Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Grape Spotlight: Alentejo's Portalegre DOC and Arinto

Located along the Spanish border, the Portalegre DOC is Alentejo's northernmost subregion and is completely different from the rest of the Alentejo -- from the altitude to the soils, from the vineyard sizes to the age of the vines. The vineyards are located at the foothills of the Serra de São Mamede mountain range, between 600 and 700 meters above sea level. Thus the climate is cooler and wetter than the baking plains of southern Alentejo. And it receives influences from both the Atlantic and Mediterranean. The soils are primarily granite and interspersed with small patches of schist in the lower areas. Vineyards tend to be fragmented in the hills, divided into numerous small plots of very old vines -- many of which may be seventy years old.  In general, these conditions help produce fresh and elegant wines, yet equally powerful.

Arinto is a late-ripening, medium-sized yellowish grape that's naturally high acid content makes it well suited for the hot Alentejo environment. And the tightly packed bunches are shaded from the hot sun by the vine's large leaves. The grape provides a range of profiles from grapefruit to lemon and lime and green apple to some stone fruits. 

The Adegas de Portalegre Winery was founded in 1954 by a small group of winegrowers and is actually located in a Natural Park -- the Natural Park of Serra de São Mamede. This means the vines are planted at high altitudes, between 600 and 700 meters, and the average age of these vineyards are 70 years old. We received a sample of their Conventual Reserva Vinho Bianco 2018 which is a unique blend of Arinto, Fernão Pires, Syrah, and Bical. The Syrah grapes were harvested from the Serra da Penha vineyard -- an eight-hectare granite soil plot that starts at 450m and runs to the top of Serra da Penha at 650 meters. The other grapes were grown in the Quinta da Cabaça vineyard, an even higher plot with clay and granite soils. The wine is very complex starting with a white flower aroma, then moving towards a saline and white peach profile, and ending with excellent acidity. The 14% alcohol is unnoticeable. 

The Herdade da Torre de Palma is located in Monforte, Portalegre, and farms seven hectares in their estate vineyard, which interestingly enough, is planted with seven different grape varieties. The vineyard consists of light clay soil on top of the granite with smaller instances of limestone, schist, sandstone, and marble. The vineyard receives wide diurnal temperature swings which extend the maturation period - leading to increased acidity. The wines are created by enologist Duarte de Deus who tends towards a minimalist approach. That being said, the Torre de Palma Arinto - Alvarinho 2021 was fermented and aged on its lees in French oak. There is definitely a sense of depth in this wine with a strong citrus profile, complemented by a touch of tropical notes and minerality. 

Friday, June 24, 2022

Grape Spotlight: Abruzzo DOC Pecorino

“…one morning in September, before the harvest, I and others went to Arquata del Tronto, in the hamlet of Pescara, where they had pointed out to me an ancient vineyard cultivated with Pecorino. Arrived on the site I was indicated by the owner of the land Mr. Cafini some shoots that were evidently two, or three, generations old. In the following February I went back to pick up the shoots and took them to my company in Ripatransone, where I made the first grafts: my idea was to cultivate it in purity. I know, it was a crazy idea, everyone said it, my friends always repeated it to me in the winter evenings in front of the fire, but I wanted that wine, I knew it was possible, and I never doubted” -- quote from Guido Cocci Grifoni in The Rebirth of Pecorino

Abruzzo is a naturalist's dream "as half of the region's territory is protected through national parks and nature reserves, more than any administrative region on the continent, leading it to be dubbed 'the greenest region in Europe'".  That could be why it has been occupied since the "Neolithic era, with the earliest artifacts dating to beyond 6,500 BC. In the 6th century BC, the Etruscans introduced viticulture into the area which continued with the Romans -- who contributed to much of Abruzzo’s recognizable history.  Even after the fall of Rome, the Lombards, Byzantines, Magyars, and Normans successively imparted some type of influence in Abruzzo.   Throughout these periods, viticulture has been a constant with multi-generation small plots, sometimes less than a few hectares, being passed down through successive generations. 

