Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Volarević Winery: Organic Rakija & The Complexity of Plavac Mali

One of the highlights of my trip to Croatia was definitely the visit with the good people of Vinogradi Volarević, one of the K7 wineries in the Komarna region. A river boat ride, superb Rakija, scrumptious frog legs & eel, compelling wines, and a fascinating enologist. I was also impressed with their research and experimentation with the Plavac Mali grape, which could end up benefiting many other Croatian wineries.

For centuries, black and low wooden boats, commonly known as lađa or ladja, were used to traverse the waterways of the Neretva Valley. They were used for fishing as well as transporting people and cargo, and many locals owned a lađa. We boarded a converted boat, for a pleasant journey down one of the waterways. It was a beautiful sunny day, with a light breeze, and the waters, fed by springs, were crystal clear.

Eventually, the need for the lađa largely vanished, so many of these boats were abandoned and remained unused for years. More recently, there has been a renewed interest in these boats, more for pleasure rides, and there is even an annual Marathon lađa race, held in August, which has only been receiving growing interest.

Our host was Josip Volarević, owner and oenologist (pictured on the right side), and there were also two locals who provided traditional Croatian music as our boat slowly made its way down the river.

Here is a brief sample of some of that traditional Croatian music.

Aboard, we snacked on some Croatian prosciutto, cheese, and bread, and also enjoyed some Volarević Rakija. They produce seven types of Rakija, which are all organic, and we tasted three of them on the boat. My favorite of the three, which was also my favorite Rakija during my time in Croatia, was their Travarica. Travarica is a grape brandy which has been infused with numerous herbs, and everyone's recipe varies. It reminds me of a good Vermouth. The Volarević Travarica contains about 7-10 herbs, has a 40% ABV, and possesses a delicious and complex herbal taste. It was silky and warming, with a lengthy finish and a mild sweetness. I brought home some of this Rakija because I loved it so much.

The Volarević Visnjevac is a Cherry Rakija, with a 25% ABV, and possesses a pleasing sour cherry flavor, which was sweet but far from cloying. This would make a nice after-drink drink, maybe with dessert.

The Volarević Menta is a Wild Mint Rakija, with a 25% ABV, and possesses a strong minty flavor and plenty of sweetness. A nice digestive after dinner.

The Volarević family are relatively newcomers to the winery business, and initially, in 1976, they started the Prud Nursery business. named after the village where they originate. About ten years ago, after much hard work and growth, they became the largest nursery in Croatia, with about 50 hectares of fruit, vegetables and other plants/trees.

As the winery is situated next to several of the greenhouses, we had some time to tour the greenhouses, and it was an extensive operation, with an amazing diversity of fruits and veggies.

Their winery is currently open only for special guests, and Josip Volarević led us through a tasting of many of their wines, and then provided us a delicious, traditional and regional lunch. Though Josip's grandfather made a little bit of wine, it was more a minor hobby than anything else. With the Volarević Winery, Josip states that "we are creating a tradition" and they have chosen the new Komarna appellation to begin their history.

Josip always had a dream to become an oenologist, and with his family, which includes three brothers, they chose to enter the wine industry. Starting in 2005, they began to prepare land in Komarna for their vineyards, which entailed a lengthy and costly process of breaking up great sections of stone. It wasn't until 2008-2009, that they were finally able to plant vines, which now occupy about 12.5 hectares of their estate, the vast majority planted with Plavac Mali. And like all of the other Komarna wineries, their vineyards are certified organic. Their total estate is about 15 hectares, and they plan to construct a tasting room in the extra space. They originally worked out of a winery in Prud and created their new winery in 2016. Their wines bear the name Syrtis, which translates as Prud, their family's village.

The winery produces about 100,000 bottles annually, 50% which are Plavac Mali, and their wines are generally 100% varietal. They possess a variety of oak barrels, including French, American, Hungarian, and Croatian. Within their cellar, they generally only store older Plavac Mali, selling off most of their fresh wine. Plavac Mali is an important Croatian grape, and Josip is engaged in intense research and experimentation to understand this grape, especially considering little prior research has been done on this significant grape. So, let's take a bit of a deeper dive into what is known about Plavac Mali.

Although Plavac Mali is first mentioned back in document back to 1841, genetic investigations seems to indicate that it is a much older grape. The lack of previous documentation may be due, at least in part, because Plavac Mali has long been thought to be Tribidag, though DNA testing has revealed that it is actually a cross between the Tribidag and Dobričić grapes. The name Plavac Mali translates as "small blue," which refers to its small, blue, thick-skinned grapes.

