The Croatian viticulture, in the pantheon of the great ones

One could sum up the richness of the Croatian vineyards with these two sentences: “its vine cultivation goes back as far as the first inhabitants who settled here”. Adding that “the list of indigenous grape varieties is as long as the Croatian coast”. It sets the scenary.

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However, it was not until the early 1990s – and Croatia’s independence – that many individuals could reclaim land previously requisitioned by the state(1). Over the past two decades, Croatia has regained its reputation, producing both extraordinary and varied wines.
From Continental Croatia (north), to Dalmatia (south), via Slavonia (along the Hungarian, Serbian and Bosnian borders) and Istria (west), each of the four Croatian wine regions deserves a stop. Story of a journey full of unforgettable discoveries.

Continental Croatia, land of great white and sparkling wines

Welcome to the coolest region of Croatia, with its scenery of steep hills with rounded summits, rural villages and carefully maintained vineyards, producing excellent white, sparkling… and even ice wines!

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Visiting Cmrečnjak estate, in the village of Štrigova. A unique terroir with a maximum altitude of 340m and clay soils, ideal for the cultivation of grape varieties such as Posipel (Furmint), Silvanac zeleni (Sylvaner) or Grasevina (Welschriesling). Marko Cmrečnjak, 4th generation of winegrowers, is proud to follow in his father’s footsteps and “could not imagine another job in life”. His cuvée “Ledena Vino 2012“, a 100% Grasevina ice wine, is fantastic!

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Not far from Zagreb, in the village of Jastrebarsko (Plešivica region), we discovered the Sember family, a great producer of sparkling wines in traditional methods.

“Thanks to a cooler continental climate, limestone soils and a 6-hectare well-exposed vineyard on hillsides, we have the optimum conditions for the production of fine bubbles”, Nikola, the eldest son, explained. A project of sparkling wine made in amphorae is currently being tested.

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We tried the “orange” wine in fermentation, in the amphorae buried in the garden. Promising.

Coups de cœur for the Teran and the Malvazija istarska

Istria. Such a beauty… In the north-west of Croatia, discover this wild region with crazy charm, still preserved, where we had the happiness to discover the grape varieties Teran and Malvazija istarska.

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Here, the typical “terra rossa” red soils of the region (loaded with iron), combined with a unique micro climate and strict green harvests (maximum yields of 1.5kg per vine for the best estates), offer wines as greedy as they are deep.

It was at Coronica estate, in the extreme northwest of the Istrian peninsula, where we fell under the spell of the Teran. A red grape variety with fine skin and bulky berries, difficult to work with.

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“It is important to harvest teran with 20% resinous grapes to add complexity to the wine”, Moreno Coronica, a winemaker as charming as he is talented, explained. Result : deep and straight wines, with superb tannins and insolent freshness. Made for aging.

A few kilometers away, in the coastal village of Višnjan, the Radovan family, with 9 hectares of vines, showcases Malvazija istarska, a white grape with aromas of almond kernel, apricot, ripe white fruits and wild flowers.

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“Here, nature is beautiful: the sea wind blows on the vineyard in the morning, refreshing the air, and the land wind blows in the evening, softening the atmosphere”, Franko, the father, enthused. Their cuvée “Malvazija Istarska 2015” is a pure delight!

Léo Gracin, the rock star of the Babič

It is in Primošten, at the grandmother’s house of our friend (and formidable guide) Barbara Bacic, that we met Léo Gracin, one of the great figures of Croatian viticulture.

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Winemaker of talent, Léo is also a Doctor of oenology, a professor at the University of Zagreb and a consultant for the finest Croatian estates. His casual look and his permanent smile make him a character as friendly as he is charismatic. Léo owns one hectare of vineyard in the Bucavac Primošten appellation, in Dalmatia, which is going to become the first Croatian wine-growing region classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The fragmented topography of the site, the hard rock soils, the obligation to work by hand, the plots all being isolated from each other, the ban on irrigation and the incredible difficulty of working in this vineyard (44°C in summer, forcing the workers to start their days at 4am and ending them at 11am…), probably make it one of the most atypical vineyards that we have ever discovered.

