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An introduction to Croatian wine – Embracing Heritage (1)



Leading wine expert Sasa Spiranec provides an overview of Croatia’s most notable domestic wines. His article is presented in three posts.  Below is the first.

Autochthonous Croatian varieties have gone through difficult times. The eighties and nineties and even the beginning of the 21st century were ruthless, merciless. Any renewal of vineyards in those years generally led to their destruction. Grasevina was pulled out, Chardonnay was planted. Plavina was removed, Syrah as well. Teran was replaced with Cabernet Sauvignon. The appeal of celebrated international varieties, inspired by movies and literature, was irresistible.

The awkwardness of heritage was intolerable. Everyone, most likely, believed that by copying world renowned wine sorts made by the likes of Mondavi or Rothschild, they too would be successful. Unfortunately, this trend was accepted by the audience as well. Wine with two French phrases on the label seemed tastier than the Grasevina our grandparents used to carry to the fields in a wicker basket with a bottle of mineral water. The hope for a better life and longing for the west have resulted in a kind of caricature imitation, so the growers, rather than copy the relationship between developed wine regions and their wine heritage, just copied their varieties. Form, rather than content.

Fortunately, this infatuation with better foreign wines is now waning. Due to the growing popularity of wine, a true understanding of this remarkable nectar has also grown, and in every corner of the planet it tells a different story. What is the antipode of standardization and globalization? The opposite of Coca-Cola and beer.

A growing awareness of the importance of good food influenced the growth of wine awareness. In the last decade a new generation of self-aware wine makers and wine lovers has grown. A generation of those who created their opinion based on their own experience. Those better educated and less impressed, using what they learned from the west and from studying at home. Sceptical and concerned.  Open- minded and curious. Those who are constantly questioning the general dogma, and their own attitudes.

Suddenly the popularity of Chardonnay was waning, and that of the once despised Malvasia was on the rise.  Posip, a recently endemic variety of the island of Korcula, is now being planted throughout Dalmatia and expressly assumes the third place among most important Croatian white varieties, behind, also local, Grasevina and Malvasia. Planting new vineyards, crushing rocks and farming land in strange locations is no longer of interest and the positions where the vineyards once stood are becoming increasingly popular, because the millennial experience of our grandparents is in all practicality a safe bet.

Faith in the good taste of our ancestors becomes faith in our own good taste, and recently that general underestimation of heritage is present only in the most seriously ignorant. Despite the crisis, which has shaken the stability of the wine business in general and reduced consumption, domestic varieties are going through a period of psychological revalorization.

The clamours of far-sighted wine experts for the evaluation of traditional varieties in vineyards weren’t previously heard by most. This opinion began to slowly change only after several years of disbelief and the observation of pioneers in the fight with the windmills, and only with the first real success of Malvasia. However, the first real impetus for domestic wines came from the outside; it was only then that these wines gained international recognition.

In fact, in recent years, since Croatia has started exporting and promoting wines, renowned wine critics and journalists have shown a much greater interest in local Croatian varieties than those of international origin. For example, Oz Clarck, one of the greatest wine authorities of the day, said that the Grasevina from the Danube valley or Kutjevo is better than any other Welschriesling or Italian Riesling in the world. For Malvasia he said that it could be the next big thing of European wine-making; Kozlovic Malvasias are a confirmation of that.

His Santa Lucia from 2008 scored a phenomenal 95 points and Santa Lucia from 2001 scored 94 points. Ilocka Grasevina won a gold medal at the IWC and Decanter, while Kutjevo and Bodren have regularly been receiving awards for a full decade in various competitions throughout Europe.

These signals, transmitted from the wine capitals of the world, made a much stronger impact in Croatia than in places where they were delegated – on export markets. Exporting is still in its infancy and will probably still require many years of persistent work until the right results are achieved, but at home the relationship towards domestic wines and local wines has changed dramatically.

The wine lists in restaurants have experienced a Copernican revolution. The share of domestic and imported wines is exactly reversed with respect to only a decade ago, and the share of imported wine on average does not exceed 25% of the wine list.  Restaurant sommeliers now proudly recommend Grasevina or Babic. The age of embarrassment has vanished permanently.

Written by: Sasa Spiranec

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