Croatian Blindtasting: Plavac Malis and Croatia’s first Zinfandel bottling

CROATIAN BLINDTASTING: PLAVAC MALIS AND CROATIA’S FIRST ZIN BOTTLING – Rich and Peggy’s Home in Los Altos, California (3/28/2011)

This was a special tasting of eight Croatian wines from the Dalmatian Coast that was thoughtfully arranged by a member of our semi-weekly blindtasting sessions as a prelude to a blindtasting of 10-year-old Zinfandels. All of these wines are distributed by Blue Danube Wine Company, which handles wines from Austria, Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Blue Danube’s Frank Dietrich was on hand for the tasting, and he gave us a great deal of background on the varietals we were tasting and the producers represented. The tasting included one white wine, one Croatian Zinfandel, and six bottlings of Plavac Mali.

Plavac Mali is a flavorful and very tannic grape that is the principal red grape grown along the Dalmatian coast in Croatia. Plavac translates as “that which is blue” and “mali” means small in Croatian. We have learned in the past decade, thanks to DNA work and much sleuthing on the part of vine investigators, that Plavac Mali came about as a result of a cross between the ancient Croatian Zinfandel grape, Crljenak Kaštelanski, and an obscure ancient grape grown on the Croatian island of Šolta called Dobričić. The big mystery these researchers were seeking to uncover was the origin of California’s Zinfandel. For a good one-page summary of this ultimately successful search, by the UC Davis emeritus professor and Lagier Meredith owner Carole Meredith (whom I happen to adore), see here:

The Plavac Malis in our blindtasting ranged from a bottling that is traditionally raised, in large casks, with no new oak; to wines that are raised all or partially in small barriques; to a bottling produced in consultation with Michel Rolland. Our white wine was from the Pošip grape, which is primarily grown on the island of Korčula, where it is the primary grape. Our other red wine was the first bottling of a varietal Crljenak Kaštelanski, now that a sufficient amount of this nearly extinct Croatian version of the Zinfandel grape has been grown to permit a varietal bottling. We easily picked it out as the Zinfandel in our blindtasting. For more details, the group’s scoring and my tasting notes on these wines, see below.

White wine – Posip varietal

Blue Danube Wine Company’s Frank Dietrich

There are two viticultural districts on the island of Korčula, where Marco Polo was born, and our Pošip came from the Čara district. It features a picture of Marco Polo on the label. It’s a sturdy, aromatic wine with juicy citrus flavors that would go well with the kind of shellfish and seafood found along the Dalmatian Coast. This bottle had some age on it, and I’d like to try a newer bottling, which I think I would prefer, as I don’t see a lot of aging potential to this wine.

  • 2007 Cara Pošip Marco Polo – Croatia, Korčula Island
    Medium canary yellow golden color; aromatic, maturing, tangy, bitter orange, cider nose; soft textured, medium bodied, sturdy, tart orange, green orange, tart citrus, juicy palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish 88+ points (88 pts.)

Red Blindtasting – my TNs and group scoring

The vast majority of Croatia’s wine production is white wine, something like two-thirds. Most of the red wines are grown in the southern Dalmatian coastal area. The Plavac Malis in this tasting were all grown in that region, either on the island of Hvar, or on seaside terraces of the Pelješac Peninsula north of Dubrovnik. A part of that peninsula, called Dingač, has been designated as a “grand cru” vineyard, and three of our six Plavac Malis came from that vineyard.

The group found these wines highly tannic, and the one that was most familiar tasting, which everyone in the group who guessed assumed to be the Crljanak (Zinfandel), came in first for the group. I thought it was a very good version of Zinfandel, with complexity and good acidity, but it came in middle of the pack for me. My number one wine, which came in last for the group, was a traditionally produced Plavac from the Dinga&#269 grand cru region that sees no new or small oak. It was tannic, but also complex and balanced, and should age well. The producer is Dingač Vinarija and the label features a donkey, which used to be the means of accessing and harvesting this very steep vineyard, parts of which are at a 45 degree incline. The wine is fermented in steel tanks and then raised in traditional large oak casks for one year before bottling.

The group’s and my second place wine was the one for which Michel Rolland is the consulting producer. The group accurately guessed that this was the Michel Rolland wine, based on the smooth mouthfeel, tamer tannins and high end new oak treatment. The producer is Saints Hills which was founded in 2006 by Ernest Tolj. The limited quantities of this wine are available for a steep $65.