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Discovering the babič, a Croatian red grape originally from Primošten and wonderfully vinified by Leo. Its sweetened version, called Prošek(3), a Dalmatian specialty, is of great complexity and pairs fantastically with local cheeses.

Stina Vino, an extreme vineyard

Croatia has 1185 islands and islets. Some of them are home to some of the most beautiful vineyards in the world. Welcome to the island of Brač, 50 minutes by ferry south of Split, famous for its white stone (Stina). A small multi-century wine-growing paradise, which has seen the apparition of very interesting indigenous grape varieties, such as Plavac mali, in red.

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Visit of Stina Vino, a gorgeous estate, with 70 hectares of vines spread over two sites. One of them is undoubtedly one of the most extreme vineyards visited during the project. Literally carved into the rock, this parcel is culminated at 650 meters above sea level and dives into the sea, with slopes having 65% of inclination! In other words, to work there requires above all the art of the tightrope walker… Risking to (slightly) descend in a row of vines myself, I failed not falling…

The second plot – 45 hectares in one piece – is located between 420 and 520m above sea level. The brightness of the sun reflecting on these very special white stone soils, gave the vineyard a lunar aspect.

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A real postcard. The result: magnificent wines, concentrated and of great freshness ; like the red cuvée “Plavac mali remek djelo 2011“.

The island of Korčula and its treasures of indigenous grape varieties

Once upon a time there was the Grk, a white grape variety from the village of Lumbarda, on the island of Korčula – and the specialty of Frano Bire.

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“Grk”, in Croatian, means “bitter”. In reality, the wine is dry, with beautiful tension. Cultivated on the sandy soils of Lumbarda, where it ripens best, it develops beautiful aromas, like notes of pine.

“The Grk grape has only female flowers. To ensure its pollination, it must be co-planted with another grape variety with male flowers, usually the Plavac mali”, Frano Bire, a very sympathetic vine grower, owner and winemaker of Bire Winery, explained. Great wines, full of emotion, to discover on the spot… micro-production obliges.

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On the other side of the island, we met with Luka Krajančić, a native of Korčula. “I am only a small part of a local history of 2,500 years”.

Painter, poet, philosopher, winegrower… Luka has always been a Pošip lover, another white grape from Korčula Island – and just as interesting.

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Appearing 100 years ago on the island (spontaneous crossing of two other local varieties: Bratkovina x Zlatarice), this highly aromatic variety (mainly with an exotic fruit profile), with a great acidity level that balances a relatively high alcohol content, encounters great success. With no less than 6 different Pošip styles – from the stainless steel tank, to the barrel, to an ageing on the lees, a sweet wine version or one with 100 days maceration on the skins – Luka is definitely the “King of Pošip”.

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The great Croatian estates – as well as the native grape varieties – are legion. I already look forward to coming back, to continue exploring this incomparable wine (and cultural) heritage.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

Thank you to CMREČNJAK, Sember, Radovan, Coronica, Stina, Krajančić, Bire estates and to Léo Gracin, for their warm welcome. Thank you to our friends Ante & Barbara BACIC, from Les Robes de l’Est, for their valuable recommendations of wineries, and especially Barbara for having accompanied and guided us on the ground. Finally, thanks to Mr Željko Suhadolnik (Editor-in-Chief of Svijet u čaši) and to Mr Ivan Dropuljić (Director of Zagreb fair VINOcom), for having join us during our visit to Sember.

(1) At the end of the Second World War, Tito’s communism took place, the country then focused more on quantity than on quality.
(2) Teran – originally from Slovenia and also produced in Italy – is also known as Cagnina, Refosk, Refosca of Istria, Refosco del carso, Refosco dal peduncolo rosso, Rabiosa nera, Crodarina or Magnacan.
(3) Prošek is a traditional sweet wine produced exclusively in Dalmatia from grapes dried in the sun. This method, often called “passerillage”, makes it possible to dehydrate the bunches, giving a maximum concentration of sugar. The Prošek usually bears between 15 and 17 degrees of alc.

