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June 29, 2016 | Kult Plave Kamenice

How Milan Budinski Became Croatia’s Biggest Enological Star

Milan Budinski is a complete fanatic about his job. We met him in mid-March, at dinner in Laguna’s estate Špin, while tasting twenty or so Laguna wines with Oz Clarke, a great British wine writer. We immediately noticed that specific, firm, professional, sporty body language, while Budinski explained what he rated in a certain wine, and in another wine, why this wine has to be exactly like this, and another wine completely different, and what is important and what is superfluous in modern Malvasias.

During our hours-long debate, Mr Budinski was, naturally, polite enough to listen to others’, not necessarily affirmative, opinions without interrupting them, but he didn’t flinch even once, and instead determinedly defended his position, even when he was in the minority.

In Laguna’s tasting room in Poreč at the end of April, Milan Budinski displayed the same steadfastness, enthusiasm and confidence, when we discussed the specific features of Istrian wines, as well as in general discussing the local and international wine industries.

Big Wineries, Small Wineries

Thanks to the strength of his convictions, self-sacrifice and rigour, he reminded us of Tvrtko Šakota, one of the leading Croatian chefs: it’s probably what  young professionals in the world of food and wine must be like, given that they have been totally dedicated to their work from an early age.

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“You know, when I was still young, during the time that I spent in America I learnt that the division into big and small wineries, as we see it in Croatia, is in fact quite questionable and that quality is not necessarily tied to small vineries. On the other hand, in comparison to some American cellars, Laguna – which is considered to be a giant here – is actually a small winery. Imagine a massive storage hall with sixty-thousand barriques. Well, that’s a big winery. And I found myself in a hall like that when I was nineteen” said Budinski, while we tasted once again last year’s Festigia, undoubtedly one of the most successful Malvasias from 2015.

Milan Budinski was born in Sinj, in inland Dalmatia, in 1980. He finished high school there (the general gymnasium, not the Franciscan gymnasium), and then enrolled into Agriculture in Zagreb. “My parents are also agronomists, they produced food, sold it at markets, so it was only natural for me to decide on a similar job” says Budinski.

After his first year at university, the legendary professor Edi Maletić, the man credited with the accurate identification of Tribidrag/Zinfandel (as well as a series of other lesser-known but similar achievements), offered his students summer work in California, in a well-known winery.

Learning the Ropes in Sonoma Valley

Budinski applied right away, and even though the offer did not include paying for the costs, his family and relatives covered his plane ticket and spending money. He spent his first American summer at Franciscan Estates in Rutherford, a place known for having the soil that Cabernet Sauvignon loves. At that time Franciscan Estates had a good reputation, and their wines regularly received more than ninety Parker Points. While working at the winery, Budinski performed every possible cellar job, including maintaining equipment.

“Getting to know the techniques was extremely beneficial for me. For example, I had the job of separating and then putting together a pneumatic press. Pneumatic presses were not being used then in Croatia, but I got to know their every last detail. You can’t get that sort of knowledge at university,” recalls Laguna’s main oenologist.

The next summer Budinski went to the United States again, this time to much larger wineries, Kendall Jackson and Sonoma Cutrer, where he came across the cellar of sixty thousand barriques. The following year, however, he visited Chile and Argentina.

“In California I really worked, and learnt a great deal about the production of wine. In South America I mainly visited wineries, observed what they were doing during harvest and in the cellars. However, as well as the technical part of learning, which is exceptionally valuable, my time in the Americas broadened my view of the wine industry. Their approach to wine is significantly less restricted than it is in Europe.

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Milan Budinski

Their laws are less strict, when they’re about appellations, alcohol declarations, or yields.  Sometimes such loose wine regulations bring excellent results, but sometimes it can compromise the wine… But, when you see it all up-close, many things become much clearer, not just about the taste of the wine, but also about its competitiveness. For example, Chile doesn’t have crop restrictions, and once at a winery – and it was a Croatian winegrower, I think that his surname was Dumančić – I saw an unbelievable seventy tonnes of grapes per hectare.

It was the Pedro Ximenez variety. So, if you have a crop of seventy tonnes per hectare, it is obvious why a bottle of wine from that grape can cost two dollars, and still bring in a profit. In other words, it is clear why the wine industry in South America is much more efficient than in Europe. ”    

Living between vineyards, cellars and universtiy

Milan Budinski spent every summer and autumn working in vineyards and in cellars, and was only at university between December and June. He graduated in 2005, by which time he had gotten a job with Andro Tomić, the enologist who studied in France, and one of the leading Dalmatian winemakers.

