We read an article recently in a reputable publication that proclaimed Zinfandel as California’s “heritage grape,” and went on to describe this grape varietal as “a quintessentially American phenomenon. It’s zesty, rugged and loud, challenging to rear, a lover of barbecue.” This characterization of Zinfandel is not uncommon and we have even heard more casual wine consumers refer to Zinfandel as “American’s wine grape.” As charming as this characterization is, it does not stand up to reality or, more importantly, science.
The story of original sin involves a fruit and a man named Adam; in his case, the fruit was allegedly an apple. In the case of “original Zin,” a man and a fruit are again involved, but in this case the man is named Miljenko and the fruit is a grape. As Adam was fascinated by the apple, Miljenko Grgic (Americanized to Mike Grgich when he came to this country), had a deep fascination with grapes.
In 1959 Mike Grgich arrived in Napa Valley and started working at Souverain Cellars & Vineyard where he encountered Zinfandel grapes on their property. Studying the canes, leaves, clusters, berry color and size, and, eventually, the juice the grapes produced, Grgich was convinced that Zinfandel was anything but a “quintessentially American phenomenon.” To his eye, Zinfandel and the indigenous Plavac Mali grape from his native Croatia were one and the same. Zinfandel, therefore, originated from his native Croatia. For many years, he steadfastly maintained this conviction and shared it with anyone who would listen.
In 1990 Mike Grgich made his first return trip to Croatia since leaving the country thirty-six years before in 1954. To him, the similarities between Plavac Mali and Zinfandel were still apparent during this trip and he remained convinced they were the same grape varietal. On his next trip, in 1993, Grgich stepped it up a notch and actually took Napa Valley Zinfandel clusters, leaves and canes with him to Croatia to do a literal physical side-by-side comparison. His conclusion? The same grape.
Almost 5 years went by before Grgich took a step that would settle the question once and for all as to the relationship between Plavac Mali and Zinfandel – a step that would prove Grgich both right and wrong. This step involved connecting with Dr. Carole Meredith, a professor in the renowned Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis. Her area of expertise was – and yes, this really is a thing – grape genetics. As a grape geneticist, Dr. Meredith studied the genes of grapes to understand how those genes contribute to making the grapes and vines they way they are. She had a particular interest in the history of wine and understanding where specific grape varietals came from, which made her a perfect investigative partner for Mike Grgich.
In 1998 Carole Meredith and Mike Grgich got together and he shared with her his opinion about Zinfandel and Plavac Mali. This visit inspired Carole to go to Croatia herself that same year to see for herself if she could definitively solve the Zinfandel-Plavac Mali puzzle. She took samples from over 150 Plavac Mali vines from vineyards in the most renowned growing areas of Croatia, including the Peljesac Peninsula (where Mike Grgich has a winery today called Grgic Vina) and the island of Hvar. Upon returning to U.C. Davis with her samples, Dr. Meredith performed a series of genetic tests on them and reached a definitive conclusion: Zinfandel and Plavac Mali were not the same grape. What she did discover through her tests, though, is that these two grapes are related. As she put it, Plavac Mali is the “son” of Zinfandel; in other words, Zinfandel and another grape together produced Plavac Mali. So after nearly 50 years of believing Zinfandel was his native Plavac Mali, Mike Grgich turned out to be wrong. But something interesting would happen soon after that would make him right again, sort of anyway.
Never one to give up, Carole Meredith continued her work, having connected with two professors from the University of Zagreb who were looking for help in using DNA tools to understand better the indigenous Croatian grapes and how they would be impacted by modern development and globalization. The three professors continued to search for the elusive connection to Zinfandel and, lo and behold, they found it! Near the port town of Split on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, nine Crljenak Kastelanski vines were found that DNA testing determined to be a 100% genetic match to Zinfandel. As it turns out, Zinfandel was not Plavac Mali but it was indigenous to Croatia. Subsequent historical research has shown that Croatian Zinfandel (also known as Tribidrag) was planted as far back as the 15th century. What the Italians call Primitivo is also Zinfandel, having originated from the Croatian Tribidrag and been imported to Italy some 200-300 years ago.