Slovenia… the (little) European nugget

This was our first departure on board of the Wine Explorers’ new house-office-mobile, a brand new G700GJ campervan offered by Pilote, the French market leader.

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I looked forward to test this vehicle, fully equipped for the project : two offices, four beds, a kitchen, a huge fridge and a bathroom… what else could one want ?!
En route for 1200 km, heading south-east of Europe. After two days of driving, as a reward for the journey, a wonderful spectacle awaited us. The Monte Forno, the last rampart between the northern tip of Italy, Austria to our back and Slovenia proudly standing in front of us.

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With only 85km left before arriving in Slovenia, we couldn’t wait!

One of the most interesting vineyards in the world

Coup de cœur for the Slovenian vineyards, the preserved green treasure of Europe, where German, Slavic and Roman cultures have been intermingled for millennia. Only a drop of water in the world’s wine-growing ocean with 22,300 hectares planted (0.5% of the European vineyard), the country produces some of the best wines in the world. Its 2,400-year-old wine tradition, its unique climate (protection by the Alps from the north and the oceanic influence in the west), its complex soils (opoka, schist, granite…) and its multitude of seductive autochthonous grape varieties, made Slovenia one of the most interesting wine cultures that we have discovered so far.

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“The Slovenian wine market is growing very rapidly. With the help of some of the biggest names of Slovenian winegrowers, such as Marjan Simšič, our country is increasingly recognized as a wine country”, Saso Papp, CEO and co-founder of vinoo.co explained. “We are the only country with the word LOVE in its name – sLOVEnija”, he proudly added. A whole symbol.

The country has three main wine regions: Primorska, in the west (along the Mediterranean) and the Drava (Podravje) and Save (Posavje) valleys in the west. We chose to start with the wine-growing sub-region of Goriška Brda, in the west (1000 hectares of vineyards), nicknamed “Tuscany of Slovenia” for its undulating landscape.

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A small corner of paradise and a must stop for any wine lover. Its very particular location, 50 km from the Alps and 20 km from the sea, which makes it a fantastic region for the cultivation of vines.

Bjana Estate, the effervescent story of Miran Sirk

Miran Sirk and his wife, Petra, are the proud owners of Bjana Estate, a small 6.5-hectare estate in the Brda wine region, specializing in sparkling wines produced in traditional method. Their story is as beautiful as it is touching.
Until the early 1950s, Miran’s father owned a hundred hectares of vines. But after the Second World War, the vineyard and the house were requisitioned by the State and divided, as in most areas, under the regime of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia.

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The family then only had a small piece of their own house, and little land. In 1976, it was the coup de grace. An earthquake destroyed the whole house, as well as other surrounding dwellings. The vineyard project was buried and along with it, the young Miran’s winemaking dreams.

In 1991, after the creation of Slovenia and the independence celebrated, Miran only had one dream in mind : to rebuild the house and the family estate, in order to produce great sparkling wines. He had to start from scratch. He replanted the vineyard in the same year, but couldn’t rebuild the house and the cellar before 2007, lacking money… A crazy bet and the work of a titan, during which, from 1991 to 2009, Miran worked as trade inspector in the casinos, traveling a lot and accumulating days of 16h, to earn enough money to pay for the construction.

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Today, thanks to his idea of planting a vineyard exposed to the north – in order to reduce the effect of the sun in this warm Mediterranean region – Miran produces, without a shadow of a doubt, world-class sparkling wines. And his “Cuvée Prestige” (70% Chardonnay, 30% Rebula), aged 56 months on the lees in bottles (!), has literally blown us away… Respect.

Marjan Simčič – Mr. Opoka

Another fantastic winemaker from Goriška Brda, and a great favorite of Wine Explorers, the emblematic Marjan Simčič, whom I like to call “Mr. Opoka”, or “the rock star of Rebula“.

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Every time I think about this visit and this encounter, I get goosebumps. Rarely have I had the opportunity to taste white wines with such intensity and depth. Wines of meditation, combining power and elegance, density and lightness, length and precision. Memorable.

Marjan and his family own 18 hectares of vineyard – some vines more than 55 years old – with parcels on both the Slovenian and Italian borders ; historical-geographic-political conflicts oblige. Marjan discovered different types of soils, one of them having obtained world-wide reputation for its unique character as a “terroir”: opoka.

