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The origins: Plavac mali and Zinfandel mystery solved

Plavac Mali is the most planted red grape variety in Croatia (to be precise, on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia). Plavac Mali is probably the best known Croatian wine, and if you are just starting to get to know Croatian wines and haven’t tasted it before, it should definitely be at the top of your list.

If you have had any experience with Croatian wine, then you have probably tasted ‘plavac mali’ - and might want some more! Many of Croatia’s best - and most expensive - wines are plavac mali.

The old Latin saying ‘It’s all in the name’ is true for plavac mali, as plavac means ‘blue’ and mali means ‘small’: the name accurately describes the small blue grapes of the vine. The wine plavac mali is a very powerful, robust red wine, rich in taste and high in alcohol and tannins.

THE ORIGINS: PLAVAC AND ZINFANDEL MYSTERY SOLVED

Plavac mali has a very interesting history of origin and family background that has caused many wine experts to become obsessed with tracing its origins. Plavac mali has even been subjected to DNA research and has starred in the documentary ‘Dossier Zinfandel’.

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We now know that plavac mali is a cross between Crlenjak Kaštelanski (ancestral Zinfandel) and Dobričić (an ancient red wine grape variety from the Dalmatian coast) grapes. 

But for a long time plavac mali was confused with zinfandel, the famous Californian wine. If a Californian tasted plavac mali, he would undoubtedly say that it reminded him of home. The ‘tastes like home’ feeling also struck Mike Grgich, a native Croatian winemaker and founder of Grgich Hills Estate in Napa Valley, when he arrived in California in 1958. ‘Looking at the vines I wondered whether I was in Croatia or in California’, Grgich said in the Dossier Zinfandel documentary.

Grgich claims that zinfandel’s origins have to be in Croatia and that zinfandel is either plavac mali or a close relative. How the grapes found their way from a small Mediterranean country to California has been tickling the brains of wine historians, plant experts, winemakers, and even geneticists for a very long time.

APPELLATIONS
Nowadays plavac mali grows in the sunny southern parts of Dalmatia, on the Pelješac peninsula, and the result is one of the best wines in the region.

Dingač, wine growing region on the Pelješac Peninsula.
Dingač, wine growing region on the Pelješac Peninsula.

Plavac Mali was the first Croatian grape variety to have its own appellations - Dingač and Postup.

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Both Dingač and Postup are famous wine growing regions of the Pelješac peninsula. Dingač plavac mali is a robust and rich wine, called the king of Croatian wines. Notable producers of Dingač region wines include: Matuško, Vinarija Dingač, Bura-Mokalo, Miloš, Kiridžija and Bartulović.

Plavac mali from Postup is a little less robust, but is still a full-bodied wine. Notable producers of Postup region wines include: Vinarija Dingač, Bura-Mokalo, Madirazza, Bartulović...

PAIRING PLAVAC MALI WITH FOOD
A strong and rich wine, plavac mali is best paired with red meat of strong flavors, such as veal and venison. If you are having your glass of plavac mali in Croatia you should most definitely have it with pašticada - a traditional veal sauce made with tomatoes, dry plums, red wine, herbs, and spices served with homemade gnocchi.

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