It was big news in 2001 and 2002 when DNA analysis proved that a few old vines in Kaštela and Omiš were genetically the same as Zinfandel, a grape variety widely planted in California. Even bigger news, the grape is originally from Dalmatia, where it is called Crljenak Kaštelanski (around Kaštela) or Tribidrag (its older name). We tasted six Croatian Zinfandels to see how they rate.
We were interested to see whether Croatian Zinfandel has its own identity. When grape vines migrate to far-flung places, they tend to develop individual characteristics over the years. So, in theory, Croatian Tribidrag tastes slightly different from California Zinfandel and slightly different from Primitivo, which is the same grape grown in Puglia, Italy. But in practice, the grapes grown in these different locations are similar enough that winemaking style can easily outmaneuver terroir—the influence of place. In the end, it depends on the wine maker’s philosophy.
Should Tribidrag cling to its Old World roots, with an emphasis on the flavors of the grapes and how they express the vineyard and climate, and with a controlled level of alcohol and subtle use of oak? Or should it bank on its New World Zinfandel connection, which on a commercial level is high in alcohol and oaky flavors, and super fruity, with less earthiness than its Old World counterpart? Our tasting offers some of each style and a few in between. Experiment and choose for yourself!
Note: This tasting is meant to be readable, not comprehensive. We tasted six wines, not 60. The wines are listed in alphabetical order by producer. A star (*) indicates wines that stood out for their quality and flavor on the day of the tasting. Prices are those at the winery or winery webshop.
Kaštel Sikuli Kaštelanski Crljenak 2018 (Kaštel Stari) 150 kn
This Crljenak is the private project of Ivica Kovačević, director of Stina winery on Brač (Stina’s version appears below). This is an almost delicate wine—in spite of 14% alcohol. It channels the vineyard, with its cherry and light wildflower aromas. The oak takes a back seat to flavors of earthy cherry, tobacco and black tea. Dignified. It made one guest taster want Texas brisket.
*Vina Matela Crljenak Kaštelanski 2017 (Kaštel Sučurac) 70 kn
If you lean toward earthy rather than fruity, restrained rather than over the top, you are an Old World character, and this is your Crljenak. With cherry fruit tea and dry hay aromas, and flavors of tart pie cherries with a touch of wood and a dash of horse saddle, this is sophisticated, not flashy. Super elegant, a fantastic food wine. And you can’t beat the price.
Matuško Zinfandel Selection 2018 (Pelješac) 80 kn
One of two solidly New World–style wines in our tasting, the Matuško is almost confectionary, with its intense cocoa aroma and flavors of vanilla, carob and coffee. And if those aren’t appealing enough, it is also pleasantly drinkable, with reasonable alcohol (14%) and smooth, unchallenging tannins. Delicious, but guest tasters asked, “Are there actually grapes in there?”
*Putalj Zinfandel 2019 (Kaštel Sučurac) 125 kn
Sometimes a wine is so strongly the crowd favorite that I find I can’t disagree. If you are drawn to big, high-alcohol (15.5%) reds with plenty of vanilla and clove flavors from the barrels, Putalj tops the New World charts. Guest tasters loved its generosity, Cherry Coke flavors and long finish. Well made, exuberant, this makes a fine cocktail wine, or serve it with meaty barbecue amply brushed with sauce.
Rizman Tribidrag 2019 (Komarna) 145 kn
A beautiful balance of delicate and rich, fruity and earthy. First, enjoy the hint of floral aroma, like cherry blossoms sprinkled over a bowl of blackberries and cherries. Then indulge in the flavors of chocolate-covered cherries, ripe blackberries, vanilla and tobacco, with a lingering finish of black tea. It’s a cycle of ample fruit and a touch of bitter that rewards and refreshes, over and over. Organic.
Stina Tribidrag 2018 (Brač) 200 kn
The Stina is a wine of plenty: plenty of fruit and other rich flavors, plenty of oak, plenty of alcohol. It is a New World style of wine, but more restrained in its “baking flavors”—vanilla, cocoa, etc.—than the Matuško and Putalj. Look for brandied cherries, light cocoa and vanilla, a bit of delicate dry straw, black tea and a nice long finish. This is a wine for food.
Cheers Croatia Magazine conducts wine tastings in the semi-blind format. This means that we know what wines we have, but they are placed in numbered bags so we can’t identify them during the tasting. Wines for tastings are purchased, or occasionally donated by the winery. See the magazine’s Affiliations and Gifts Policy for more information.