Monday, January 2, 2012

Port of Dubrovnik, Croatia – Plavac Mali and the Island of Peacocks and Cicadas (Lokrum)

As I drew back the curtains that morning, I’ll never forget the sight of the beautiful Croatian islands that appeared on all sides of the ship as we sailed into the port of Dubrovnik. We sat and sipped coffee on the balcony as we marveled at the beauty of the rocky islands with small fir trees – some deserted and some with houses along tiny sandy beaches. Equally impressive was the port with the large bridges as the ship sailed into the narrow inlet outside the old city walls.

Dubrovnik was the main city was had come to visit on this trip, because it is the homeland of my mother’s great grandparents who lived there and on the island of Mljet before immigrating to California in the 1850’s. She had always dreamed of visiting, and so this was a very special day for us. It was also extremely beautiful with clear blue skies and a forecast in the high 80’s.

Since we were planning on walking the city walls, we paid the $10 per person to take the bus. We were glad we did when we saw how long the walk would have been, but we were surprised at how many people did walk from the ship to the old city. As soon as we exited the bus we were drawn to the stone walls overlooking the ocean. The view was breath-taking with the steep fortified walls rising up high from the crystal clear water. You could see every rock and fish swimming below, and there were people kayaking.

Walking the City Walls

We entered the city walls and turned right to purchase our tickets (70 kuna – about $12 and you must get Croatian money from an ATM because they do not accept euros or dollars). The walk around the city walls is not to be missed, because the views of the ocean and across the rooftops are amazing. However, I would not do it during the heat of the day because it is rather strenuous, and took a little over an hour. We shot many photos, stopped to buy water, and felt sad when we saw some of the destroyed lots that had not been rebuilt after the war. Dubrovnik is also a UNESCO world heritage site, and they have received some money to rebuild, but it is still shocking to think someone would bomb such a beautiful city as recently as the 1990’s. However, much of the beauty still remains and it truly deserves its namesake “Pearl of the Adriatic.”

After the walk, we stopped in a small café for an iced coffee and then wandered down to the harbor, stopping to look in a few shops along the way. I was actually surprised to see how small the old city of Dubrovnik is – completely pedestrian and you can walk around the whole inside area in less than an hour. It is filled with outdoor cafes, fountains, cobble-stone streets and many shops.

The Beautiful Island of Lokrum

My mother had read about the island of Lokrum, so we jumped on a ferry and sailed the 15 minute ride to the island. As we approached I was amazed to see people sunbathing on the large flat boulders that surrounded the shore, as well as jumping off rocks into the shimming blue waves. It seemed like we were approaching one of the islands in Odysseus’s travels and were being lured on shore by the sunbathers.

We decided to explore the island first before determining where to have lunch. It is small, tree covered, and filled with strolling peacocks and the sound of cicadas. I felt like I dropped into a fairytale and was on an enchanted isle. There are only two establishments – the first is a small restaurant near the dock area which is charming with tables set amongst the trees overlooking the water. They serve sandwiches and salads. There is also an old stone monastery with a beautiful garden and a restaurant that serves grilled fish on outdoor picnic tables. The rest of the island is filled with chairs to relax in under trees, a salt pond to swim in, and the beautiful rocky shores for sunbathing and swimming.

After wandering around, the lure of fresh fish was too much to ignore, so we took a table that had a view of the ocean and enjoyed a lovely lunch of grilled local octopus, green salad, and a glass of the house white wine. It was a dry Muscat with a subdued nose, honey and lemon on the palate, with medium plus acid and length – perfect with the fish. Afterwards we walked to the salt pond and watched kids swing out on a rope over the pond and dive in. Eventually we summoned the courage to go in ourselves and found the water refreshing and very buoyant due to all the salt.

Next we decided to try to the ocean so we walked to a place where the rocks formed large terraces near the water and there were ladders attached so you could go in the waves. It was a little bit frightening trying to lower yourself into the water because the waves smashed against the rocks and the tide was high, but eventually I got in for a few minutes and found the water very clean and invigorating. It was more difficult getting out as it was hard to grab the ladder and not get smashed into the rocks. We sunbathed a bit on the warm boulders, and then later walked to the other side of the island near the dock and swam and sunbathed more. After about three hours we caught the ferry back to Dubrovnik and enjoyed the view of sailing into the city from the magical island of Lokrum.

Back in town, we spent several hours shopping and I bought mom a special necklace to remember her visit to Dubrovnik. She bought me a bracelet and then we stopped in a café for ice cream and a drink before catching the bus back to the ship. As we were standing in the security line getting ready to board – and I was feeling a little regretful that I was leaving Croatia without tasting its most famous red wine – Plavac Mali (zinfandel), I saw a small shop with a large sign in the window stating “Zinfandel's homeland.” Telling mom I’d meet her on the ship, I made a beeline for the shop named “Everything Croatian.”

