Anthony Bourdain's foul-mouthed exuberance for wine and food can be infectious. You can pretty much gauge the American chef's passion for a subject based on the expletive count in his globetrotting Travel Channel series No Reservations, and there's no shortage of unfit-for-newsprint words in one recent episode about a country starting to make a splash on the international culinary scene. "The next big thing is Croatia," he announced. "If you haven't been here, you're a [bleeping] idiot."
Strong words even for Bourdain, who admits to having known little about the place apart from what he saw on cable-news war footage two decades ago. Just across the Adriatic from Venice, Croatia offers gastronomy that has much in common with that of northeastern Italy. You'll find risotto and pasta there as well as awesome seafood and so much more.
And you'll find wine. The Central European country has been cultivating grapes since well before the Roman era. Much is based on indigenous varieties infrequently seen elsewhere, mostly seafood-friendly whites but also some reds, including earthy plavac mali, one of the more prominent varieties. The grape was once thought to be the same as California's zinfandel, but it turned out to be a case of mistaken identity; wrong grape but right country. DNA records now show that zin did in fact come from Croatia, where it goes by the more cumbersome name crljenak kastelanski.
A major per-capita wine consumer, Croatia exports just 5 per cent of its 120-million-litre annual production. It's a trickle, and bottles are hard to come by in Canada. But with industry investments following the Croatian War of Independence in the early 1990s, chances are we'll see more eventually. I was excited to discover three released this week in Ontario Vintages stores. They're included below along with a selection from other wine-producing countries fighting for better presence in saturated global markets: Israel, Georgia and tiny Moldova, the latter, incidentally, named the world leader in per-capita alcohol consumption by the World Health Organization.
Frano Milos Plavac 2009 (Croatia)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $19.95
There's some age on this one, and you can tell from the rusty rim of the wine's surface in the glass. Medium-full-bodied, it betrays its six years with a subtle prune-like flavour that's answered nicely by notes of chocolate and peppercorn along with an undercurrent of sweet pipe tobacco. It should match favourably with meaty stews or osso buco.
Peljesac 2010 (Croatia)
SCORE: 86 PRICE: $11.95
The nose could almost be Italian, suggesting – at least to me – Chianti crossed with barbera. Made from plavac mali, it's medium-bodied, showing nuances of cherry, plum and violet and a hint of milk chocolate on the modestly tannic, chewy finish. Try this red with grilled pork chops or sausages.
Giorgi Mirianashvili Chelti Dry Red Wine 2007 (Georgia)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $15
This is made from saperavi, a native Georgian grape distinctive for its dark colour (the word means "dye"). It is reminiscent here of merlot, with a smooth texture, medium-full body and juicy-plum profile. There's a subtle sweetness balanced by lively acidity, mild spice and dry tannins. Grilled sausages or pork chops would be nice.
Available by the case in Ontario direct from Nikolashvili Wines, email@example.com, 647-770-6962.
Krizevci Grasevina 2010 (Croatia)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $11.95
Widely planted in Central Europe, grasevina is known elsewhere as welschriesling, a variety unrelated to the more vaunted Rhine riesling of Germany. It's usually light and crisp, with an apple-like flavour, and that's the case here. Clean and fresh, this white delivers an uncanny flavour of applesauce without the sweetness.
Perfect for grilled, citrus-marinated shellfish, squid or octopus.
Clos de Gat Ayalon Valley 2007 (Israel)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $47.95
Ambitious producer Clos de Gat derives its name from French and Hebrew. The first word denotes a vineyard enclosed by stone walls, while "gat" is Hebrew for wine press, a reference to a pre-Roman item that sits on the property on the foothills of the Judean mountains. This is an impressive, polished red blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and petit verdot, rich and smooth in the middle, with lovely, fresh herbs and spicy oak – New World meets Old World. Steak would do it proud.
Clos de Gat Chardonnay 2009 (Israel)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $47.95
Medium-full-bodied, it caresses the palate with a soft texture and flavours of stone fruits, orange, brown sugar and vanilla. The oak is well-integrated, showing a hint of spice on the long finish. The match: chicken or pasta in cream sauce.
Shiloh Shor Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (Israel)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $32.95
A kosher product (but not mevushal), it is full-bodied and creamy, with succulent cassis, blueberry, dark chocolate, vanilla and spice. Match it with roasted red meats.
Gamla The Reserve Merlot 2010 (Israel)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $28.95
This red is kosher, mevushal and mediumfull- bodied, with notes of plum, raspberry, chocolate, vanilla and pepper pulled together by fine, dry tannins. Great for roast leg of lamb or duck breast.
Nikolashvili's Vineyards Saperavi 2008 (Georgia)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $15
An organic red, it's medium-full-bodied, creamy and very dry. Vaguely reminiscent of French syrah, it offers up flavours of plum, spice and herbs as well as a floral quality. Braised red meats would pair well. Available by the case in Ontario directly from Nikolashvili Wines, irakli.organic@ gmail.com, 647-770-6962.
Carlevana Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (Moldova)
SCORE: 83 PRICE: $12.95
A juicy, medium-bodied red with a slightly oxidized character of prune and dried tobacco, it displays an attractive core of cherry and a light tannic grip. Not as fresh as I'd like, but it is decent. Suitable for lamb shanks.