Big wines from a small country

New EU member Croatia has its own assortment of grape varieties – and some very distinctive winegrowers

No one needs to worry that the EU's wine barrel will overflow because of new member Croatia: With a total production of 1.4 million hectolitres (2012) and exports of just 39,000 hectolitres, the country, which has a population of 4.3 million, is one of Europe's smaller wine producers. However, in the past ten years, supported by large-scale investment in vineyards and modern cellar technology, a real quality revolution has also taken place there.
Wine-makers such as Andro Tomić, Vlado Krauthaker, Zlatan Plenković, Ivan Enjingi, Ivica Matošević, Velimir Korak, Gianfranco Kozlović and Giorgio Clai have collected a large number of awards at international competitions, showing the world just how much potential Croatian viticulture has. Traders, sommeliers and restaurateurs on the hunt for new, authentic wines which are less mainstream have also been keen to make the pilgrimage to the Croatian collective stand at the ProWein trade fair in Düsseldorf for some time now.
Vineyard on the island Brac. Source: Thomas Brandl

Vineyard on the island Brac

It is not easy to gather reliable data about Croatia as a wine-making country. The Ministry for Agriculture states that the total area of vineyards is 21,255 hectares (2013), whilst the National Office of Statistics believes it to be 32,485 hectares; however, this includes many small private vineyards which mainly produce house wines. 83 percent of the winegrowers do not own more than one hectare. More than 240 grape varieties are grown. White is clearly the dominant colour with 65 percent, before red with 34 percent and rosé with just one percent. The Croatians do have a respectable consumption per-head of 28 litres per year, but a significant part of the wine produced mostly likely flows down the throats of the thirsty tourists, who populate Croatia's long coastline and islands in their millions each summer.
The most popular grape variety with more than 22 percent of the total share is the Graševina (Welschriesling), followed by Plavac Mali, Malvazija Istarska, Plavina, Debit, Riesling, Chardonnay, Merlot, Trbljan, Babić and Frankovka. Like other Balkan states, Croatia has also preserved a large stock of autochthonous grape varieties – the ambitious winemakers aim to impress with these on an international level in the future.
Giorgio and Vesna Clai. Source: Thomas Brandl

Giorgio and Vesna Clai

Amongst the four wine regions of Slavonia & Danube, Central Croatia, Dalmatia and Istria & Kvarner, the latter is perhaps the one which has been most dynamic recently. This is best illustrated by the story of Giorgio Clai. It is now twelve years ago that the native Istrian gave up his restaurant "La Pergola" in Trieste in Italy to start afresh and try his luck as a winegrower in his home village of Krasica. The wines that Giorgio now pours into 20,000 to 25,000 bottles, depending on the year, are certainly "bastanza specifico", rather special, as the 56-year-old explains in Istrian-Venetian dialect.

The self-taught winemaker does almost everything exactly how it is not taught at wine-making school: He works bio-dynamically in the vineyard under strict observation of the phases of the moon, he cares by hand for his six grape varieties which are grown over seven hectares, and all of the grapes ferment spontaneously. Clai even sometimes leaves the white ones to macerate with their skins in wooden barrels over a period of several months.

The result, also to the surprise of the winemaker himself, is very expressive "orange wines". The "Sveti Jakov", for example, made purely from the autochthonous Malvazija Istarska, has an intense aroma of citrus peel, apricots, candied fruits and caramel and noticeable tannins conquer the palate with all their might. The salty, mineral-rich finish lingers in the mouth endlessly. Clai's "Ottocento", a blend made from Malvazija, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris, meets the tongue with a sharp edge with aromas of almond and walnut, a polyphenol structure and great liveliness.

With a mischievous grin, the self-taught winemaker sits on a bench in the shade in front of the house, wife Vesna at his side, takes a good gulp of "Sveti Jakov“ and enjoys the extensive view over the hillside vineyards, olive groves, orchards and limestone villages down to the sea by Novigrad. What is this that can be read on the wall of Giorgio's house? – "Thank God that I was born in Istria!"

