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.

Snapshots from the full day tour of “Istria by Land and Sea”

Following a walking tour in Porec, we arrive by boat in Limski Canal where we meet up with Emil, who farms fresh shells here every day.

Limski Canal’s king, Emil Sošić, takes us on a boat tour and pulls in fresh oysters.

Opening the oysters caught moments ago.

Oysters caught a minute ago in the Limski Canal.

Emil prepares the oysters simply with a squeeze of lemon.  Champagne adds the final touch.

Passing through a small spacio, or fisherman’s hangout spot after the boat ride from Limski to Rovinj. Just a quick snack in this traditional locale and we’re off to lunch.

Seaside home of a local fisherman in Rovinj, where he welcomes us and prepares for us a multi-course lunch based on the daily catch.

First is fresh fish carpaccio marinated in local olive oil.

Next, fillets of small fish. Completely simple and totally perfect with a glass of Malvazija which is presented to us by our local winemaker from Piquentum winery.

Fisherman and chef of the day Luciano takes a break to enjoy his wine.

Squid is served alongside vegetables from Luciano’s garden.

Squash blossoms and young zucchini.

In Luciano’s garden, on the marina in Rovinj’s old town.

Luciano tends to lunch while his pup lazes on this relaxed day.

A rare “serious” moment before we’re off for a walking tour of Rovinj.

A walk through Rovinj shows us some local faces.

Young ladies in Rovinj.

A happy moment as we tour Rovinj.

Traveling via wineglass, we take a break in Rovinj before heading back by boat to Poreč.

All beautiful photos courtesy of the talented Mladen Scerbe.  For which we are incredibly grateful.  Information about joining this tour for a single day during the month of July can be found here or here.

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 bravawine@hotmail.com

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.

Visit to Miloš on Dalmatia’s Pelješac Peninsula

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 in his winery on the Pelješac Peninsula

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.

Stagnum Rosé, I never did get the chance to ask what the giant “R” on the bottle stands for. I mean, could it be that obvious?

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.

Brudetijada on Island of Cres, Croatia

Boats in the harbor of Cres

When I was approached about pouring wine for a festival during a weekend on an island in Croatia, I didn’t have to think too hard.  I just had to get permission.

The festival was called Brudetijada, themed around a competition for the best Brudet, which is a regional fish stew. It took place on the island of Cres in the Kvarner region of Croatia on the weekend of June 8th.  The locals cook off and are judged in the end by a panel of judges. The event is open to the public who must make the difficult decision of choosing which Brudet they will try from the ten (or so) tables offering this aromatic and savory dish. For the equivalent of about four bucks they will have the opportunity to dine on what is perhaps the best island offering at the moment. Judging from the rich aromas in the air, the task at hand was not an easy one.

What follows is my photo journal of the event.

Fresh fish is doled out to all participants.

Veteran competition

Another table…

The Yellow Team

and the White team.

Team Filozići

Chattin up some colorful locals.

Stirrin’ the pot.

And the wine of the day is… Piquentum. Perfect!

Enjoying just before the crowds.

Ice cream break!

After deciding which to try comes the good part…eating!

 

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! http://www.bravawinetravel.wordpress.com or bravawine@hotmail.com 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…