We read an article recently in a reputable publication that proclaimed Zinfandel as California’s “heritage grape,” and went on to describe this grape varietal as “a quintessentially American phenomenon. It’s zesty, rugged and loud, challenging to rear, a lover of barbecue.” This characterization of Zinfandel is not uncommon and we have even heard more casual wine consumers refer to Zinfandel as “American’s wine grape.” As charming as this characterization is, it does not stand up to reality or, more importantly, science.
The story of original sin involves a fruit and a man named Adam; in his case, the fruit was allegedly an apple. In the case of “original Zin,” a man and a fruit are again involved, but in this case the man is named Miljenko and the fruit is a grape. As Adam was fascinated by the apple, Miljenko Grgic (Americanized to Mike Grgich when he came to this country), had a deep fascination with grapes.
In 1959 Mike Grgich arrived in Napa Valley and started working at Souverain Cellars & Vineyard where he encountered Zinfandel grapes on their property. Studying the canes, leaves, clusters, berry color and size, and, eventually, the juice the grapes produced, Grgich was convinced that Zinfandel was anything but a “quintessentially American phenomenon.” To his eye, Zinfandel and the indigenous Plavac Mali grape from his native Croatia were one and the same. Zinfandel, therefore, originated from his native Croatia. For many years, he steadfastly maintained this conviction and shared it with anyone who would listen.
In 1990 Mike Grgich made his first return trip to Croatia since leaving the country thirty-six years before in 1954. To him, the similarities between Plavac Mali and Zinfandel were still apparent during this trip and he remained convinced they were the same grape varietal. On his next trip, in 1993, Grgich stepped it up a notch and actually took Napa Valley Zinfandel clusters, leaves and canes with him to Croatia to do a literal physical side-by-side comparison. His conclusion? The same grape.
Almost 5 years went by before Grgich took a step that would settle the question once and for all as to the relationship between Plavac Mali and Zinfandel – a step that would prove Grgich both right and wrong. This step involved connecting with Dr. Carole Meredith, a professor in the renowned Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis. Her area of expertise was – and yes, this really is a thing – grape genetics. As a grape geneticist, Dr. Meredith studied the genes of grapes to understand how those genes contribute to making the grapes and vines they way they are. She had a particular interest in the history of wine and understanding where specific grape varietals came from, which made her a perfect investigative partner for Mike Grgich.
In 1998 Carole Meredith and Mike Grgich got together and he shared with her his opinion about Zinfandel and Plavac Mali. This visit inspired Carole to go to Croatia herself that same year to see for herself if she could definitively solve the Zinfandel-Plavac Mali puzzle. She took samples from over 150 Plavac Mali vines from vineyards in the most renowned growing areas of Croatia, including the Peljesac Peninsula (where Mike Grgich has a winery today called Grgic Vina) and the island of Hvar. Upon returning to U.C. Davis with her samples, Dr. Meredith performed a series of genetic tests on them and reached a definitive conclusion: Zinfandel and Plavac Mali were not the same grape. What she did discover through her tests, though, is that these two grapes are related. As she put it, Plavac Mali is the “son” of Zinfandel; in other words, Zinfandel and another grape together produced Plavac Mali. So after nearly 50 years of believing Zinfandel was his native Plavac Mali, Mike Grgich turned out to be wrong. But something interesting would happen soon after that would make him right again, sort of anyway.
Never one to give up, Carole Meredith continued her work, having connected with two professors from the University of Zagreb who were looking for help in using DNA tools to understand better the indigenous Croatian grapes and how they would be impacted by modern development and globalization. The three professors continued to search for the elusive connection to Zinfandel and, lo and behold, they found it! Near the port town of Split on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, nine Crljenak Kastelanski vines were found that DNA testing determined to be a 100% genetic match to Zinfandel. As it turns out, Zinfandel was not Plavac Mali but it was indigenous to Croatia. Subsequent historical research has shown that Croatian Zinfandel (also known as Tribidrag) was planted as far back as the 15th century. What the Italians call Primitivo is also Zinfandel, having originated from the Croatian Tribidrag and been imported to Italy some 200-300 years ago.
We were so intrigued by this story that we made a trip to Croatia in late 2016 and soaked up as much wine and vineyard knowledge as we could. We trudged around the Peljesac Peninsula where Mike Grgich’s beloved Plavac Mali grows on steeps slopes just meters from the sea. Over the course of 2 ½ weeks we tasted dozens of Croatian wines and fell in love with the character, depth, and complexity of their wines. Our favorite? Crljenak Kastelanski (or Tribidrag if that’s easier to pronounce). We loved this wine so much that we are now importing a Crljenak Kastelanski produced by Vina Matela. We recently tasted this wine with an 86-year old winemaker partner and he proclaimed: “This is one of the best wines I’ve ever had.” We have to agree.
Wine consumers that are looking for “California Zin” should ignore the Vina Matela offering as it will not live up to expectations. Frequently fans of California Zinfandel use terms such as “jammy” or “fruit bomb” to describe their favorite wine. Matela’s Crljenak Kastelanski has nice fruit on the nose and the palate but is a much more complex, rich, and balanced wine. Fruit aroma and flavor are matched with a strong earthiness driven by the unique conditions of the mountain soil in which the grapes are grown.
