Žlahtina: The Perfect Under-$20 Wine For Oysters

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Our hunt for great-tasting affordable wine.

Note from the author: There are 1,368 varieties covered in Wine Grapes by MW Jancis Robinson, MW Julia Harding, and Dr. Jose Vouillamoz. Bet you can't try them all.


2011 Šipun Žlahtina at Hog Island Oyster Company. [Photograph: Stevie Stacionis]

I'd been hiding this quirky, slender, delicious looking bottle in the fridge for a special occasion. I don't mean a fancy dinner or holiday, or even an evening with important company. I mean a special occasion...

"HOG ISLAND," I'd scribbled on the Post-It I stuck on the bottle after doing a quick bit of research on the wine importer's website. One sentence was all I needed to know exactly the special occasion I'd drink this on: "It should be easygoing, relaxed, breezy; the sort of wine best sipped lazily with briny hors d'oeuvres," the website instructed.

Enter: the northern California coast, a sliver of land with too many wonderful things about it to count. One of them is the stunning scenery, on par with some of the most beautiful places I've witnessed on any continent. Another is the glorious fact that there is almost no cell phone reception once you veer west onto Highway 1 after crossing the Golden Gate. A third important bit: there are fresher-than-fresh oysters available from water just footsteps away, doled out by the bag-full with little accompaniment besides sunshine and a shucking knife. Perfect, briny hors d'oeuvres ready and willing to pair with "the sort of wine best sipped lazily."

With glee, I shoved the beeping/buzzing/flashing outside world deep into the glove compartment and crunched my way down the shell-strewn walkway to the picnic tables on the peer at Hog Island Oyster Company in Tomales Bay. We ordered about ten dozen oysters. Then I cracked into this beauty: 2011 Šipun Žlahtina.

6,000 miles away, the Croatian island of Krk is one of the biggest in the Adriatic Sea, clocking in at over 150 square miles. At one point, about 60% of Krk was covered with native grape vines, mostly Žlahtina. Today? There's barely one square mile of vineyard land left.

But if winemakers like Ivica Dobrinčić (and oyster lovers everywhere) have anything to do with it, that number should steadily rise again. Dobrinčić is perhaps Žlahtina's biggest proponent, working with this local grape that Jancis Robinson and her coauthors explain is part of a local "revitalization project involving clonal selection and replanting."

Sign me up for the revitalization project. This wine, Dobrinčić's Šipun Žlahtina, threw open a window of lilies and gardenias in full, raucous bloom. The intense aromatics took me by surprise, as did the plush and creamy texture that played perfectly off our oysters. I was expecting a cold slice of acidity and fierce minerality, but what the wine delivered was a gentler dose of each, buffered by juicy white peaches, Golden Delicious apples and marzipan. (Yes, I said it: marzipan!) We couldn't decide if we liked it better with the raw oysters, the smoked oysters hot off the grill, or the ones smothered with brown-sugar butter and chipotle sauce. So we ordered a dozen more of each. And poured ourselves another glass.

2011 Šipun Žlahtina
The Grape(s): Žlahtina
The Region: Krk, Croatia
Retail Price: $17

The Importer: Blue Danube

About the Author: Stevie Stacionis is a wine writer and Certified Sommelier based in San Francisco. She's currently drinking her way through the 1,368 varieties included in the new Wine Grapes tome. Follow her on Twitter @StevieStacionis and check out her snobbery-free wine videos at A Drinks With Friends TV.

Wine provided as sample for review consideration.