What have the Romans ever done for us?

Peter Ranscombe learns more about Croatian wines from Igor Kroljic of Pine Nut Path and Diana Thompson of Wine Events Scotland.

“WHAT have the Romans ever done for us?” comes the cry from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Ask that question in Croatia and the answer may include winemaking.

Although Croatia in its current form may be a relatively-young state – having emerged from the collapse of Yugoslavia and the ensuing civil war – the nation’s history stretches back hundreds of years.

Its winemaking tradition can be traced to the time of the Romans, when the town of Split housed the emperor’s summer palace.

Later, the port of Dubrovnik enjoyed the status of a city-state, like Venice, and – just like neighbouring Slovenia to the north – it’s easy to pick-out some Italian influences in Croatia’s wines.

Igor Kroljic, founder of Pine Nut Path, a Glasgow-based food and drink importer and travel company, was the guest at Diana Thompson’s Wine Events Scotland Croatian wine masterclass last week and brought the story of the country’s wines bang up-to-date.

Kroljic and Thompson explained that, today, there are around 800 wineries in Croatia, spread across some 300 sub-regions and using both well-known international grapes and about 120 indigenous varieties.

White wine accounts for around 60% of the country’s production, yet there is a wide variety of styles and investment from the European Union has raised standards.

Winemaking is concentrated in four major regions: Istria, on the northern portion of the Adriatic coast, which has the most modern and developed industry; Dalmatia, on the southern part of the coast; the uplands around the capital, Zagreb; and the east, known as “Slavonian and Danube”, where fewer tourists venture and where the climate is more continental, in contrast to the Mediterranean influences in Dalmatia.

Beyond Istria

While Istria has won a reputation for producing high-quality white wines – which are often enjoyed aboard the yachts in the marinas dotted along its coastline – Kroljic was keen to highlight wines from other parts of the country.

“These are winemakers who just want to make wine – they don’t want to follow the market,” he explained.

The cooler climate wines from the Kolar winery at Baranja in the Danube region really appealed to me, especially the 2015 Kolar Grasevina, the local name for the Welschriesling grape, which offered lemon, lemon peel and melon on the nose before leading into more lemon and a twist of lime on the palate, with its acidity softer in style than the more-common Rhine riseling variety.

The Kolar Frankovka – known as “The Pinot Noir of the East” or Blaufrankisch in Austria and Germany – was another hit for me; I often find Austrian Blaufrankisch can be just too vegetal, but the fruiter blackberry and blackcurrant notes in this wine were really appealing – it needed food, such as Kroljic’s Croatian cured meats, to balance the tannins and acidity, but delicious nonetheless.

Just like with my recent visits to Romania and Turkey, it was these local or specialist varieties that really shone, although it was interesting to see some of the examples of Croatia’s use of international varieties too.

The 2015 Kolar Sauvignon Blanc had plenty of lemon, greengage and asparagus to balance its high acidity, plus a rounder mouthfeel thanks to time spent in old oak barrels.

The only disappointment for me was the 2015 Kolar Pinot Gris, which had an earthy note that just didn’t appeal to me, but with plenty of peach and apricot flavours that would probably chime with bigger fans of the grape.

What did hit the spot as far as I was concerned was the Kolar Chardonnay, which ticked so many of the cool-climate chardonnay boxes for me, with red apple and galia melon flavours, fresh acidity and a delicious savoury element, like a croissant made from salted butter, contributing to the judicious use of oak and lees stirring to add body without dominating.

International focus

Back to the warmer Dalmatian coast and the Mediterranean influence was more apparent in the 2016 Provic Chardonnay, which displayed tropical fruit flavours such as melon, pineapple and peach, and which had a much riper and more buttery taste.

Two vintages of the winery’s Bordeaux blend – a 2015 Provic Merlot Cabernet and a 2013 Provic Merlot Cabernet – provided an insight into how different conditions in different years can affect the final wine.

Both shared the same smoke, cedar and redcurrant notes on the nose – indeed, it was interesting to see so many red fruit characteristics on show in a wine made from 65% merlot and 35% cabernet sauvignon – with blackcurrant flavours on the 2015 morphing into more sour cherry notes in the 2013.

Both still displayed fresh acidity, but the tannins felt more meaty in the 2013, despite it being the older wine, hinting at its potential for further ageing.

Find out more about the wines by contacting Igor Kroljic through his website at pinenutpath.com or about Wine Events Scotland at wineeventsscotland.co.uk