Inquiries and bookings at

There’s a good reason Lonely Planet voted Istria the #2 place to visit for 2011!  And this is your chance to see it as a local.

Wine Glass in Hand: Southern Dalmatia (part 1)

Eager beaver that I am, I decided to hop on a 5:55 a.m. flight to Dubrovnik, so as not to miss a beat.  My tour guides for the day picked me up at 7 a.m. and suggested that perhaps it was a better hour for a coffee than to hit the wine trails.  No need to feign agreement here as I had just come off of a wine trip through Istria and thought maybe my own system could use a break from the fruit of the vine, at least for an hour or so.

Cavtat in the Morning

We headed to the small coastal town of Cavtat.  This was my first introduction to Dalmatia and everything about this charming little town was just that.  We stepped out of the car and the first thing that hit me was the heady perfume hanging in the air, my senses instantly intoxicated. Looking around I couldn’t understand it, I saw plenty of flowers planted in the ground and window boxes, but I knew it wasn’t these geraniums and other colorful annuals perfuming the air with what smelled to me like jasmine or maybe honeysuckle.  I learned later that the aromas were coming from the blossoms of the orange trees which grow all over Dalmatia.

Orange Blossoms and a Morning View

We walked on through the quiet streets of this old coastal town.  My father-and-son tour guides, Luka and Ljubo,  just so happened to be local history buffs and I learned much about the architecture, history and important historical figures here in Cavtat as we walked down the winding pedestrian path through town.

A small fishing boat on Cavtat’s crystal clear water

This path winds lazily along the coastline of the cove, and I couldn’t resist the urge to dip my feet into the sea.  We meandered over to a coffee bar and sipped on a macchiato before we would head into the off-the-beaten-path wine country that lies nearby in the region of Konavle.  The cluster of coffee bars were all populated by locals at this hour, mostly men sipping on their coffees and reading the paper or conversing with their friends.  They casually slip in and out of these local establishments, warmly greeting everybody they pass. In the time we spent sipping our coffee, we were joined by three different men, each stopping just for a few moments to say hello, catch up and move on.

From here we headed into rural Konavle, the region which borders Dubrovnik to the south.

First stop was at the big, industrial looking winery Dubrovački Podrumi. This winery is situated in a long valley protected from the sea by mountains on either side. The winery was originally built in 1877.  With Božo, head of winery operations, we tasted first the Malvasija Dubrovačka (locally referred to as simply Malvasija).   It’s is a different grape than the Malvazija Istarska that from Istria that I’ve become more familiar with.  The flavors of the two different types of Malvasija/Malvazija don’t actually strike me as being such a far cry from one another, with similar flavors of peach and melon lurking in each.  Here it’s a bit lemony, with some floral tones taking hold too.  The main difference I notice between the two varietals from the two different regions is the mouthfeel.  Here it’s more oily and fat, softer in acidity.

Božo and his Cabernet Sauvignon, Trajectum.

Artwork depicting the winemaking process at Dubrovacka Podrumi.

Artwork depicting the winemaking process adorns the walls of the large tasting rooms at Dubrovacka Podrumi in Konavle, Croatia.

We also tried a handful of other wines, all reds, including Zinfandel (Crnjelak) and a few international varietals before hitting the road.  Dubrovački Podrumi is a very solid producer making some nice wines from international varietals at a reasonable enough price point.

We packed back into the car and headed off to see another producer, Marinović.  A true “garage” winery, Marinović actually has quite a bit of land under vine, but no fancy winery or tasting room.  Instead, it was a real treat to be led into his dining room to taste with his family.  He’s producing just a few wines, and I couldn’t believe how much I liked them, each a very good complement to his homemade pršut (prosciutto), which had an intense, smoky flavor.  A close family, everybody came out to say hello and join us, spanning three generations.  We were treated to a concert on the lirica by the youngest member of the family.  And great grandfather, a living legend in town, treated us to a robust recital of a local blessing, something he would have given in the regional costume,  in the past when he was called upon to do so for local weddings or for a new vintage of wine.  Despite his 83 years his eyes still sparkle like those of a little boy.

Owner and Winemaker Marinović with his Zinfandel

After leaving the Marinović home, we drove up winding roads through the beautiful mountains, stopping at last at a gathering of ancient looking stone buildings where we were greeted by our next host, Vlaho.  This is where we were to have lunch, though it didn’t resemble a restaurant but rather the countryside property that someone might head to for a weekend escape.  After walking around and visiting with Vlaho, I was treated to one of the most majestic vistas I’ve ever had the privilege to gaze out from.