For several years now, the focus of the peninsula, which belonged to the Habsburg Empire from 1815 until the end of the First World War, has been on quality tourism with the goal of becoming one of the biggest destinations for connoisseurs in Europe with access to the sea. More and more lovers of gourmet products are discovering the enticing back country along the coast with artists' villages such as Grožnjan and Zavrsja, the little town of Motovun, the truffle centre Livade or Momjan and Buje. A "culinary triangle" has developed in the north-west of Istria which also includes the Konoba Stari Podrum ("Old Cellar") where chef Mira Zrnić generously grates truffles from the valley over the home-made "Fuži" pasta. This is accompanied by air-dried ham ("Pršut"), scrambled eggs with wild asparagus and freshly grilled mushrooms, served with great warmth by her charming daughters Ingrid Franceschini and Marinka Zrnić.
Gianfranco Kozlović. Source: Thomas Brandl

Gianfranco Kozlović.

A few hundred metres away, Gianfranco Kozlović's impressive wine cellar is a sign of Istria's departure into a new age. The 47-year-old oenologist conjures up fresh, mineral-rich white wines from the Malavazija grape, which previously had a bad reputation, using the latest cooling technology and gentle processes. These wines are the perfect accompaniment to fish and seafood from the coast. The top wines from the Santa Lucia vineyard, which are sometimes produced in acacia wood barrels, cannot necessarily be classified as light wines, but they delight despite their alcohol content of more than 14 percent by volume with a distinct scent of herbs, aromas of fully ripe melons and pineapples and dried figs and a very complex structure.

Gianfranco Kozlović, who is more of a quiet worker than a showman, has also managed to tame the unruly red Teran grape. Blended with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, the tannin-rich grape becomes considerably more accessible and softer without losing its typical deep berry colour. Kozlović grows his wines which are full of character on an area of 25 hectares, almost within sight of the Slovenian border.

Rich reds flourish in the iron-rich "Terra Rossa" soil in the south of Istria. In addition to its "Terra Mare" Teran, the winery belonging to the oenologist Bruno Trapan in Šišan, which was only established in 2009, also boasts an extremely aromatic Syrah under the name of "Shuluq" which won the title "Best of Croatia" in 2011. At Meneghetti in Bale, they have specialised in producing just three top-class wines made from international grape varieties as well as making high-quality olive oils.

The peninsula of Istria has plenty more stories to tell about its departure into a new age. For example, the one about Mladen Rožanić, who, starting in 2005 and after spending several years studying and travelling on the Rhone, stamped out a vineyard on the soil in his native Kosinožić, which works exclusively according to the methods used by his ancestors and stands out today both with its impressive wines and its unusual labels which bear the old Venetian surname Roxanich.

Or how about the one about the Kabola winery in Momjan, where the young oenologist Maja Vižintin is just as skilled at handling the local Muscat grape as she is at handling the eight Kvevri amphorae from Georgia, which hold 2,000 litres each and in which she produces a Malvazija which was awarded 90 points by the American wine guru Robert Parker.
Dingac Vineyard. Source: Thomas Brandl
Kabola oenologist Maja Vizintin. Source: Thomas Brandl
Vlado Krauthaker. Source: Thomas Brandl
Wood barrel cellar of wine-growing estate Krauthaker. Source: Thomas Brandl
Giorgio + Vesna Clai. Source: Thomas Brandl
Ivan Enjingi in wine cellar. Source: Thomas Brandl
Ivan Enjingis famous wine Venje. Source: Thomas Brandl
Mike Grgic. Source: Thomas Brandl
Plavac Mali from Mike Grgic. Source: Thomas Brandl
Mira Zrnic. Source: Thomas Brandl
Vineyard Kozlovic. Source: Thomas Brandl
Kozlovic labels. Source: Thomas Brandl
Modern and artistic wine label made by Roxanich. Source: Thomas Brandl
Vines organised in structure of amphitheater in Plesivica of central Croatia . Source: Thomas Brandl
Vines organised in structure of amphitheater in Plesivica of central Croatia  Source: Thomas Brandl
Vineyard on the island of Brac. Source: Thomas Brandl
Vineyard on the island of Hvar. Source: Thomas Brandl
Wine-growing country Croatia. Source: Thomas Brandl
In contrast to Istria and the neighbouring Kvarner Bay with their autochthonous Zlahtina variety, Central Croatia and Slavonia are located off the tourist track, meaning that their wines are less well known. However, top-class white wines are grown there, mainly around the small town of Kutjevo, which were incredibly popular with the Habsburgs and the European courts in the 19th century.
Ivan Enjingi in a wine cellar. Source: Thomas Brandl

Ivan Enjingi in a wine cellar.

