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A guide to Croatian wine

A guide to Croatian wine

by Great British Chefs 18 December 2017

Saša Špiranec introduces us to the world of Croatian wines, shedding light on the most popular varieties and taking us on a tour of the four main winemaking regions.

Croatian wine preserves and embodies the country’s historical heritage, natural riches, multicultural traditions and original grape varieties. It is located where the hot Mediterranean meets the cold Alpine climate zones, and where, historically and culturally, East meets West. This is what makes the wine culture in Croatia very unique. The sheer number of native varieties that have developed here by adapting to both the climate and the local customs are proof enough.

Due to its unique shape and extreme variations in climate, Croatia is divided into four wine regions, twelve sub-regions and sixty-six appellations. The four wine regions are located in the four corners of the country, and each has developed its own specific varieties that best personify the geographical features, climate and customs. Their original, unique style allows us to savour the terroir and experience modern expressions of old winemaking traditions.

Croatian wine: a history

Like the rest of central and Mediterranean Europe, grape cultivation in Croatia predated the Romans by several hundred years and is at least 2,500 years old. The oldest traces of vine planting and wine production come from Vis, an island on the south of Croatia, where a small coin dated to the fifth century BC was discovered and features a grape cluster on one side and an amphora for keeping wine on the other side. Similar archaeological and written documentation can be found in many places on the coast, from Istria to Dalmatia.

In the continental part of Croatia, winemaking came several centuries later and was spread by Illyrians and Thracians, as well as Romans. One of the most famous promoters of wine culture was Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Probus, who planted huge vineyards from the Rhine valley in Germany to the Danube River basin in Croatia and Serbia. Forcing his army to plant and maintain these large territories (when not fighting against rebels) turned his army against him. After all, legionaries were there to fight, not to plant vines. He paid for his passion with his head.

Wine production and traditions were interrupted only during the time of the Ottoman empire in the sixteenth century. Phylloxera, the pest which destroyed most of the vineyards in the late nineteenth century in Europe, also had a strong influence on the final selection of grape varieties in Croatia, especially in the continental region. Many indigenous varieties became extinct and were replaced mainly by German and Austrian grapes, brought by the new rulers, the Habsburgs. Later in the twentieth century, French varietals were introduced. Istria and Dalmatia were also hit by phylloxera, but because of their distinctive climate and soil, indigenous varieties managed to persist and are still going strong today.

Wine regions: Slavonia and Croatian Danube

This is a region characterised by seemingly endless plains covered in golden fields of wheat and the three rivers that enclose it: the Danube, Drava and Sava. A few small hills with vineyards strewn across their slopes rise from plains drenched in sunlight. These vineyards are the home of Croatia’s principal variety, Graševina. In the very heart of Slavonia, in a valley surrounded by a low mountain range, lies Kutjevo, the appellation that produces some of the finest Graševina in the world. Meanwhile, on the eastern border of this region, marked by the vast, meandering Danube River, vineyards growing Traminac (Gewurztraminer), Graševina and numerous red varieties have found their place under the sun.

Slavonia is not only the home of fine wines but also of one of the most highly rated species of oak. In neighbouring Italy, Slavonian oak is used for the ageing of some of their best wines such as Barolo and Barbaresco. The same species of oak is widely used by Croatian winemakers, especially for larger barrels. Warm summers and cold winters, together with deposits of sediment known as loess permeable to water, always render wines from this part of Croatia rich and mature, with plenty of floral tones in the white wines and sweet, fruity undertones in the reds.

Most common wine varieties

  • Graševina is the most common variety in Croatia. Its characteristics range from delicate, refreshing wines in West Slavonia to opulent, dry, fresh and mineral wines from Central Slavonia and mature, powerful, full-bodied wines that come from the Croatian Danube region. Sweet dessert wines from selected dried berries and ice wines that can age for decades are the jewels of this region. Graševina can be found in other countries under various names, but only in Croatia does it stand for a premium quality wine that is always listed at the very top of a winemaker’s portfolio. Croatians like to say that Graševina has found its home in Croatia.