Abruzzo is located directly east of Rome and bordered by the Molise wine region to the south, the Marche to the north, the Lazio to the west, and the Adriatic to its east.  It is further divided into several sub-regions: Controguerra, Teramo, Chieti, Pescara, and L’Aquila (L’Aquilano) -- with Chieti being the prime winemaking region (75% of vineyards).  Most of Abruzzo is rugged with  65% mountainous with this landscape assisting grape growing by blocking most storms from the west. And to the east, the Adriatic Sea provides a moderating Mediterranean climate for these vineyards; vines that are predominately planted in calcareous clay soils.

The most popular grape varieties in all sub-regions are Montepulciano d'Abruzzo and Trebbiano d'Abruzzo. That being said, our current focus is Pecorino, a light-skinned wine grape that, in general, produces dry, minerally, driven, floral, and herbaceous wines. According to our friends at Wiki, "Pecorino is a very old variety that, as believed by ampelographers, likely originated as a wild grapevine growing in the Sibillini Mountains that was eventually domesticated for wine production".  Its name derives from the Italian word pecora, meaning sheep, most likely because sheep would often eat the grapes while moving through the vineyards. 

Pecorino's home region is actually in Marche and in the last couple of centuries was slowly phased out because of low yields. By the mid-20th century, it was thought to be extinct. But in the 1980s, Guido Cocci Grifoni decided to "search for this native vine in the wild lands of the Sibillini National Park" and the quote above is how he traced an old vine raised in Pecorino in Arquata del Tronto.  "In February 1983, the first rows of vines were grafted in different geographical exposures within the grounds of the  Cocci Grifoni Estate. And just two years later the first demijohns of wine were produced". -- The Rebirth of Pecorino

Since then, the variety's plantings have grown exponentially, and Pecorino is now found across the Marche, Abruzzo, Umbria, and Tuscany.  "The 'Abruzzo' DOC was created to protect and enhance the main autochthonous regional grape varieties, in particular Pecorino and Passerina, and by means of the 'Abruzzo' DOC, the territory of origin of these wines has been directly identified, as a guarantee of their quality, typicality, and origin." -- Consorzio Vini d'Abruzzo

This month, the Vini d’Italia 2022 experience came to Washington DC showcasing 100 wines at the Embassy of Italy, There were also two masterclasses led by journalist and author Lorenzo Ruggeri, the first focusing on Italian wines in general and the second specifically on Pecorino wines from Abruzzo. I attended this second session which compared ten Pecorino wines from ten different producers and from various sub-regions within Abruzzo.

What I discovered was that these wines were able to alleviate the high sugar content and corresponding higher alcohol into crisp, fresh, and acidic wines. In general, they provided a vibrant white flower aroma with degrees of herbaceousness with sage, basil, and thyme. The wines also alternated between a ruby red grapefruit profile and a red delicious apple profile with a major exception being the Pasetti Abruzzo Pecorino Superiore Collecivetta DOP 2020 which had a textured profile of an upside-down pineapple cake laced with melons. The Podere Colle San Massimo Abruzzo Pecorino Colle Dell'Orso DOC 2019 showed the savory side of Pecorino layered with multiple spices. Two that stood out were the Tenuta Terraviva Abruzzo Pecorino Terraviva DOC 2021 and the Tenuta I Fauri Abruzzo Pecorino DOC 2020. The first is from a small organic grower located very close to the Adriatic so this wine is a little riper with a floral aroma, savory red apples, some herbaceousness, and energetic acidity.  The second is from the first female winemaker in the Consorzio Vini d'Abruzzo and is from the Chieti sub-region. This wine also provides savory fruit and the accustomed herbaceousness but is saline driven based on the clay calcareous soils of their vineyards. Both of these are evidently priced near six euros, so you don't need to spend much to obtain quality Abruzzo Pecorino. Saluti. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

A Tasting To Remember at Krauthaker Vineyards and Winery

Wine lovers are well aware of the 45th parallel North - the line halfway between the equator and the North Pole - that runs through many of the world's predominant wine regions: Bordeaux, Rhine Valley, Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto, Oregon, and Michigan. Less well-known is that this demarcation runs through Croatia at the Istria peninsula and at our current focus: the Požega Valley in Slavonia. Winemaking has occurred in this valley near Kutjevo since the Illyrians, Celts, and Romans and continues today through the efforts of the Krauthaker family through the endeavors of the legendary Vlado Krauthaker. During our recent visit to the winery, we gained an even greater appreciation for their operation through a tasting and dinner which lasted over five hours and reached 33 wines and brandy from the tank, bottle, and barrel.

