With 300 distinct wine villages in Croatia, winemaking and drinking has been firmly entrenched in the culture since Roman times. The country can roughly be split in two — the areas farther inland that are more continental, and the coastal regions that also include several islands. White wine definitely reigns, accounting for about two-thirds of all vineyard plantings. However, there are some great reds, especially made on the Dalmatian coast from the plavac mali grape.
A hybrid of crljenak kastelanski, the original zinfandel grape, and dobricic, an ancient varietal from Solta, an island off the coast, plavac mali is floral and spicy. I’ve had versions that have been heavy and intense, but it can also be light and elegant. Probably the most accessible Croatian wine you’ll find in California, both in terms of flavor and availability, plavac mali is a great place to start if you are curious about Croatian wine or love zinfandel. Here are a few to track down.
Zlatan Otok Plavac Mali, 2010 (Vrpolje, Croatia): Founded in 1986, Zlatan Otok has become one of the best-known and esteemed producers in Croatia. It makes several wines from plavac, with this bottling being the simplest, and at the same time offering a refreshing, unfettered version of the grape. Fermented using native yeast in large, old oak barrels and stainless-steel tanks, it has some tannin but retains its grace with black pepper, raspberries and plums. Suggested retail: $20
Milos Plavac, 2009 (Peljesac Peninsula, Croatia): When I first tried Milos’ wines, several years ago, I noticed they had an oxidative character that reminded me of Rioja. This is deliberate and ultimately permits the wines to live longer. Now nearly 5 years old, Milos’ most basic bottling of plavac is just really taking off. It is moderately tannic with hints of cola, cherries and a little bit of animal hide in the nose — a little — and a frightfully long finish. There is a lot of quality here for the money. While the importer is sold out, there is still some around, so try to grab a bottle if you can find one. Suggested price: $23
Grgic Vina’s Plavac Mali, 2008 (Dalmatia, Croatia): Grgich is famous for the chardonnay he made while at Chateau Montelena that won Judgement of Paris in 1976, and his contribution to the discovery that zinfandel is actually crljenak kastelanski cannot be underestimated. In 1996, he and his daughter, Violet, started a winery near Dubrovnik with plavac mali one of its primary grapes. Multifaceted with cardamom, black pepper, rose petals and layers of fruit, with a little rusticity, this is a prime example of plavac mali in all its glory. Suggested price: $35
Pamela S. Busch has been working in the wine industry since 1990 as a writer, educator and consultant and co-founded Hayes & Vine Wine Bar and Cav Wine Bar & Kitchen. In 2013, she launched TheVinguard.com, a blog covering a variety of wine-related topics.