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The hidden treasures of the Golden Valley

It all started in the Golden Valley.

Everything began in Kutjevo.

It's difficult to imagine how the small, rural town of Kutjevo, stunningly situated in the heart of Slavonia's Golden Valley, became the cradle of Croatian winemaking. According to the delightful Valentina, Head of Marketing at Kutjevo Winery, although it may seem surprising to today's casual traveller or observer, it was no accident. "Nothing was accidental when it came to the Cistercian monks" she explains. Valentina was brimming with enthusiasm as she described how, on joining the winery, she quickly became mesmerized by the history of this religious order. The more research she did, the more she understood why "everything began in Kutjevo." "After all, it was the very same order of monks that started the wine culture in Burgundy - famously recognizing and establishing numerous Grand Cru locations in one of France's wine heartlands - and in the Mosel Valley, who also hand-selected Kutjevo as a place to settle and build their cellars." There is no doubt in her mind that, in 1232, once they laid eyes on the local terroir, they knew they had identified a "god given place" for the planting of vines. The decision was made to settle, the abbey and cellars were established, wine-making traditions and techniques were institutionalized, and the rest is history ...

Graševina Grapes
Graševina grapes - the darling of Slavonia

Kutjevo comes alive every May when the flowering of their prized Graševina vines heralds the arrival of Graševina Days. Winemakers from across central and eastern Europe descend to celebrate this tradition, to present their latest vintages, to revel in the local festivities and to taste the scents and aromas of this fascinating varietal. The locals swear blind that they can and will always pick out Graševina from Kutjevo in the blind tastings that take place. Although I have not seen the facts to confirm this, I tend to believe it. Valentina is very convincing! "If you don't believe me, then ask Jancis Robinson", who (in her co-authored tome Wine Grapes) calls out Slavonia, and more precisely Kutjevo, as one of the best Graševina producing regions globally. So what is it exactly that makes this region, and more specifically, the graševina from this region, so very special?

Kutjevo vineyards
Kutjevo vineyards

The answer lies, not surprisingly for wine enthusiasts, in the climate and the location. Located in the vast expanse of the low-lying Pannonian Basin, the Golden Valley of Kutjevo could be likened to a needle in a haystack. Hills in this area are a rarity, let alone mountains, and Kutjevo is blessed with a ring of them. Rising 300 - 400 metres above sea level, their southern facing, sun drenched, mineral rich slopes form a unique micro-climate, and one that benefits from daily breezes to keep disease at bay. In the midst of the generally cool, dry continental climate of the broader region, many argue that it is here, and only here, that you will find the optimal conditions for growing graševina. One of those is Ivan Marinclin, chief white wine oenologist at Kutjevo Winery, who was born and bred working in the local vineyards. He speaks of the grape and the variety of wines it produces as a father speaks of his children. With unbridled passion, he describes how "Graševina is everything and can be everything" ...

Amongst all of his children, however, Ivan has a favourite: the classic fresh graševina. There is indeed something irresistible about this wine ... As he speaks of how one glass of this fresh and harmonious wine quickly becomes two, and of how a bottle can easily follow the same path, I smile to myself. It is an amazingly lively, expressive drinkable wine, and hours can, and do, quickly pass in its glorious company and the company of good friends on a spring or summer patio ... Favourites aside, Ivan proudly claims that the grape is so versatile that you can easily pair a different wine with every course. That sounds like a challenge that I am willing to accept, and it doesn't take much to get my imagination going ... a crisp, light, sparkling aperitivo to start things off ... the dry, lively and expressive classic will be the perfect partner for our appetizer ... the fuller bodied, ripe and rich style is the ideal companion for the main course ... and what better way to finish than with a late harvest or ice wine to accompany a decadent dessert or cheese platter. I find myself quickly transported to gourmet graševina heaven!

Kutjevo cellars
Kutjevo cellars - the oldest in Croatia

Pride in their wine-making heritage oozes from the locals, and one of the main sources of their pride is undoubtedly their Graševina. "Not only are we a proud people, but we are traditionalists and we are purists when it comes to wine." Croatians love their mono-varietals. Valentina recalls the scepticism that they knew they would, and they did indeed face when they took the bold step in the last few years of blending their prized graševina. Scepticism, however, was not going to hold them back. "We wanted to bring a new outlook, a new perspective and a new direction." The journey started in 2016, and four years later, the excitement is still evident as Ivan relives the creative moments in the cellar when the decision was made to "blend the best varietal in the world with the best varietal from Croatia". The inspiration behind the wine reads like a classic romance novel ... after many years in isolation, beautiful Graševina, the darling of Slavonia and the pride of all Croatia, had a chance encounter with a charming suitor. She was captivated by her mysterious admirer. Her parents were wary and tried to dissuade her from following her heart. Fate had however defined her path. She fell quickly in requited love. It was only however on her wedding day, that her beau revealed his true identity - he was none other than the internationally renowned Chardonnay. The family rejoiced and celebrated the prestigious union, as the young lovers tied the knot and lived happily ever after ...

And so it was that Maximo Oro - the "Greatest Gold" - was born in the heart of the Golden Valley. Ivan's vision was to combine the freshness of graševina with the complexity and strong aging potential of chardonnay, to produce a unique wine, "a wine with soul", a wine made with gastronomy in mind. Now in it's third vintage, this vision has rapidly won the hearts and minds of locals and the international wine community alike. Local scepticism has long since been put to bed, and the wine received its crowning glory to date, earlier this year, with a Gold medal at Mundus Vini 2020 spring tasting. Having visualized a brief but powerful image of Kutjevo, through the eyes and words of Valentina and Ivan, something tells me that the deep rooted traditions are in good hands, and that there is a new generation, filled with fresh exuberance and youthful ambition, that will continue the journey of discovery and create many more treasures of gold in years to come.

The Golden Valley
The Golden Valley

Nature is central to life in the Golden Valley. Life is slow paced. No-one is in a hurry until its harvest time. Wine-o'clock is any time. The locals sitting outside the cafe in the main square, Graševina Trg, happily wait for their coffee, but will not wait for wine. It is as if this small community lives in synergy with their grapes and with their terroir - no different in many ways from life in the small wine-making communities of France and Italy, and elsewhere around the globe. But this land remains a hidden gem. Inquisitive wine lovers, take note. Graševina remains a well kept secret. The terroir remains the most precious gift from nature and the gods. The beauty of the valley is still to be discovered.

Maybe I said too much already ...

If you are inspired to taste the treasures of the Golden Valley for yourself, Kutjevo Winery's Graševina ((Product # 647396), Premium Graševina (Product # 519074) and Maximo Oro (Product # 14187) are now available at LCBO stores across Ontario.

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