Day-One Red Wine Buying
It’s mid-afternoon on our first day in Croatia and we just checked in to our rental apartment in Split. Job one is to make plans for dinner: Anne will shop in the grocery store downstairs for basic supplies and something we can make for dinner. I’ll choose a couple bottles of red wine. I agreed to this plan knowing that I knew next to nothing about Croatian wines. What I did know was that I had some quick catch up homework to do.
I also quickly realized Croatia labels are not in English. When I see a bottle of Argentine wine labeled “Malbec,” I know what to expect. But what does a Croatian wine labelled “Bogdanuša” or “Grk” tell me about the likelihood of whether the wine inside the bottle will go well with dinner tonight?
I would soon be staring at shelves of bottles whose labels were covered with mysterious foreign words. And I needed to come up with an intelligent red wine choice before dinner. So I grabbed our two Croatia guidebooks and found the pages about the wines of the nearby area.Rocky limestone mountains come right down to the sea, leaving little space for vineyards
Hooked on the Hyper Local
Grapes that were grown and made into wine very close to where we’re eating is the goal. We learned long ago that wherever we are, we eat better when we order local food specialties in restaurants or try our hand at local recipes in the kitchen. Waiters are happy to bring us a bottle of something very local that goes well with what we ordered. The locals have been producing both the food and the wine from the same soil for centuries . Of course they go deliciously together.
Learning to Speak Southern
So with google and the guidebooks, I focussed on the wines produced right here on the southern end of Croatia’s west coast and on those islands I could see from our eighth floor balcony.
It’s hard to grow grapes in Croatia. Land for expansive Bordeaux-like vineyards just doesn’t exist. The abundant mountains force winemakers to the scarce valleys or the narrow ribbon of limestone where the sea and the rocky mountains start. Winemakers who choose to farm near the shore have miles of shoreline to choose from. Croatia is the size of South Carolina, but including all the islands, has more shoreline than California.
The Southern Dalmatian Coast is great for sailing, but the landscape doesn’t make planting grapes easy.
Protecting the Regional Traditions
Next I learned that Croatia has their own wine naming protection system similar to France and Italy’s AOC and DOC with the acronyms ZOI or KZP, but this system does little more than divide the country into 12 wine-growing geographical areas. The ZOI, instead of being an indicator of a wine’s quality, points primarily to the area where the grapes originated. I did, however discover that for dinner tonight, I wanted a wine from the ZOI named, “Srednja I Južna Dalmacija” (Central and Southern Dalmatia) rather than from one of the other eleven. So I’ll look for that designation on the label next to the words “Zaštićena Oznaka Izvornosti” or “Kontrolirano Zemljopisno Podrijetlo”
Making My First Purchase
Next, the dominant red wine grape grown in nearby vineyards and islands is Plavac Mali, a descendent of the indigenous zinfandel. While Anne was shopping for dinner, I scoured the unreadable names on wine labels for a wine made in the Central and Southern Dalmatia ZOI from this grape. I found a bottle that featured the word, “Plavac”. It was 37 Croatian Kuna or $5.77 and it met my two criteria, so we carried it home.
This label is in serious need of a decoder ring.
When Anne saw me make a face at the first taste, she lost hope that this would be the perfect complement to our first Croatian dinner. As much as I wanted to like it, the most picturesque description I could come up with for it was that something was missing. The color was weak, the hot alcohol hit was abrupt, and there was a sourness in the slight taste of red berries.
Going Back for More
It’s not the grape’s fault, I take some of the blame for going with the first bottle I saw with familiar words on it and I paid too little for it. So before tomorrow’s dinner, I determined to do a bit more research on Southern Dalmatian wines and loosen up the wallet a bit and see if I get a more agreeable taste.
Cliff’s Notes for Dalmatian Wine Buying Newbies
I armed myself with more research and written notes:
- If only the grape is highlighted on the label (such as Plavic Mali) that is an indication that the wine inside is not going to be as good as when a subregion within the ZOI is highlighted (if only I had learned that before my first trip down the wine aisle).
This is because a consortium of winegrowers in a smaller subregion agree to winegrowing and vinification practices that are aligned with that area’s soil, climate, and grape varietal(s).
- Some, not all, wine labels highlight one of the three quality classifications, “STOLNO” for table wine, “KVALITETNO” for mid-level, and “VRHUNSKO” for top-level. The bottle I bought the first night for $5.77 was designated Kvalitetno. These designations are sometimes in the fine print on the back label and difficult to find. I think it would be wiser to move up from kvalitetno to vrhunsko wines for my next purchase.
