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.
We were dressed less than seriously in our swimsuits, casually covered with as little as we could get away with on this scorching hot day on the island of Hvar, often nicknamed the St. Tropez of Croatia. It takes this nickname due to its crystalline aqua waters, stunning beaches, swanky boats swaying languidly in the many harbors and beautiful bleached out stone buildings.
We were headed to the beach to cool off, but not before passing through the wine cellar of one very highly recommended producer, Ivo Duboković. His unmarked cellar in the town of Jelsa would be a welcome respite from even the short drive on this hot day. Anyhow, it was too hot to eat lunch and I was pretty sure I could get my friends to pull over the car for a glass or two of wine.
Little did I know, when I made the appointment to visit, that he makes over ten labels.
We knocked on the door and were welcomed into his peaceful, romantic wine cellar. Lit by candles, with soft classical music playing in the background (we would later learn more about this), we quietly looked around and were invited to sit so he could guide us step-by-step through his wines. Three bottles of red wine stood aside, on a candlelit table, with small decanters in front of the bottles, forewarning us that something special was about to take place.
What started for Ivo Duboković as a hobby 15 years ago has quietly morphed into 20,000 liters, mostly for the commercial market. He originally took after his father and grandfather making wine just for family and friends. In fact, it was a defining moment in his winemaking career when he decided indeed to go forth and make wine commercially.
In taking the operation from family winery to commercial winery, he had to weigh his options. One turning point occurred for Duboković when he and his cousin, Swiss resident and Master of Wine Ivan Barbić, opened an archived bottle of wine from 1999, a white made by Ivo’s father. They were astounded at the remarkable amount of freshness that the bottle still contained, and became convinced that white wines in this region can stand the test of time and hold their structure.
Another moment of clarity came from the legendary Aleš Kristiančić, Slovenian winemaker producing the cult wine Movia. Kristiančić told him, “the problem with Dalmatian wine is that they copy the continental style.” Meaning that producers in this hot, mediterranean climate are trying to follow a model set by those in an entirely different climate and terroir. These words resounded with Duboković and he set off on his own path, using his own intuition to make wines that are very minimally marked with his personal fingerprint (which, in its own way, ends up doing just that), and the wines are also left to their own devices in the winery, versus being chemically scrubbed and altered into something specific.
“All production we make without enological knowledge. To have something special, it doesn’t have to be perfect, like Photoshop. I don’t want to produce something that’s drinkable in every moment, just in the right moment for that wine. It’s the same way you wear different clothes for different situations.”
In this way, he makes a number of different labels, perhaps that the end user can choose which they will drink based on the specificity of the wine. He’s making wines from different grapes from his organically farmed vineyards, and grapes he sources from the some of the best vineyards of other local growers, who are farming to his standards of low yields per vine and the absence of pesticides and herbicides.
He’s making three dry white wines at the moment. All of them are unlike any wines I’ve been familiar with in the past, and at first try all of these wines took me a little getting used to. Once I did, I found that they can be pervasively interesting and contemplative. In the winery, his white wines are gently macerated for anywhere from 3-5 days, and then aged in old barrels sur lie.
Moj Otok (My Island) 2010
A blended white wine, consisting of local sorts Maraština, Bogdaneša, and Tarpinka (Trebbiano).
Lighter in body and style, with a very noticeable mineral streak that’s reminiscent of a hot coin. Green apple peel and some apple and white peach, though this is not a fruity wine. There is an earthy component to this wine that shows up in the form of warmed stone. Interesting, likable and definitely something different.
Moja B (My “B”) 2009
Loads of white pepper, preserved lemon and hazelnut, which together make a really interesting combination. Left it in my glass for a while to come back to it, and found that it developed some spicy, peppery notes and aromas of baked green apple.
Moja M (My “M”)
Interesting wine that seems altogether savory on the nose. Roasted parsnip, dried white fruits, orange peel, oregano and clove all showed up on the nose while the palate presented more nuttiness and almost a touch of salinity. Texturally rich, with a round mouthfeel that has a lemony streak of acidity which lingers on the back of the palate.
His red wines are all made up of the local grape Plavac Mali. Based on the age of the vines, the part of the island they’re coming from, and the treatment they get in the winery, he has separated them into three distinct labels. The reds we tasted today had been decanted for two hours.
2718 sati sunce u boci (hours of sunlight in the bottle) 2010
100% Plavac Mali
This smells so nice, with nothing heavy about it. Young red raspberry and cranberry, mineral with some light yeasty aromas that I love. Actually it smells like a freshly poured cherry lambic beer in some ways. Young, easy and softer tannins make it a very nice bottle of wine coming from the vines planted on sandy soil. All stainless steel aged.
100% Plavac Mali from the south part of the island, in soil high in carbon.
This wine and that of it’s partner (Medvid) are named for the extinct sea lions (or “bears of the sea”) that used to populate the sea around the island of Hvar.
Black pepper, oregano, blackberries and cranberry, this wine is markedly more complex than it’s younger counterpart, and spent its time aging in older, more neutral wood barriques. Ivo recommends this wine for lunch. And today, it was indeed lunch.
100% Plavac Mali
The primary difference with this wine and it’s feminine counterpart Medvjedica* is that Medvid goes into newer oak barrels, both American and French. The oak doesn’t overpower the fruit, however, and the wine leads with really pretty floral aromas, like violet and mint. The fruit comes in as mature blackberries and plums, with the floral notes perking up alongside them.