  • Traminac is the Croatian counterpart of Gewürztraminer. In Ilok, the appellation located on the very shores of the Danube, it yields exceptional results. Ilok is located in Croatia’s warmest continental region. However, it is hidden from the blistering heat by a mountain range that results in an ideal combination of sunlight and cool air. This enables it to preserve its impressive aroma and opulent, long finish.

  • Frankovka is another variety found in countries that surround the the Danube; it is known to a wider audience as Blaufränkisch. In Croatia, it achieves ideal levels of phenolic acidity and optimal body thanks to the sunlit vineyards of Slavonia and the Croatian Danube and the rich, permeable soil. Frankovka is a variety characterized by higher levels of acidity and fruitiness, and this region provides it with the right ratio of maturity and freshness, thus making it one of Croatia’s most charming wines.

Other notable varieties from Slavonia and Croatian Danube

  • Whites: Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc

  • Reds: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Zweigelt, Portugieser, Pinot Noir, Syrah

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Wine regions: Croatian Uplands

This is where you’ll find fresh, lively hillside wines from the cool climate of the sunlit Croatian Uplands. The coldest wine region in Croatia, surrounding Croatia’s capital Zagreb, the Uplands are characterized by ranges of hills and picturesque little family-owned vineyards. Perhaps one will have some difficulty pronouncing the names of these appellations – Međimurje, Zagorje, Moslavina, Plešivica – but one will not have any difficulty remembering their wines. There aren’t that many native varieties in this region, but the international varieties, especially those such as Pinot, Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc, have made a nice home for themselves here. A chilly climate enables the wines to preserve intense aromas and high levels of acidity, while the hilly landscape ensures there is plenty of sun and wind for the vines to make it long into winter and provide some of the finest and most highly rated dessert wines in the world.

Most common wine varieties

  • Moslavac or Pušipel is also known as Furmint in Hungary, where it is a component of Tokaj (one of the finest sweet wines in the world), while in Croatian Uplands it is used to craft refreshing dry wines. Pušipel yields wines similar to Riesling, with great potential for ageing. Noble rot tends to affect this variety and gives it a special flavour.

  • Škrlet is a native variety from the eastern part of Croatian Uplands, from the Moslavina appellation, that resembles Austrian Grüner Veltliner in style. Its accessibility, freshness and simplicity make it a strong contender on the market. Wine crafted from this variety of grapes is among the first to be bottled, as early as January. Ideally, it is consumed within the first two years of the harvest while it is still fresh and fruity.

  • Sauvignon Blanc achieves exceptional results in the Upland’s cold climate, which brings to the fore its grassy and herbaceous aroma (unlike the green bell pepper notes of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc) and a seductive, refreshing character.

  • Riesling, or as it is commonly called in Croatia, Rizling Rajnski, is the most common white variety in Upland Croatia. It is notable for its citrus aroma with a hint of floral notes, typical for Riesling. As early as two years from the harvest, it develops tertiary notes that enrich it and give it a certain finesse.

Other notable varieties from the Croatian Uplands

  • Whites: Muscat, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay

  • Reds: Pinot Noir, Purtugizec

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Wine regions: Istria and Kvarner

Istria and Kvarner is a unique region. This is where the Mediterranean heat meets the cold coming from the Alps, thus making the climate cooler than Dalmatia. White, rocky landscapes, so typical of Dalmatia, make way for the specific red soil, rich in iron oxides, and the verdant beauty of continental Istria and Kvarner. Three varieties have adapted specifically to this mild coastal climate: Malvazija Istarska and Žlahtina of the white varieties and Teran of the red variety. These have been the foundation of the wine culture in this region for centuries, and in the past couple of decades, they have been joined by Merlot.

Most common wine varieties

  • Malvasia is a bright, fragrant, spring-like white wine from the cooler air of mystical, green Istria. At the moment, this is Croatia’s most successful variety. It is one of the few varieties of dry white wine that has the potential to age for more than a decade and keep its great form, especially when it comes from top wineries. Malvasia comes in two styles. It can be fresh, which is instantly recognizable by its IQ label, a certificate of high quality. This wine is intended for consumption within three years from the harvest. It is characterised by an abundance of fruity aromas, the most common being peach, citrus or banana, and a full, strong taste of minerals, with a refreshing, mildly bitter aftertaste. Malvasia is also capable of ageing in a variety of wooden barrels. These can be made of either oak or acacia, and, depending on the wine maker, differ in size. Depending on the winemaking process and ageing, it is ready for sale no sooner than two years from the harvest and can maintain high levels of quality for as many as ten years.