Tasting Plavac Mali at Everything Croatian Shop

They were only charging $1 euro to taste the wine, or make a purchase from the shop. I bought a coffee mug for mom and was allowed to taste two lovely plavac malis. The shop owner was very friendly and provided a nice overview of Croatia’s signature red grape and its history. He explained that the grape we call Zinfandel in California is originally from Croatia where it is related to Plavac Mali. It then migrated to Puglia where the Italians call it Primativo. Rumor suggests it is the Italians who brought it to California during the gold rush where it was planted in the Sierra Foothills and called Zinfandel.

Caveat: Even though many Croatians believe that Plavic Mali is the same grape as Zinfandel, Dr. Carole Meredith of UC-Davis proved in 1998 that Plavic Mali is not the same as zinfandel, but is, instead, an offspring of zinfandel. The true Croatian zinfandel grape is called Crljenak Kaštelanski (quite a mouthful!). Dr. Meredith proved through DNA fingerprinting that Crljenak Kaštelanski (sometimes called Kastela Red) is genetically similar to zinfandel.

Regardless, I enjoyed listening to the shop owner's explanation. I then told him I was from Sonoma, California, home of some incredible zinfandel. Continuing I told him I had just visited Bari to taste their primativo’s the day before, and so it was exciting to be tasting plavac mali in Croatia -- the real home of zinfandel.

The first wine was 2009 Matusko Plavac Mali (69 kuna) with soft velvety tannins, bright berry flavors, medium body, no noticeable oak and quite high alcohol. It was pleasant, but my favorite was the 2006 Potomje Matusko Plavac Mali Dingac with a dark berry nose, spice, intensely concentrated with an elegance you don’t often find on zin, complimented by a very long finish. The owner showed me a map and explained that the Dingac region is known as having the best plavac and is similar to Napa Valley in Croatia wine region fame. He mentioned that Poscip was also a well known region for growing plavac. Next time, I will make sure I can visit these areas and spend more time.

I would recommend this shop as a great place to try plavac mali in a friendly relaxed atmosphere. There are many tourist items for sale, and he has a nice selection of wines. Unfortunately cruise ships do not allow you to bring wine on board, so it is only possible to taste on shore. It was interesting to us to see how many people left the ship and immediately went to a local café to have a beer or glass of wine.

It was difficult to leave Dubrovnik – such a beautiful city by the sea. We stood on our balcony and watched the shore as it faded from sight. The ship then sailed through the islands as the last of the sun was fading and we headed back out into the Adriatic. Good bye Croatia – we will return again!

Funny Video on Plavac Mali, Primativo, and Zinfandel

The Port of Bari, Italy – Burrata Cheese and the Famous Primativo Grape

Sept. 2011 - The ship docked in Bari two hours late because of a strike going on in the city that day. Apparently all the transportation workers were picketing so there was no way to obtain taxis, buses, etc. However, when the strike was over we were allowed to go into the city around 1pm. This is another port where you can actually walk from the ship to the old city of Bari (about ½ mile walk), but as the day was very hot, we decided to pay to take the bus.

Bari is located in the Puglia region of Italy (also called Apulia) near the heel of the boot, and is the second largest city in Southern Italy after Naples. Like Naples, it has a reputation of being rather a “rough” city and we were cautioned to be wary of pick-pockets and to keep a tight hold on our purses. Despite these warnings, we found the city lively, fun, and friendly. It should be noted that many tourists opted to skip Bari and go instead to the Unesco town of Arbelobello with its famous conical stone houses near the sea. I would have enjoyed visiting this town, but wanted to see Bari as well, so it will have to wait until my next visit to the region – and I definitely plan to return to visit the famous wineries of Puglia.

As the day was hot, our first stop was to purchase a delicious Italian gelato, then we wandered through the narrow streets of the old walled city. It was very charming with small shops, restaurants, and laundry strung between buildings. We visited the famous Basilica of San Sabino built in 1035 with its shrine to St. Nicholas – yes, the original Santa Claus is said to have originated in Bari. It was fascinating to visit with some unusual underground crypts. Next we walked along the walls of the old Swabian Castle and visited a few shops, before heading to the wine bar, Blanc de Noir, to meet my friend Antonio.

Antonio is wine professor who is from the region and teaches at the University of Bari. I had met him at academic conferences in previous years in New Zealand and France. When I contacted him to ask where to try regional wines in Bari, he suggested we meet at a wine bar near the old city. Blanc de Noir is an impressive, modern style wine bar with a whimsical décor of black and white poka-dot walls. We were met by the sommelier, Jack Lavanco, who proceeded to provide an excellent presentation of local wines, cheeses, and meats. In fact, we were served so much food, we had to skip dinner that evening on the ship.

Amazing Burrata Cheese of Puglia

Before discussing wines, I must first mention the amazing local cheese called “burrata” which we had read about, but never tasted. This is because it is very difficult to export being a delicate creamy soft cheese made of mozzarella and cream. It is designed to be eaten fresh and almost immediately, and it melted in my mouth with the most delightful creamy flavors. There were also many local meats (salami, prosciutto) and other cheeses, along with “tarralli” which looks like a small pretzel and is made from fried polenta.