Local legend Vlaho

Vlaho’s slice of Heaven in Pičete

This place had no signage to alert passers-by of the delicacies that lie within, and everything here was prepared by our host himself.  We feasted on his creations, including salami, cheese, rakija (domestic brandies made from various herbs and fruits), and bread.  Then, for the meal, we had slow roasted pork and vegetables cooked under the peka (a cast iron lidded pot which is filled with fish, meat or vegetables and buried in a trough under the ash of a live fire). He is currently the local champion of the regional cooking contest specialized in the preparation a regional cabbage dish called zelena menestra, and he brought out a huge platter of that to try as well.  It was one of the most heavenly preparations of an otherwise pretty utilitarian vegetable that I have ever tried.

Later, as the festivities got underway, the guys in our group broke out into song, singing local songs (it would be the first time of many) as a guitar was pulled out of the corner. Then a few more songs, followed (naturally) by dancing. We were drinking Malvasija from one of the local wineries we had just visited and also spring water captured an hour before, and it was at times hard to believe we were in the twenty-first century.  We enjoyed this afternoon in the ancient-feeling stone building with only a small makeshift kitchen and an outdoor cooking area, and I could only imagine how many people before had done exactly the same thing.  I later learned that our host (and chef, and entertainer) Vlaho is a local war hero. During the time of the war he bravely made a daily trip under fire in his own armored vehicle so he could drive bread and water to others who were in peril and need of supplies.

Easier to find in this area is another restaurant, much more conventional but fascinating in its own right. It’s called Konavoski Dvori and was originally run by my own tour guide, Luka.  This restaurant, nestled against the river Ljuta has been harnessing the river’s power for a number of years. The hydropower is used to grind flour from corn and to irrigate the gardens.  Everything is still fully operational, including the original stone mill which the traditionally dressed employees will demonstrate for you.  They also farm their own trout from a well located right on the terrace.

Grinding flour from corn

Before we were to board the boat to the island of Lopud where we were to make our base camp, we visited one more winery.

“I planned to retire at 60 and now that I’m 70 I’m working more than ever,” owner Andro Crvik cheerfully laments on this perfectly sunny afternoon, before turning our winery visit over to his son, Petar, so he can go work in the vineyards.

Crvik bottlings from different vintages

Crvik Winery is located in Konavle near the village of Čilipi and is definitely worth a visit. They started making wine since 1994, when they were using only the local grapes Maraština and Plavac. They’ve since expanded the plantings to include Malvasija, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot as well. Petar, or Pero as he’s also called, has now taken over the bulk of the duties as winemaker and has shown that he’s open to  experimenting, in terms of the wines and even the labels, which they’ve been adapted to create more visibility in the market.

Crvik and their flagship Malvasija Dubrovačka.

We had the chance to taste a handful of the wines, from young fresh barrel samples to some incredibly interesting bottles from the archives, including a bottle of 2007 Malvasija which picked up all the flinty mineral tones of an aged Mosel Riesling. The 2003 from the archives (of which fourteen bottles remain) was reminiscent of both crème brulee and a Moscatel Sherry.  Delicious.  The fact that their wines have been able to stand the test of time is perhaps indication enough that these guys know what they’re doing.

It was time to hit the road again, and we headed to port where we made for the short sea voyage, joined by a few more visitors.  Off to dinner and a relaxed evening on the island of Lopud, part of the Elefati Island chain…

Raising a glass to a great day in Konavle (and Lopud)!

Wine #5. On the 5th Day of Croatian Vino…

On the fifth day of Croatian Vino, I was in for a surprise.  I was at another Christmas party, this one happened to be all comprised of Americans. Among this crew were a few of the A-Teamers, if you remember Kim and Christine.  Among this group of 15 we definitely had a mixed crowd of drinkers, not all wine aficionados by any means, but they were all game.

Korta Katarina Plavac Mali

After a fabulous meal of Caesar salad prepared by yours truly and Christine’s amazing lasagna, we cracked open the wine that I brought, which of course I previously cleared with the hostess. It was the Korta Katarina Plavac Mali 2007, from the Peljesac peninsula on Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast. Widely regarded as one of Croatia’s finer, more prestigious wines, we were about to get some feedback.