In 1976, Vlado Krauthaker came to Kutjevo from Slovenia and began working at the historic Kutjevo - Winery 1232 - today the largest producer in Croatia and also claims the oldest working cellar in Europe. For 18 years (14 as the chief oenologist) he worked at this wine-cooperative championing Graševina and Slavonian wine. Eventually, he left the comfort of that position and planted one hectare of vines and launched Krauthaker Vineyards and Winery. Although he still admires Slavonian Graševina (Grape Spotlight: Slavonian Graševina with Krauthaker Winery) he has planted 43 other grape varieties and expanded the estate to 50 hectares while also operating and overseeing 65 hectares of cooperative vineyards. 

These vineyards are located on the southern slopes of the Krndija Mountain at elevations of 200 and 300 meters. The slopes and the Požega Valley were recognized as a winegrowing land by the Illyrians and the ancient Romans called it the "Golden Valley" (Vallis Aurea). This golden valley is known for viticulture not only because of the angle of the sun at 45 degrees longitude; but also because the valley was part of the Pannonian Sea and consists of sandy soils containing fossilized sea creatures. At Krauthaker, they fertilize this nutrient-poor soil with manure and work the vineyards using horse labor as has been the tradition for centuries. 

Whereas Vlado continues to oversee the vineyards, his daughter Martina is now responsible for the winemaking and together they have accelerated innovations in the cellar. Vlado had introduced the use of amphora in the mid-2000s and now they utilize egg-shaped wooden barrels to allow the lees to circulate in the wine without any dead spots. They also innovate in the vineyard, planting 44 grape varieties with many used solely for experimentation in the cellar. That being said, Graševina has the largest share of total production at 22%. 

During our visit, we are initially greeted by Martina and her cousin Ivan - both having been raised in the vineyards and cellars and understanding the complete history and processes of the winery. We first visited the 12-year-old new production area and cellar - housing thousands of liters of wine settling in stainless steel, amphora, and various-sized barrels. Tasting a few Graševinas from the tank allowed us to attest to their freshness, minerality, almonds, and bright fruit profiles. 

We then traveled to their tasting room and initial cellar to start the marathon tasting. Ivan had pulled a lineup of wines starting with the refreshing and aromatic charmat-made Julija 2021 - a sparkling wine blend of Muscat Ottonel and Zelenac (Rotgipfler). This last grape (a natural crossing of Traminer and Roter Veltliner) was the basis for a most interesting wine - the 2020 Krauthaker Zelenac Kutjevo (82 HRK).  It is green and nutty but the slightly bitter profile is complemented by strong floral notes and significant tannins.  Later that evening, Ivan introduced us to the 2016 Krauthaker Kuvlakhe - an amber wine that rested 90 days on its skins in amphora. In 2009, this had been the winery's first amphora wine and the first label on the Croatian market free of sulfur. The 2016 has a great mouthfeel, structured, with a solid tannin backbone 

As for Graševina, we started with the 2021 Podgorje Graševina (65 HRK), which is bright with almonds and green apples, but was overshadowed by the savory 2020 Graševina Mitrovac (77 HRK). The grapes for this wine were harvested from the estate's oldest vineyards (35-55 years old) about two weeks after the Podgorje. The wine sits 10 months on lees developing complexity, texture, and showing more stone fruits. Over dinner, we sampled two more Graševina wines starting with the 2020 Krauthaker Graševina Kasna Serba (100 HRK) - a late harvest wine with layers of apricots, honey, and candied fruit. This was followed by the 2019 Krauthaker Graševina Izborna Berba Prosušenih Bobica (100 HRK) - another delicious dessert wine made with botrytis grapes.

There were plenty of red wines as well -- not surprisingly a few Frankovka and Pinot Noir. More unanticipated was a Nebbiolo, Syrah, Muskat riza (Red Muscat), Mercs (Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon blend). These were all excellent wines, truly representative of the respective grapes and region. 