  • Žlahtina is a delicate wine with gentle, seductive aromas. It is unpretentious, light bodied and vibrant, making it ideal as an aperitif or with seafood starters such as carpaccio. Its name is derived from an old Slavic word žlahtno, meaning noble. It is one of the oldest native varieties, and the wines crafted from it were often enjoyed by Croatian nobility. It is primarily found on the island of Krk.

  • Teran is Istria’s native variety. In the past two decades, it was under threat of being pushed out by red Bordeaux varieties that spread across Istria’s vineyards, but today it is making a comeback. Teran is highly regarded for its naturally high levels of acidity, its exceptionally dark colour that in a young wine can border on purple, and its specific flavour with hints of bright red fruit and pepper. Of all Croatian varieties, this one has the greatest potential for ageing over years, and specimens from select harvests can last for decades.

Other notable varieties from Istria and Kvarner

  • Whites: Muscat, Chardonnay

  • Reds: Sansigot, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah

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Wine regions: Dalmatia

For over 2,500 years wine has been produced on Hvar island, where the world’s oldest continuously cultivated vineyard at Stari Grad Plain, a UNESCO-protected World Heritage Site, is located. Other parts of Dalmatia such as the island of Vis and the Pelješac Penninsula have also been making wines for centuries. Numerous native varieties are almost an exclusive source of the wines here. One variety that is native to this region, Tribidrag, made its way across the Atlantic Ocean to America, where it is now known as Zinfandel. However, the variety that personifies Dalmatia is the profound and powerful Plavac Mali from the sun-drenched slopes of Dalmatia’s beautiful coast.

Most common wine varieties

  • Plavac Mali is used to craft some of the finest Croatian red wines, especially when it comes from the barren, steep southern slopes of Southern and Central Dalmatia facing the sea, from positions such as Dingač, Ivan Dolac or Postup. These locales are the home of the most famous and priciest labels; wines that are often powerful, alcoholic, full-bodied and opulent. Further inland, Plavac is used to make fruitier, lighter, juicier, everyday wines to be enjoyed with a variety of cuisines.

  • Babić is the little giant of Primošten. This is a red variety that, despite its modest presence, has a proven global potential. Every international expert that has tried it, such as Anthony Rose or Oz Clark, has given it great reviews. The latest in a string of reviewers was Sarah Kemp from Decanter who said that Babić was her favourite Croatian wine. Like Plavac Mali, it is better when grown in extreme conditions, on steep, sunny slopes. However, unlike Plavac, it is excellent at preserving acidity.

  • Tribidrag (aka Zinfandel, Crljenak, Primitivo) was nearly extinct in Croatia when UC Davis Professor Carole Meredith and her Croatian colleagues found it in a vineyard near Split while researching the origins of Zinfandel. From the mere nine vines that were found in 2002, thanks to the project to revitalize this variety, there are now over 350,000 vines, and their numbers seem to grow exponentially. Dalmatia has embraced its long lost child.

  • Pošip is the Croatian counterpart of the famous Viognier. It is full-bodied and robust, with a touch of the Mediterranean, yet at the same time it is seductively fruity and fragrant. Pošip comes in two styles. It can be a young, refreshing wine that pairs herbal with lively fruit notes or it can be a rich, mature wine that has aged on yeasts and could mature in a bottle for years. This is the most popular white variety in Dalmatia.

Other notable varieties from Dalmatia

  • Whites: Grk, Debit, Vugava, Kujunduša, Maraština, Malvasija Dubrovačka, Prč, Bogdanuša, Gegić

  • Reds: Plavina, Lasina, Drnekuša, Dobričić, Trnjak

Header image courtesy of Ivo Biocina / Croatian National Tourist Board.

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