- Within the Central and Southern Dalmatian ZOI, there are two tiny subregions producing red wines named Postup and Dingač. Both Postup and Dingač are on the south facing slope of the Pelješac penninsula and meet the high standards of the Vrhunsko or top-level classification. Each of these two subregions has around 15 winemakers working about 150 acres.
- Useful Croatian red wine label words
• suho – dry
• crno – black (meaning the wine is red)
• bijelo – white (meaning the wine is white)
• Hrvatske – Croatia
• vinogorje – vineyard
• Hvar, Brac, Korčula, Peljesac – three nearby islands and a peninsula
Some labels like this (empty) bottle of Plavac Mali have very helpful English translations.
Some Improvement on the Second Swing
So on the second trip to our grocery store’s wine section I selected a Postup and a Dingač both made from plavac mali grapes.
Each were about $15, classified with the Vrhunsko quality rating, and compared to what I’m accustomed to, I’d rate both of them at about a B-.
Both are bold reds; the Dingač seemed bitter and the Postup more chalky. I wouldn’t say either was pleasant. But with a steak or hearty winter stew, either would make a fine evening’s companion.
I Like a Little Story With My Wine
This winemaker, who is also a great spinner of wine stories, makes it easy to spend an afternoon tasting and buying in his cellar.
But there’s more to wine than the flavor. I like that after only about 20 years of a market economy, Croatia’s new generation of winemakers, though they are staying with the ancient indigenous grapes, are beginning to win international competitions, and the quality and finesse of their wines are getting better. And the fanciful stories I heard from some of the winemakers reflect the authenticity of the craft. I could sit and sip a wine all day as long as the winemaker is telling the ancestral legends that go along with it.This winemaker, who is also a great spinner of wine stories, makes it easy to spend an afternoon tasting and buying in his cellar.
Fairies Arrive Dancing During the Night
One legend involves a tiny pond surrounded on all sides by hills just north of the village of Smokvica on the cigar shaped island of Korcula. Unlike the other ponds in the area, this one never dries out in the heat of the summer because of the dancing night fairies protecting the pond. According to the legend of the Vilin Dol (Valley of the Fairies) one morning, a villager named Jakov and his mule found a beautiful fairy who had fallen asleep after an exhausting night of dancing. Knowing that fairies cannot survive in sunlight, Jakov cut some branches and made a little shelter to shade her sensitive skin. To reward him for saving her, she gave him two bags of gold coins instructing him to open the bags only when he arrived back home in Smokvica.
On the way there, overcome with his desire to see the coins, he opened the bags and found only dried leaves. At home, when he related the story to his wife, she shook the now empty bags of leaves and a few gold coins fell out. She gave him a thorough tongue lashing for letting his curiosity get the best of him.
Cousins of our apartment host, Boris, grew the grapes and made this wine on the nearby island of Korčula.
A Passion for Passing on the Traditions
Stories like these repeated by winemakers and re-enacted by the real girls of Smokvica for centuries are part of a culture bent on refining the wine produced from the same varieties of grapes and soil and that their grandfathers worked. These coastal Croatian winemakers have no interest in reproducing what moderns have come to expect from Italian, French or New World wine. Their strong and enduring passion is to honor the ancestral traditions handed down to them by drawing all the best from the grapes that thrive on the scarce workable soil by the sea,.
Three kisses make great grapes
On these hillside terraces, villagers have been producing admirable wines for centuries.
Southern Dalmatian coast winemakers like to explain that their grapes get kissed three times by the sun – directly by the sunlight overhead, by the light bouncing off the near-white limestone vineyard floors, and by the sparkling diamond-like reflections from the adjacent Adriatic Sea. And I’m happy to continue enjoying the smells and tastes of this unique and ancient land, expanding my experience with the foods and wines and listening to more winemakers’ stories.
Over the last decade or so, I’ve gotten a pretty good grasp of the wine growing regions of France and Italy. I can stare at the wine labels at a wine shop reminiscing about meeting wine-makers and walking among the vines – then leave the shop with an old familiar friend. And though we’ve visited Burgundy vineyards before, I’m not familiar enough with this complex region to even explain it to a third grader. So we’re back in Burgundy again today, staying in Beaune and visiting all the major villages in Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune sub-region. It’s not too hard to do in one day because the farthest one away, Santenay, is only 10 miles south of Beaune. In addition to improving our knowledge and appreciation for the wines of Burgundy, we also had our eyes open to the beauty of daily life on a January day in the country.First stop was actually a little to the north of Beaune. The obsolete moat bed still surrounds one of the castles in Savigny-lès-Beaune. The owner’s collection of fighter jets is a bit of a shocker.
