As winter approaches, and barbecues give way to bonfires, it’s time to start eating warming stews and drinking hearty reds. These will be full-bodied wines made from thick-skinned grapes, such as syrah, carignan and cabernet sauvignon, which produce firm and succulent tannins. Wines from these grapes are hearty in a further sense too: the tannins extracted from their skins are rich in resveratrol, an anti-oxidant that helps prevent heart disease, and much else besides, we’re told. Researchers have discovered greater quantities of this miraculous compound in fermented than unfermented grape juice, which is good news for us all.
Disputes abound, of course, about which grape varieties produce the highest levels. But the greatest percentage of resveratrol is not in the skin of the fruit, but in the stalks, which means that wine makers who ferment whole grape bunches may end up producing not just bolder but also healthier wines.
It’s odd that we should associate powerful wines made from syrah, carignan and cabernet with winter fare, when varietals like these only grow in the sunnier climes. Think of the southern Rhone, the pulsating summers of Bordeaux, the baking heat of Bandol: warm places with plenty of autumn sunshine, whose wines seem to lock in some essential ingredient of summer to nourish us all through the winter.
Each bottle is a time capsule. Its warming contents also conveying a sense of place, and few grapes do this as well as the Croatian varietal plavac mali. In the past, this grape gave rise to rustic and uncompromising wines. But, now that equal care is taken in the vineyard and the winery, it can produce wonderfully distinctive wines for long keeping.
Grown on the Pelješac peninsula, facing the sea, the grape takes on a hardy strength that comes through in the drink. It needs time and barrel ageing to show its complexities, and there is plenty of that on offer in the 2007 Plausus from the valley of Konavle. It surprised me on the nose, smelling pleasingly of old libraries and furniture polish. On the palate, blueberries, black cherry, fig and a mild medicinal hint of juniper berry give it a classy and noble finish. Good weight and balance support an alcohol content of 14.5 percent, which can be higher still in the hands of some wine makers. But wineries like Plausus and Zlatan Otok know how to handle it by choosing the optimum time for picking.
These are bold reds and it shouldn’t be forgotten that the white wines from the Croatian posip grape are exceptional too: slightly viscose but pure, with more minerality than fruit, slightly honeyed but with a slightly saline edge. The very best examples come from the award-winning domain Korta Katerina. These are wines best drunk in situ; at lunch, after a sea swim, with a plate of local fish. But to transport the summer’s sunshine to a cold winter evening, seek out a bottle of decently aged plavac mali from one of the better producers and breathe in the last drop of summer warmth. It will make the heart glad.