It was not only a pleasure meeting Vlado Krauthaker - but a lifetime of memories of spending so much time with the wine-making legend as well as Martina and Ivan. We will be posting quite often in the future about these wines and any we find through Croatian Premium Wine Imports. They currently have the 2019 Podgorje Graševina in stock. 

Thursday, June 16, 2022

White Wines from Portugal's Alentejo Wine Region

I'm rather excited about receiving these six white wines from Portugal's Alentejo wine region -- a region of rolling plains that covers more than 30% of Portugal and is the largest in the country. Alentejo is located a 90-minute car ride to the east of Lisbon and is a hot and dry Mediterranean climate influenced more by the continent than by the Atlantic Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea. Since Portugal has the highest density of native grapes per square mile of any country in the world, it's no surprise that there are plenty of autochthonous grapes in Alentejo like Antão Vaz, Arinto, Viosinho, and Fernão Pires. The region is also home to many international white grape varieties such as Roupeiro (Malvasia), Verdelho, Vermentino, and Viognier. 

The Alentejo DOC consists of eight sub-regions: Borba, Évora, Granja-Amareleja, Moura, Portalegre, Redondo, Reguengos and Vidigueira. In general, these sub-regions share a common soil structure alternating between schist, clay, marble, granite and limestone. Borba, Évora, Redondo and Reguengos are the core of Alenejo's identity where the wines display a balance between freshness and fruit, intensity and softness. The sub-regions of Granja-Amareleja, Moura and Vidigueira are located in the southern areas of the appellation where the climate is harsher and soils more nutrient-poor. Wines from this region are softer with more minerality.  Portalegre is the most unique sub-region, with predominantly granite soils, and influenced by the Serra de São Mamede. Vines are planted on the steep slopes of the mountain and benefit from a microclimate that delivers both freshness and complexity.

Culturally, Alentejo has experienced the influences of numerous civilizations from the Phoenicians, Greeks, Celts, Romans, and Moors. The Phoenicians introduced the knowledge of writing (the Iberian script is based on the Phoenician’s), the potter’s wheel, and contributed to expanding the arts of agriculture, navigation and iron metallurgy in the Iberian Peninsula (Phoenicians and Greeks in the Iberian Peninsula).  The Celts perhaps introduced brewing to the region with archaeological evidence showing beer production over 2.5 - 3 thousand years ago. The basis for the Latin cremor,  Portuguese cerveja, and Spanish cerveza is thought to be the Proto-Celtic word kormi.  The Romans had the largest impact on viticulture and wine made in Alentejo was perhaps the first export of Portuguese wines to Rome.  The marks of Roman civilization are still noticeable over two thousand years later with the continued use of trimmer or clay jars for the fermentation of musts and the storage of wine. And the conquest by the Moors did not completely eliminate these practices and the remnants of that civilization can be seen in the numerous castles, Muslim mosques, and walls built to protect the cities. 

I started my tasting with two Colheita wines, each from the Reguengos and Évora sub-regions. According to their website, Herdade do Esporão, the boundaries of the estate were first established in 1267 and have been unaltered since then. They have 450 hectares of vines planted with 194 grape varieties, 37 of which are in full production. In 1973, José Roquette and Joaquim Bandeira bought the property because the Reguengos sub-region "ensures wines that were full-bodied but elegant and both big and seductive, thanks to a mix of very poor, stony soils and a harsh climate".  The first wine was produced in 1985 using the brand name Esporão. The Esporão Colheita Branco 2021 ($18) is made from organically and estate-grown Antão Vaz, Viosinho, and Vermentino grapes that were partially fermented in concrete tanks. After fermentation, the wine was left on the fine lees for 4 months.  The wine is very complex with a tropical nose, lemon and stone fruitson the velvety palate, and a spicy, funky, lasting finish 

Évora shares a common topography as Reguengos' continental climate wth the soils derived from schist and clay-limestone. In 1989 João Portugal Ramos planted five hectares of vines in Estremoz after almost a decade as a consultant oenologist which had culminated in establishing his winemaking consultancy business Consulvinus. He chose Estremoz to make his own wines after working in all the main wine-growing regions of Portugal. The first wines were produced in rental facilities which established the Vila Santa brand. In 1997, the construction of the Vila Santa winery in Estremoz commenced as did the birth of the Marquês de Borba Reserva brand, with the Colheita label following the next year.  According to the winery, "the label remains the strongest brand in the group showing unwavering consistency year after year". 

