The wines of Croatia offer consumers a chance to appreciate something unusual and high quality. For publication in the week starting 18 June 2018.
Wine is believed to have been produced on Croatia’s southern Dalmatian islands of Vis, Hvar and Korčula about 4,000 years ago. We know that viticulture can be dated to the Illyrians, followed by Greek settlers, from the 5th century BC.
About 18 centuries ago a Greek writer known as Athenaeus reported on the quality wine produced on the Dalmatian islands. Coins from the period have motifs related to grape cultivation, demonstrating the importance of wine to the economies of Greek colonies.
Croatia also has the world’s oldest vineyard. The Stari Grad Plain site on the island of Hvar has been growing grapes for 24 consecutive centuries and became part of the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2008.
About 130 traditional grape varieties can be found in Croatia, though locals focus on about 40. Grape varieties have evolved to become beautifully suited to their terroir. In recent years European Union standards have been adopted, guaranteeing the quality of the wine (more on that later).
Croatia has long had a wine culture, with high levels of per capita consumption. Dr Matthew Horkey and Charine Tan recently published a fine new book, Cracking Croatian Wine: A visitor-friendly guide. It quotes a 2015 study that ranked Croatia third in the world, with annual consumption that year of 59 bottles a head. It should be noted that global comparison is difficult because of varying data-collection methods.
The Statistical Yearbook of the Republic of Croatia 2017, the most recent published, showed that Croatia produced 7.6 million litres of wine in 2016 (about 9.8 million bottles). This was way down from the peak production year of 2010 (14.3 million litres). This reduction is a result of a focus on quality rather than bulk.
Wine is a popular drink, especially with meals. It is often diluted with still or sparkling water: gemišt is a combination of white wine and carbonated water and bevanda a blend of red wine and still water. About seven in 10 bottles produced in the country are white with the rest red. Sparkling and rosé are relatively rare.
After the devastation caused by phylloxera at the end of the 19th century, Croatian vineyards were replanted by grafting the traditional varieties onto American root stock. A small number of pre-phylloxera vines survive on the islands of Korčula and Susak.
Croatia was part of former Yugoslavia until 1991. Under the Communist system, wine production was based in large cooperatives. Private ownership of vineyards was discouraged and quantity rather than quality the main focus.
Many vineyards and wineries were destroyed during the four-year Croatian War of Independence. After the war ended in 1995 the wine industry expanded, with a focus on small, independent producers.
Last year 18.5 million tourists visited the country. More than a million of those were involved with nudism, for which Croatia is world-famous.
Croatia has two distinct wine-producing regions: Continental (Kontinentalna) and Coastal (Primorska), which includes the islands. Each of these regions is divided into sub-regions, which are themselves divided into smaller “vinogorje” (literally “wine hills” but actually grape-growing areas). Croatia has about 300 geographically-defined wine-producing areas.
The Continental region is in the north-east of the country. As the name implies, it has a continental climate with cold winters and hot summers. The region mostly makes white wines similar in style to those in neighbouring nations of Slovenia, Hungary and Austria. On the north coast, Istrian wines are similar to those produced in neighbouring Italy.
The coastal wine region runs from Istria in the north to Dalmatia in the south. It has a Mediterranean climate with long, hot and dry summers and mild, short, wet winters – well suited to wine production. Istria and the north coast focus on fruity, dry white wines from a wide range of varieties, of which Malvazija Istarska is the main grape. It also makes dry reds, many from the Teran grape.
Further south in Dalmatia the islands and hillsides focus more on Mediterranean-style reds. The region has a wide variety of meso-climates with some harsh regions, resulting in a wide range of terroirs. Many indigenous grapes are grown here. The best known is Plavac Mali, an offspring of Zinfandel and Dobričić, which grows mostly along the Dalmation coast.
Wine labels can be confusing to visitors because Croatian names are often a collection of consonants, and many of the grape varieties are similarly unfamiliar. Horkey and Tan suggest the white grapes with the most potential include Grasevina, Grk and Posip along with Malvazija Istarska and Malvasija Dubrovacka (neither is related to the Italy’s Malvasia, and note the different spellings).
Plavac Mali is the flagship red of Dalmatia while Teran is the main red in Istria. Teran is known as Refosco in Italy. Other interesting reds include Babic, Darnekusa and Lasina, the last often called the Pinot Noir of Dalmatia. Croatia’s Tribidrag (or Crljenak Kaštelanski) is the same as Zinfandel, widely grown in California.
Some labels display an indication of the wine’s quality, similar to Italy’s IGT and DOC or France’s AOC system. Croatia’s rankings are Vrhunsko for the best quality wine, Kvalitetno for quality wine and Stolno for table wine. Crno vino is red wine and bijelo vino is white. Suho refers to dry wine and polusuho for semi-dry wine.
Croatian wines won seven gold and platinum medals at the Decanter World Wine Awards last year. This year the number rose to 10. Be one of the first to re-discover this new country.
Odd-spot: The city of Dubrovnik was the location for filming the fictional city of King’s Landing in Game of Thrones. Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, who produced the winning wine at the Judgement of Paris in 1976 (made famous by the movie Bottleshock), was born in Croatia. He has been making wine there since 1996.
Disclosure: Three sample bottles were provided by Dario Drmac, founder of the Wine and More web site that specialises in Croatian wine. My friend Quentin Sadler supplied two more which were consumed at my home. Charine Tan gave me a copy of Cracking Croatian Wine: A visitor-friendly guide, which she co-wrote with Dr Matthew Horkey.