Plavac Mali, Zinfandel's Long-Lost Croatian Relative

Indigenous to the Dalmatian Coast, Plavac was traditionally the workhorse grape of the region

Plavac tends to produce fruit-forward wines, but with a decidedly rustic, earthy character.

What do you get when you cross the well-known Zinfandel with an obscure, ancient Eastern European grape variety? Plavac Mali, progeny of these two varieties and Croatia’s most widely planted red grape.

Plavac Mali (pronounced “plah-vahtz mah-lee”), or simply Plavac, is indigenous to the Dalmatian Coast and was traditionally the workhorse grape of the region. Its name translates literally to “little blue” and refers to the appearance of the berries: small, blueish, and thick-skinned, making them resistant to drought and therefore easier to grow. In recent years, however, winemakers have focused on quality, rather than quantity, spurring renewed interest in the grape and the subsequent discovery of its link to Zinfandel.

Like its parent, Plavac tends to produce fruit-forward wines, but with a decidedly rustic, earthy character. The best growing areas are located on several of Croatia’s islands and peninsulas that jut into the Adriatic Sea, with vines perched on heart-stoppingly steep slopes overlooking the water, often slanting at angles of 45 degrees or more. The blazing Mediterranean sun fully ripens grapes while ocean breezes cool them, resulting in full-flavored wines with excellent acidity and gripping tannins.

Because of altitude and vineyard site variation, Plavac can produce wines in a range of styles, from full-bodied, powerful, and tannic, to lighter, fresher, and more elegant. This versatility means that not only will Plavac wines please a wide variety of wine drinkers, but that they will also pair well with a range of foods, from light to heavy. Try them with barbequed meats, Mediterranean dishes, or, like the locals do, fresh grilled seafood.

Never heard of Plavac Mali before? Become acquainted by trying these three wines:

2010 Vinarija Dingač Plavac ($12.95)

Sometimes called “The Donkey Wine,” the label of this wine is an homage to the tradition of using donkeys to tend vineyards along Dingač’s steep, rocky slopes. This medium-bodied wine shows the lighter side of Plavac, tasting of bright red cherry fruit mixed with dusty earth, accompanied by palate-cleansing acidity. A distinctly salty aroma is reminiscent of the ocean air that flows through Vinarija Dingač’s vineyards.

2009 PZ Putnikovici “Lirica” Plavac Mali ($15.99)

The most rustic of the three, this wine is decidedly sun-kissed, with aromas of jammy red cherries and blackberries. An herbal, minty quality freshens up the nose, but dry earth and red fruit drive the palate all the way. Though not quite full-bodied, the wine is powerful, with gripping tannins that are well-balanced by acid.

2009 Miloš Plavac ($26.95)

With its full body and notes of ripe blackberries and blackcurrant, the relation to Zinfandel becomes clear in this expression of Plavac. But with all of that fruit comes wet, rich earth and spicy black pepper that distinguishes this wine. The pronounced tannins and acid on this wine signify a good potential for aging.

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