At 2 o’clock in the afternoon the iPhone was showing 38 degrees. A nearly two-metre long snake was quickly slithering across the road. “It’s not a viper, don’t be afraid, it’s probably a smooth snake,” calmly said Marin Matić, manager of the Korlat Vineyard (the source of the grapes used for Badel’s wine of the same name) near Benkovac. “I mean, this area is full of vipers. I’m actually surprised that you haven’t run into at least one of them while you were photographing the vineyard,” continued Matić, while he slowed his massive Dodge pick-up so as not to crush anything unsuspectingly on the road ahead.
The hinterland around Zadar is well known to have probably the largest population of vipers in Croatia. The Korlat Vineyards, located a fifteen-minute drive along the gravel road from the Benkovac Winery, are an integral part of their habitat, especially since Korlat was nothing but rock until 2004.
Biggest adventure of Croatian Winemaking
At that time, the management board of Badel 1862 decided to embark on one of the most exciting adventures in the recent history of Croatian viticulture. In the middle of Benkovac’s rocky terrain, where only vipers lived, Badel decided to plant more than a hundred hectares of vineyards. The founding father of this magnificent enterprise was professor Nikola Mirošević, expert in Croatian ampelography, while the project was developed by the director of viticulture and winemaking, Dubravko Ćuk. After thousands of hours of work with excavators and trenchers, the surface of the rocky terrain was transformed so that the vines could be planted. The final result is quite sensational.
Korlat is certainly the most beautiful large vineyard in Croatia. The wine from Korlat receives excellent marks, thanks in no small part to the unique microclimate. The Korlat complex consists of a series of large vineyard plots, which are best seen from an altitude of some three hundred meters above sea level, beyond the Shiraz vines.
On the far right are the plots of Mourverdre and Cabernet Franc, which in a few years may provide some excellent Cuvee Korlat. Then there are the plots of Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Shiraz vines planted in a grey soil of mixed geological origin, and on the far left is the Merlot.
Special treatment of Merlot
Part of the Merlot vineyards have been dedicated to eco production, which among other things means that the use of herbicides is strictly prohibited. “Merlot is under a special category, and we do spray other areas minimally,” explained Mr. Matić, a Zagrebian by birth but who moved to Zadar with his wife because of his job at the Benkovac Winery. “We do much more landscaping and weeding here, rather than spraying, because the vegetation is completely wild and very dense. It rains every other day so the grass grows in the vineyards like a jungle. However, the important thing is that the grapes are not affected by these unusual climatic conditions. The wind is constantly blowing on Korlat, which means the grapes are naturally protected from most diseases.”
Actually, the 38 degree weather in the Merlot and Shiraz vineyards above Benkovac didn’t feel so hot because of the constant breeze. “There are days when the skies above Korlat are so clear that from right here, from the Shiraz vineyard where we stand now, you can see all the way to Mali Lošinj,” said Mr. Matić enthusiastically. After walking and driving around the vineyards taking photos, we went down to the Benkovac winery, which was built in 1957.
There are Korlat wines here being aged from last year’s excellent harvest, which will fill more than 400,000 bottles. Korlat currently produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, and recently Rosé, some sweet Merlot Boutique, and several spirits. In the past five years, all wines from Korlat have won international awards. Korlat wines on the Croatian market represent great value for money, as there are very few top-quality Dalmatian wines whose prices do not exceed one hundred kuna.
Enologist, Juraj Sladić, an energetic young man full of passion for wine, showed us the production process. Once the grapes from Korlat arrive from the vineyards they get pressed, then sent to the fermenters where the temperature never exceeds 30 degrees, and the first alcoholic fermentation takes place. “We don’t want the extract to be too concentrated,” explained Sladić. The wine then goes into concrete tanks coated in stainless steel, where it mellows and begins the malolactic fermentation. Afterwards, the wines labeled as Korlat 18 to 24 months are placed in various oak barrels until they are ready for market in 3 to 4 years after harvest. This, of course, does not apply to the Rosé, which is sold in the first year after harvest.
At the winery we tasted a number of wines from 2015, which will appear on the market in 2018 or 2019. The base of the Cabernet Sauvignon was still very closed, but also firmly structured. The Cabernet Sauvignon which was harvested a little later, in early October, was almost outstanding, with a clean scent of black currant and a very strong acidity. “All of our wines have a natural acidity of more than six grams.
Sensation from the old winery cisterns
That’s the secret of Korlat’s freshness, balance and elegance,” Mr. Sladić proudly commented. By comparison, most of the world’s Merlot and Shiraz barely exceed five grams total of acids. The Merlot is still at an early stage of development; while the Shiraz from 2015 is full of black pepper and blackberry, which thrilled at the first tasting.
But the most surprising for us was the wine from the tanks containing a mixture of Mourverdre and Cabernet Franc. It was fresh, fruity, noble, aromatically complex and nearly ready for bottling. And after several months in mellow oak, this wine would be extraordinary. Badel still has not decided whether to bottle it under a new brand of Korlat Cuvee, or use this great wine as part of the mix for their three existing dry wines.
To look upon Korlat is to look upon the truly spectacular terroir of central Dalmatia. A few hours at Korlat’s vineyards allows us to smell, feel and truly experience the heat, the stone and the grapes of one of the most beautiful parts of the Croatian. The source of some of the best Croatian wines.