Budinski worked for Tomić for three years, and then spent a year in Herzegovina, where he worked with Zilavka and Blatina. He still considers Zilavka a variety with the potential to be very good, “thanks to its strong structure and good body with relatively low alcohol content”. He also spent a year with Ivan Enjingi, and then for the next few years did consulting work for a whole series of Croatian wineries.

“Sometime during the summer of 2010 I thought about going abroad. Small wineries did not interest me anymore but I didn’t know where in Croatia I would be able to work for a big and really ambitious winery. Then I found out that Laguna was looking for a new oenologist. We met, my visions matched up with theirs, and there you go, it’s now my sixth year in Istria.”   

His five and a half years at Laguna coincided, not by chance, with dramatic changes in that winery, which went from being a quiet giant with six hundred hectares of vineyards, to one of the most modern Istrian and Croatian winemakers, with an international reputation that is getting stronger and stronger.     

New mantra of Malvazija

At the turn of 2010 Laguna decided to change the content and image of its wines. ‘Pure and Fresh’ became the new mantra of Laguna’s range of wine, which perfectly corresponded to Budinski’s attitudes to wine: “for me, elegance is the most important, rather than a big body, weight… I want the wines that I make to be elegant, fresh and oily. I want to avoid that heavy, excessive polyphenol bitterness that many Malvasias have,” explains Milan Budinski.

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At the turn of the previous decade Laguna hired Professor Robert Ferrarini from the University of Verona as a consultant. Ferrarini, who passed away in 2014, was a big star of the Italian and international oenological scene. As a consultant he worked with some of the most famous Italian wineries, and in 2009 Gambero Rosso named him the oenologist of the year.

Ferrarini also wanted to make Malvasia clean, fresh and elegant, which is also what Laguna’s English consultants Steven Spurrier, Oz Clarke and Tony Hodges (who also passed away in 2014) wanted. Ante Gavranić, Laguna’s former chief enologist, agreed with this concept.

Milan Budinski is a perfectionist. He spoke for what must have been half an hour about the various, countless details that he worked with in order to make wine that is as clean and aromatic as possible, but not heavy.

One of the important steps in changing the character of the Malvasia was taking over the control of the vineyards: up until Budinski’s arrival, the vineyards and the cellars were managed separately. Now, Budinski looks over the vineyards from the start of July, until the end of the harvest. “Believe me, for those two or three months, every day I visit every one of our positions. That is the only way that I can know how to make the final versions of Laguna wines.”

Given that Laguna has over six hundred hectares of vineyards, Budinski’s work day – from the beginning of summer until the end of the processing of the wine – becomes a long, intensive procedure of checking every possible element which influences the final fragrance, structure, texture and taste of the wine.

Creating a Blockbuster

A few years ago Laguna launched a new product, which proved to be exceptionally successful. It is a basic Malvasia, which comes in clear bottles with a screw top, and which sold 620 thousand bottles last year: the aim is to increase the sales to 800 thousand. 

“The production of basic Malvasia is actually one of the most complex jobs that an oenologist can be faced with. The aim is clear: you must make a wine which will be massively and quickly sold, but which must maintain the high-quality integrity of our winery. So, first and foremost, it must be very good. Secondly, it can’t have a high amount of alcohol, it can’t have a big body, because those sort of characteristics limit is drinkability. It has to be very fruity, and you have to be able to taste the fruit sweetness, as well as the aromas, but again, they can’t stand out too much… To make that type of wine, we combine samples from forty to fifty various positions, and the process itself lasts about two weeks.” On the other hand, the blending process for Festigia is much simpler.     

“Festigia, in general, comes from three positions. One position gives a very aromatic wine, with the recognisable fragrances of passion fruit. That position, therefore, is responsible for a specific segment of the aroma. One position, which gives stronger wines, is responsible for the body, while the position where the grapes ripen the longest gives that specific, citrusy and light green note. And that’s how we got Festigia, a balanced, elegant, clean aromatic Malvasia, which will maintain its freshness for a few years. ”    

Since Milan Budinski has become Laguna’s head enologist, the largest Istrian winery has won a series on international awards, including the silver Decanter medal for the 2013 Terra Rossa (it is quite unusual that a red wine which costs 35 kuna receives such recognition), as well as the Decanter Regional Trophy for the 2012 Castello. Castello, a blend of Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet, was produced for the first time towards the end of 2009, based on the ideas of Ante Gavranić. Since then, it has become Laguna’s trophy wine. Just as Milan Budinski, the man behind Laguna’s wine portfolio, has – thanks to his wines – become one of the best Croatian enologists.