Wines of Croatia: A visit to Konavle

Konavle Wine MapWhen traveling internationally I often find myself in the market aisles trying to make heads or tails of the offerings they have available. Such was the case last week in Cavtat where I came across a few rosés. Given I was on the shores of the Adriatic and seafood was on the mind this of course had appeal. In checking the labels I found one from the local southern Dalmatian region of Konavle which I had earlier read about. I had scanned the nearby mountain side and wondered how they could make wines from grape exposed to so much sun. Only later did I learn that a mere 20km or south of Dubrovnik a small sets of hills rise near the sea creating a small valley that traces down towards the border with Montenegro.

The rose mentioned above was made out of kadarun, an autochthonous varietal from Konavle which as least one believes could make a nice, light summer red which is something Croatia currently lacks (Editor’s note: though the recent rosé of Plavac Mali I had from Vinarija Bartulovic is a nice substitute). This is just a sampling from my very enjoyable conversation with Ivo Ivaniš which also covered natural wine (really just turning the clock back to what Ivo’s grandfather did), his career as a wine taster and the best use of oak (and from which country) in the wine making process .

Dubrovacki Podrumi tasting roomThat wine, which I bought by the way, was made by Dubrovacki Podrumi. One of the 8 or 9 wineries that call this region home. Dubrovacki Podrumi was originally founded in 1876 but despite its history it is going through somewhat of a rebirth. For many years, under Communist rule, the winery was controlled by the government where the focus was on quantity not quality. This was followed by the destruction levied by the Homeland War in the early 1990’s. It wasn’t until 2002 that the winery was again privatized. When Ivo’s brother became a shareholder in the newly privatized Dubrovacki Podrumi he returned to Croatia from the Netherlands where he had lived for the past 16 years.

Dubrovacki Podrumi MerlotinaAnd with that the pendulum swung to quality not quantity. Ivo was brought on as a consultant, along with Jan van Lissum, for the top label of wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Plavac Mali produced from 40 year old vines. Each of these wines sees a combination of Croatian, Hungarian and French oak (new and used). After spending time in the barrel it usually finishes aging in stainless steel or large casks prior to bottling. I had a chance to taste each and came away impressed. The Cabernet (Trajectum) is soft and smooth, the Plavac Mali has juicy, dark fruits with lasting, smooth tannins and the Merlot (Merlotina) is one anybody who claims not to the like the grape should be made to try. I am generally not a fan (and wasn’t swayed just because Ivo’s twitter handle is @merlotina) but was stunned by the depth, the fruit. In a word “opulent”. Looking forward to spending some more time with this one as I left the winery with a bottle in hand.

And while the top end impressed, the standard offerings held up nicely especially given their $5-$7 price point in local markets. In addition to the rosé I had a chance to taste the Malvasija Dubrovacka (fuller bodied than those from Istria) and Crljenak Kaštelanski (one of the parents of Zinfandel). And this level of quality has been true of nearly all of the wines I’ve tasted over the last two weeks. Stateside they are more likely to run you $10-$15 but consider giving one a try. Better yet visit the Dubrovnik area (it’s stunning!) and be sure to take a break from the beaches and history to taste some vino!

How about you? Have you tried Croatian wine? If so what’s your favorite? Any tips to share?