The Rise and Fall of Sweet Riesling

Back in the States I had a colleague and friend, Bill Hooper, who was also working as a wine distributor, for another company.  He’s wicked smart, and incredibly passionate about wine. And right around the time I packed up for Croatia, he did the same, heading to Germany’s Pfalz region to study winemaking in what is arguably the finest country in the world for white wine. It’s the wine that makes my head spin and my mouth salivate at the thought, and it can get me even more excited than the thought of Champagne, to tell you the truth. I’m actually more familiar with the Rieslings of Germany’s Mosel region, of which I have a basement full of bottles, as they age incredibly, but those from the Pfalz are equally intriguing and indeed, drier in style in general.



The guy makes a good point…

The Rise and Fall of Sweet Riesling 

by Bill Hooper (and that’s not him in the photo above, Bill’s far handsomer. I wish I had a photo of him to post, but he’s as elusive as a muskie in a weedy fresh water lake. -A)

Sweet Riesling is dead:  to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that…Sweet Riesling is as dead as a door-nail. (Apologies to Charles Dickens)

That might sound dramatic to you, but if so you haven’t been to Germany lately. Depending on which generation you belong to and also to your level of involvement in the wine industry or your level of enthusiasm as a consumer of wine, this could either come across as surprising news or old hat. Either way, the truth of the matter is that it is near impossible for me to walk into a winery, wine-shop, or grocery store here to find a bottle of sweetish Riesling and I live in the middle of the Pfalz, which is the largest Riesling-growing wine region on the planet. It seems that we are almost to the point of dropping the qualifier ‘dry’ (Trocken in German –used to signify wines with 9 grams or less residual sugar) when speaking about Riesling, and substituting ‘sweet’ as the outlying indicator of style. The German wine industry has developed over the last couple of decades into a producer of primarily dry wine. How did this happen?

There has been a fair amount of controversy generated by this development and it has been written about and discussed for years by Terry Theise and recently in the unfortunately titled, but well written “Can American Fans Save German Riesling?” by Mike Steinberger. Matters of taste certainly come into play, but it isn’t as tidy as that. Germans overwhelmingly prefer soccer to American football, dislike spicy foods in favor of savory foods, and love Bon Jovi. With the exception of the Bon Jovi obsession (there is a Bon Jovi edition Volkswagen for chrissakes!) I’m not willing to concede that their tastes are wrong nor can I say that our American tastes are correct. Even beyond that, what worries me on both sides of the argument is that there is a tendency for people to read something, misinterpret it, and declare one style superior only to dismiss the other altogether. To do that would mean missing out on some of the world’s great wines –those being Riesling both dry and those with some residual sugar.

Tradition plays a central role in the appreciation of wine for many of us, but it is also wise to understand that wine-styles are a moving target and always have been (you should read about some of the stuff that used to find its way into Champagne or about the oft made claim about Rhone wines being blended into Burgundy or Bordeaux in small vintages.) The past tends to be over-romanticized including the not-so-distant past. Trying to pin-point a ‘true’ or authentic style of any particular wine is as futile an exercise as debating if the ’72 Dolphins would beat the ’85 Bears in the Superbowl, or saying that Renaissance paintings are superior to those of the Impressionists. Drink what you like. I offer the following not in attempt to define the real nature of the world’s finest wine grape, but only to offer some insight on a developing (or completed) trend as I see it not only from inside the industry, but as a wine lover.

German Riesling has been around for a long time. Written records of the grape point to 1430 for a ‘Ruslingwingarten’ outside of Worms (The Wonnegau of Rheinhessen today) and others mentioning ‘Rissling’ in Alsace in 1477 (then part of the German Holy Roman Empire) and also in 1511 in what is now Germany.  Ever since, the popularity of German Riesling has ebbed and flowed with the tastes and trends of society over time (and more than anything with the political and economic climate in Germany and abroad.) The very peak popularity of Riesling came in the half century leading up to 1914. Up until that time, the technology simply did not exist to produce stabile wine with residual sugar. That technology being sterile filtration to remove yeast and microorganisms, thus preventing refermentation in the bottle (first with asbestos fibers, later with wood fibers/Cellulose) and temperature-controlled fermenting vessels to stop fermentation at the desired point of residual sugar by dropping the temperature to below the point where yeast can function. Interestingly, the invention of sterile filtration in the early 1900s coincided with the implosion of the German export markets for wine. Understandably, after the First World War, followed by the second, the export markets for German Riesling dried up for a spell. The most perfect quote that I have read on the subject was in Simon Winder’s wonderful book ‘Germania’ from a British historian who stated that after the wars, German wine just ‘tasted too much of steel helmet’.

The only real available option for the fermentation of wine was oak barrels and vats (the size of the vessel depended on the region and the individual parcel or selection being harvested, but they were normally in the 300 -2400 liter range. The larger casks gave potentially warmer fermentations.) In wooden vat, fermentations are more rapid than those produced with the aid of temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks of the same size because the more porous oak and the heat generated by the volume of fermenting must allows for more oxygen in a more comfortable and conducive temperature range and therefore less stressful environment for the yeast (also reducing or eliminating the need for chemical nutrient supplements such as DAP –Diammonium Phosphate, an often used supplement throughout the world, and one which I really don’t want in my wine.) Relatively quick, warmish, gemütlich fermentations, from healthy, minimally processed, ripe (but not over-ripe) grapes have the very best chances of fermenting to dryness.  The best, most quality conscious estates have always sought to achieve this standard.