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“The soils of Brda, deposited by ancient oceans on the surface of the hills, are fascinating. Wind, rain and sun have crushed, washed and heated them for thousands of years. The result: opoka, a soil rich in minerals which makes it possible to produce unique wines with a recognizable terroir“, Marjan, the 5th generation of winegrowers on the estate since 1860, explained.

Here, the dominant and most famous variety is the white Rebula(1), which accounts for about 25% of the wines produced in the region ; offering generous and inimitable wines. But that’s not all. This winemaker, who has magic in his fingers, also produces among the most beautiful cuvées of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc that we have never tasted… (yes!).

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We finished the visit by admiring a beautiful sunset in one of its vineyards, right next to the Italian border. A moment out of time.

Vinakoper, land of Refosk

Next followed a change of region with Istria, in the south-east of Slovenia. And a change of scenery with Vinakoper, a 570-hectare estate created in 1947. A very successful example of a “fairly massive” producer, who has managed to concentrate exclusively on quality and who deserves to be visited.

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The key to success : a vineyard spread over 10 micro-locations around the town of Koper, one more beautiful than the next, from ground level up to 320 meters above sea level. Preserved and virgin sites of any dwelling, along the Gulf of Trieste, offering a microclimate unique to the region. We admired one of the vineyards, a plot of 64 hectares on the Debeli Rtič peninsula, literally plunging into the sea. Wild asparagus grow here on the edge of the forest. We improvised a picking and ate some green asparagus on the spot. A delight.

Overall, the wine range positively surprised us, with iconic wines around the red grape varieties Refosk (the most popular red varietal in Slovenia) and Cipro (an Istrian early ripening indigenous grape variety with only 6.6 hectares of vines in the whole world!).

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“Slovenia still lacks gratitude, even though wine has been produced here since the Roman era. Thanks to indigenous grape varieties such as Refosk, a variety with incredible potential and in which we firmly believe, it seems possible to make a difference and to assert Slovenia as a wine country with its own identity”, Gregor Bandel, the sales and marketing Director, explained.

Suklje, the revival of traditional viticulture

We finished our Slovenian stay at the Suklje estate, only a few kilometers from the Croatian border.

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A small and charming 7-hectare vineyard in the south-west of the country, in the mountainous region of Metlika. Here, there are no less than five generations of passionate winegrowers who have succeeded one another to make this estate one of the jewels of the region.

In 1994, a great turning point was initiated by Joze, the father, with the first bottling and an undeniable qualitative turn. Until then, the wine was sold in bulk, a common practice under the Yugoslav air. Matija, the 5th generation of vine growers, took over the reins of the vineyard, planted partly with Blaufränkisch (Modra frankinja), Laški rizling, Kerner and Sauvignon blanc ; under the watchful eye of his father. Katja, her sister, and her husband Guillaume Antalick, both doctors in oenology, also consult the vineyard.

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The Suklje family is actually turning the vineyard towards local and responsible oenotourism, offering exclusively fresh local products at the vineyard table (where you eat wonderfully well). A wine bar project has also been set up in Ljubljana, the capital(2). It is an initiative of Matija, Katja & Guillaume. We wish them all the best in this great adventure!

Let’s conclude this most rewarding journey with a humorous touch. We discovered an ingenious and original way of “re-filling” bottles of wine for the weekend! Practical and economical, the wine pump seems to be a success. Well done Vinakoper for this great initiative.

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Slovenia, we will be back soon. I promise. Your vineyard is a treasure.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

 

 

Thank you to Bajna, Marjan Simčič, Vinakoper and Suklje estates for their warm welcome. And a huge thank you to our friends Ante & Barbara BACIC, from Les Robes de l’Est, for their valuable help and winery recommendations.


(1)
The Rebula, aka ‘Ribolla or Ribuela is a white grape variety originating in Greece but which has been cultivated in Slovenia for at least 750 years.
(2) For more information on the Suklje wine bar in Ljubljana: https://www.facebook.com/winebarsuklje/