We were so intrigued by this story that we made a trip to Croatia in late 2016 and soaked up as much wine and vineyard knowledge as we could. We trudged around the Peljesac Peninsula where Mike Grgich’s beloved Plavac Mali grows on steeps slopes just meters from the sea. Over the course of 2 ½ weeks we tasted dozens of Croatian wines and fell in love with the character, depth, and complexity of their wines. Our favorite? Crljenak Kastelanski (or Tribidrag if that’s easier to pronounce). We loved this wine so much that we are now importing a Crljenak Kastelanski produced by Vina Matela. We recently tasted this wine with an 86-year old winemaker partner and he proclaimed: “This is one of the best wines I’ve ever had.” We have to agree.
Wine consumers that are looking for “California Zin” should ignore the Vina Matela offering as it will not live up to expectations. Frequently fans of California Zinfandel use terms such as “jammy” or “fruit bomb” to describe their favorite wine. Matela’s Crljenak Kastelanski has nice fruit on the nose and the palate but is a much more complex, rich, and balanced wine. Fruit aroma and flavor are matched with a strong earthiness driven by the unique conditions of the mountain soil in which the grapes are grown.
You can purchase Matela Crljenak Kastelanski at www.topochines.com. Click on “Countries” and then “Croatia” to find this wine along with our complete range of white and red Croatian wines for sale. Readers of this blog can enter “Friends15” at checkout for a 15% discount. For those interested in a broader exploration of the Croatian red wines, we also offer two different Plavac Mali wines, one from winemaker Tomic and the other from Edivo. We will provide a deeper review of each of these wines in Croatian Wines, Part III.
For the past year we have been importing and selling a very unique Bordeaux-style wine from Croatia, produced by the Josić winery. We were thrilled when we read a review of this wine on one of our favorite blogs: Strong Coffee to Red Wine. With permission, we are excerpting Rick Dean’s evocative write-up on one of our very favorite Croatian wines.
I found this bottle on Topochines.com, an online wine retailer. I was drawn to them because of their selection of wines from Croatia. The shop also carries smaller offerings of wines from Italy, Spain, France, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and the USA. In 2019 they are adding 8-9 wines from Portugal. The offerings are unique no matter the country of origin, so I’m sure I will be sampling many others as well.
But it was this wine that I most wanted to try. All of the others are from indigenous grapes to Croatia but this one is a blend of recognizable, international grape varieties and I thought that would be a good place to start. The few wines from indigenous grapes are waiting for me in the cooler.
This wine is more accurately an International Red Blend with 35% Cabernet Franc, 35% Syrah, 30% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon. It is the use of Syrah that is not considered a Bordeaux varietal that makes this more of an international blend. Regardless of who’s blend it is, it is flipping delicious.
The color is deep purple. The wine is bone dry with medium-plus acid. The tannins are soft and lingering. The nose is an explosion of aromas. Never have I smelled so much in a wine before. Dried figs predominate followed by bing cherries. Next is the burn of alcohol and a bit of caramel. After a second swirl came sandalwood, sawdust and chocolate covered cherries. And finally, some cooked black fruits. This was such an exceptional smelling experience. I could have kept my nose in the glass for hours.
The flavors on the palate were a bit closed off but enjoyable all the same. Mostly was stewed black fruits like prunes and figs; followed by mild licorice and dark chocolate. The finish was lingering with the soft tannins reasserting themselves.
I am thrilled with this wine and am so glad I chose to make the purchase. I look forward to the wines from Croatia’s indigenous grapes later this winter.
We recently encountered a travel company that has the type of experience in Croatia and surrounding countries that we wish we knew about when we planned our first trip there. www.AdriaticTours.com. Read to the bottom for contact information and to obtain a discount on their services for being a Topochines Vino reader!
Some travel is less intimidating than others. For instance, if we travel to other states in the U.S., this is generally not intimidating because the currency stays the same, everyone speaks the same language, no visa or passport is required, and most of the hotels and airlines are well-known to us. Traveling outside of the U.S. can be more intimidating, but much of Europe feels manageable because of the single currency (Euro), the well-known landmarks (Eiffel Tower, Grand Canal in Venice, Colosseum in Rome, etc.), and the availability of literally hundreds of tour companies and guide books available to make any trip worry-free.