It has also been suggested that more wines would have gone through Malolactic fermentation, resulting in creamier wines with softer acidity. This would probably only have happened in extremely warm years, when the crop came in with relatively high pH. Malolactic fermentation rarely happens spontaneously at a pH value less than 3.2, and the majority of Riesling harvested even today when must weights are on average far higher than they were even twenty (much less one hundred) years ago rarely exceeds that number. MLF starter cultures were not available until much later.

Botrytis has always been a problem and one that can certainly complicate fermentation. One of the most common misconceptions about winemakers in Germany is that we accept or even desire a certain amount of Botrytis in the crop. This is absolutely false. Fighting botrytis is one of the biggest challenges and one of the most time consuming measures that we undertake throughout the growing season. (The exceptions being Auslesen, Beerenauslesen, and Trockenbeerenauslesen) There have likely been huge increases in Botrytis devastation since the advent of nitrogen fertilizer which really took off in the 1950s. Over-fertilization and high yields lead to much more plant growth: compact grape bunches which often burst open and a denser leaf canopy, which lessens airflow and promotes fungal growth resulting in a greater need for chemical fungicide (a wicked circle, conventional agriculture can be.) Today, wines made from grapes too strongly affected by botrytis (from poor selection during the harvest) need to be heavily processed in the winery through clarification, filtration and heavy doses of sulfur or the resultant wines are a mess of turbidity, oxidation and spoilage. They rarely ferment to dryness, but vinegar and mushrooms dominate the palate. I can’t imagine that highly regarded wines ever came from such material.

Stuck fermentations would always have to have been accounted for and sweet wines have always been made from the results, but they were undesirable, risky and required far more treatments, some quite detrimental to wine quality (Fortified wines such as Port or Banyuls from warm regions owe their existence to the stuck fermentations of long gone eras, as adding alcohol was the only way to stabilize the wines for transport or future consumption.) With the discovery and distribution of cultured yeast strains, fermenting to dry was less of an issue than ever and this obviously came as a huge relief to winemakers globally.

We can with some measure of certainty conclude that the best German Rieslings of the past, those from which Germany initially gained its high reputation were dry with a few bottles of BA and TBA thrown in for good measure, but these were great rarities. Analysis of the sugar content of surviving bottles from centuries past has also confirmed this.

Cellar technology rapidly out-paced innovation in the vineyard and when filtration (led by the German company now called Begerow/Eaton), cooling jackets, and steel tanks became more available, it became possible for virtually every producer, led by large co-operatives to produce sweeter wine at much lower prices than that of those great dessert wine rarities of BA and TBA. The addition of Süssreserve (sweet, heavily sulfured, unfermented grape-juice) or arresting the fermentation meant that low-quality (either heavily rotten and/or under-ripe, high-cropped, high acid) grapes could be processed by cutting corners in the vineyard and buffering the result with sugar, in effect covering up the flaws. The high quality, elite producers of the era banded together in an attempt to legally block the production of such wines. When those attempts failed, and the public demand for cheap sweeter wines rose, the great producers adopted an ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ attitude and Germany became known in the 1970s and 1980s as a sweet-wine producer, led of course by Liebfraumilch (which incidentally has been involved in court cases since the 1909 German wine law became ratified as a detriment to the German wine ‘Brand’.) This story is not entirely confined to Germany. We can see similar parallels in the Loire with Chenin Blanc (most notably Vouvray, which is rapidly getting drier as well) and to a lesser-extent, in Austria. Alsace is an interesting case in that they never really succumbed to the temptations of producing more fabricated wines, and it continues to be regarded as a dry-wine region.

To make the claim that every producer who made or makes sweet or off-dry Riesling in Germany is doing so with low-quality produce is absolutely false, but unfortunately for the conscientious few, the gap narrowed and wine prices dropped.

Gradually over the last few decades, improvements in vineyard management -better trellising techniques which promote air-flow, green-cover to bring competition for water and nutrients as well as providing structure and oxygen to the soil, legume planting to naturally fix nitrogen from the air instead of using chemical fertilizers, improvements in canopy management, using pheromone capsules instead of insecticides to combat grapevine moths (a leading cause of botrytis), and more intensive plowing have made it possible to bring in much healthier grape material than in the past. This in combination with global warming has led to riper, less-acidic grapes on the whole, especially in the southern regions of Rheinhessen, the Pfalz, and Baden, making it possible for higher-Oechsle, cleaner, lower acid (less-shrill) dry Riesling to be consistently produced in a more natural in a way that than ever before. The crux of the issue is that producers here are extremely proud of the very-labor intensive farming measures that they undertake and feel that dry Riesling better expresses the minerality and individual character of their terroir (which comes in many different flavors other than slate.) Despite the unique climatic challenges faced in Germany (far more rain than any other major wine-growing region in the world meaning higher sensitivity to Oidium, Downy Mildew, and botrytis, higher frost risk, and cultivation of extremely steep slopes) there has been an enormous rise in Organic and Biodynamic viticulture here and the very top producers in the Pfalz have converted to these methods (A. Christmann,Dr. Bürklin-WolfBassermann-JordanRebholzOdinstalKarl SchaeferTheo MingesMeßmer among others.) Dry, organically produced German Riesling is among the most difficult wines in the word to make, and is seen as the highest rendition of art and craft in winemaking.

