With rich cultural heritage, impressive nature, and stunning seacoast there are already plenty of reasons to visit Croatia. Wine is not necessarily the first that comes to mind when we mention this European beauty, but Croatian wine, while not as world-famous as French and Italian, is undoubtedly worth experiencing.
The thing about wine, of course, is that you don’t even have to go to the country to taste it. You can travel to any place from the comfort of your couch (and trusty old wine glass). If you do have a trip to Croatia planned, even better — definitely take the time to do some wine tourism.
Croatian wine tradition can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks, known fans of the lovely red, that settled on the Adriatic Coast in 5th Century BC. The Dalmatian islands of Vis, Hvar, and Korčula became notorious for producing and exporting high-quality wines. Even coins from that period had grapes on them.
Later on, the Romans came about and they enjoyed wine just as much so the wine production kept on developing, becoming an essential part of the economy of the region. Unfortunately, this whole ‘Wine is our thing’ thing ended with the phylloxera pest that destroyed vineyards throughout Europe.
Then, yet another not so awesome thing happened when the socialist regime arrived. Socialists, as they tend to do, discouraged private wine production, made the land a state property and organized cooperatives that ended up producing much more wine, but at the cost of lower quality. Now that Croatia is a capitalist democracy, lands are private property once again and independent producers in different regions come out with high quality, world class wines.
Regions of Croatian Wine
When it comes to wine producing regions, both climate and historical background come into play, Generally, the country can be divided into Coastal and Continental region. As the names would suggest, the Continental region includes the parts of the country that have a continental climate (and also, they are not on the coast) and Coastal Croatia includes the Adriatic coast and the islands that have a Mediterranian climate.
When it comes to wine styles, the coast tends to be more famous for it’s reds (there are exceptions) while in the Continental region excellent white and rosé wine is produced. This, of course, is a very general description, since due to the diversity in micro-climates and other conditions there are plenty of wonderful autochthon wines.
Coastal Wine Region
Coastal Croatia is a wine region that runs from the Istria province to the southern Dalmatia. It also includes the islands of the Adriatic, where (if you remember your history lesson from a few paragraphs ago) Croatian wine tradition was born.
The southernmost sub-region of Coastal Croatia was Zinfandel (or more specifically, it’s ancestor) comes from. In Istria, where the Italian influence on Croatian culture is most visible, wines tend to be similar to Italian ones. On the Peljesac peninsula in southern Dalmatia, you will find some of the best producers of the Plavac Mali, Croatia’s most popular red wine.
The Coastal Region is rich in microclimates (as is to be expected from a zone that stretches over the entire Adriatic coast) and this is why some of the best wines from here come from a particular winery in a very particular vinogorje (literally translated, a wine hill, vinogorje is the subdivision of sub-region).
For instance, the Bucavac vineyard close to the southern town of Primošten is where the indigenous Babić grape is grown. While it is not as popular as the Plavac Mali, Babić wine has very particular and interesting characteristics. It is usually very dark and dense, higher in alcohol content and with a pleasant forest fruit aroma.
The Bucavac vineyards are an attraction in themselves.
These are historic terraces that make up a rectangular network of soil lots, each cleared and separated by hand built drywall. Vines are cultivated with minimal use of machines, in a traditional way that is preserved to this day. Through human effort, the original terrain was transformed into agricultural land and even more than that — into a mesmerizingly beautiful place.
Mike Grigich, the California winemaker is originally from Desne in Dalmatia. In 1973 he created the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that defeated the Burgundies in the infamous Judgement of Paris blind wine tasting. A little-known fact about him is that he actually owns wineries in Croatia, too. The Grgić Vina in Trstenik was established by Mike and his family back in 1996 and has produced some of the finest wines from native Dalmatian grape varieties. They also take great care of only using organic grapes in their wine and they welcome wine enthusiast to taste their wines at any time.
Istria is often called the Croatian Tuscany.