You can purchase Matela Crljenak Kastelanski at www.topochines.com. Click on “Countries” and then “Croatia” to find this wine along with our complete range of white and red Croatian wines for sale. Readers of this blog can enter “Friends15” at checkout for a 15% discount. For those interested in a broader exploration of the Croatian red wines, we also offer two different Plavac Mali wines, one from winemaker Tomic and the other from Edivo. We will provide a deeper review of each of these wines in Croatian Wines, Part III.
In December of 2017 we started selling Croatian wine on our online wine store Topochines Vino Wine Store. In a few short months we sold out our entire inventory of Croatian wines, most of them produced from indigenous grapes but a few stellar labels using international varietals. Sadly, we sold out our last couple of bottles right before the commencement of the World Cup and did not have any supply to help our Croatian-American friends celebrate Croatia’s improbable and inspiring run to the Finals. Today, our warehouse is bursting with Croatian wines – some of the favorites from our initial shipment, but we have expanded our offering to include a number of new varietals, styles (e.g.,we now have several sparkling wines), and some classic Croatian wine producers.
Below is a breakdown of our shipment, “by the numbers”:
24 – unique Croatian wines
17 – red wines
13 – different varietals
12 – unique wineries
12 – wines under $30
10 – different wines featuring Croatia’s “national” red grape, Plavac Mali.
5 – white wines
4 – new wineries not previously on ours site
4 – wines priced at $20 or under
2 – sparkling wines
2 – offerings of “Original Zin,” ie, the wine proven to be the original source of Zinfandel
1 – wine aged under the Adriatic sea
For those already familiar with Croatian wines, this portfolio will contain many known producers and some traditional wine styles and varietals. As noted above, we have 10 different Plavac Mali selections available from multiple vineyard locations and appellations. Croatian wine newbies would do well to start with any of these Plavac Mali wines as this varietal is as close to a “national” wine as you can get in Croatia.
Plavac Mali grapes from Croatia
For those that prefer white wine, we have several wines made from Croatia’s indigenous Posip grape, one of our favorite varietals because it produces such an aromatic, full-bodied wine.
Korcula is the most famous spot for Posip
While we have great appreciation for classic varietals and more well-known wineries, we have to admit to having a soft spot for unique blends, creative wine-making styles, and downright batshit crazy inventions. Our latest shipment covers this entire gamut; here are some highlights:
Griffin Sparkling Rosé – $29.00
Okay, you’re thinking, what’s so unique or creative about a sparkling Rosé wine? Well, that’s not the interesting part. What makes this wine stand out from the crowd is the underlying varietal: Portugiser. This varietal is very aromatic and has lots of fruit flavor on the palate. In many white wines, aroma and flavor are lost during the fermentation process and it can be difficult to enjoy the varietal’s characteristics. However, winemaker Ivancic Griffin uses cryogenic maceration prior to fermentation to slow the process and preserve color, aroma and flavor. We haven’t had a sparkling Rosé like this one – it’s delicious!
Griffin Dark Side Sparkling – $33
This is by far the darkest sparkling wine we have ever seen, let alone consumed. When we first tried it in The Basement Wine Bar in Zagreb, Croatia, it was described as “Black Champagne.” Also made from the Portugiser grape, this sparkling wine is ridiculously aromatic and retains the flavor characteristics of the varietal almost as if it were a still wine. Cryogenic maceration prior to fermentation is also used with this sparking wine.
2017 Feravino “Dika” Graševina – $15
Chance are you’ve never had a wine from this obscure varietal before, even though it accounts for about a quarter of every wine bottles sold in Croatia. At $15 a bottle, what are you waiting for? If you knew how much it cost for us to transport this wine (a) by truck from the winery, (b) to a consolidator’s warehouse in Italy, (c) to be placed on a large container vessel, (d) to cross the ocean to New York City, (e) to get on another truck to cross the United States and (f) arrive in our Napa warehouse – well, you’d wonder how we only charge $15. Suffice it to say we’re just about giving this wine away. Feravino’s take on this varietal is crisp, refreshing, a nice blend of fruit and acidity. This is a very aromatic wine with lots of fruit and flower on the nose.
2015 Feravino “Miraz” Frankovka – $17
We expect that Frankovka will also be a new varietal to most people, although extreme wine geeks may know it by its other name, Blaufränkisch. This is a rich and powerful wine.
Okay, these wines are unique, right? Are you ready for “batshit crazy”? How about a wine that ages under the Adriatic sea and has to be deposited and collected by scuba divers?
2012 Edivo Plavac Mali “Navis” – $149
You probably have some questions about this wine. Like, what’s that on the bottle? It’s what you would expect to be on a bottle that has been under the sea aging for a couple of years – barnacles and other sea stuff. You might wonder if this wine tastes salty. Because this wine is not cheap, we only allowed ourselves to “steal” one bottle out of our inventory, but I swear I could smell and taste salinity when the bottle was opened. After decanting this sensation dissipated and the wine was truly exceptional. This is a bottle for real wine geeks who want to try something 100% unique.