The bottle went around the table after dinner. Some wine-murmurs started bubbling to the surface. I myself noticed something wasn’t right- the wine clashed with the meal we had just eaten. The wine itself was sound, the problem was that the strong flavors from dinner were still prevalent on our palates. We had Caesar salad, which was fabulous but wicked garlicky, and lasagna, which was all meat, cheese and more garlic. I knew it when I tasted it, these were not the flavors I wanted dancing on my palate as we embarked on this style of wine.

As the bottle went around and the comments started flowing, some others found this to be the case as well. This wine, which I have presented in the past to remarkable reviews, was getting mixed reviews here. All of the pretty fruit and floral aromas that make Plavac Mali such a special wine were being sabotaged here, victims to our strongly-flavored dinner. Also, because I brought only one bottle, there wasn’t a chance for people to try it over the course of several sips, thus cleansing their palates with the wine and transitioning to these new flavors. Comments ranged from “it’s good red wine” and “smooth, with hardly any bite” to “it tastes like seafood, maybe walleye.” Huh?!? Can’t say I agree with that one.

The case in point is that there really is some magic to pairing food and wine. And those who didn’t like this wine at this tasting would likely swoon over it in another setting, with another meal or maybe just on its own.

When I’ve tasted this wine on its own, I found this wine to have all the seduction you’d expect from a big, lush Plavac, with really pretty floral notes backed by amarena cherry, blackberry and blueberry notes. I find some Plavac Malis to be totally in your face, but Korta Katarina’s got it all under control, and the wine is smooth with broad, velvety tannins. For me, it’s a bigger wine than I usually drink, but fans of this super-lush style of wine will be very pleasantly rewarded with a bottle of this wine.

Full disclosure: I ripped off this picture from someone else’s blog, called “Wine Words and Videotape.”  Sounds a little naughty, right?

Hilarious sidenote: Later on we had fun with a gift exchange of all types of gifts, and  “Tastes like Walleye” opened a very special imported cheetah-print Snuggie. For those who don’t know, this is an all-inclusive blanket/sleeping bag/fashion item for those who take maxing and relaxing on their Lazy Boy to a  hole.  nother. level. (HNL). It was stolen by another friend who is shown here modeling it and kindly stole it for good, as his wife is about to have surgery.  I’m sure she’s grateful.

Christmas loot galore!

Brava Travel: An Istrian Wine Trip to Remember

The snow was a bit of a surprise, especially since the day before in Zagreb we were in summer clothes. But driving from Zagreb to Istria the night before the rest of my group arrived, snow and sleet was falling furiously and showing no sign of letting up. Meanwhile the temps started dropping into the danger zone of 32 degrees Fahrenheit (or 0 degrees Celsius). We pushed through slowly and carefully only to discover as we often do, on the other side of the Učka tunnel, windy but clear weather.

The group arrives in Livade for the Zigante Tartufi festival

The ominous warnings proved false. By the next day as the 25 guests were arriving on this family-friendly wine trip, the clouds had broken and the sun was warming our skin through our light fall jackets and sweaters. It was perfect timing. We gathered in our cars and caravanned through Istria’s beautiful two-lane roads which wind lazily through miles and miles of vineyards, olive groves and the hills and valleys with their quaint villages and towns. We arrived in Livade at Zigante Tartufi for the kick-off of the day’s Truffle Festival, featuring many culinary delights featuring the magnificent truffle. We tasted wine, admittedly of varying degrees of quality, and sampled the many different truffle offerings, from olive oils to cheeses and salamis. We all walked away from the fair with shopping bags of whichever  truffle-studded treasures we decided to purchase to take home before enjoying a light lunch of Fuži pasta, an Istrian specialty of hand-rolled pasta tubes. In this case the pasta was served with a cream sauce, and you guessed it, more truffles. We washed it down with Istria’s local gem of a white wine, Malvazija.

Ana Persurić, winemaker at Misal

From there we headed to Misal winery, owned by the Peršurić family just outside of Višnjan. Winemaker Ana Peršurić was our delightful guide and hostess, taking us on an insightful tour and fantastic tasting in their unique tasting room (the tasting counter is an island in the middle room, shaped like a Champagne cork and, in fact, partially made of cork).  Since we ate such a light lunch at Zigante it was lucky for us that I had loads of my favorite American kettle chips in my car, having stocked up on a recent trip to an American grocery store. Because of this good fortune, one of my favorite wine pairings of all times manifested before us (queue the choir of angels):  Champagne (or in this case, Champagne-style sparkling wine) and POTATO CHIPS!  It’s heaven, people. If you haven’t tried it, give it a shot.