Talking to producers, it has become clear to me that they are making huge strides in making more friends of dry Riesling in America and the UK and they are excited about showcasing what they feel are their best wines. There seems to be a lot more potential for growth in dry Riesling than in the sweeter styles, but I don’t believe that there is any real danger of off-dry, sweet Riesling becoming extinct. If the demand remains, there will be more than enough not-dry Riesling produced to go around (mostly from the Mosel).  If you like it, buy it –sometimes there is absolutely no substitute for brilliant off-dry, steep-slope Mosel or Mittelrhien Riesling and I love it too (luckily, a shop in the region does stock some Willi Schaefer and Egon Müller, but I have to go way the hell out of my way to get there). Detractors might find the dry wines a little too macho, and the best Trocken Rieslings have higher alcohol than their sweeter counterparts, but remain perfectly balanced and still generally fall on the lower side of the scale: 11-13% alc. I have found that a few chaptalized wines (adding sugar to the must before fermentation to raise alcohol, not sweetness) can come across a little hot as there is more alcohol, but not more fruit or mineral flavor to counteract it (though even chaptalization is becoming increasingly rare.) The higher ripeness of the wines usually provides more intense aromas and more exotic fruit flavors which are more than enough substitute for sugar and they tend to be more versatile food-wines because of their lack of sweetness. They also tend to be more compact and firm and dense with minerality. They can be delicious, beautiful, fascinating, complex and as satisfying as revenge both young and with some age on it.


Bill Hooper

Pfalz Riesling

Wine Glass in Hand: Southern Dalmatia (part 2)

Standing above a vineyard in the famous Dingac region of Dalmatia in Croatia.

Waking up to the sounds of crashing waves coming from the Adriatic, 50 meters away from your open balcony doors can never be a bad thing. In fact, their mesmerizing effect is probably what sent me to bed at around two a.m. after a long day visiting wineries, followed by an incredible seafood dinner at Hotel Glavović, and a sampling of many interesting wines brought to the dinner by a friend. I was the first to crash that night and nowhere near the first on deck in the morning. It had been a long day. Actually, it had been a long streak of long days.

A quiet morning in Lopud.

We were on the island of Lopud, part of the Elefati island chain in southern Dalmatia, and this was the second day of a wine trip that was as near to perfect as any I’ve ever experienced.

After rallying up the team we took the boat back to the mainland to make tracks for Pelješac. We were on the road only about an hour, just after passing through Ston when we made our first stop, at a small (or let’s say Garage, but in the boutique-y way) winery, called Rozić producing wine under a label called Mili (translates to “dear”).  We tasted three wines from the current releases, including Plavac Mali made in varying levels of sweetness, from bone dry to a highly sweet dessert wine.

Admiring the Rozić vineyards…but, wait for it……there’s a better view.

We hiked up behind their rental apartments and winery into some of the most stunning vineyards I’ve ever been in. The vines here are all bush-trained, and gnarled up with wild looking foliage. Super cool. And as we hiked up and up, we landed ourselves in a remarkable vantage point, overlooking the sea and in the midst of all of these scruffy old vines.  Rozić has earned their place in God’s good graces to have a slice of heaven like this, no doubt.  My jaw was on the ground.

Hiking up into the Rozić vineyards.

The vineyards at Rozić, looking out toward the sea.

Ok, I know there are a lot of vineyard photos but I was so taken by their rugged beauty and pristine location. Had it been the second or third winery of the day I might have had the guts to ask if I could move there. I could find a way to earn my keep. I have a tent.

We later tapped into some of their previous vintages, sitting in the shade on the curb near the under-construction winery/ tasting room.  It was a perfect start to the day, even if these wines weren’t made in a style I tend to drink much of.  They’re largely serving the locals with a style that has lots of local appeal (read: semi-sweet and inexpensive).

After a walk (climb) through the vineyards, we relax with a few more wines and revisit the earlier samples at Rozić.

Mili bottles on the terrace.

Off again, this time further up the peninsula where we stopped periodically to visit vineyards, kindly pointed out by local expert in our entourage, Marko.  He pulled over so we could step foot and photograph such amazing vineyards that the highway rips right through, like the famous Dingać.

Dingać, in the hearts of many.

We cut a left through a precarious tunnel and made our way through a small, abandoned looking village called Donja Banda, to arrive at another garagiste winery, Philippvina. We visited here in the home of Baldo, winemaker and grapegrower.

Relaxed at Philippvina, winemaker Baldo Kangjera in the background.

First on the docket was his white wine, called Palinurus 2011. This is a 50/50 blend of Chardonnay and Rukatac (or Maraština as it’s also known). They’re producing 1500 bottles of this very interesting wine, which bore flavors that I’ve never really experienced in the wineglass, and pretty hard to describe. The line, I’ve found, is sometimes crossed when it comes to Dalmatian wines.  In the same glass one can extract a broad spectrum of aromas and flavors, both fruity and vegetable and savory. Pot roast in a glass? Check.  I’ve had it in Dalmatia.    This particular wine actually sparked up quite a bit of discussion and we agreed on a few common flavors, such as baked apple, fennel and Mediterranean herbs.

Philippvina wines

Next up was Zicada, Plavac from near the village of Poštup.   We tasted the 2007, which had been decanting for at least an hour, and it was big and inky, in every which way from it’s appearance to the long finish.  Super spicy with anise dominating the aromas, but black pepper and tomato leaf showed up on the gamey palate. The wine was surprisingly refined for an alcohol level of 15.4.