*Medvjedica (med-vyed-eet-sa) was named as such as it’s a softer and more delicate expression than her masculine counterpart, Medvid, which is the masculine form of the name, and refers of course to the male of the gender in this case. Ivo recommends the former with lunch and the latter with dinner.
Don Petar MMVM
100% Plavac Mali
Named for the priest of the house. Baked stone fruits with a slightly spicy cigar box aroma. The taste is not entirely congruent with the aroma, and has a warm, silky feel with mature black fruit, raisin and prune spilling over the palate. A little dirty, which gives it nice complexity and keeps it from being too girl-next-door sweet wine. Not at all cloying, in fact my favorite thing about this wine may be the mouthfeel, which is marked by the heat of a slightly alcoholic finish.
Maraština, Bogdaneša, and Tarpinka
Name is literally “first kiss” and is prounounced like (perv-i pol-yu-bahtz). This is a wine they call prošek, a specific type of dessert wine made Dalmatia.
Smells like a really nice Moscatel sherry and has beautiful aromas and flavors both of baked pear, orange rind and scorched caramel, and pecan pie. Delicious. There’s also a little savory component to this wine, like carmalized carrots and parsnips, in a good and interesting way. It unravels and unravels, and I have the overwhelming impression that this wine would still be out of this world in a decade. I think this is something I will be stashing away in my cellar for future enjoyment.
We also tasted a tank sample of rosé, an unnamed version made of plavac mali, but not macerated at all, which gave it the most amazing subtlety, and beautiful aromas of tangerine, green apple and garden mint. Reminiscent of my favorite rosé from Provence, France. Beautiful and delicate, though unfortunately going to be released into the market in September which may prove to be a strange time for the first presentation of a new rosé. Great as an aperitif or for warm weather lunches. Gorgeous.
Things seem to move a bit slower in Dalmatia and nobody seems to mind. We rescheduled twice, then showed up an hour late to visit Frano Miloš in his winery in Pelješac. He greeted us on this blistering 100 degree day with a big smile and welcomed us into his winery, where he explained his philosophy on making wine. Keep it natural, intervene minimally, and don’t let the wood barrels have too much impact on the wine. Actually he explained that the big Slavonian (Croatian) wood barrels he employs in his cavernous winery only act as vessels for aging and microoxidation, which smooth the tannins on his Plavac Mali. Then he ages them, first in the barrel then for quite a while in the bottle, before he presents them to the public. While others are serving up young versions with jagged tannins, his are remarkably smooth and elegant, without compromising any body or character.
Miloš’ vineyards are situated on the steep, rocky hillsides of the Pelješac peninsula, facing the Adriatic Sea. He’s tending the plants by hand, as if there’s any other option on these jagged slopes. His basic Miloš Plavac is coming from the middle section of the hillsides while Stagnum, his top wine, comes from the top position of the vineyards. The slopes are steep and sunny, and the valley between hills creates an environment which allows plenty of wind to pass through, thus cooling off the grapes from the scorching sun. He’s got 15 hectares in total under vine, and employs only natural winegrowing, without the use of chemicals or pesticides. Of course, it has to be this way for him to round out the remainder of his philosophy- using indigenous yeasts from the vineyards for fermentation.
After touring the winery, we moved into the tasting room where we tasted his wines and olive oil.
Stagum Rosé 2010– Very full bodied for a rosé, made from Plavac Mali. Creamy, and a little funky on the palate, I think this wine would almost serve better in a cordial-style application than as a light-bodied summery substitution for red wine. Some light tropical aromas and a bit of garden mint. Full malolactic fermentation on this wine creates a very creamy character, and eventually presents some candied strawberry notes. Definitely not an aperitif or picnic wine, much more for the rosé connoisseur looking for something interesting.
Plavac Mali 2008– Cracked black pepper and fresh cedar open the stage for this beautiful yet approachable plavac. The gingerbread man comes out from stage left, gracing the palate with all of the proper brown spices used for baking. The fruit’s in check too, calling forth black currant and baked plum. Really pretty, elegant and not too heavy.
Stagnum 2005 (Plavac Mali)– Incredible wine, my first impression is that it’s actually very floral on the nose, with graceful notes of violet and cocoa powder. I’m taken with this wine every time I taste it. The palate reinforces the tones picked up on the nose, and adds the layer of soft, silky tannins to round out the complexity. The fruit is in the background, with more earth and minerality coming forward, and baked plum and stewed fruit coming forth secondary. The tannins tighten up on the finish, like they’re tying up a bow on a pretty package. So elegant, this wine is a marvel in its category, making a believer out of me with a grape I don’t usually drink much of.
Stagnum 2003 (Plavac Mali)– Bring the funk. I totally love this wine for its rustic, barnyard aromas. Dried plum, dark chocolate, cocoa powder, and sweaty saddle. Tannins are still alive and well, but totally delicate, just adding enough texture to make it really interesting. This is totally cool wine reminiscent of this funk monster I used to drink from Salice Salentino in Puglia, Italy. Sexy in a very dirty way. I adore this wine, and had the chance to taste both a freshly opened bottle and one that was opened for three days, which had an incredible port-like quality to the matured fruits, and leads me to believe it will continue to age beautifully for quite a while yet.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.