Even though you can hardly see any resemblance to the sunny hills of the Italian region, wines are truly Tuscany-class. Unlike the southern Dalmatia, in Istria you can find both red and white wines that deserve your attention.
High-quality Terrano is one of the white wines being produced in this region. The red clay soils in this sub-region are very similar to those in Italy (the infamous terra rossa) which means Istria’s Terrano compares wonderfully to it’s Italian counterpart. The soil, the impact of the proximity to the seashore, as well as the dense oak forests that surround the vineyards all influence the organoleptic characteristics of the grapes and hence the character of the wine.
A great place to taste Istria’s Terrano is the Veralda winery. Their Terrano triumphed in Decanter 2016, where it was declared best mono sort red wine. While Istria can’t yet put the name Terrano on wines produced there (since this is a name protected by a mark of geographic origin), they soon will be able to, since the EU recently completed an act allowing it.
One of the fascinating authocton wines from Croatia is the Vis Island’s Vugava. Although DNA testing disproved the theory of it being the ancestor of Viognier, it is still one of the most ancient wine varieties. The best place to enjoy it is, of course, its’ native island of Vis. However, you can usually find it throughout Dalmatia.
Just ask your waiter!
If you’re enjoying this post about Croatian wine, you’ll probably like to read some of our other content on neighboring Balkan countries:
- A Local Guide to Bulgarian Culture
- 15 Things About Romanian Culture You Must Know
- The Ultimate Guide to Serbian Women
Continental Wine Region
In the Continental Region, white wines are all the rage, although some excellent reds can also be found.
Graševina, also known as Welschriesling (lit. ‘Romanic Riesling’, although it is now related to Riesling), is the most commonly planted grape variety. Important sub-regions are Slavonia and Plešivica.
Graševina yields acidic, fruity, and crisp white wine. A traditional Croatian wine drink is the Gemist, made with sparkling water and Graševina or Chardonnay. The Graševina is also very good for producing sparkling wine. The Tomac winery in the Plešivica sub-region specializes in exactly that. Some of their wines are produced in the traditional French méthode champenoise, and some they age in clay amphoras buried underground.
Amphora fermentation and aging is usually associated with Georgian wines, but there are some Croatian winemakers that use the method with great success. Other then Tomac, Kabola Winery from Istria also has some quite good wines fermented in buried amphoras.
The hills of Plešivica are a wonderful place to take a day trip to since they are only 30 miles away from Zagreb. You can do the Plešivica wine road that includes over 40 wineries, all of which offer tours around their cellars and wine tasting. Some even include homemade appetizers to go with their wines, as well as accommodation with a view to the steep, rocky hills and emerald green vineyards.
The continental region’s most popular sub-region, Slavonia centers most of its’ winemaking around Kutjevo. In the last few years, Slavonia is becoming to overcome it’s mono-culture image. While Graševina is still the most common grape variety, big wineries like Enjingi and Krauthaker are now experimenting with different varieties. Krauthaker’s Zelenac Kutjevo is worth mentioning for its’ exceptional warmth and rich aroma.
When it comes to reds, admittedly, there is less to choose from in the Continental region.
One wonderful exception to the ‘white wine in the inland’ rule that seems to exist is the Portugizac. This young red wine comes out in autumn, even before its’ significantly more popular French counterpart, the Beaujolais. It goes wonderfully with roasted chestnuts, as well as greasier cheeses and meat specialties and in Croatia, it is considered a symbol of autumn, of saying farewell to summer and of the beginning of a cozier, lazier season.
Croatia is an exciting wine destination, as well as a beautiful country, rich in history and nature.
Even if you are not a wine expert, by all means, venture into the world of Croatian wine during your travels.
Not only will you discover some excellent, world-class wines but you will get to see and experience Croatia and all of it’s incredible beauty.
Questions or comments about Croatian wine? Leave them in the comments below!
PS: You can browse some of the various wine tours in and around Croatia on TripAdvisor.