We hope this gives you a sense for some of the really interesting wines we have for sale and whets your appetite to go to the website and try some. Readers of this post can purchase any of the Croatian wines at a 10% discount by entering “Wine10” at checkout. This discount code will apply to wines from any other country as well. Cheers!
We import white and red Croatian wines and make them available to U.S. consumers at our Topochines Vino online wine store: www.topochinesvino.com.
In late 2016 we made our first ever foray to the Balkans, a trip that was planned more or less on a whim and without any goal in mind but to explore the countries that make up the former Yugoslavia. When this former communist country imploded in the early 1990’s, a number of countries formed out of its ashes – either six or seven, depending on whom you ask. Yes, in that part of the world, everything is up for dispute. At a minimum, the former Yugoslavia now comprises Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia. For reasons too complicated to explain here, Macedonia is usually referred to as the FYROM – the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Counting Macedonia, there are six countries that have sprung from the boundaries of the old Yugoslavia. We’ll save the story about Kosovo for another day, but you can see on this map that it is considered an autonomous province of Serbia.
There is a lot going on in this region!
On our 2 1/2 week trip we visited half of the countries that make up former Yugoslavia – Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia & Herzegovina. During this trip – which originated in Venice – we met wine makers and other wine experts that opened our eyes up about this truly fascinating region. We were somewhat familiar with the history of the region, going back to the murder of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo that sparked WWI, extending all the way through the recent Balkan war. A very important detail, though, had escaped us: the region’s viticulture and enology.
During our trip we learned that grape growing and wine making in Croatia, for example, go back 2,500 years to the time of the Ancient Greek settlers. All along the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, grapes were planted and quality wine was made for both domestic use as well as export. In more recent times, private wine production was hampered by the communist Yugoslav government, resulting in much of the wine industry being cooperatives, with private ownership discouraged. After the collapse of Yugoslavia, private ownership of land once again emerged and the commercial production of wine once again became vibrant. For the uninitiated, here is a quick primer on Croatian wines:
Wine Regions. While there are 300 recognized sub-regions in Croatia, they can be broken down into two broad categories: Continental and Coastal. Historically, much of the hype has come from the Coastal region as it encompasses the well-known Istria region (very similar in many ways to Tuscany) and the Dalmatian coastal and island vineyards that produce some of the best wines in Croatia. However, in the past several years producers in the Continental part of Croatia – primarily Slavonia and Plešivica – have begun making wines that are getting international attention. We have recently tasted some of these wines, including some delicious sparkling wines, and plan to import them here to the U.S. and offer them on our Topochines Vino online wine store.
Even with the recent surge of quality in the Continental region, the focus in Croatia is still on the Coastal regions of Istria and Dalmatia. Many visitors to Istria compare it to Tuscany, both for its physical resemblance as well as the quality food and wine available.
Stunning views of Istrian vineyards in Croatia
Both red and white wines are produced in Istria, and vineyards feature both indigenous and international grape varietals. The most common indigenous white grape grown in Istria is Malvasia; the most common red varietal is Teran. We are offering a crisp, refreshing Istrian Malvasia from producer Benvenuti: Buy Malvasia.
Farther down the coast of Dalmatia one encounters some of the most famous regions and vineyards in all of Croatia. most of them producing wine from indigenous Croatian varietals. Dalmatia breaks into three geographic sub-regions: Northern Dalmatia, Interior Dalmatia, and Central/Southern Dalmatia. These regions are largely dedicated to producing indigenous Croatian white varietals such as Bogdanuša, Debit, Grk, and Ninčuša and red varietals including Crljenak Kaštelanski, Dobričić, Plavina and Plavac Mali.
Geographically, the vineyards and wineries in Dalmatia are stunning and unlike anything we have ever seen. One of the places we visited was Grgic Vina, the Croatian winery owned by Napa winemaking legend Mike Grgich (of Grgich Hills). Their winery is a literal stone’s throw from the Adriatic sea and their vineyards a few hundred meters up the slope from the sea.
Grgic Vina on Croatia’s Peljesac Peninsula in Croatia
Along the coast, many of the vineyards can be found on unbelievably sloped hills, some of them with upwards of 45 degree slope with vines running straight up and down the hill.
Plavac Mali vines in Dingac (Croatia)
Obviously, harvest must be done by hand and in most cases the pickers have to be harnessed and tethered due to the extreme slope.
In all of our travels to U.S. and foreign wine regions, we have not seen anything quite like the Dalmatian region of Croatia. While many vines are on the mainland close to the sea, some of the most famous vineyards are on islands and/or peninsulas: Hvar, Brac, Korcula, Vis, and the Peljesac Peninsula that houses the Dingac vineyards above.
Island of Korcula, home to Grk and Posip (Croatia)
Island of Hvar (Croatia)
In our second installment on Croatia wines, we will go deeper into some of the wines that we think are most special and give more information about some of the most important indigenous varietals.