Wine

What You Need to Know About Croatian Wine

Masters of Wine aren’t the only ones clamoring for more of the country’s wines—here’s what to try

Croatian Uplands
Croatian Uplands. Photo courtesy of Around the World in 80 Harvests.

Just a stone’s throw from Italy across the Adriatic Sea, Croatia has been producing wine for more than 2,400 years. Its coastal wine regions and islands have harbored vineyards since the Illyrians first planted vines there during the Bronze Age, and a long, rich viticultural history led to the birth of hundreds of native varieties.

Following the devastation of phylloxera, which reached Croatia’s vineyards in the early 20th century, only 130 indigenous varieties remain, most planted in pocket-sized parcels in small family vineyards. Approximately 40 of these native varieties are used in commercial production alongside a dozen international varieties spread across Croatia’s 20,700 hectares of vineyards. 

Much of Croatia’s wine production of 69 million liters stays within the domestic market—Croatia consumes an impressive 46.9 liters per capita annually, according to a 2014 report by the Wine Institute. However, since Croatian independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, and the country’s entrance into the EU in 2013, the wine industry has become more organized and exports are multiplying.

“We’ve seen a great increase in interest in Croatian wines from consumers—and also the critics and buyers,” says Frank Dietrich, who has been importing Croatian wines for more than 13 years through his San Francisco–based company Blue Danube Wine. “We now have over 40 labels of Croatian wine and get many requests from consumers and restaurants around the country.”

The enthusiasm for Croatian wines reflects a growing interest in Central and Eastern European wines generally but also a personal connection as Croatia cements its position as one of Europe’s most popular vacation destinations. In 2018 alone, Croatia welcomed more than 20 million tourists, according to the Croatian Tourist Board, a number Dietrich credits with heightened attention to the wines. “The new interest in Croatian wines is also fueled by the growing number of Americans who are encountering these wines there as tourists,” he says, “which explains why the more popular vacation destinations of Istria and Dalmatia are attracting more interest than continental Croatia.”

Harvest in Stari Grad Plain. Photo courtesy of Around the World in 80 Harvests.

Key Regions of Croatia

Although there are over 300 geographically defined wine-producing regions in Croatia, the country can be divided into three major geographical zones: Dalmatia and Croatia’s islands, the peninsula of Istria, and the inland regions of continental Croatia.

Dalmatia and Croatia’s Islands

Dalmatia and Croatia’s islands have become especially popular vacation destinations in the last few years, largely aided by the frequent cameos Dubrovnik made as the city of King’s Landing in the hit TV series Game of Thrones. A Mediterranean climate with sunny, warm, and dry summers makes the region idyllic for both holidays and vine growing. Dalmatia produces full-bodied and ripe wines, many of which are made from very old vines and native varieties. 

The island of Hvar is home to the world’s longest continually cultivated vineyard—the Unesco World Heritage Site of Stari Grad Plain, where grapes have been grown since 400 BC. “Dalmatia is the Shangri-La for wine geeks,” explains Charine Tan, the author of Cracking Croatian Wine, who travels and researches extensively throughout Croatia and other wine regions. “There are about 100 grape varieties preserved here. What also makes Dalmatia special are the diverse wine-growing locations and unique relief forms, from vineyards in the narrow coastal belt along the seashore to high and steep slopes or terraces cut into karst rock.”

Vines in Stari Grad Plain. Photo courtesy of Around the World in 80 Harvests.

Istria

This northwestern peninsula of Croatia belonged to Austria, Italy, and Yugoslavia at various times in the last century, and this mix of influences is evident in its cuisine, language, and wine. With a Mediterannean climate, Istria shares some climatic characteristics with Dalmatia and also with neighboring northern Italy (its truffle production also rivals that of Alba in Piedmont).