Peaceful morning among the endless miles of vines. It’s the time of year for trimming all of the fall’s post-harvest growth back to just the trunk and in some cases, just a single whip for next fall’s clusters to grow on. Some of the vineyards were dotted with workers pruning and burning the extraneous branches.
Mobile bottler comes to the barn door, fills empty bottles with wine pumped from the vats, IMG_9977 (video) corks them and delivers pallets full of unlabeled bottles back to the winemaker. All the winemaker has to do is label and box them for delivery to the wine shops. Could you pick up six full bottles at a time?
The near constant mist and cloudiness turns the tops of the 1,000 year old stone walls into an ecosystem for all sorts of mosses and succulents.This Meursault wine retailer lists on his window, the names of the individual winemakers from the sub-region that are available in his shop. I’d would take quite a while to get acquainted with the 80+ producers just in this shop.Some of the best architecture was in Meursault.Backyard of Meursault’s City Château. Could have been a watchtower on a now disappeared wall; now just another outbuilding.Another architectural feature along Meursault’s old city wall.Finally, we compared four of France’s finest whites – Montrachet from the tiny village of Chassagne-Montrachet. Each the same vintage -2017 – from a different parcel within yards of the tasting room. Each was distinctly different. We liked the second bottle from the right the most. Fresh with bright minerality.The first bottle on the right, the Champs Gan, was from this plot-maybe 10 acres total.Last stop, the southernmost village, Santenay. This sign points to the farms and producers (called Climats here but terroirs elsewhere) that can use the name Santenay on their labels.On the way home we passed through Volnay, happy to have moved the needle a bit on the dial of our understanding of the people and place that produce this prized wine.
Week of January 16-22, 2017, continued
Aix en Provence, France
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We’re looking ahead to Spring – Aix en Provence for the Easter Festival.
One of Kirk’s favorite things to do in Aix is visit the vintage and consignment stores – he loves the hunt! Some decades-old wines and yet one more Cezanne book are his finds this time….early Valentine’s Day gifts!
Last night it was Lola, the adorable French bulldog belonging to our neighbors across the street, who came up the stairs for a visit. Today it’s Noelle, who came for coffee with Barbara, whom we “met” online through Kristin. After Kristin posted a photo of us when she and JM were over for lunch a couple of days ago, Barbara, her long-time friend, wanted to know where in Aix we were – so we invited her for coffee! Great ideas and hints flowed back and forth…we’ve now signed up for Scott’s Cheap Flights, and after hearing about the deals Kirk found at Oca Deco (that wine and book!) Barbara wanted to know where it was – “let’s go!” we said! And they both bought a few bottles more.
On the way back home – “Want to join us for our “clean out the frig” lunch?” was our next question – so the fun continued as we put together a yummy meal from all we couldn’t take with us on the train to Paris tomorrow! Kirk had some things to place down in the “cave” – our ancient storage place under the building, so downstairs the three of them went. That rosé from Jean-Marc will stay nice and cool til we’re ready to drink it next summer! Afternoon errands are a foodie’s delight….first find the best dessert to take to Xavier’s for dinner tonight, then select some Provençal cheeses to take to Paris for dinner tomorrow (well-shrink-wrapped so that we don’t scent the entire train!). Up the 90-plus stairs to Xavier’s rooftop apartment, and we’re well-rewarded with a feast of truffled eggs – Brouillade. Xavier made this for us a couple of years ago – I think it may have been the first thing made in our newly-renovated kitchen! “Don’t let a morsel go to waste!” we all urge – and Xavier happily complies. We take the long way home, savoring every last minute in Aix…
Tuesday, September 27, 2016
Bordeaux region, France
Interested in a Music and Markets Tour? We’d love to hear from you! How about an unforgettable holiday with us at New Years’ Jazz in Italy?
Our final day at Orpheus and Bacchus begins with an after-breakfast walk to the nearest village, Gensac.
That jaunty red car in front of the town café
would be a fun way to tool around these winding vineyard wrapped lanes,
watching as the harvest begins.
After the last Hummel presentation by Nova Luce, we join other festival participants for a visit to Chateau Guadet in St. Emilion. Guy Petrus invites us into his garden
and begins our tour with the history of the family and vineyards, then takes us into the cellars
before we taste his excellent vintages.
Tonight we have a special treat as musicians of Nova Luce join the Wihan quartet in a Mendelssohn Octet – breathtakingly beautiful music!
And after dinner the music continues on into the night as the younger musicians of Nova Luce persuade Leos, Wihan’s first violin, to join them in some playful music making. What a privilege it’s been to spend four days with these marvelous artists!