The Marques de Borba Colheita White 2020 was assisted by João Maria Ramos as two of his five children have continued the family business. This wine is a blend of Arinto, Antão Vaz, and Viognier from hand-harvested grapes that were fermented in stainless steel tanks. The result is a wine showing white flowers and citrus aroma, white stone fruit, and minerality, with a structured and lasting finish. Most impressive.

Notes on the Grapes:

Antão Vaz: Versatile, perfumed and shows great solo or blended, Antão Vaz is Alentejo’s white star. This hot-climate variety is highly resistant to drought and disease, producing consistently reliable yields which ripen evenly.

Arinto: Alentejo's best white blending variety, thanks to its exuberant acidity. Discreet aroma. Green apple, lemon, and lime freshness and mineral notes. Arinto has large leaves for shading and super-high acidity, making it well suited to the hot Alentejo climate.

Viosinho:  Grown primarily in northern Portugal, it makes a full-bodied wine that adds structure and acidity to a blend along with floral and stonefruit flavors. Its wines are often described as having notes of apricots and peaches

Monday, June 13, 2022

Historic Wine Cellars of Slavonia, Croatia

The Slavonia (including the Danube) wine region is the largest both in hectares of vines and in the quantity of wine produced. It encompasses the easternmost region of Croatia where vines have been planted since before the Romans. After the fall of Rome, Cistercian monks brought winemaking to the Slavonia region in the early 13th century and after the Ottoman occupation, settlers quickly reinstituted viticulture. This led to the restoration of existing cellars but also the creation of new cellars as the culture of wine-growing and wine production expanded. During our recent tour of the region with Croatian Premium Wine Imports and The Passionate Foodie we visited over a dozen wineries and discovered several historic wine cellars. 

Kutjevo - Winery 1232
As the name suggests, the cellar for this winery was established in 1232 when Cistercian monks founded the Vallis Honesta de Gotho abbey. The cellar is a true witness to history with the Ottoman rule from 1526 to 1691, the 1741 dalliance between Empress Maria Theresa and Baron Franjo Trenk engraved into the cellar, restoration by the Jesuits, further restoration and investment by Baron Turković from 1882 to 1945, and post Communism, the purchase by the current owners: Božjakovina, Ltd. Many of these stories are inscribed in wine barrels deep into the cellar.  During our visit, we sampled a bottle of the Kutjevo Graševina (8 Euros) - a best seller from Croatia's oldest and most prolific wineries. The wine is fresh with green apples and almonds and noticeable minerality.  


Enosophia (formerly Feravino)
The cellar, located in Feričanci, was built in 1804 with the founding of a winery by the Mihalovićs -- a Croatian noble family from eastern Croatia. The Fericeva region (western Osijek-Baranja County) is known for its Graševina and Frankovka (Blaufrankish) and shares a similar tradition as Villany Hungary.  The current winery was established in the 1960s, privatized as an independent company in 1996, and in 2015 merged with the current owners Osilovac d.o.o. The Old Cellar is still utilized and is used for aging red wines, like the Miraz Frankovka (70 Kuna).  This is a nice representation of Blaufrankish with fresh cherries, a slight peppery spice, and hints of vanilla and chocolate on the finish. 

Ilok Cellars
Ilok is a city and region located in the far eastern end of Croatia - adjacent to the Danube and surrounded by Serbia except for a sliver of territory to the west. Grape growing has survived since the Illyrian times -- event before the Romans.  In 1450, Nikola of Ilok (1) built a 100-meter-long wine cellar underneath his castle, which itself was built on the foundations of the former Roman fortress Cuccium.  Wine production continued under the Ottoman occupation (1526 - 1688) and in 1697, the castle and significant properties around Ilok were granted to the Italian aristocratic Odescalchi family.  They expanded the wine cellar and in 1710, the Odescalchis planted the first Gewürztraminer vines in the area on the unique single vineyard appellation – Principovac. (This is the site of the grand Odescalchi summer residence castle.)  These Traminer grapes became the foundation for the famous 1947 Traminer vintage which was served at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. During the Homeland War, the remaining bottles of this vintage, as well as the existing 8,000 library wines were saved from destruction by an innovative winery employee who build a false wall into the cellar. Wine that was not hidden was stolen and distilled into brandy by the Serbians.  During our visit, we sampled several of the Iok Cellars wines and highly recommend the current vintages of Traminer - particularly the Premium Traminac 2020 (70 Kuna). The wine is dry with the accustomed string floral aroma, and a full-bodied, citrus, and stone fruit profile