The hilly topography and extensive coastline mean that a myriad of microclimates and aspects are spread over Istria’s 4,000 hectares of vines. The region is best known for the native Malvazija Istarska grape (called Malvasia Istriana in Italy), and the vineyards with iron-rich terra rossa soils are particularly renowned for their production of rich red wines from such grapes as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and the native varieties Teran and Refošk.

Continental Croatia

While Croatia is most often associated with its impressive coastline, its larger landmass is actually its continental eastern limb, which juts out between Slovenia and Hungary to the north and Bosnia to the south. Surrounding the capital of Zagreb are the Croatian Uplands, where a cool continental climate is well suited to sparkling-wine production; linear, fresh white wines from grapes like Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Furmint; and some lighter-bodied reds, like Pinot Noir. 

Further inland, to the east, lie the flatter lands of Slavonia and the Danube, where a more moderate continental climate dominates. Graševina and Traminac, more commonly known as Gewürztraminer, are this area’s main varieties. 

Vineyards in Istria. Photo courtesy of Around the World in 80 Harvests.

Three Key Native Grape Varieties in Croatia

International varieties are widespread throughout Croatia and have had some success in certain regions—notably Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc in continental Croatia, and Merlot in Istria. Native varieties do, however, remain dominant in Croatian wine, with three varieties in particular making up more than a third of the country’s total production.

Graševina

The most planted grape variety in Croatia, Graševina accounted for 22 percent of Croatia’s production as of June 2016, according to the Croatian Chamber of Commerce. “You’ll find Graševina all over Croatia,” says Saša Špiranec, the Zagreb-based founder of the country’s biggest wine fair, Vinart. “However, the best Graševina is considered to come from continental Croatia, where it ranges from fresh and grassy styles to riper styles with floral and fruity aromas and a fuller body.” The high acidity of Graševina makes it a variety that ages particularly well, and it’s often made into late-harvest or ice wines.

Malvazija Istarska

Although similar in name to other Malvasia grapes, Malvazija Istarska is considered genetically distinct from them. It originates in Istria, where it is Croatia’s second most-planted variety, making up more than 8 percent of national production in 2016, according to the Croatian Chamber of Commerce. A white grape with floral and orchard fruit notes, it works well as a fresh and youthful wine produced in stainless steel or concrete vats. However, it can handle oak aging and long maceration periods, becoming a distinctive, full-bodied white or orange wine. The grape also expresses itself differently depending on the site, particularly in the red, white, gray, or black soils of Istria.

The more I taste Malvazija, the more impressed I am,” says Caroline Gilby, MW, who is the London-based regional chair for North, Central, and Eastern Europe at Decanter World Wine Awards. “Malvazija Istarska has a strong claim to be considered a great grape variety—capable of high-quality, age-worthy wines and able to reflect a place or terroir.”

Jo Ahearne in Hvar. Photo courtesy of Around the World in 80 Harvests.

Plavac Mali

Plavac Mali is the darling of Dalmatia and the third most-planted variety in Croatia, although it isn’t the easiest to manage and is suited only to the particularly sunny coastal climate. “Plavac Mali is a really interesting grape variety,” says Jo Ahearne, MW, a British winemaker who consulted on winemaking projects in Australia, Argentina, Spain, and France before moving to the island of Hvar in 2014 to make wine under her eponymous label. 

“Plavac Mali is the son of Zinfandel,” she says, “so it has a similar taste profile, with raisins, plums, and herbal notes, but it has very uneven ripening, so you need the most sunshine you can get.” Ahearne notes that the best Plavac Mali comes from the south side of Hvar, where there are steeply sloped vineyards. “Plavac Mali needs that incline—even on an island with the most sunshine hours in Europe—because you need that extra sunshine from the slope and aspect, along with the reflection of the sun from the white soils and the reflection from the Adriatic Sea.”

Amanda Barnes is a British wine writer who since 2009 has been based in South America, where she specializes in the wines and regions of Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay and writes the South America Wine Guide. Ever footloose, she is currently on a mission to travel Around the World in 80 Harvests.

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