I bought a bottle of this Plavac to take home for further analysis (it’s a tough job, I know). But I think I’m more likely to take it back to the States and give it a whirl in about five or ten more years to see how this thing evolves.

Off again, this time back on the road towards Orebić and the winery Korta Katarina. We parked the cars here at a winery that proved to be the antithesis of all of the wineries we previously visited, looking like it fell straight out of Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Perched on the edge of the Adriatic with a white palatial building, I was actually struck most by the amazing gardens that surrounded the winery.  It seems that the name Korta Katerina is actually synonymous with “Gardens/Courtyards of Katarina” or something like that.  Vineyards also partially encapsulate the grounds, planted in the very Zinfandel that makes up their rose.

Korta Katarina on approach by the sea…

and by land…

We toured the immaculate winery (it doesn’t even smell like a winery!) and grounds before eating some lovely local fish, cheeses and tasting our way through a beautiful horizontal of their Pošip (po-ship) from the region Čara. We worked our way back from 2010 until 2007, enjoying every sip and musing on how different these wines could be from each other, depending on vintage.

Discussing the wines…

We then tasted through a three vintage vertical of their incredibly muscular Plavac Mali, starting with the ’09 vintage.  All had been decanting since the morning and had yet to settle down, unlike the rest of us who were finding no trouble relaxing on the shady terrace outside.

Taking some tank samples from the inox.

Barriques in Korta Katarina cellar

Zinfandel Rose waiting for labels.

The sun was just considering setting when we hopped on a high speed water taxi which took us to the island of Korčula. The timing was perfect, we were getting awfully comfortable at Korta Katarina and it was time for another adventure.

The water taxi to Korcula. Bring it!

We arrived in Korčula and were picked up in a big pickup truck (was I back in Wisconsin?), where I eventually gave up my front seat position next to winemaker Bire, to hop in the covered bed in the back.  We cruised around this large island, and had a full-island tour with lots of brief stops to point out hidden beaches and other points of interest.  At last we perched up at a high vantage point on the island, home to many of Bire’s beautiful and perfectly lined up baby Grk vines all set against the backdrop of perfectly arranged white stone terraces.  As the sun was now setting, this was one of the most beautiful places we’d stepped all day, though admitedly the competition had been fierce.  The landscape seemed to sparkle and the white stones gleamed a pale pink as the last rays of sun tucked behind the horizon casting the sky fuschia.

Luka enjoying the view from a vantage point in Korčula, overlooking baby Grk vines and the Adriatic.

We hopped in the pickup again and headed to his other property, the one which hosts his winery and is well-prepared to receive tourists (busloads of them at that).  This agritourismo was again another pristine property, though more traditionally rustic, if I can say that, at least in comparison with the modern opulance of Korta Katarina.

We entered into the winery to taste a broad offering of specialties all made by Mr. Bire himself, including the anchovies, prsut, cheese, olives and capers.  “I would have made the bread, too, but I wasn’t sure you were coming,” he throws out casually.

What he also made was the wine, the reason we were here.  He’s specialized in the eco-production of a white wine called Grk, which was incredibly beautiful.  Citrus, mineral and lemon zest interchanged places on the palate, and though I generally gravitate towards wines with higher acidity, this wine was so perfect in this place, in this company.  Rich and round on the mouthfeel, it’s actually quite decadent without a trace of heaviness.  As we moved onto other vintages, the wines remained pretty consistent, only occasionally presenting subtle nuances like white peach and even a little lentil, not unlike a Gruner Veltliner, at least flavor-wise.

Bire Grk and Bire the guy.

Specialized in Grk, he also makes a little Plavac (who doesn’t?). His 2011 had some pretty herbal aromas, like mint and eucalyptus, along with black pepper and crushed red fruit.  It may seem obvious to say it seemed incredibly fresh, but it really had these mouthwatering, tangy flavors that didn’t seem to bear the weight of many Plavac Malis I’ve tasted in the past.  It was, at least in this moment, incredibly likeable and friendly in a way I don’t usually find in this grape.

Bire pulling a barrel sample of Plavac Mali.

We moved onto the 201o and the 2008, the latter of which Bire calls his “Reserve” wine and seems to hold a very high affection for.  I just know that it was a spectactular day of tasting wines with a perfectly broad gamut of producers, each of them making their own interpretation of Plavac Mali and whichever obscure white seemed to grow best in their region.

As we headed a very late dinner on the island, the group was feeling kind and magnanimous,  and we ordered a couple of bottles of Maraština so that I could try it as a mono-varietal, as this was my least “understoo” grape of the day.  It was such an honor to be in the company of great wine lovers who could really get into the nitty-gritty of such things and care so passionately about wine as I feel I do.  We ate, laughed, chatted and compared wines and then dashed to make the 12:30 a.m. boat back to Orebić on the Pelješac peninsula.

Tomorrow we had things to do, and more wineries to visit.

Props/Thanks/Gratitude: Tore Wold for sharing photos, Marko Pavlak for guiding us through Peljesac and Korcula and opening the doors at KK, The entire Glavovic family for being such hospitable, generous (and knowledgeable) guides and hosts.  And all of the producers who shared their wine, wit, wisdom and hospitality with us.  

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)!

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.

Travel opportunities with Brava Wine Travel abound! or for inquiries!