Plavac Mali was the first Croatian grape to have its own appellation, Dingač, which was established in 1961. Dingač, located on the Pelješac peninsula, continues to be known as one of the best regions for Plavac Mali. The grape is also said to be the most widely planted red grape in Croatia, though it's primarily found in the Dalmatia region. It grows best in areas with lots of sunshine and heat, and minimal rain during the late spring and summer.

It's a late ripening grape, and when I visited Croatia in mid-September, many of the vineyards hadn't yet harvested their Plavac Mali, though would soon do so. I should note though that some wineries, which produce Rosé from Plavac Mali, have separate plots for those grapes and had already harvested them. Plavac Mali grapes commonly have high sugar levels, which can lead to high alcohol levels, and they also often have high tannins as well. Although this seems like it would only make powerhouse wines, that is far from the case, and I was impressed with the wide variety of expressions I found in the various Plavac Mali wines I tasted during my time in Croatia.

Common flavors found within Plavac Mali wines includes blackberry, black cherry, plum, pepper, and spice, though sometimes you might also find herbal notes and earthiness. It produces wines that can age very well, and often is aged, at least for a short time, in oak. In Croatia, I tasted fresh and light Plavac Mali, at 13% ABV, but also bigger, bolder Plavac Mali at 16% ABV, and even a few at 18% ABV! However, the best versions were well balanced, and the high alcohol content wasn't readily noticeable. The tannins were commonly well integrated, and within the best wines, there was ample complexity and depth of flavor. This is a grape which can present greatness, which can compare well to other famed red grapes around the world.

Josip has a deep passion for Plavac Mali, and mentioned that as there has been so little research on the grape, he began a project to experiment with it, to delve deeper into its mysteries. His objective is to make perfect Plavac Mali, noting it's "an advantage to make one perfect wine from one perfect grape." Within Komarna, he stated that the pH of Plavac Mali is low, and it presents four types of berries on the wine. The dark red berries are the best for making wine, and the other three types include regular red, raisins, and green grapes (which get sorted out). There are also issues with the seeds in the grapes, which can put sour flavors in the wine, so it's important not to tear those seeds.

Their Plavac Mali commonly spends two years aging in oak, a blend of French, American and Croatian barrels, which they believe is the best blend of barrels. They use only about 10% new oak, and Josip also mentioned that Plavac Mali doesn't need much time in oak.

The primary focus of Josip's research, for the last four years, has been on evaluating Plavac Mali harvesting times as well as various maceration periods. In addition, Josip is "participating in a research project in collaboration with the Faculty of Medicine in Split on the topic: Biological effects of wine - the impact of vinification technology, deal-making and wine aging. It is funded by the Croatian Science Foundation." Eventually, Josip plans to publish a book with his findings, and he already helps his colleagues with Plavac Mali issues. And once Josip concludes his work with Plavac Mali, he will then start research and experimentation on the Pošip grape.

I loved Josip's passion and intelligence, his ardent curiosity about figuring out the puzzle of Plavac Mali. His endeavors will benefit the Komarna region, as well as many other areas of Croatia. Croatia needs more people like Josip, more people willing to study the grapes and terroir of Croatia to make their wine industry even better. Josip was also personable and humble, a very gracious host, and the type of person you want to sit down with over a glass of wine, and a plate of cheese, and just chat about life.

Our tasting began with a couple Rosés, beginning with the 2018 Volarević Le Chic Rosé, with a label clearly intended to appeal to women. This Rosé is made from 100% Plavac Mali, which is difficult as Plavac Mali grapes provide almost red juice, so it's hard to get a pink color, even with minimal maceration. With a 13.5% ABV, this was a dry, crisp and fruity wine, a pleasing drink which would be a fine summer wine.

The 2017 Volarević Rosé Premium, also made from 100% Plavac Mali and a 13.5% ABV, uses only free run juice. In addition, the final period of fermentation occurs in oak barrels, and later it ages for 3-4 months in stainless steel. This was a more complex and intriguing wine, which was crisp and dry, with more subtle red fruit flavors (especially strawberry and cherry), as well as a touch of herbs and floral elements. This was the type of Rosé that I would drink year round, savoring each sip, and it was also very food friendly. Highly recommended!

The 2018 Volarević Quattro is one of their non-Komarna wines, a wine that reflects their heritage as it was the type of wine their grandfather once made. It is a blend of four grapes, with 80% Chardonnay, and the other 20% including Ugni Blanc, Rkatsiteli, and Smederevka, which was once a common blend in Yugoslavia. It has a 12% ABV, saw no oak, and was interesting, with citrus flavors, subtle spice notes, some minerality and a touch of creaminess. This would make for an excellent seafood wine.