Tomorrow we’re off to the lush green Dordogne valley…
Saturday, February 13, 2016
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Why not celebrate Spring with us in Prague or Venice and the Veneto?
Passage Sarget proves the perfect spot for breakfast – a table for two in the quiet gallery, the FT weekend in hand, a steaming cappuccino at the ready. Then we head for the other side of town, passing an elegant shop or two on the way. Our destination? The Flêche – the arrow or the spire – the pointy tall steeple of the church that names the quartier, Saint Michel. Yet another stop on the Unesco World Heritage city trail, it’s surrounded today by the Saturday flea market. Table after table of exotic fabrics, headscarves, unusual produce too. Not a thing for our market basket – but certainly interesting!
Place de la Bourse, which we saw last night, deserves a daytime view as well. Perhaps when we return in a few days the Miroir d’Eau, a shimmer of water between the Garonne River and the Bourse, will be functioning. It’s off for the season now.
The architects of old Bordeaux do seem to have a thing for mascarons – nearly every building boasts a few of these each-one-unique faces!Next on our route, the Porte Cailhau, a former defensive gate from the 1400s. With mullioned windows, intricate carvings and turrets fit for a fairytale castle, it was clearly designed for beauty as well as defense!
Heading back towards the hotel for lunch, we pass a huge second-hand bookstore filled with treasures. Sorry, Kirk, no room in our luggage!
There’s one more quartier we want to explore, the antique – and- brocante- filled Chartrons neighborhood. This pedestrian street beside our hotel was deserted when we walked to breakfast this morning – now we can hardly walk through the Saturday shopping crowds!Past the public garden we go – it’s quite a walk to the Chartrons quartier – but we get there before the antique shops close.
Beside the beautiful St. Louis de Chartrons church, the Village Notre Dame is quite a treasure house – we wander through the rooms, admiring the beautiful old pieces and tastefully arranged still lifes – I want this tablescape at home!
As the bells ring for evening mass we continue our stroll through the neighborhood, peeking in windows, drawn inside the gleaming-golden church. Then back to our neighborhood, and to an intriguing hole-in-the-wall we’d noticed beside the Porte Cailhau. The Zinc du Coin Chabrot is packed with locals, and we claim a table back by the kitchen. The menu’s on the chalkboard – we choose a few things to share – and the bottles are lined up on the bar, prices by the bottle or the glass written in white on each one. Delicious and fun – the kind of place that has us wishing our friends were along for the evening!
Good night, Bordeaux – it’s been a pleasure!
Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016
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We’re looking ahead to Spring – Prague and Budapest, or Venice and the Veneto – join us!
Today we’re going Christmas shopping – a couple of months late. You know that cool dark cave we’ve mentioned, down spooky ancient stairs to a dungeon like area below our apartment? Well it’s time to put something delicious and interesting in there, not just unused furniture or household items. Something we can find in the hills north of Aix, so we’re driving to an area filled with 15 years of memories, past the pale pink of almonds, the first blooms of spring.
We’ll end up in the pretty wine village of Gigondas, but first we head for the places that bring a smile to our faces – Sablet, the village that shines on its hill at night, best viewed from our bedroom window in our dear friend Karen’s former beautiful countryside villa where we first visited in the summer of 2000. A little further down the road Seguret clings to the side of its hill. Another village that gleamed its light to the villa at night, and where we toasted an elegant civil wedding that preceded a joyous celebration by the vines in the garden of the villa later that year.
By now it’s lunchtime so we buzz on to Vaison la Romaine, where the old parking lot, surrounded by cafés, is now paved over. Lunch at a café is forgettable, but the town is still full of fun memories – the Roman ruins which watched over our departed friend Suzy’s house (she always said Marc Antony was looking in her window), and, beneath the medieval part of town, that graceful Roman bridge, which survived the horrific 1992 floods even when all of the newer bridges were washed away.
No one’s home at the villa where we spent many happy times today, so we walk around the back, Kirk recalling the hours prepping the garden to be as beautiful as possible for the wedding of Miles (Karen’s son) & Mira in the fall of 2000. I can still picture that lovely couple, framed by the dramatic Dentelles in the background, that lush vineyard spreading behind them.Oh the hours we’ve spent here, relaxing, feasting, laughing, celebrating….
The little village of Gigondas is tucked up against the jagged Dentelles, surrounded by prime vineyards. We’ve had a few choice bottles from here through the years, and stop by the village wine shop, where we have a choice of vintages from all the surrounding vineyards – Christmas shopping done!
Life moves on – but the memories remain, to enjoy forever!