Amphora Magic in Slovenia

Wines made in the ancient style using terra cotta Amphora buried in the ground are as unique as they are hard to find.  In fact, they were merely more than legend before I moved to Croatia in 2010, having tried only one that I could find available on the market in the U.S. at that time.  So when a friend introduced me to Mr. Jean Michel Morel of Slovenia’s Goriška Brda region at a wine trade show in Zagreb, I was more than elated to meet him and try his wines.  I was completely blown away by their beauty.  The article that follows is my account of this past weekend’s visit to his winery and family residence, where his family’s hospitality is as astounding as the wines they produce.

Beli Pinot (Pinot Blanc)

Amphora Magic in Slovenia

September 27, 2011

“Put down your notebook,” Jean Michel instructs me as we began our tasting tour of his family’s winery, letting me know there would be no rigorous note-taking or fastidious documentation as we walked through the cool, dark cellar tasting wine from the barrels.  On the way down we had passed the quiet, private room which hosts the Amforae, which has just one small cut-out window to peer into from the staircase.  In here the Amforae are completely buried, with only the mouth of the vessels actually exposed above ground.  He explains to me that 20% of the wine that is put into the vessels is lost due to evaporation each year, but this aids in the microoxidation process which contributes to the unique character of the wine.

Taking barrel samples at Kabaj

We make our way through the cellar, without taking any notes, simply sharing thoughts on the wines that we taste from their barrels. There is true magic in this winery, in this space.  It’s not fancy by any stretch, but the common thread running through all of the wines is that they’re all really amazing, each in their own right.  The white wines here are some of the most magnificent expressions that I have ever tasted of their varietals; the Beli Pinot (Pinot Blanc), for example, bears remarkable brightness along with the lovely characteristics of white peach and baked apple. And indeed all of them are incredibly intriguing, richly complex and beautifully integrated. Most of the wine, in fact all but for one single barrel, is aged in old oak barrels, and Morel jokingly makes the comment that, “One new barrel is enough. I’m selling wine, not oak.”

The wines that we sampled from the barrels would all make perfect young wines, but producing young wine is not the goal of this family winery. They are making serious, finely woven wines which will stand the test of time and even improve in the bottle for a decade or more to come, as was easily proven during later tastings of 1994 Tocai and 1996 Chardonnay.

The reds are no different, vibrant and complex with just enough rusticity to make them really intriguing as well. Merlot will be bottled on its own, but the gorgeous Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, along with Petit Verdot will be blended into the Morel Cuvée.  Floral aromatics dominate on these stunning reds, with crushed rose petal and violet aromas coming forward and wild bramble fruit in the background, mingled with leather, tar and baking spices. These are gorgeous wines, buzzing with a life of their own.

The real star of the show in the Kabaj winery is the Amfora. This complete and utter labor of love began in 2006.  Jean Michel explains that he learned about this style of wine on a vacation to the Republic of Georgia.  “I was visiting in 2004, and tasting a lot of mediocre wine. Then I went to a monastery of the Orthodox Church. At this time I tasted the craziest, best wine of my life. I’m talking with these guys from the monastery, and they gave me one opportunity, they asked if I wanted to make this kind of wine. So they gave me the chance to train with them and learn these techniques (using Amphora). The monastery is very serious- they are not selling wine.  They produce these wines to give as gifts to the royal families.  I am returning to Georgia every year to learn more.”

Buried Amfora

The Amfora wines are beautiful beyond explanation. They, like the other wines produced here, win you over with their pervasive aromas and flavors, always subtle but incredibly complex and definitive, even unusual in some ways that we traditionally think about wine. Tastings from the not-yet-released 2008 vintage poured forth black pepper, tangled with traditional stone fruit flavors and aromas.  Not exactly what you expect from a white wine. Maybe my favorite characteristic of these wines though is the mouthfeel. It’s waxy and oily both, coating your mouth and pervading your senses. It’s absolutely unforgettable wine, which for me is the marker of a classic.

Back upstairs in the winery, rock music blares from the radio and Jean Michel explains to me that some producers play only opera music in their wineries, but that doesn’t suit him. “In my winery it’s rock and roll.” And while in fact his manner is very relaxed and jovial, Mr. Morel seems the kind of guy who’s more rock and roll than opera, blaring his rock music and sporting a 5 o’clock shadow, with a perpetual Marlboro Red dangling from his lip. His casual style and the well-worn winery are completely in contrast with the family’s bright, tidy agritourismo and restaurant upstairs.

He himself grew up in France, having lived in several areas including Perpignan, where his mother still resides. As a young man he moved to Italy, for a job at a winery in the Collio region of Italy’s Northeast, which borders the Slovenian region of Goriška Brda. It was there that he met his wife, Katja Kabaj, and her family, with whom he joined forces in 1993 to work in the family’s winery in Slovenia. At that time the family was producing just 3 barrels of wine, enough for themselves. When Jean Michel came on they began more serious production, and the winery is now up to 70,000 bottles under the Kabaj label.

