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Monday, 3 December 2012

Only Pacta Connect - Croatian Wine Dinner at Hotel du Vin‏

Trevor and Judith Long of Pacta Connect Wines are a lively and entertaining couple; I met them at Cambridge Hotel du Vin at a Croatian Wine Dinner where they were showing some of their wines matched to food by Chef Jonathan Dean.

After originally working in the music business, they made the decision to change careers and become wine importers. With a commercial background, they bring a pragmatic, businesslike approach to the task of making and selling wine whilst likening the task of getting the best out of a winemaker to that of keeping a performing artist happy and focused - both being creative, gifted, egotistical and rather precious types.

Trevor is an engaging rough diamond of a Brummie who would not seem out of place as a bassist-cum-roadie-cum-manager of a pub rock band (he actually tour managed Duran Duran, The Fall, The Stranglers, Haircut 100 and Then Jerico); when he says "kipper tie", he is referring not to a garment but a hot drink.

By contrast, Judith - who was previously PA to a record label Chairman - is rather proper in a well-spoken, slightly plummy sort of way, albeit one suspects she has a darker, more wayward, somewhat punkier sort of side.

They remind me a little of Tim Pearson, a Midlander who made his money in contract cleaning before setting up 7Springs winery.

So I had three questions in my head - why Croatia, whence the palate and how do they spot winemaking talent ?

Over dinner, they explained that Judith had connections in next-door Slovenia but that, popping across the border to Croatia, they had found the wines to be much better there.

The palate is apparently Trevor's - clearly a result of the rock and roll high life.

As to spotting talent, as Trevor puts it, he has had to kiss a lot of oenological frogs before finding the 70-odd wines that now make up their range and which he considers his "children".

"You've clearly been busy" I remarked dryly to which both he and Judith erupted into peals of laughter.


We started in the library of the Hotel where Judith and Trevor - who often talk over each other in their enthusiasm to tell stories - introduced the first wine of the evening - Misal Millennium, a Champagne-method fizz produced by 25 year old winemaker Ana at her grandfather's vineyards.

A blend of 80% Istrian Malvazija, 10% Pinot Noir and 10% Chardonnay, it is fermented in stainless steel and marked NV but all from 2009-harvest grapes. It is an elegant sparkler that developed some savouriness and a food friendly rasp with some air and was served with canapes of smoked salmon paté on toast and a warm beetroot gazpacho.

An oak-aged fizz with more toastiness and complexity would have stood up better to the salmon, and although both were lovely, it did not quite work as a match.

Overall, I thought all the food and wines were good-to-excellent, but the best match was with the red wine, whilst the white matches were "almost, but not quite".

All the wines are from Istria which despite being on the Mediterranean results lower alcohol levels due to sea breezes and the cooling Bora winds.

Trevor and Judith in Pula, Istria

Our first course was a creamy risotto with peas, seared squid rings and truffle oil - appropriately Mediterranean it was light, creamy and delicious.

The accompanying wine was a Piquentum Malvazija 2011. It is a natural wine, for which there is no set definition but which generally means all-natural processes with wild-yeast fermentation, no added substances and low winemaker intervention.

A straw yellow colour in the glass, it was bright and clear with a nose of mossy clay, salinity and seashells.

On the palate, there is good freshness and acidity (it is fermented in stainless steel) and minerality, with a complex, developed character that feels older than current vintage.

It also had something else slightly elusive about it that I find in many natural wines - a depth of flavour and texture.

Our next starter was baked bream with red pepper stuffed cabbage and a Coronica Gran Malvazija from 2008.

100% Istrian malvzija with 10 months' ageing on the lees in stainless steel and a further 10 months in French oak, it was weighty, complex and evolved beyond its years.

Its leesy complexity, muskiness and a fullness on the palate gave it an aged character beyond its mere four years of age - Old School and geeky, it was Very Good Indeed.

The fish was perfectly cooked and the little parcel of typically eastern European stuffed cabbage was very well done, but the food did not match and demanded something fresher, crisper and more modern in style.


Over the main course of lamb paprikash with chateau potatoes, Judith explained that they supply wines to a number of Michelin-starred restaurants and here I could see why - the Roxanich SuperIstrian 2007, again a natural wine, was Rhonesque and complex with vanilla spice, bramble and black cherry fruit and tobacco; the texture is ripe, soft, full and peppery.

A blend of 40% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Istrian Borgonja, this was a really lovely wine -  accomplished, vibrant and exciting with a strong, outgoing personality that will match easily with the sort of characterful food one hopes for at a good restaurant.

The lamb paprikash was rich, tender and full of flavour with the meat falling apart; as a match, it was absolutely spot on.


Dessert was a wonderful berry torte with lavender ice cream matched to Cattunar White Muscat 2008; 100% white muscat grape of Momjan (a small village in northern Istria, the only place where this muscat is grown, apparently), the wine had a herbal, aromatic nose of rubbed sage with white flowers - on the palate, there is crisp acidity and floral ripeness but the finish is more off-dry than fully sweet.

This, unfortunately, broke the golden rule of dessert wines: that they must be at least as sweet as the food - and preferably more so.

Although delicious, the dessert overpowered the wine which felt tart on the finish when tasted with the sweetness of the food.
I feel Trevor's suggestion of poached pears would have made for a more successful match - a lighter, sharper, less intensely sweet dish was required here.


Overall, this was a superb and hugely entertaining dinner; Trevor and Judith were excellent hosts, the food and wines were uniformly excellent and there was an interesting mix of guests with a blend of youth and experience.

If the food and wine matches were not always spot on, this was more of a minor niggle than dinner-party carnage.

The wines from Croatia were for me a revelation; not just merely something new and quite interesting, they were seriously impressive and a sign that Croatia is a place to watch - especially with EU accession due next year.

Whether the wines are typical of what is happening in Croatia generally or more a reflection of Trevor's own preferences I do not know.

But as he pointed out at the beginning of his talk, in 2011 Croatia won more Decanter awards than Chile or Argentina; and these things do not happen by accident, of course.

With something of a captive market at present, Croatian wines are not cheap - especially at the bottom end.

By contrast, the value is to be found at the top end, where broader reputations have not yet been made and prices increased accordingly.

Tickets for the dinner cost £55 per head; I attended as a guest of the hotel.

Other related articles
Champagne Dinner at Hotel du Vin
Noval Dinner at Hotel du Vin

Pacta Connect - website, twitter
Hotel du Vin - website, twitter

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