Wine: Balkan beginnings

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Croatia plays a significant part in New Zealand's wine heritage.

Babich The Patriarch Hawke's Bay 2009 $60. Photo / Babiche Martens
Babich The Patriarch Hawke's Bay 2009 $60. Photo / Babiche Martens

With a name like Babic on the label of the bottles lined up in front of me, for a moment I thought I was back in New Zealand. But no, I was on the other side of the world at a Wines of Croatia tasting, which provided both a reminder of our wine industry's roots in this Balkan nation, as well as evidence that it's currently making some truly intriguing and distinctive wines.

Of all the immigrants who came to New Zealand, those from Croatia's Dalmatian coast had arguably the greatest impact on New Zealand's fledgling wine industry. Coming from a country where wine is deeply imbedded in the culture and a vine-growing tradition dates back more than 2000 years, the Dalmatians brought with them the desire and skills to make wine that can still be felt in the vineyards and wines of New Zealand today.

One Croatian who left a huge mark on New Zealand's wines was the viticultural expert Romeo Bragato. His investigations into the potential of New Zealand as a winegrowing nation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and subsequent recommendations formed the basis of many of our country's contemporary grape growing practices.

Croatians were behind some of the country's early vineyards and many of those early wine families have remained important names in our modern wine industry. Babich is one of these. The winery was founded by Josip Babich, who like many early immigrants from Croatia's Dalmatia region, initially earned his living though tough work in the kauri gum fields in the far north. He planted his first vineyard above one of these and now the family is celebrating 95 years of the label.

In Kumeu, the Soljan family planted their first vines in 1932, while a little over a decade later the purchase of a vineyard saw the Brajkovich family establish San Marino Vineyards, which was to become Kumeu River. Both of these wineries are still family-owned.

New Zealanders of Croatian descent are behind some of our biggest wine brands. Oyster Bay, owned by the Delegats, is the family label started by Nikola Delegat in the mid 20th century, while Villa Maria was established in the 60s by Sir George Fistonich, whose Croatian heritage, he acknowledged, meant "wine is part of my blood". Though the likes of Villa Maria are still family-owned, other big Croatian wine names are now in corporate hands, such as the iconic Selaks and Nobilo labels, currently owned by the US-based drinks multinational, Constellation.

In Croatia today, winemaking is still going strong despite its turbulent history. Although small by international standards, with around 33,000 hectares of vineyards, it has a similar area under vine as in New Zealand.

At the Wines of Croatia tasting in London last month I was pleasantly surprised by the quality and refreshing diversity on offer.

As well as more internationally ubiquitous grapes such as pinot gris - and there were some exciting examples - it was the local and lesser known varieties that really piqued my interest.

I was impressed by the intense examples of its most widely planted variety, grasevina - otherwise known as welschriesling - and wowed by another popular white variety, the musky and nutty malvazija istriana.

The reds tended to be more rustic, but one standout was plavac mali with its ripe and robust briar fruit character. It's a descendant of Croatia's crljenak kastelanski, which was recently found to be the original version of what is known as zinfandel in the US and primitivo in Italy.

Though you won't see any Croatian wine on our shelves, the country's winemaking spirit is certainly alive and well in some of New Zealand's greatest and most popular local labels.

CROATIAN HERITAGE

FOR A FOUNDING FATHER
Babich The Patriarch Hawke's Bay 2009
$60
A structured and fragrant cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and malbec blend made in honour of Babich's founder, Josip Babich, which layers ripe and velvety textured blackcurrant and cherry fruit over notes of spice and violet. (From Caro's, Point Wines, Glengarry, Advintage.)

PIONEER STOCK
Kumeu River Mate's Vineyard Chardonnay 2009
$55.99
One of the country's top chardonnays made from the original vineyard site purchased by the Brajkovich family in 1944. Restrained and elegant, combining delicate white peach with nutty savoury nuances and an intense undercurrent of citrus and chalky minerality. (From Caro's, Fine Wine Delivery Company, Glengarry, Kumeu River.)

NEW HERITAGE
Selaks Heritage Reserve Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2011
$19.99
Sourced predominantly from the Awatere, this exuberant sauvignon from a new range from this label with Croatian roots, exudes pungent green herbs and gooseberry, plus a kick of lime and an attractive minerally finish. (From Countdown, New World, specialist liquor retailers.)

- NZ Herald

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