Ivan Enjingi is credited with having revived private wine-growing in this isolated corner at the end of the 1980s. When the British "Decanter" judged Enjingi's "Venje" cuvée (usually made from Riesling, Traminer, Grauburgunder, Welschriesling and Sauvignon Blanc) the number 1 white blend under ten pounds in the world, the intrigued industry experts took notice of the wine region not far from the Danube for the first time. Numerous international awards followed.

Vlado Krauthaker, a descendent of Danube Swabian immigrants, is another of the winegrowers to have emerged from the small wine-making country of Croatia. The agricultural scientist started with one hectare in 1993 – today he cultivates around 30 hectares and processes grapes from an additional 55 hectares. Krauthaker's Graševina/Welschriesling from the Mitrovac vineyard may well be the best in the whole country, but the autochthonous Zelenac Kutjevo and the expert's late harvest (Beerenauslese) and dry late harvest wines (Trockenbeerenauslese) are also sought after.

Of course, Croatia does not just have a whole range of wine-maker originals, it also has a red variety which is full of character, the Plavac Mali ("Little Blue One"), which conquered the world under a different name. The Crljenak Kastelanski is the oldest ancestor of not just the Plavac Mali but also the South Italian Primitivo and the Californian Zinfandel. Regardless of where it is grown, the grape loves the heat and barren, mineral-rich soil – and produces a full-bodied wine with a rich structure and usually a high alcohol content. Its home is the sunny Dalmatia, and it is said that a top-class Plavac Mali is just like the land itself: Hot, spirited, luxurious, dry, a little rustic and completely unique…

All those who have visited the steep Karst cliffs on the peninsula of Pelješac and the top Dingač and Postup vineyards there on a hot summer's day bow down in respect before the winegrowers, who grow fiery, highly memorable wines in this sea of rock. They even built a 380 metre tunnel through the mountain over 30 years ago in order to make it easier to harvest the grapes on this inaccessible steep cliff.

Plavac Mali is also the star of the local production on the islands of Hvar, Brač, Vis and Korčula, although the white Pošip and the Grk and Vugava varieties are always full of surprises. The Prošek is a special Dalmatian dessert wine which is made from dried grapes. Winegrower Andro Tomić, who after 20 years of professional training in France and elsewhere founded the Bastijana Tomić winery on his home island of Hvar in 1997, produces several varieties of Prošek – his main focus is, of course, on Plavac Mali. The red wines at Bastijana Tomić make up around 70 percent of the total share.
Mike Grgic. Source: Thomas Brandl

Mike Grgic

Just as Andro Tomić returned to his old home after studying and travelling, another great from the Croatian wine scene also went back to his roots in the end: Miljenko "Mike" Grgić fled to the USA from what was then communist Yugoslavia in 1954, was head oenologist at Robert Mondavi and Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley before establishing his own winery, Grgich Hills, in California – and started from scratch once again in Trstenik not far from Dubrovnik in the mid 1990s. The American-Croatian contributed significantly to the quality revolution in his old home.

It is clear how deeply rooted the wine culture in Croatia is, but this becomes even more apparent, when one looks at the long list of successful winegrowers from the small country who have gone out into the big wide world to apply their skills and develop them even further in places far away from their homeland.

In addition to Mike Grgić, one of the first to be mentioned here is Guillermo Lukšić who, as the owner of the San Pedro, Tarapacá, Altaïr and Tabalí wineries in Chile turned them into establishments which are worth billions. Others include Peter and Joe Babich (Babich Wines, New Zealand), Marko Zaninovich (Rutherford Ranch, USA), Frank Yukich (Montana, New Zealand), Michael Brajkovich (Kumeu River, New Zealand), Nick, Steve and Mark Nobilo (House of Nobilo, New Zealand), Jorge Matetic (Chile) and Mike Dobrovic (South Africa).

The Croatians who have emigrated follow the developments in the home of their forefathers with great interest. And, as of recently, with increasing respect.

- Thomas Brandl -