(1) Nicholas of Ilok was a Ban of Croatia, Slavonia, Dalmatia, and Macsó; Voivode of Transylvania; and titular King of Bosnia from 1471 until his death. A member of the Iločki noble family, he was one of the richest landowners in the Kingdom of Hungary and Croatia and one of its most influential magnates. He served under four kings of Hungary: Albert, Vladislaus I, Ladislaus V, and Matthias I.

Erdut Vineyards
Erdut is a small peninsula formed by the Danube River about 45 miles upstream from Ilok. This winery sets its founding in 1730 when Baron Johann Baprista Maximilian Zuany constructed the Old cellar - the oldest in the region.  In 1778 Ivan Kapistran I. Adamovich de Csepin purchased the estate and in the mid-1800s Fanny Adamovich Čepinska and her husband Ervin Cseh were the first family members to live in the manor. While touring the Old Cellar we learned an interesting story where Ervin built five large barrels, all functional except one in which he had built a card-playing parlor. He would play for days -- safely hidden from his wife Franny.  Currently, Erdutski vinogradi d.o.o is part of the Agro-Industrial Combine Osijek (IPK Osijek) and has become the largest plantation vineyard in Croatia at  490 hectares. The Old Cellar houses sparkling wine which should become available on the market sometime soon. In the meantime, Graševina is the dominant variety planted on 280 hectares, and one version is aged in the world's largest wine barrel (75,000 liters). the Graševina 2020 (25 Kuna) is fresh with a soft body and noticeable green apples and citrus.

Belje Winery
This winery is located in Baranya - a Hungarian word meaning "the mother of wine" - and operates two facilities in or near the village of Kneževi Vinogradi. Their Old Cellar is the largest old cellar in Slavonia and was dug into the hill in the center of the village.  It was first mentioned in 1526 in the descriptions of the Battle of Mohács where it was used as a stable. 170 years later Prince Eugene of Savoy was awarded an estate between the Danube and Drava rivers after his victory over the Turks at the Battle of Zenta in 1697. From that time the Old Cellar was expanded to three floors spanning 1,200 square meters. It holds wooden barrels made of Slavonian oak from the forests of Spačva and a wine archive containing 20,000 samples, with the oldest bottle, a Cabernet Franc, dating back to 1949.  The wines from Vina Belje were very impressive, particularly those from their Premium and Goldberg brands. That being said, their Premium Pinot Noir 2015 (75 Kuna) is excellent with integrated fruit (red and black fruit), a fresh mouthfeel, and structured tannins. 

Monday, June 6, 2022

Exploring Zagreb County and Its Culture, History, and Wine

I wish I had known last year, but Croatia's capital is surrounded by historical medieval towns, wine roads, and a gastronomical paradise. These are all easily accessible from a short drive from Zagreb and available for research through the Zagreb County Tourist Board. Within this parameter, I was able to spend time in the Turopolje region to the south and Plešivica to the west.  Each of these regions share many cultural identities but are also quite unique and in both instances, I would recommend starting with the Muzej Turopolja in Velika Gorica and the Samobor Museum in Samobor. 

Turopolje & Velika Gorica 

Velika Gorica is the unofficial capital of Turopolje and is situated only 16 kilometers from Zagreb and just south of the Franjo Tuđman Airport.  In Old Slavonic, Turopolje means "bull field" or "field of bulls" so expect to see murals of bulls within the city. Start at the Muzej Turopolja to receive an overview of the region's history and culture where you will learn about Andautonia (the seat of an Illyrian tribe and a Roman municipality), the Turopolje pig (an indigenous breed where the first written record dates back to 1352), the Coat of Arms of numerous noble families in the Free City, and the Turopolje wooden architecture -  whether for housing or wooden chapels. I didn't get to visit any wooden chapels but according to the tourist board, "the wooden chapel of St. Barbara in Velika Mlaka is the most attractive and certainly the most representative example of wooden church architecture in Croatia".  However, the Muzej Turopolja provides an interactive display showing the German or Croatian joints used for building these structures. As for craft beverages, plan a tasting of brandies and gin at Brigljevic Distillery, or ask around for homemade wine or rakija. I was fortunate enough to have a tour of the private vineyards of Nikola Hrvacic and taste his award-winning Vermouth. 