Well, sparkling wine has a funny habit of whetting your palate, so from there we headed to dinner at our family’s favorite pizza joint in Poreć. From start to finish at this little neighborhood spot you can watch them roll out the dough, toss it ever so cavalierly into the air, slap it down, spread it out and cover it just about anything your heart desires before throwing it in a blazing wood-fired oven. It was delicious, casual and perfect for our hungry group.  Naturally, a little after party formed once we got back to the apartments, and then to bed, for another day of food and wine was ahead.

On these wine trips I always like to leave the morning free for folks to enjoy as they wish, whether it’s hammering out a work-related proposal (boo) or taking a walk on the water’s edge toward the old city of Poreć (hooray).

Enjoying lunch at Konoba Borgonja in Višnan

So, after some time to ourselves, we commenced at noon for an early lunch and wine tasting at a Borgonja, a local Konoba (a.k.a. traditional restaurant) in Višnjan. This place not only takes great care of their guests, but delivers great value and serves some of the best traditional cuisine in the area. Rich, hearty food greeted us immediately upon arrival, starting with a huge helping of Fuži pasta, this time served in a rich gravy of beef goulash (gulaš) with loads of fresh, homemade bread. It was delicious and quite a meal in itself, but we had to slap on our game faces as the next course was soon to roll out. This one featured a locally made sausage, served atop a bed of sauerkraut along with a pork chop and roasted potatoes. Yeah, all of that on one plate.  Needless to say, we did our best and enjoyed every bit. Our friendly and gracious hosts checked in on us every step of the way. Peter Poletti, a local winemaker and good friend, joined us for this ample lunch and poured his fresh, flavorful wines which did a great job of cutting through the richness of the meal.

Tapping into a bottle of 2001 Chardonnay courtesy of Peter Poletti!

Well, we were in it to win it on this fine day, so we tossed back quick espressos and took dessert on the road with us as we headed to Peter’s winery in Višnjan. There we enjoyed Borgonja’s fabulous smile-enducing Fritule (little fried donut-hole treats they serve here, especially in the cold weather) and Kroštule, a simple but tasty local dessert of flour rolled out into ribbons, tied into knots, fried and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Peter accompanied the treats with a glass of his Rosella, a special dessert wine made from Muškat Ruža, a unique grape in the Muskat family which is especially difficult to produce, given that it’s such a challenge in the vineyard. This pretty pink wine was spot on with the sweet treats from the restaurant.

We packed up again and headed out, this time to see olive oil production underway nearby. This year’s weather created early harvests all around, both in the vineyards and olive groves, and this provided us the opportunity to see fresh olives being brought to press and make their way through the production line. It was a really fascinating experience, and we all lined up to buy lots of the dark green oil which had just been pressed yesterday.

From here we headed to Roxanich Winery, a producer of unique wines made in a cask-matured, aged style. These wines are full of character and this is arguably one of the best producers in all of Croatia. Their style in contrast with the fresh, young wines made by Poletti proved that there are many ways to make wine on this charming peninsula. We had the opportunity to taste the newly released 2008 vintage, including the premier of Ines in White, a beautiful blend of seven white grape varietals.

However, we decided that enough wasn’t indeed enough on this day, and we made dinner reservations at the new restaurant in the old city of Poreć called Divino. It’s the antithesis of Borgonja’s rustic, traditional, meat-based menu, instead serving elegant seafood, freshly caught, beautifully prepared and presented in a very luxe restaurant setting. We were served with finesse by the well-appointed staff and we struggled to make a selection from their smart, extremely well-chosen wine list featuring Istrian favorites like Clai and international gems as well. We finally decided upon the Trapan Malvazija Ponete as the main wine with our dinner, since this was a producer we weren’t able to visit on this trip, due to their location in Istria’s southern region, near Pula. Indeed the group loved this wine, so much that we ordered multiple bottles to enhance our meal and celebrate our last night together. It worked so well with all of our seafood dishes that we vowed to make the pilgrimage to Trapan’s winery on our next visit to the ever delightful Istria.

And it was unanimously agreed. There will be a next time.

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