Jean Michel now runs the winery while Katja thoughtfully and attentively tends to the guests.  In 2006 they expanded their family property to include 6 lovely double rooms which are available for guests to rent.  The rooms, joined with the restaurant, make a perfect horseshoe around the restaurant’s terrace, which is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  The cuisine here is based on the freshest regional ingredients and culinary tradition, with an inspired and creative twist.  Instead of the expected risottos and tiramisus that dominate many of the region’s menus, they are featuring exciting riffs on the local cuisine.  They brought on a bright, young chef with fresh ideas so that their restaurant isn’t run of the mill by any stretch, which of course matches the philosophy of the winery.  And beginning in October of this year, they will bring on another highly acclaimed chef, who formerly worked as Sous Chef at Le Mandrac Restaurant in Opatija, Croatia. This will serve to shake things up even more and further develop their restaurant concept.  As it is, the community has definitely taken notice of this sweet spot. The restaurant was consistently filled with happy customers during my visit, sipping their favorite Kabaj wines and enjoying their delicious multi-course meals in this bright, sunny setting which overlooks miles of vineyards.  Here it’s truly great hospitality combined with amazing wines in a spot that’s as close to heaven on earth as any I’ve ever experienced.  And if the 2011 vintage here in Goriška Brda is as good as Jean Michel’s smile and nod indicates, I think we’re in for a treat.

Another Visit to Roxanich, July 2011

Another Visit to Roxanich, July 2011

Visit to Roxanich Cellars: July 25th

With each trip to Istria, I like to see what’s happening at Roxanich Winery, one of my favorite wineries in Croatia.  They’re srpiring to be an ultra-premium winery, and they’re on the right track.  I love the uniqueness of their wines and  don’t miss a chance to stop by and see how things are progressing in the winery when I’m in Istria.

We arrived and already the atmosphere seemed a little different than usual. The winery was busy with visitors and more staff was on hand. My friend Mato arranged with Kristijan to guide our tour, which was really a delight, as Kristijan is the assistant winemaker, and handles the day-to-day operations inside the winery. Great for me because I’m always curious about the intricacies of the winemaking process, and a tour with Kristijan was like having the Roxanich encyclopedia right at my fingertips.

Roxanich is unique in several ways, but one is that they employ extended maceration with their wines, which promotes, at first, stronger tannins and color. It also creates really unique flavors and aromas. As wine drinkers we’re used to this with most red wines, but it’s fairly uncommon with the whites. You see it a little bit in white Bordeaux, but Roxanich really pushes the envelope, sometimes keeping the juice on its skin for as long as 80 days. That’s crazy talk for most winemakers, but believe me when I say that the results are nothing short of amazing. Try for yourself and you’ll see that the wines speak for themselves, or rather they sing a glorious little tune.

Another point to mention before I get into the tasting notes is that Roxanich is also adhering to some of Steiner’s biodynamic principals. While they don’t want to be pigeonholed into this category, they are definitely employing the techniques. This means that they are making “natural” wines, even harvesting and cultivating their own yeasts and minimizing the use of sulfites. Again, great for you and me because natural, organic wines (like food) allows fewer toxins into our systems, and keeps us healthier, right? The point has even been stretched out to say that these wines won’t cause a hangover. Think I’m full of it? Read on.

Tasting Notes:

2008 Rose- made up of Borgojna, (a local cultivar of Burgundy’s Gamay) this is a lovely little quaffing wine that makes for great mid-day sipping or pairing with a cheese plate or summer salad. Primary aromas and flavors both of dried, wild strawberry. It goes for a couple years into the barrel, but neutral barrel so no strong oak tannins or none of that nasty Vanilla-roma air freshner smell I can’t stand on some rosés.

2010 Malvasia “Antica” (barrel)- This malvasia was macerated 6 months. The aromas are loud and clear, with cardamom, nutmeg, and pear taking the lead. The palate presented a little more, with nice minerality and orange zest.

2009 Malvasia “Antica” (barrel)- The aging in the big oak casks has kicked in here, the color here is much deeper gold than the 2010, with even an orange hue. Aromas were dried apricot, lemon curd and clove, and this was consistent with the palate.

2009 Chardonnay “Milva”- The interesting thing about tasting wines throughout the year is that they are often in various phases of their evolution. This one was opening with some subtle smoke and minerality, also a little orchard fruit. But on the palate it was extremely reserved and difficult to discern much at all. Kristijan mentioned that this wine was just moved from a different barrel, so maybe it’s just a little shocked at the moment.

2009 Ines u Bielom (Ines in White, in barrel)- When the 2008 vintage of Ines in White is released, it will be the first vintage of this cuvee. A blend comprised of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Tokaj, Prosecco (Glara), Verdiccio, Pinot Grigio and Riesling, equal parts. All harvested together and macerated together. Cooool wine. Dark gold color with incredibly lush notes of juicy, tangy peach. Aromatically this thing screams at you. The palate is far more reserved, almost to the point of a whisper which is odd considering the amazing nose. Hope it comes together as seamlessly as their other whites…I’m sure it’s just a sleeping giant at the moment.

2008 Merlot (barrel)- All blackberry on the nose, on the palate more flavors crop up. Primarily game, blueberry and has a very lean minerality to it. Nice.

2008 Teran Re (barrel)- Black cassis, anise, black licorice. The acidity is already well under control and there’s a lush softness to it. Really pretty wine, in fact I think this wine showed the best so far on the palate of all the others. Hint of smoke on the finish.

2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (barrel)- Pretty and soft with violet and blueberry coming through on the nose and palate. A little gamey as well, a nice touch for this otherwise feminine style of Cab.

2008 Super Istrian (barrel)- Another blend and an obvious play on words, using the style of Italy’s Super Tuscan as the example. Made up of 40% Cab Sauv, 40% Merlot and 10% Borgogne this is a lush little baby, with some spicy, lip-smacking tannins. Anise and black currant dominate the palate. This is my favorite of the Super Istrians from these guys ever. I say bottle it up and let’s drink!