Samobor is a picturous medieval town located west of Zagreb on the eastern slopes of the Samobor hills which separate Slovenia from Croatia. It has played a significant role in Croatia's national identity starting with it becoming a free royal town in 1242 as established by King Béla IV of Hungary.  The Samobor Museum documents this and many other instances of promoting the Croatian language and identity in a town located at the crossroads of the Austrian Empire. This might also explain why there are so many items designated by the EU or UN as culturally and historically significant to Croatia. This includes the aromatized wine Samoborski Bermet and Muštarda -- a sweet and spicy sauce made from local mustard seeds and sweet grape must  (See Samoborski Bermet - Croatia's First Protected Aromatized Wine). There's also the light and creamy Samoborska kremšnita, crystal,  and the Gingerbread and Licitar Hearts which are on the list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Licitars are hard, sweet, decorated biscuits that in Croatia are heart-shaped and painted red, then decorated with pictures, small mirrors, and verses or messages.

Plešivica Wine Road

The majority of our time was spent visiting wineries along the Plešivica Wine Road (the smallest wine region in Croatia) from our base at the Princess Hotel in Jastrebarsko -- 25 km south of Samobor. In two days we managed to visit 6 of the 35 wineries on the wine road starting with the highly regarded Korak Family Estate Winery. This is a family estate, run by the 4th and 5th generations of grape growers and located on a family home and farmhouse that dates from 1900.  Velimir Korak currently operates the winery along with his youngest son Josip. Across multiple estates throughout Plešivica, they grow Rhine Riesling, Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Portuguese with most of the estates situated between 350m to 400m above sea level and separated from Slovenia by the Žumberak and Samobor Mountains. The family has also been instrumental in developing Plešivica as a gastronomic destination as a result of Michelin star chef, and older son, Bernard Korak returning home to open the farm-to-table Korak Restaurant within the renovated winery. We tasted through most of their portfolio which includes still, sparkling, and amphora amber wines starting with the Sparkling Rose and Blanc de Blanc. Both are elegant and refreshing with a bottle of the Sparkling Pinot Noir ready to be opened here at home. I also really enjoyed the 2021 Sauvignon Blanc, 2020 Rhine Riesling, and the 2019 Križevac & Cimbuščak Pinot Noir - the latter a blend from two different estates.  This was an eye-opening experience that introduced us to the prevalence and quality of these grape varieties in Plešivica.

Robert Braje's Winery is situated in a valley surrounded by vineyards, near Jastrebarsko, and the rustic, wooden tasting room is a destination itself. The family has an interesting pedigree story to tell in that during the 1950s, Robert's Grandfather discovered a wine competition in Zagreb and created a homemade label for his homemade wine. After being awarded a diploma (medal), authorities threw him in jail because he was not authorized to produce wine. Fortunately, he was released rather quickly as there was no real regulation that he had violated. This award-winning winemaking was on display during our visit as we tasted several of Robert's wines while his wife Sanda served us Soparnik, a traditional Croatian dish of savory pie with fresh cheese and herbs.  The tasting started with a mystery wine, Veltlinac Cirveni, which we later determined to be Roter Veltliner. This Austrian grape has been planted in Plešivica for at least 300 years and makes a light wine with a noticeable floral aroma and plenty of acidity. Next, we were presented with solid representations of Pinot Sivi (Gris) and Rhine Riesling -- tart, citrus, and minerally driven for the first; full mouthfeel and structure for the second.  Finally, we tasted another Pinot Noir which strengthened our conviction of the quality of this varietal wine in Plešivica. The 2018 Pinot Crni was fermented in an open barrel and spent 12 months in small used barrels. This is an elegant wine that starts with velvety slightly tart cherries, texture, and firm tannins. Excellent. 