The group’s third and fourth place wines, as well as the first place Crljenak bottling, were all made by Zlatan Otok, which is owned by Zlatan Plenkovic, named Croatian winemaker of the year in 2005 and 2007. The Crljenak vines for the group’s first place wine were planted with the support of Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards and researchers from the University of Zagreb, Our ’07 is the inaugural bottling of this wine, which sells for $40. The group’s third place wine, the “Grand Cru,” is said to be Croatia’s first “cult wine,” and it sells out quickly, even at a $60 price tag. I found it complex, concentrated and earthy, with extreme tannins and a little bitterness on the finish. It would be very interesting to taste one with some more bottle age on it. The group’s fourth place wine from Zlatan Otok is known as “Barrique” because it is matured in Slavonian barriques for 12 months. I found it more poised and approachable than the Grand Cru, but a little narrow in its flavor profile.

The group’s fifth place wine, and my third, was the Dingač from Bura Estate. It is aged in a combination of new and used Slavonian oak. It had a very intriguing nose, and a great deal of complexity as well as firm, dusty tannins. It should be even more appealing in four to five years. It also sells for $60. Finally, the group’s and my sixth place wine was the Stagnum from Frano Miloš. It is aged for a year in neutral Slavonian oak, and then for two years in bottle. This seemed oxidative, and to have possibly been made with at least partial carbonic maceration, and was the most rustic in style of the group.

You can find more information on these wines, the region and the producers on Blue Danube’s excellent website, which includes a blog of visits to the area:

  • 2007 Zlatan Otok Zinfandel Crljenak – Croatia, Dalmatian Coast, Hvar
    Group’s #1 (my #4) – 35 pts; 2 firsts, 4 seconds, 0 thirds, 0 last places – medium dark garnet red color; aromatic, earthy, wild berry, ripe currant, Zinny nose; tasty, tart wild red berry, currant, juicy palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (premier release of a modern wine made from the historic grape varietal Crljenak Kaštelanski, which has been established as identical to California’s Zinfandel and Italy’s Primitivo) (89 pts.)
  • 2008 Saint’s Hill Plavac Mali Dingac – Croatia, Dalmatian Coast, Pelješac, Dingač
    Group’s #2 (my #2) – 37 pts.; 4, 2, 1, 1 – medium dark garnet red color; oak, berry, ripe plum, vanilla nose; juicy, sweet vanilla oak, ripe plum, ripe berry, wild berry, blueberry palate; medium-plus finish (when we were told that there was one wine in this blindtasting of 8 Croatian wines on which Michel Rolland had been the consultant, all of this picked this as having Rolland’s stamp on it) (90 pts.)
  • 2007 Zlatan Otok Plavac Mali Plavac, Grand Cru, Vrhunsko Vino – Croatia, Dalmatian Coast, Hvar
    Group’s #3 (my #7) – 42 pts.; 3, 3, 1, 1 – dark garnet red color; earthy, wild berry, lavender, raspberry, herb nose; concentrated, complex, earthy, tart berry, very tannic palate with bitterness on medium-plus finish (Croatia’s first cult wine, that sells for about $60) (84 pts.)
  • 2007 Zlatan Otok Plavac Mali Barrique Sveta Nedjelja – Croatia, Dalmatian Coast, Hvar
    Group’s #4 (my #5) – 52 pts.; 0, 0, 5, 2 – dark garnet red color; narrow, tart berry, wild berry nose; very tart wild berry palate with medium-plus acidity and firm tannins, needs 2-plus years; medium-plus finish 87+ points (matured in Slavonian oak for 12 mos.) (87 pts.)
  • 2006 Bura Estate Vintner Plavac Mali Plavac Dingac Grand Cru – Croatia, Dalmatian Coast, Pelješac, Potomje Pelješac
    Group’s #5 (my #3) – 54 pts.; 1, 1, 2, 1 – dark garnet red color; intriguing, spicy, wild berry, blackberry, lavender, lifted nose; tannic, complex, tart berry, tart raspberry, tar palate with firm, dusty tannins, needs 4-5 years; medium-plus finish (89 pts.)
  • 2005 MILOS FRANO Plavac Mali Stagnum – Croatia, Dalmatian Coast, Pelješac
    Group’s #6 (my #6) – 61 pts.; 1, 1, 1, 4 – slightly bricking medium garnet red color; oxidative, carbonic maceration, brett, very earthy nose; tart berry, dried berry palate with firm tannins; medium-plus finish (86 pts.)
  • 2006 Vinarija Dingač Plavac Mali – Croatia, Dalmatian Coast, Pelješac
    Group’s #7 (my #1) – 65 pts.; 1, 1, 1, 3 – slightly bricking medium red violet color; rich berry, blackberry, black raspberry nose; rich, berry, wild berry, black raspberry palate with balance and depth; medium-plus finish (no barriques, just very large oak foudres used by this traditionalist producer) (91 pts.)

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