2008 “Message in a Bottle” Red blend- Another new product to the market upon it’s release, this is a blend of Syrah, Barbera, Black Malvasia, Cabernet Franc and Lambrusco. (Sounds strange, I know.) Loads of raspberry and black cherry. If I was blind tasting this wine I’d guess they blended Barbera and Dolcetto. Everything about it drinks like a little Piemontese blend of those two coyboys. Great, long finish with loads more raspberry coming through.

2008 Pinot Noir- A little secret, I think. It’s kept stashed away and I had to ask for it. But being the PN freak that I am I can’t miss the opportunity. So I did. And we tasted. And man, it’s freaking gorgeous. All classic Burgundy and what have you, with pretty black cherry and dill on a beautiful core of minerality with a mile-long finish. Again, 2008 will be the first vintage for this wine but the winery’s not yet sure when they will release it. Could be a few more years…unfortunately.

Then we headed to the tasting room to crack open a few (!) bottles. Starting with the…

2008 Chardonnay “Milva” (prepared for bottling)- Deep gold color, orange marmalade on the nose and a hint of nutmeg. Beautiful and elegant.

2008 Malvasia “Antica”- Yum. Dark gold color, on the palate lemon curd, dill cardamom and hint of clove.

2008 Ines in White- Wow! Just as juicy on the nose as the 09 tank sample. Screaming peaches (that’s totally the name of my next band) on the nose and absolutely beautiful on the palate as well. Lush, mouthwatering and absolutely delicious. It’s making me thirsty just writing about it.

2007 Malvasia “Antica”- Bright orange color, the nose is like a Snickerdoodle cookie, with all the warm brown baking spices and hints at sweetness. That is until you taste it, then the nutmeg and clove really pop and it is indeed completely dry. Lovely, lovely wine.

2006 Malvasia Classica- Made with a much shorter maceration period, just 20 days in the 2006 vintage, this is a “lighter” style of wine for them, though still quite complex and interesting. Spicy on the nose, with more fruit coming through than their whites typically have. Pear, peach and again that aroma of nutmeg blend together like a freshly baked pie in the summer.

2007 Teran Re- This is historically not my favorite vintage of their Teran Re, but taken from a bottle that had been open for a while, it was showing more depth and character. Black cherry, cigar box and red licorice came through.

2006 Super Istrian- Cedar, leather and licorice. Really pretty, a perpetual favorite of mine.

2005 Teran- (This was a vintage that the Teran and Refosco were made as mono-varietals) Showing lots of spice, I really like this wine. Cigarbox and leather again, with a little baked fruit on the palate as well. I wish I knew now when they had opened the bottle, it was sealed off but previously open, because it’s hard to say if some of these evolved aromas are from the natural aging of the wine or from sitting open for a day or two. Though with the number of guests I imagine they have coming through, I don’t think they are probably sitting on open bottles too long.

2005 Merlot- Spicy with blueberry up front and cedar and leather coming through on the palate. I wonder if some of the stronger wood aromas are coming from the time when the barrels were newer. The wines seem to have more fruit on them in later vintages. Of course by this, the millionth wine we drank, my palate could have been a little tired too. Just noting that the reds seem to be alike in my notes and I generally don’t find that to be true of their wines.

Are you still reading? I can’t believe I’m still writing…

The next morning, after tasting these 18 wines (and who am I kidding, I was with friends and family and I was DRINKING the wines. Not spitting, hardly dumping anything out. ) I got up and ran a 12 miler. No joke. No hangover. Maybe there’s something in the water here in Istria, or maybe there’s some magic in the barrels at Roxanich…

Piquentum Winery, Buzet, Istria

Driving back from a four day visit to Istria today, I visited winemaker Dimitri Brečević, producer of Piquentum wines. We met at his winery, located just outside of Buzet where he shared his story with me. Born and raised in France, he went on to study enology in Bordeaux, which he followed up by working in wineries there and elsewhere in the world. He is young, passionate and honest, all qualities which I think will be to his advantage as he blazes his trail as a winemaker in Istria. True of many of the wines I favor, he is making wines in a natural way (or they say in Croatia, bio) and will have even more control of the wines when he owns all of the vineyards his fruit comes from. Piquentum is still young, 2006 was the first vintage and they are growing their winery slowly and methodically. The winery as it is now is really cool. It’s a repurposed water cistern which had been used by the Italian army, with rounded ceilings (Nicolas Joly approves) and an inherently cool temperature. The winery is fairly incognito from the outside, just a few big doors and an unadorned pergola mark it’s entrance.

Grapes used in production are Teran, Refošk and Malvazija, and these are the grapes which Dimitri will continue to use and promote. He dreams of Istria being as terrior driven and specialized in its native grapes as some of the other famed wine regions in the world, like Burgundy for example. To this end, and aligned with the principles of a few other great producers in Istria like Roxanich and Clai, he is cultivating and using his own indigenous yeasts so that there is minimal intervention to get in the way of true terroir expression. Barrels are employed, but only aged barrels from Bordeaux which are adding texture to the wines but not imparting any strong aromas or flavors. The reds are unfiltered, thus enhancing the richness of the wine.

A photo taken at the 2011 VinIstra fair in Istria. With winemaker Dimitri Brećevič.

