Eastern Promises: The Wines of Slovenia, Croatia, and Greece

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Eastern Promises: The Wines of Slovenia, Croatia, and Greece

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
after he plundered the stronghold
on the proud height of Troy.
— Homer, The Odyssey

So begins Odysseus's story of trail and tribulation, of the man who ruled Ithaca and Cephalonia, and one of the enduring figures of Greek antiquity. We've touched briefly about the history of how wine reached Greece, and how the United States market is only just beginning to receive some of the great wines the country has to offer. In the spirit of wandering, and discoveries of worlds, we've decided to feature some of our most prized wines from the Mediterranean without stepping foot in Italy or France. 

Part of the reason for the relative obscurity surrounding these wines lies in the fact that both countries were formerly part of Yugoslavia until 1991, and though these regions have been producing wines since the Roman times, neither the varietals nor the regions were very well known outside of the former Soviet Socialist Republics. But there is one region that has a hint of familiarity to it, and that's where we find one of our favorite Slovenian wines, the Kabaj Ravan. 

I know we said we wouldn't touch Italy, but the region that Slovenia calls Goriška Brda overlaps one of Italy's premier regions for making Pinot Grigio, the Collio DOC.  It's the hilly terrain here that gives the region its name (colli is Italian for hillsides) and their reputation for making fresh aromatic, varietal driven wines precedes them.  

Not long after Slovenia declared independence, Katja Kabaj married French enologist and winemaker Jean-Michel Morel and in 1993 Kabaj released its first vintage.  The Kabaj (pronounced Ka-bye) family had been making wine for generations, but had never bottled it before Jean-Michel came along.  A former French Legionaire, Jean-Michel brings his tireless work ethic and determination into his motto for the winery, "Quality must go up".  Just 20 miles north of the Adriatic Sea, the Goriška Brda region is home to mild winters, an early spring, and a prolonged growing season. The hills here are made up of marl and flysch, the remnants of an old limestone seabed carved out by years of rain and rivers.  

'Ravan' is the house name for what used to be called Tocai Friulano. Used to because, in 2007, Hungary successfully argued that this pale white variety had the potential to be confused with their legendary golden dessert wine, spelled Tokaj. But what has long been established is that the varietal Tocai Friulano is a relative of Sauvignon Blanc, and thus Slovenia has pursued a number of different names to call this varietal from Sauvignon Vert to Sauvignonasse to Jakot, or, more simply, friulano.  Despite the confusion of nomenclature, 'Ravan' has remarkable clarity and complexity worthy of a wine that can last 10 years.  

Inspired by the Georgian tradition of "qvevri", the large clay amphorae that are used for maceration and fermentation, Jean-Michel gives this white wine two weeks of skin contact during the maceration process. This is the method that's also partially responsible for the latest craze in the natural wine world, Orange wines, where white grapes are usually given a month or more skin contact maceration to give the wines their eponymous color.

At two weeks, 'Ravan' features some of the honeyed color that one might expect of an orange wine, but with a flavor more balanced and bracing of a more classic aromatic white.  It's subtle at first, with classic expressions of ripe pears on the nose, but becomes more interesting the longer it opens up, with a rich textured creaminess and notes of honeydew and peaches balanced along bright acidity along the way to a bone-dry finish.  It's a wine that lives up to its billing-- minimalist in approach, but maximal in flavor.  

Drive some 480 kilometers southeast down the E71, and you'll find yourself in Šibenik, Croatia.  This small nation with a beautiful coastline along the Adriatic is home to fascinating wines with sometimes almost impenetrable names (we're looking at you, grk) and one varietal in particular, Plavac Mali, with a curious backstory.

 Grapes on the vines at Zlatan Otok's vineyards.  Image courtesy of Zlatan Otok

Grapes on the vines at Zlatan Otok's vineyards. Image courtesy of Zlatan Otok

 

You see, for years people thought Plavac Mali was Zinfandel, and it's not difficult to see why, with blackberry and black cherry fruit and black pepper dominating the flavor profile.  Italy and Croatia have debated over the true origin of Zinfandel for years, but we now know that  Plavac Mali is a cross of  Crlenjak Kaštelanski (ancestral Zinfandel) and Dobričić (an ancient red wine grape variety from the Dalmatian coast) grapes. We're thrilled to have the Zlatan Plavac Šibenik to demonstrate why we've all been missing out on the beauty of Croatian wines after all these years.

