The Dalmatian islands of southern Croatia are this week’s focus. Wine has been made there for 2,500 years. For publication in the week starting 8 April 2019.
In his book Vintage: The Story of Wine, Hugh Johnson wrote that the peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate wine and olives. The Illyrians and the ancient Greeks developed viticulture in what is modern-day Croatia, planting vines as their cultures spread.
Croatia is shaped like a reversed nine or a single quote mark, with the Dalmatian coast stretching along the leg of the nine. Winemaking on the islands of Vis, Hvar and Korčula is believed to have started perhaps 2,500 years ago. About 1,800 years ago the Greek writer Athenaeus noted the quality wine from these islands. A visit this past week revealed some wondrous wines, many from varieties little known to the wine world.
The Illyrians lived in Dalmatia somewhere between the late Bronze Age (about 1,500 years before Jesus Christ) and the start of the Iron Age. Illyrian was the name the ancient Greeks gave to the tribes who lived in what is now known as Croatia. Winemaking probably started with the Illyrians or Greeks along the Croatian coast.
Croatia has two main wine zones: Continental and Coastal. The Continental area in the north-east – the top of the reversed nine – produces rich and fruity whites similar in style to Slovenia and Hungary. It also makes big Mediterranean-style reds. The Coastal area, the focus this week, runs from Istria in the north to Dalmatia in the south.
On the islands and the Dalmatian coast a combination of local grape varieties grown on sandy and rocky terrain within small meso-climates has produced unique wines that are some of Croatia’s best. An example of a vineyard is shown at left. It’s slightly blurry because it was shot from a bus.
The Croatian Institute of Viticulture and Enology was established in 1996 to oversee the wine industry. Croatian wines are classified by quality, which is marked on the label. These can be daunting if you do not read Croatian. Vrhunsko is premium quality wine, Kvalitetno is quality wine and Stolno refers to table wine. Suho means dry, polusuho is semi-dry and slatko means sweet. Prošek is a Dalmatian dessert wine made from dried grapes, similar to Vin Santo in Italy.
Croatia currently has more than 300 geographically-defined wine regions, plus a classification system to ensure quality. Each of those main regions is divided into sub-regions, further separated into smaller “vinogorje” which translates as “wine hills”. Wine is popular in Croatia though often it is diluted with water: “gemišt is a combination of white wine and fizzy water while “bevanda” is red wine with still water.
Two in three bottles are white, with the rest mostly red plus a tiny percentage of rosé or sparkling. Rosé and sparkling are not traditional but have emerged in recent decades because of demand. Last year Croatia produced about 102 million 750ml bottles, an increase of about a third on the previous year. In 2014, the most recent global figures, Croatia ranked 32nd among wine-producing nations.
The arrival of phylloxera, a grapevine louse, in the 1870s devastated vineyards in Europe. For many years Croatian vineyards were unaffected so wine exports boomed. French companies planted vines in Croatia.
But phylloxera took hold by the start of the 20th century, leading to the collapse of village economies in many areas. Large numbers of wine-growing families moved to the United States, New Zealand and Australia where they profoundly influenced to the growth of wine industries there. Mike Grgich (born Miljenko Grgić), was the winemaker at Chateau Montelena featured in the movie Bottleshock about the Judgement of Paris tasting.
Croatian vineyards were replanted by grafting traditional varieties onto American root stock. A handful of pre-phylloxera vines still survive on the islands of Korčula and Susak. The image shows shows an observation tower in Korčula’s old city.
Many vineyards were destroyed during Croatia’s war of independence from 1991-95. A return to small, independent producers has seen Croatian wines once again competing with the best in the world.
Croatian grape varieties can be confusing to foreigners partly because the spellings are unfamiliar but mainly because many varieties are only grown in a very limited area. The main Dalmatian white varietals are Malvasija, Grk and Posip.
The last two are only found on the island of Korčula (Grk is mostly made in Lumbarda on Korčula). Grk gets its name from “Greek” – an indication of the significance of Greek influence. All make elegant and tasty wines.
Interestingly, both Venice and Korčula claim to be the birth place of Marco Polo, the famous explorer. Korčula has two museums devoted to him. Locals there claim that Korčula’s noble families used both Croatian and Italian spellings of their name. One of the noblest families was called Pilič, which means chicken in Croatian. Locals maintain Marco Pilič was also known as Marco Polo because pollo means chicken in Italian. The fly in the ointment is the fact that Korčula was part of the Hungarian empire when Marco was born in 1254.
The best-known red on the islands and the coastal mainland is Plavac Mali (it translates as “little blue”), a cross between Dobričić and Zinfandel. The latter is also known as Crljenak Kaštelanski in Croatia, where it is believed to have originated. In Italy that grape is called Primitivo. The Peljesac Peninsula, which includes Korčula and the mainland, is widely regarded as producing the country’s best reds. One of the best I tasted was a 2012 Plavac Mali by the Pecotič family at the Konoba Komin restaurant in Korčula’s old town (label shown left). These wines need to be cellared for two to three years, and then decanted for a couple of hours before being served.
A word of warning about the price of alcohol in southern Croatia’s main city, Dubrovnik. Wine in supermarkets is reasonably priced, at between 5 to 15 USD a bottle. But that same wine in a Dubrovnik restaurant can be up to 60 to 70 USD. Let’s call it the Game of Thrones dividend for locals, as tourists descend on this beautiful city that was the setting for many scenes of the hit HBO TV series.