Tasting Notes:

Blanc10 (Malvazija 2010 – tank sample, will be bottled in June) was bright and fresh, with aromas of wet stone, green apple and honeysuckle, all subtly woven together. The palate had broad, sweeping acidity which instantly made me crave sushi. Takenoko, take note- I’ll be requesting that this gem joins your wine list. This wine, in 2010, is simply called “Piquentum blanc” on the label. 100% Malvazija, aged sur lie.

Teranum09 (Teran 2009 -barrel sample): Lush aromas come out of this gorgeous purple-colored glass of wine. All sorts of wet earth, forest floor, crushed black fruit and violet. The palate is a bit more lean and even mineral. Again, broad acidity sweeps the palate and this wine is looking for food, and some serious food at that. Labeled as Piquentum Teranum in the marketplace, this baby is all Teran. Dimitri recommends, and I agree, the Teran would benefit from being decanted.


Giorgio Clai in Istria, Croatia

I’ve got nothing but good to say about Clai.

Photo taken at VinIstra 2012 with the dear Giorgio Clai and winemaker Moreno Coronica on the left. Fishbowl photo effect is just a bonus.

They arranged for me a visit to their cellar at 10:30 on a Sunday morning, per my unusual request. I had been eager to try these wines and learn about them for some time, as they had been recommended to me as another of these “natural” wine producers that I’m so fond of, even having been called biodynamic, maybe accurately or not. So, on that Sunday morning my wish was granted and I parked my car across the family residence and winery.

I was met by Martina, daughter of Giorgio and Vesna Clai, who led me into the bottling room to meet her father. He took us on a tour and spoke to me about his philosophy. They have 10 hectares under vine and olive trees, all grown and cared for biologically, which is the word he prefers over biodynamic. This speaks to his care of the land, and includes such things as using compost teas for fertilizer and harvesting according to the calendar. He is a firm believer that all wines are made in the vineyard, and are to be completely and utterly representative of the land from which they came. It is most important to him to represent the terroir, climate and finally the serious, respectful winemaker. He believes the winemaker’s duty is to carry on with what nature has given him and complete the task of making grapes into wine. He says that you simply have to represent these variables, and don’t penalize or change the wines in the cellars. In his native Italian he tells me about his process for cultivating and harvesting his own yeasts, that which is growing on the grapes in the vineyard. Of these grapes, he harvests a small bunch or piede di partenza, the yeast starter. Using these wild, indigenous yeasts completes the expression of terroir even more completely, creating what he lovingly refers to as sincere wines.

His soil is unlike the dark red soil I’ve seen elsewhere in Istria. His is white, and very mineral rich. He later let me take a bit for my little terroir collection.

In the cellar we tasted:

Malvazija 2010– Macerated on the skins for 2 months. The color was cloudy, naturally as a barrel sample, but also because he is doing no filtering or fining. The aromas and flavors carried an intense aroma of apricot, golden raisin and pineapple. Acidity was soft and round, really nice mouthfeel to this wine.

Ottocento– This is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon, harvested together and fermented together. Malvasia was added to the blend after it was harvested a bit later. The color is again cloudy and almost an amber-gold color. Everything this wine is intense, from the color to the nose to the palate and beyond. To me it was reminiscent of grapefruit and candied orange, with pervasive brown spice notes. It was incredibly long and lush with velvety acidity. Delicious.

Ottocento Red– This was a blend of Merlot, Teran, and Cabernet Sauvignon, with Merlot carrying the majority of this year’s blend. The color was some kind of electric magenta! It was gorgeous in the glass. The palate was all floral, rose petals and violet with some crushed berries in the background. Absolutely gorgeous.

Refosco 2008 was a favorite. It had gorgeous blueberry, crushed raspberry aromas and flavors that evolved every time I came near my glass. At times I smelled and tasted cotton candy, anise, candied raspberries and blackberries. For Giorgio this wine evokes chocolate and fresh mint, and I believe it, as this is a highly complex wine.

Back in the tasting room we tasted some of his bottled wines.

Malvazija Sv. Jakov 2009 – dark gold in color. Baked apricot, fig and notes of white peach and pear. Super lush and round on the palate, this is a stunning wine that would be great with fish.

Ottocento Bijeli 2009– Topaz in color. Aromas and flavors of lemon curd, acacia blossoms, caramel and Clementine. Gorgeous.

We went on to taste the Ottocento Red, the Refosco “Brombonero” which were both fantastic. And finally…

Moscato “Tasel” 2009 . Tasel represents the name of the local soil. The grapes are made here in passimento style, late harvest and dried 1-2 months. They are macerated with the skins and the wine matures for 1-2 years. He is only making this wine in very good vintages. There were huge aromas of orange rind, marmalade, and honey on this dark orange wine. On the palate I was blown away by the freshness of the wine, and further flavors of white pepper and fresh herbs. There is even a slightly spicy component to this wine that makes it really interesting. I thought it was quite amazing. And apparently I’m not the only one, because when I asked to buy some I found it was sold out.

Martina is queen of the distillery here, making artisanal grappas and rakijas. The grappas were each really beautiful, her Komovica which is a blend of all the grape varieties, the komovica s medom which has honey distilled with the grapes, and the travarica, which is her grappa distilled along with herbs. She is also making beautiful rakijas, like the typical sliva (plum), and jabuka (apple). She will make an exciting new grappa in oak from 2009 and a reserve with the Ottocento grapes.

All in all, what they’re doing here is really cutting edge and at the same time really humble, honest and ancient. They’re acting as a true steward of the land, sharing her truest expression and the rest of us lucky enough to simply reap the rewards. Get your hands on a bottle.