Šember is a three-generation family winery farming various estates in Pjenusac and with an extensive sparkling wine portfolio.  The winery is currently run by Zdenko Šember and his wife Ivanka with his parents (Ružica and Stjepan) passing along their experience to the younger generation -- Nikola, Lucija, and Klara.  The family began releasing wine under their own label in 1991, their first sparkling wine in 1997, and their first amphora wine in 2011. Always innovating. We started with the delicious Šember Brut Rosé - a fruity raspberry and effervescent Pinot Noir. This was followed by the Šember Pjenusac Brut, a traditionally made Blanc de Blanc but using Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, and Plavec Žuti - the latter providing increased acidity.  Expect pears, green apples, and yeasty bread. The final sparkling wine was the 2018 Pavel, a label created only in the best of years, This is a blend of Chardonnay (90) and Plavec Žuti (10) and is exceptional. Moving to the still wines, we started with the dry 2019 Rhine Riesling which provides a complex arrangement of grapefruit, other citrus, and green apples. The skin-contact amphora 2017 Rhine Riesling followed that had a bigger mouthfeel, and more tannins, but remained considerably fresh. Once again an incredibly elegant Pinot Noir rounded out our tasting with the 2018 Pinot Crni. This is a fresh wine where the grapes were planted on south-facing slopes and benefited from cool nights. The barrel aging in a combination of new and used French oak, elevated its profile without hampering the cherry flavors.

Jagunic Winery is a 4th generation wine-making team situated at the top of a small hill with broad views of the surrounding vineyards. The three Jagunic brothers currently farm eight estate locations located within a kilometer radius of the winery.  Our host, Dominik Jagunic, says all grapes are hand-harvested and they focus on producing sparkling and amber wines. These styles were on display with the traditional method Three Stars Brut - a blend of Chardonnay, indigenous varieties, and Rhine Reisling from three estate locations. Tropical and stone fruits with an extended finish. The Blanc de Noirs followed with its interestingly fresh tart cherries and slight smokiness spanning a great mouthfeel. The La Bulle Rose is a 70-30 blend of Blauer Portugieser and Pinot Noir and was the lightest and most refreshing of the three. We then turned to their Amber Selection starting with the 2020 Pinot Sivi which spent six months with skin contact in seven-year-old barrels and quickly moving to the 2020 Pinot Crni. Both are solid wines with plenty of character. The final wine was the 2020 Amber Selection Traminac Crveni which showcases a strong floral aroma that elevates into an apricot, kiwi, and herbaceous profile. A very smooth mouthfeel. These wines were also accompanied by a feast prepared by Dominik's mother of beef soup, salad, homemade bread, and a tray of veal neck and chicken stuffed with cheese and ham. Complete fulfillment.

Our final stop in Plešivica was at Kolarič Winery, a family winery that also includes 16 guest rooms for weary travelers.  Franjo Kolarič has eight hectares of estate grapes in the Sveta Jana winegrowing region and sources from another 15 hectares of cooperatives. He focuses on Pinot Grigio and created the Coletti label specifically for his upper-tier wines which is the Italian version of the family name. He also uses four 1,200 liter amphora vessels for amber wine production. The Coletti Amfora Pinot Grigio 2019 was an example of this style that spent one year on skins with a full-bodied, complex mouthfeel buttressed by chewy tannins. The Coletti Amfora Pinot Grigio 2020 is lighter with the addition of 20% Traminac.  The Coletti Pinot Grigio Classic is their best seller, spends all its time in stainless steel, and is fresh with plenty of grapefruit notes. The 2019 Coletti Grande Grigio spent two years in eight-year-old Slavonian oak and has a much richer mouthfeel and a longer finish. The most interesting Pinot Grigio was the Coletti Francesco Grande which uses wine from three vintages 2019-2021 and shows complex minerality and herbaceousness.  And to follow the Pinot Noir trend Franjo provided us samples of his 2018 Coletti Pinot Nero and NV Coletti Sparkling Rose. The 2018 is excellent after spending three years in French oak has a balanced mouthfeel with a chewy texture, and some vanilla to counter the fresh cherries. The sparkling rose is fresh showing tart cherries and a lasting effervescence.