When we decided to go to Croatia at the end of 2016, though, the intimidation factor was pretty high despite the destination being a European country. Although they joined the EU in 2013, Croatia has yet to adopt the Euro as its currency; the Kuna is still its currency of record. Further, our familiarity with the local language is as close to zero as you can get, and their alphabet has a number of unique letters and characters that really threw us off. While there are an increasing number of tourists going to Croatia – drawn by their beautiful beaches, their affiliation with Game of Thrones, and the relatively economical cost of travel – travel resources are not as deep as they would be for Spain, France, Italy or other popular continental destinations.
When we planned our trip, we did so without any assistance beyond what we were able to find out using Google and reading travel blogs. So much of what we read turned out to be nonsense, including the dangers of traveling by car (crooked police pull over foreigners rampantly and give them tickets, while locals pretend to have car trouble and rob tourists who pull over to help). We were literally traveling blind, though, because we did not have much reliable information about the places we wanted to visit or stay. In the end, we managed to have a fantastic trip but we realized that we missed so many beautiful places because, well, we just didn’t know better.
We recently came across a travel company that we wish we had known about when we were planning our first-ever visit to Croatia: Adriatic Travel, started over 44 years ago by Niko Hazdovac, a native of Croatia who moved to the United States. After a career as a merchant marine officer, Niko started Adriatic Travel to provide those with Croatian ancestry a reliable way to visit their homeland or the homeland of their parents and grandparents. Today, Adriatic Travel is still a family run travel agency with deep roots in Croatia as well as surrounding countries.
Adriatic Travel has a wide range of services and experiences for travelers looking to soak in everything Croatia has to offer. For those that prefer to cruise, they offer trips on both sailing ships as well as motorized vessels. Examples of their cruises include:
Venice to Dubrovnik (or vice-versa)
Zadar to Dubrovnik (or vice-versa)
Round-trip from Dubrovnik to Split
Dubrovnik to Porec.
A full list of their Adriatic sea cruises can be found here: Sea Cruises.
For those desiring a bit more adventure on the seas, Adriatic Travel also offers charter cruises priced by the week for small groups of a dozen or so. Longer charter trips come with captain, sailing crew, chef, and waiters to provide a luxurious on-water experience. “Bareboat” charters – those with no crew – are available for those that are bold enough to commandeer their own vessel. Adriatic Travel can set up many different craft charters from catamaran, sail boats, speedboats, and more. More information on their charters can be found here: Charter Cruises.
Of course, not everyone wants to travel by boat when they visit Croatia, especially given the number of sights on land and inland. For travelers who would like to explore the cities in more depth, visit wineries, and tour some of Croatia‘s stunning national parks, Adriatic Travel offers escorted land tours. Some of the most intriguing for us are:
Croatian Food and Wine Tour, which starts in Zagreb and ends in Dubrovnik. In between, travelers will visit several wineries and partake in the delicious local foods.
Dubrovnik to Venice, with stops in beautiful Kotor, Montenegro; a day at the stunning Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia; a visit to Lubljana in Slovenia; ending in the magical city of Venice.
Belgrade to Zagreb, with many exciting stops in between including Montenegro and Slovenia, along with several stunning stops in Croatia.
When we traveled to Croatia we managed to visit Slovenia (for a few hours) and Bosnia & Herzegovina (for two days). Unfortunately, we missed Montenegro and Serbia; next visit we will make sure to visit both countries as we have heard amazing things about them.
In addition to the various tours and excursions we have mentioned, Adriatic Travel also offers assistance with air reservations, car reservations, and one-way transfers and private excursions with driver. We rented our own car but we have to say it would have been much more convenient (and safe!) to have taken advantage of an excursion to visit wine country.
If you are thinking of making a trip to Croatia or any of the Balkan countries (Slovenia, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia), consider Adriatic Travel. You can contact Peter Hazdovac at firstname.lastname@example.org. Friends of Topochines Vino will receive $100.00 off per person when they book any tour or cruise with Adriatic Travel. Let us know if you are planning to travel to Croatia or if you already have we would love to hear about your experience.