Onto another excellent seafood wine! The 2018 Volarević Pošip, made from 100% Pošip, underwent 6-12 hours of skin contact. spent five months in stainless steel and two months in the bottle. With 13.5% ABV, it had a nice golden yellow color with alluring aromatics. On the palate, it was fresh and crisp, with tasty flavors of citrus and peach, a hint of almonds, and a touch of floral honey. It was light bodied and compelling, and definitely would be great with shellfish, like the oysters of Ston. A hearty recommendation.

It was a treat to sample some 2019 Pošip from the tank, which wasn't fully fermented yet. Each Pošip is made in 3-4, each with different yeasts, which will later be blended together. This sample was lightly sweet with plenty of prominent peach and grapefruit flavors.

Moving onto their red wines, we began with the 2015 Plavac Mali, which comes in at 16% ABV. Looking at that ABV on the label, some wine lovers might be worried, concerned the wine would be too hot. This was not the case with this Plavac Mali, which was well balanced and you wouldn't suspect the ABV to be that high. The wine spent about 12 months or so in oak barrels, and then another 12 months in the bottle. It possessed an appealing nose of black fruits and spice, and the palate presented a complex and delicious taste. There were flavors of blueberry and plum, underlying spice notes, well-integrated tannins, and excellent acidity. It was silky smooth with a moderately long and satisfying finish. This wine beckons for a steak, or another hearty dish. An excellent introduction to this grape.

We then moved onto the 2016 Volarević "Gold Edition" Plavac Mali, which is only 15% ABV. This was a bigger, bolder wine, with stronger tannins but it wasn't overpowering in the least. You received a powerful and alluring aroma of black fruits and spice, both which also came out on the palate. Ripe plum, blackberry, a bit of blueberry, black pepper, dark spice and a hint of herbs, especially on the finish. There was a certain freshness to the wine as well. Complex, well balanced, and with a lengthy, satisfying finish. This is a wine best paired with a hearty dish, a big steak, wild game, or something similar.

With a little age, how would this Gold Edition turn out? We got a glimpse into this through the 2013 Volarević "Gold Edition" Plavac Mali, with a 15.5% ABV.  It still possessed a fresh element, though it had also mellowed some, with less tannins, presenting even more of a silky feel. The black fruit flavors and spice remained, though the spice had grown more subtle and there were now notes of leather and chocolate. Complex, well balanced and superb, just a true pleasure to slowly sip and enjoy. smooth. Highest recommendation!

Finally, we got a peek into Josip's research on Plavac Mali, through a tasting of six experimental bottles, all from the 2017 vintage. The first three wines were all from the time of their regular time while the second three were from a harvest ten days later. In each trio, they were divided by the length of maceration, 7, 21 and 45 days. The norm for most Croatian wineries is a 7 day maceration. Interestingly, all six of the wines had an 18.2% ABV, but they were so well balanced you would never have realized it. None of us at the tasting guessed the wines were that alcoholic. Overall, I preferred the 21 day macerated wines, as they seemed the best balanced, with the 45 day macerations being my second choice. Josip also mentioned that he preferred the 21 and 45 day maceration, though he didn't choose one over the other.

It was fascinating to get an insight into Josip's research, and it seems possible it could have significant ramifications for the Croatian wine industry and their use of Plavac Mali. If a longer maceration provides more complexity and depth of flavor to Plavac Mali, then maybe the norm of 7 days could change across the industry. It might also persuade other wineries to conduct their own research and experimentation, whether with Plavac Mali or other indigenous grapes.

After our tasting, Josip provided us lunch, a sign of his generous hospitality. In the Neretva Valley, frog legs are a traditional food and they took center stage at our lunch at Volarević. I love frog legs so I was excited for the dishes brought to our table. There were sautéed frog legs with onions, showcasing the tender meat of the frog.

There were also breaded, fried frog legs, adding a bit of crunch to the sweet meat.

The centerpiece of the lunch was Brudet, a traditional Croatian, tomato-based seafood stew. You'll find varieties of this stew across Croatia, though most commonly are made with tomatoes, olive oil, onions, garlic, parsley, salt, and pepper. Many different types of seafood can be used in this stew, though in the Neretva Valley, eels and frog legs is very common, and that is what we were served, atop polenta. A rich and hearty stew, the meaty eel was a nice addition to the lighter meat of the frog legs. It was spiced well, with rich garlic notes, and was an excellent pairing with Plavac Mali.

Every wine region needs wineries like Volarević, which engage in research and experimentation which can benefit the entire region. Within a relatively short time period, Volarević has also been producing an excellent range of wines and Rakija. As a number of these wines are currently available in Massachusetts, local wine lovers should check them out. And hopefully more of their portfolio will also become available in the near future. Volarević is another reason why you need to know more about the Komarna appellation.

No comments: