Several years ago, I was introduced to a variety of wines from Croatia. They were impressive wines, but I didn’t pursue further exploration beyond writing a short article. It wasn’t until last week that these wines again appeared on my radar, reminding me how remiss I was to have not indulged my palate these past few years.
Croatia is a beautiful country filled with history and diverse topography. One can visit ancient ruins, enchanting towns, Plitvice Lakes National Park, beautiful beaches along the sapphire-colored Adriatic Sea, and of course, wine vineyards!
Croatia is located on the Adriatic Sea at the western edge of the Balkan Peninsula (directly across from Italy). It extends from the eastern fringes of the Alps in the northwest to the Pannonian lowlands and the banks of the Danube River in the east. The Dinara and Velebit mountain range extends along the central region, which climatically divides the country into two halves, the Continental and the Coastal sub-regions. Croatia’s southern region extends along the coast of the Adriatic Sea.
As with most central European countries, Croatia has a long history of viticulture and winemaking, dating back at least 2500 years. Proof was obtained some years back when a small coin was discovered on the small island of Vis located on the outermost area of the Dalmatia wine region of southern Croatia. The coin dates back to the 5th century B.C. and features a grape cluster on one side and an amphora on the other side.
Croatia is officially called “The Republic of Croatia.” It was once part of Yugoslavia but became an independent country in 1991 and was finally freed from the communist system and its large state-run cooperatives that focused on wine quantity instead of quality. The majority of vineyards and wineries were demolished during the four-year war to Croatia’s independence. But a new generation of independent producers and winemakers began directing their energy and talent to revitalize the vineyards and produce quality wine using new technology while preserving tradition. For the last several decades, there was no access for serious export of the wine. However, in 2013 Croatia joined the European Union, and producers slowly began exporting wine to other countries. It is interesting to note that most wine produced for commercial use is consumed within Croatia. Croatians are lining up at the front door of wineries to buy wine, as well as the multitude of tourists who visit the country for its delicious Mediterranean food and wine. With limited production, this is depleting the wine inventory for export. The good news is that more vineyards have been restored in the last decade, and production is revving up, increasing wine export.
There are four very distinct wine regions throughout Croatia, with 16 sub-regions and 66 appellations. Each region, grape variety, terroir, and winemaking tradition is uniquely expressed in these wines.
Slavonia and the Croatian Danube are called “pure gold” due to endless golden fields of wheat and its three rivers. It is home to Croatia’s principal variety, Graševina, a white wine that exhibits amazing aromas and is fresh and dry. On the eastern border of this region, where the Danube River runs, vineyards grow Traminac (Gewurtztraminer), another white wine with pronounced aromas and a rich palate. Here is a fun fact: Croatia is home to the Slavonian oak forest, which provides oak for the casks preferred by many European winemakers for aging their finest wines!
Croatian Uplands is the coldest wine region that produces cool-climate wines. Aromatic, international varieties dominate this region which is characterized by hills and small family-owned vineyards. Riesling is the most common white variety. However, red varieties such as Pinot Noir also grow here.
Istria and Kvarner experience the Mediterranean heat and the cold emanating from the Alps. White rocky landscapes and red soil rich in iron oxides can be found here. The white varieties Malvasia Istarska and Zlahtina and red variety Teran thrive here. These three varieties have been considered the foundation of the wine culture in this region for centuries. Malvasia is Croatia’s most successful variety and is one of the few dry white wines that have the potential to age for more than a decade.
Dalmatia is home to the world’s oldest continuously cultivated vineyard at Stari Grad Plain on Hvar Island, a UNESCO-protected World Heritage Site. Many islands are part of Dalmatia that have produced wines for centuries. Numerous native varieties are exclusively grown in this region, including Crljenak (Tribidrag), known as Zinfandel in America. But the most important and profound variety that epitomizes Dalmatia is Plavac Mali (offspring to Zinfandel), called “king of red wine” in Croatia. Vineyards on the barren, steep slopes of southern and central Dalmatia facing the Adriatic sea produce Plavac Mali wines that can be powerful, full-bodied, sumptuous, high in tannin and alcohol, and pricey! Further inland, Plavac is used to make light, fruity, and juicy everyday wines. Siniša Lasan, head sommelier at Rixos Libertas Dubrovnik Hotel, said, “ It is best to pair the high tannin wines with red meat and the lighter Plavacs with fish.” Other varieties worth noting are Pošip, a Croatian peer of Viognier, and Babić, a red variety that is another DNA link to Plavac Mali.
One of the wine producers in Dalmatia is legendary Mike Grgich of Grgić Vina Winery, located in Trstenik on the Peljesac Peninsula. Mike, who was born in Croatia, also owns Grgich Hills Estate in Napa Valley, California. Mike’s name is synonymous with the “Judgement of Paris,” when in 1976, the wine he crafted, a 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, won first prize. I recently met Mike’s nephew (also Croatian-born) Ivo Jeramaz at a Zoom conference. He is the winemaker for both estates. Ivo spoke about his uncle and Plavac Mali.
Ivo: “My uncle came to the United States in 1958. One morning while in Napa, he took a stroll in a Zinfandel vineyard and thought it was Plavic Mali. For the next 40 years, my uncle tried to prove that Zinfandel was from Croatia. He invested time, worked with scientists who collected plant cuttings, etc., and finally in 2001 it was proven that Zinfandel is identical to Plavic Mali.” Ivo went on to talk about Grgich Vina Winery. “When Croatia became independent, my uncle decided to open a winery there in 1996. His intent was to show the local grape growers and winemakers how to produce quality wine. At the time, there was no knowledge, equipment, or tourism. I had to buy the equipment in the U.S. and have it shipped to Croatia.” Today, Grgić Vina produces premiums wines using native Dalmatian grapes, Plavic Mali and Pošip.
Croatia has two climate zones. The Adriatic coastline enjoys a typical Mediterranean climate of hot, dry summers with mild and wet winters. Further inland in Central Croatia is the Continental zone, which is moderately rainy with warm, humid summers and cold, wet winters. Here, the Dinaric Alps run parallel to the Adriatic Sea, creating an alpine climate at the higher altitudes, with snowfall at the highest peaks.
Slavonia and Danube: Continental (moderate climate)
Croatian Uplands: Continental (cool climate)
Istria and Kvarner: Mediterranean (moderate climate)
Dalmatia: Mediterranean (warm climate)
A variety of soils can be found throughout the four regions, with white soils of limestone, iron-rich clay soils, and stony karst soil being the most dominant.
There are 130 indigenous grape varieties in Croatia, of which 40 are in production. Many international varieties are also grown here, including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir. Over 60% of the wine produced in Croatia is white. Each region grows a specific variety that is best suited for the climate and soil. Below is a map showing the more significant varieties grown in each region.
Of the white grape varieties, Graševina is the most planted variety in Croatia, and Malvazija Istarska is the second most planted variety. Concerning red grapes, Tribidrag is genetically identical to Zinfandel and the oldest recorded name for the variety. Plavac Mali is the offspring of Zinfandel and is the third most planted grape variety here.
Generally speaking, most white wines I tasted are aromatic, dry, crisp, light, and fresh, with a beautiful balance of fruit, citrus, and minerality. They are perfect for enjoying as aperitifs or served with appetizers, cheese, fish, and light fare. The red wines run the gamut from soft to chewy tannins, especially Plavac Mali. The heavier full-bodied wines are robust and exhibit layers of dark fruit, dried figs, spice, and herbs. The softer medium-bodied reds tend to exhibit cherry, sweet berries, spice, and floral. Needless to say, Croatian wines are very food-friendly!
Croatia might not be foremost in mind when selecting wine, but these high-quality wines should not be overlooked. With so many exciting grape varieties and styles available, there is no lack of finding the right wine to pair with a meal. So, the next time you’re out to dinner or in a wine shop, opt for a bottle of Croatian wine and treat your palate!
Until next time…
Feature photo credit: Pixabay