Wines of Pulgia – Primativo, Negroamaro and Nero de Troia

Antonio provided a brief overview of the wines of the region, stating that Puglia had over 300 wineries, and was the second largest wine producing region in Italy after the Veneto. They have 3 signature red grapes, which the first being “Primativo” – a clone of California’s Zinfandel, which came to Puglia across the Adriatic from Croatia where it is known as “Plavac Mali.” Since Americans love Zinfandel so much, Primativo has become better known in the US. The second signature grape of Pulgia is “Negroamaro” which creates a full-bodied berry flavored wine with plush tannins and is best known as coming from the commune of Salice Salento. The third grape is “Nero de Troia,” which is relatively unknown in the States. I had the opportunity to taste it several years ago when Antonio had brought a bottle to our NZ wine conference. It is a very dark, earthy wine with black fruit and high acidity which I very much enjoyed.

For this tasting, however, Jack our sommelier had decided on showcasing the wines of Alberto Longo (, a small local producer focusing on artisan style wines at higher prices points ($20 euros per bottle and higher). The first was an exquisite 2010 Le Fossette Falanghina made in stainless steel. It was a light yellow in color with melon and floral nose, and an intriguing salty taste on the palate. We also tried a sparkling version made with the same grape, but this was not to my taste – reminding me more of beer than wine. Next was a 2009 Donnadelle Rosato de Negroamara which was lovely, with a light berry nose/palate, very dry and refreshing.

The showpiece was a red wine blend made from Nero de Troia, Montepulciano, Bombino Nero and Bombino Bianco (the last two grapes, according to Jack, being the Italian equivalents of red and white grenache). This was the 2008 Cacc’e Mmitie di Lucera DOCG. It was a massive high alcohol wine with big tannins, dark fruit, and earthy notes. It was very complex with a long finish. As I could see my mother scowling over the big tannins, I asked if we could conclude with a dessert wine. Smiling, Jack brought out a sweet muscat which my mother loved. To end the delightful meal, we tried Il Tartufo Liqour Ice, which was made from liquorish ice cream – quite amazing!

After profusely thanking Antonio and Jack for the wonderful three hour repast, we departed into the still very hot evening and decided we needed to walk more before returning to the ship. As Bari is also known for its excellent shopping and good prices, we walked back to the modern part of the town and spent some time visiting the stores before heading back to the ship for the evening. That night I dreamed of a big platter of burrata cheese with a delight red wine from Puglia.

Port of Ravenna, Italy – Mosaics and the Albana and Burson Grapes

Sept. 2011 – Our ship arrived in the port of Ravenna in the late morning. The day was overcast with a potential for slight drizzle, but the air was warm. We paid to take the bus into the town because it was too far to walk and the docks were in an ugly industrial area. However, once we were dropped off in the city center, we found the pedestrian-only downtown to be delightful. It was filled with old squares, outdoor cafes, fountains, and small streets lined with shops.

Ravenna, established in the 400’s, is a UNESCO world heritage site famous for its amazing mosaics which decorate many of its ancient churches and buildings. We made our way immediately to the Basilica of San Vitale and had to wait in a long line to purchase tickets to see the mosaics – but it was worth it. Commissioned by the Emperor Justinian who ruled Ravenna when it was part of the Byzantine Empire in the 700’s – and one of the few bright places during the Middle Ages – the mosaics in the church are a glowing massive work of art. They cover most of the ceilings and walls and are incredibly bright and realistic with scenes of Jesus and other religious stories. A definite must stop place for all who love art and history.

Piadina Bread with Albana and Longanesi Burson Grapes

After the tour we made our way to a small wine bar and restaurant called La Mariola Casa & Bottega which was recommended by the Ravenna tourist office as a good place to taste local wines, cheeses, and meats. Ravenna, being located in the region of Emilia-Romagna, is one of the few parts of Italy that is not known for any particular wines, but is instead, world famous for Parmesan cheese and prosciuttos. Despite this reputation, we found that the owner of Mariola was very proud of the local wines he offered, and indeed we found them quite delightful.

He served us a large plate filled with different cheeses, meats, and the local flat bread called “piadina.” These were all delicious and fun to try, and paired beautifully with the DOCG white wine made from the local Albana grape. It had a lemon citrus/floral nose, and on the palate had a crisp acidity and some minerality. It was unoaked and refreshing. The brand was Zerbina 2010 Albana Secco DOCG at $12 euros per bottle. Mom had the Tremonti Chardonnay Ciardo 2010 with a hint of botrytis. It was full-bodied and off dry ($16 euros per bottle).

Probably most interesting was the red wine made from Longanesi Burson, which the owner said was an ancient Italian grape. This was a big complex earthy wine with some oak aging. It was blended with a little sangiovese and graf noir. As it had been open for two days, I found it a little oxidized with some strange carmel notes, but it was pleasant with big, smooth tannins, full-bodied, and dried cherry tones. The brand was Augusto 2003 IGT Ravenna Rosso for $17 euros per bottle.

We spent a delightful two hours at the bottega and then visited a few tourist shops in Ravenna before making our way back to the bus and ship. After visiting Ravenna, I swore that when I returned to the States I would buy a mosaic kit and try to make a small patio table top – to commemorate my visit to such an amazing place.