Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Grape Spotlight: Dalmatian Plavac Mali

"Plavac Mali is used to craft some of the finest Croatian red wines, especially when it comes from the barren, steep southern slopes of Southern and Central Dalmatia facing the sea, from positions such as Dingac, Postup and Ponikve on Peljesac, Ivan Dolac on Hvar, Murvice on Brac, and Komarna and Konavle on the coastline.  These locales are the home of the most famous labels, wines that are often powerful, alcoholic, full-bodied, and rich. Further inland, Plavac is used to make fruitier, lighter, juicier, everyday wines to be enjoyed with a variety of cuisines." Wines of Croatia

Today, September 21st is International Plavac Mali Day, a celebration created by the Croatian Wine Alliance - a partnership between Anna M. Viducic (Aroma Wine Co) & Mirena Bagur - Win Burke (Croatian Premium Wine Imports).  Thus, it's more than appropriate to highlight Croatia's predominant red grape variety. It is grown throughout Dalmatia with the best-known plantings on the Peljesac Peninsula in the Dingač and Postup appellations. In fact, Dingač became the first protected Croatian wine region in 1961. However, my appreciation of Plavac Mali comes more from the newly created Komarna appellation through the wines available from Croatian Premium Wine Imports and our recent visit to Terra Madre Winery. Komarna wineries planted their Plavac Mali vineyards using best practices from the Peljesac Peninsula particularly planting on the south-southwest slopes.

That being said, there are some differences in wines produced in Komarna and Peljesac. According to Antonija Car, winemaker at Saints Hills Winery, Komarna is a lighter style of wine than Dingač and the cooler area is able to better preserve acidity. In contrast, Dingač is hotter with more quartz in the otherwise similar limestone soil leading to less acidity, more sugars, and thus higher alcohol.  In Peljesac, vines are planted very close together and trained as bush vines to avoid the harsh effects of the Mediterranean sun. 

The name Plavac Mali is derived from the blue color of the berries (plavac) and the size of these berries (mali). An interesting phenomenon is that the berries on any particular cluster ripen at different times as evident from this slide courtesy of Volarević Winery. This forces the winemaker to make a difficult decision during harvest to obtain a sufficient balance between pH and sugars. This pushes harvest back until the end of September to early October. 

The discovery of Plavac Mali's lineage offers another fascinating story thanks to Mike Grgich, the winemaker behind the iconic Chateau Montelena Chardonnay. Here is a short paraphrase but for the full story, we recommend this video of Grgich or our post Grape Spotlight: Croatian Tribidrag (Crljenak Kaštelanski, Pribidrag, Kratošija) aka Zinfandel. When seeing Zinfandel planted in California it reminded him of Plavac Mali vines from his native Croatia. He enlisted help from Dr. Carole Meredith of U.C. Davis who with assistance from Croatian researchers determined that Plavac Mali was related to Zinfandel but not an exact DNA match. Instead, Zinfandel was the same as its parent Crljenak Kaštelanski - with the other parent being the ancient Croatian grape Dobričić.

There are several Dalmatian Plavac Mali wines available in the United States with most providing the characteristic dried figs, raisins, and cocoa aroma followed by cherry flavors, spice, and solid tannins. Komarna grown Plavac Mali wines are available here along with a Dingač and Postup versions made by Miljenko GrgićSaints Hills Winery, and Chateau Mario.

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