 Šibenik, Croatia.

Šibenik, Croatia.

Zlatan Otok started their family winery in 1986, before Croatian independence, with most of their vineyards on the southern slopes of the island Hvar. In 1993, they expanded their vineyard holdings to Šibenik, where Zlatan Plavac Šibenik is grown.  Aged in a combination of stainless steel and large wooden vessels for a year before aging in bottle for an additional four months, this Plavac Mali (pronounced plǎːʋat͡s mǎli) is a touch lighter than the traditional Plavac Malis that see longer time barrel aging.  Nevertheless, the Zlatan Plavac Šibenik is rich in structure and bursting with ripe fruit.

 The vineyards at Sclavos.

The vineyards at Sclavos.

Continue down some 986 kilometers down the Adriatic coastline and you'll arrive at Cephalonia (or Kefalonia) . Greek scholars have long debated whether it was truly Ithaki, or Kefalonia that was the true home to Homer's Odysseus. But whereas modern day Ithaki is a little more barren, Cephalonia is bursting with the same life that inhabited it thousands of years ago.  Domaine Sclavos, is a family winery, with the namesake Sclavos family going back centuries on the island.

Evriadias Sclavos was able to find records of his great-great-grandfather owning a winery in 1860, but the great powers of Antiquity and the Middle Ages knew about the advantages of this island well before. When the Venetians took over the land in 1500, they started exporting a wine called Vino di Sasso (or "wine of rocks") thanks to the preponderance of limestone soils that dominate the island. 

Domaine Sclavos is near the ancient town of Lixouri, just 20 kilometers south of the beautiful Paliki peninsula. The six hectare estate is dotted with oranges and olives alongside the vines, and Evriadias follows the biodynamic principals of making wine, with little intervention and only minimal use of S02. This week, we're featuring the Sclavos Alchymiste White 2016 a blend of 35% Vostilidi, 35% Moschatela, 20% Moscat, 10% Tsaousi, and it presents as a tremendously fresh aromatic floral nose with lemon and nuts on the palate and balanced acidity. 

The last stop on our journey is 697 kilometers southeast of Kefalonia, at Domaine Lyrarakis in Crete.  Founded in 1966, Lyrarakis is dedicated to revitalizing ancient Crete varietals; Plyto, Dafni, and Vidiano. You'll find Lyrarakis Vineyards just 20 kilometers south of  the ancient city of Knossos, where Jason once faced the Minotaur. While no purported half-men and half-beasts remain,  Crete is nevertheless dedicated to its untamed roots, at home with both more rustic and robust fruit driven styles. We have their Plakoura Vineyard Mandilari.  Sourced from the namesake vineyard located some 500 meters above sea-level, this hand-picked Mandilari is aged in a combination of old and new oak for 10 months and bottled for an additional 9 months before release.  Not only drinkable now, Lyrarakis takes pride in making this wine as something that can stand for over 10 years without diminishing returns.

We've long been familiar with the wines of the western world, but the latest generations of wine drinkers are expanding the horizons of wine shops and bottle lists alike.  While the winemaking traditions in these countries are long-standing, the United States is only just starting to develop a market for the fantastic wines of the Eastern European world.  We welcome you to come try these four wines, our "starter pack" for phenomenal off-beat Mediterranean wines.

The Fine Print:

Kabaj Ravan 2013 -  ̶$̶2̶9̶.̶9̶9̶ $26.99

Zlatan Plavac Šibenik -  ̶$̶2̶4̶.̶9̶9̶ $22.50

Sclavos Alchymiste White 2016-  ̶$̶1̶9̶.̶9̶9̶ $17.99

Domaine Lyrarakis Plakoura Vineyard Mandilari -   ̶$̶2̶4̶.̶9̶9̶ $22.49

Further reading:

Wine Folly Has a Great Primer on Croatian Wine

A fun guide to Croatian wine pronunciation

Eric Asimov takes a look at Slovenian Wine