Friday 9 November 2018

Discovering Croation Wine with Kozlović

Producer: Kozlović Winery

Thanks to the World Cup and the HBO series Game of Thrones, Croatia has been this year’s hottest destination. Combining stunning natural scenery with the charm of old-world Europe, it’s easy to see why people have been flocking to discover the secrets of this country. I recently spent a week there exploring the otherworldly beauty of the Plitvice Lakes National Park and the walled city of Dubrovnik where some of the scenes from Game of Thrones were filmed. While in Istria, I also took the opportunity to visit Kozlović Winery, which I had heard was one of the best producers in the region.

As a country, Croatia is relatively new, but it has a long history of making wine dating back to when ancient Greek settlers planted vines along the coast. It now boasts a profusion of grape varieties, and some of them will seem very foreign indeed to those of us more familiar with names such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. The most widely planted grape in Istria is the white Malvazija Istarska, which can be either oaked or unoaked. Red wines are made out of Teran, a variety that suffers from uneven ripening but has useful acidity and freshness. Muskat Momjanski is also planted and made into sweet or semi-sweet wines. In terms of climate, Istria sits on the 45th parallel, the same as other fine winemaking regions such as Bordeaux and Piedmont. The region has red, grey and white soils, depending on the amount or iron or limestone in them. The grey and white limestone-rich soils produce more mineral wines and are more suitable for white grapes.

My host for the visit was Sanja Nikolac, an accomplished restaurateur who operates the hotel/restaurant Draga Di Lovrana and consults for Kozlović. Her advice to me when tasting Croatian wines was to keep an open mind and not to compare them with wines I have already tasted. “There are over one hundred varieties here that you don’t have in any other part of the world,” she declared. Before the tumultuous period that led to Croatian independence, Kozlović was making wine in quantity, but after the war owners Gianfranco & Antonella Kozlović started focusing on quality. The new approach was heralded by the completion of a modern, aesthetically pleasing winery in 2012. Grapes arrive at the top of the three-storey building and are moved through each level via gravity, which is a gentler process than pumping the juice. I was impressed by the cleanliness and organisation of the cellars, a key indicator that the winery is serious about quality. No expense has been spared in acquiring modern equipment. Gianfranco even has the temperature details of each tank sent directly to his mobile phone so that he can monitor how the fermentation is progressing when he is out of the winery.

Wine tastings can be conducted inside, but a far better view is to be had on the outdoor terrace, which overlooks the vineyard and from where one can see the stunning backdrop of undulating hills, one of which is crowned by a ruined yet still regal castle. Kozlović works with local farmers to provide small food platters to accompany the tasting, which were really delicious and complemented the wines wonderfully. They highlight the rich culinary heritage of Istria, which is known for its fine olive oils, cheese and charcuterie. In the middle of our tasting, one of the two resident dogs wandered over as if making sure that we were properly appreciating the wines.

In her own restaurant, Sanja has been dedicating more space in the wine list to Croatian wines. She started doing this because she felt confident that she could sell local wines, and also because the quality of Croatian-made wines has been on the up and up. Kozlović, for example, is a producer that consumers now ask for by name. On the export front, unless you live in one of the larger markets like the US and UK, it can be difficult to find a bottle of Croatian wine. Most Croatian wine is consumed domestically, and it is through tourism that most people get their first taste. In Singapore, The Straits Wine Company, has brought in a small selection.

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of Croatian wine. There is a huge deal of inconsistency, but for Malvasia at least there appears to be a lot of potential. This is a grape that shows unique attributes, and could be a champion for the region the same way as Sauvignon Blanc has made New Zealand popular. Exotic wines, delicious food and superb scenery - do people need any more convincing that Croatia must be the next place they visit?  

Tasting notes:

Kozlović Valle 2017 – A blend of 80% Malvasia and 20% Sauvignon Blanc, this is meant as a light, refreshing aperitif. It shows some leafy and lemony notes, with lots of zip and youthfulness. I could see this going very well with a ceviche salad or lightly cooked seafood.

Kozlović Malvasia 2017 – The signature white grape of Istria, this is a confidently made, full-bodied example with notes of green apple, lemon and a tinge of honey. It’s not particularly aromatic on the nose but has an appealing drinkability due to its freshness and subtlety.

Kozlović Malvasia 2015 – This limited edition wine is only available in restaurants; I was fortunate enough that the winery had a bottle for tasting but they do not sell this wine to consumers. Very richly textured with some nutty notes. Tastes a bit oxidative even, with lemon peel and grapefruit flavours but undeniably fresh and zingy. Sanja suggested that this wine has the heft to pair well with light meats and porcini mushrooms.

Kozlović Teran 2017 – A charming wine with lovely acidity and no noticeable oak, though it has been aged in barrels for eight months. Vivacious and bright with flavours of black cherry mixed with some stalky green notes. Usually I would find that combination jarring but in this wine they go well together. Tannins are quite gentle.

Kozlović Santa Lucia Cuvee Noir 2015 – This is the winery’s attempt at a serious, Bordeaux-like red. A blend of 50% Merlot with 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Teran.  From the top vineyard of Santa Lucia. Deep ruby core leading to a garnet rim. Quite intense and full-bodied with medium plus tannins. Evokes flavours of chocolate, plum, and fruitcake. It’s an interesting marriage of the power of Cabernet with the freshness of Teran.

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