Croatia, Zinfandel Home, Prepares to Join World Wine Battle

When Croatia was part of Yugoslavia, government policies forced farmers to rip out more than 160,000 hectares of vineyards. Ethnic conflicts in the 1990s destroyed thousands more.

Now, with about 33,000 hectares under vines — still more than double the amount of New Zealand — Croatia is looking to fight its way into a saturated global market when it enters the European Union in 2013. Currently, Croatia exports only 5 percent of its 60 million liters annual production, which helps explain why Croatians are third overall in wine consumption.

The discovery that popular California varietal zinfandel was a variant of Croatia’s plavac mali (“little blue”), helped focus attention on a country that once made 650 different wines from 130 varietals.

Another catalyst was Miljenko Grgic, who left Yugoslavia in 1958 and made his fortune as one of California’s premier winemakers under the name Mike Grgich. He returned to help modernize Croatian wineries, opening his own, Grgic Vina, in 1996.

The change from cheap bulk wine to modern viticulture has been rapid, with stainless-steel tanks introduced only in the 1990s. The burgeoning industry is full of youthful enthusiasm, typified by winemakers like 32-year-old Bruno Trapan, from the Istrian peninsula, who invested in the business in 2004 after taking a college winemaking course two years earlier.

“I had no wine knowledge before getting into making it,” said Trapan. “My grandfather planted grapes in a tiny vineyard as a hobby and I was interested. After two vintages making my own wine, I was hooked.”

Organic First

By 2005 he had purchased 5 hectares and planted a year later, experimenting with international varietals like syrah, never before grown in Croatia. By 2009, Trapan’s was the country’s first organic winery, now with 12 hectares producing everything from traditional malvasia to new entries like chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon.

I spoke with Trapan and two other Croatian vintners over a dinner of lobster, crab cakes, steaks and onion rings at New York’s Porter House.

Trapan’s white Ponente Malvasia Istriana 2010, never aged in oak, had a lovely, bold aromatic nose, which came from seven hours of grape-skin contact, and an ample 13.5 percent alcohol. The 2009 syrah had an odd smell at first, but a little evaporation revealed a Rhone-like varietal character rather than the Australian shiraz style.

Porter House’s wine director, Roger Dagorn, (one of only 180 master sommeliers in the world) stocks a 2008 Dingac plavac mali ($65 retail) from Croatia’s southern coast.

‘Not All Great’

“The few Croatian wines I’ve tasted are not all great,” he said. “But I’m fond of the plavac mali for its unique, Old World earthy character, which is very pleasurable to the American palate. It has good structure, body and fruit, and enough acidity to give it balance.”

I felt the same way about this big-bodied wine with 15 percent alcohol, from the Saints Hills Winery, founded in 2006. Made in low yields, the wine gets plenty of minerality from the steep terraced vineyards in Dalmatia.

Dingac is one of the rare, cherished appellations, dating back to 1961, when Croatia was part of Yugoslavia. Saints Hills is owned by Ernest Tolj, 40, a wealthy entrepreneur and chairman of Eurocable Group, who named his vineyards after his children, Lucia, Roko and Ante, and who hired Bordeaux enologist Michel Rolland as a consultant.

Bottled History

Of all the wines I tasted that evening, the Matosevic Winery Alba Antiqua 2008 ($23) had the most viticultural history behind it. Owner Ivica Matosevic, 47, now considered a visionary in the wine industry, took a degree in landscaping and horticulture at the University of Zagreb, followed by a Ph.D. in Biotechnology in Italy, focusing on the potential of terroir.

Matosevic returned to Croatia in 1996 at a crucial point in the industry’s redevelopment, as director for Istria’s institute for managing natural protected areas. He bottled his own first vintage that year. In 2011 he established the association of Croatian wine producers to represent family estates and small producers.

His Alba Antiqua is 100 percent malvasia istriana, with 12.7 percent alcohol, and with an unusual, highly floral aroma that I learned comes from aging it in acacia barrels.

Matosevic’s Grimalda White 2009 was a blend of 50 percent chardonnay, 25 percent malvasia istriana, and 25 percent sauvignon blanc, a very low-yield wine that showed the triple punch of those grapes — the rich buttery taste of chardonnay, the floral notes of malvasia and the vegetal flavors of sauvignon blanc.

The Grimalda Red 2009, at a robust 15 percent alcohol, was a blend of 85 percent merlot and 15 percent teran, an acidic varietal that gives a coppery edge to the soft merlot. U.S. retail prices for these two wines aren’t available.

While Porter House was filled that night with people drinking Bordeaux and California cabs, I was happy to sip malvasia istriana with my lobster salad and the Dingac with the sliced steak. And with onion rings, that Croatian syrah really hit the spot.