Small Croatia in the Great Wine World
The period since the end of the last century until now can be best described as the renaissance of Croatian wine production. In this period, the focus has moved from the yield and quantity to quality. This is evident in the continuous increase of the number of wines with protected designation of origin, quality wines and premium quality wines as compared to table wines, as well as the number of bottled wines in relation to one-litre bottles and bulk wines. Around 20,000 hectares of vineyards are divided into four basic wine regions: Slavonia & Croatian Danube, Croatian Uplands, Istria and Kvarner, Dalmatia. At the moment, total wine production in Croatia is around 750,000 hectolitres per year. The value of wine export has been on the rise recently, and in the year 2017 the export was worth over 13 million euros. The largest part of Croatian wines is traditionally exported to the neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina, followed by Germany. An important category called “internal export” needs to be added to the relatively modest total amount of Croatian wine export. It denotes the increasing amount consumed by almost twenty million foreign tourists in Croatia. Among them, there are a growing number of visitors for whom the wine and gourmet experience is the key motivational factor for visiting Croatia. The exporters have yet to seize the opportunity to give wine lovers a chance to buy Croatian wine in their homeland after a visit to Croatia. Because the word about Croatian wine renaissance is slowly spreading around the world.
The tradition of wine culture in Croatian wine regions is a broad subject. Some of the most interesting pages in the history of wine making in general were written right in this area. In centuries long before Christ, the Ancient Greeks colonized the Adriatic region of today’s Croatia. On their ships they regularly carried grapevines looking for the best possible positions in their newly occupied colonies. The oldest coin found in Dalmatia has a symbolic meaning: on the front side it shows the poet Homer, and on the reverse a bunch of grapes. Afterwards, the Romans used a systematic approach to the development of viticulture and wine production on the hills of Croatia as we know it today, from the Central European area around the Danube, to the Mediterranean Konavle.
Monks guarded the civilization against the medieval darkness with wine culture, especially the Cistercians at the dawn of the modern era, and later also brothers from other orders. The meticulous Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy, as people say, brought order to the viticulture and wine production on the territory of today’s Croatia, especially in cadastral records. Imperial and royal enologists tested many previously unknown grape varieties in the new vineyards of Croatian wine regions. The winemakers started closely evaluating the results of native grapes as compared to the introduced ones. The epidemic of grape phylloxera changed the wine map of the Old Continent. Some Dalmatian island vineyards on sandy soil resisted the disease the longest. This brought them remarkable success and recognition by European experts scared by the great wine blight spreading across the continent.
In the time when Croatia was part of Yugoslavia, unfortunately vintners and winemakers were primarily obsessed with high yield instead of the quality of wine. Even then, a small number of enologists in Croatia still resolutely insisted on respecting the great potential of different terroirs. However, early in the second half of the last century, the first most precious wine appellations in Croatia were protected, first Dingač, and then Postup, both on Pelješac peninsula. But these were only isolated accomplishments.
The radical turnaround in the 1990s following Croatia’s independence quickly led to encouraging examples. A few young winemakers decided to try the possibilities and limits of neglected grape varieties. Along with these young forces, a few renowned enologists dared to leave state-owned wine cooperatives and embark on the adventure of starting their own, initially small wineries. While the pioneers were full of enthusiasm, they still needed to stay cool-headed in evaluating the true values of the great heritage: what part of tradition needs to be kept, and what modern ideas, methods and technologies need to be adopted. And thus the new standards of wine production in this area were set. Even the conventional description of typical varietal characteristics was re-established.
It is especially exciting to question the potential of a number of indigenous grape varieties. The revolutionary action by a group of young winemakers in Istria was very significant. They set to give a radical new treatment to Malvazija Istarska, traditional and not highly regarded wine: from planting to marketing strategies. The whole Istrian region used this ambitious wine wave to rise into an attractive food and wine destination, making a positive impact on the overall travel industry and Istrian results. This success was contagious so winemakers all over Croatia were moved by the spirit of revival. A systematic classification of indigenous grapes was possible thanks to the new advancements in DNA analysis. The discovery of Dalmatian ancestors of the Californian Zinfandel in 2001 is a scientifically proven fact that made a splash on the global wine scene. The list of confirmed indigenous grape varieties is increasing every year. Some almost forgotten varieties are being revived and their potential exploited. However, the advocates of authentic qualities are not the only ones enjoying success among wine lovers outside Croatia. It has been proven that a large number of the so-called classic French grape varieties and many other international ones can easily find optimum positions in the geographical and climatic diversity of Croatia. Along with desirable varietal characteristics, they can show distinct features of Croatian regions’ terroir and reflect the personality of the winemaker.
Almost half of the wine production in Croatia is based on the five leading grape varieties: more than a fifth is produced from Graševina. Although this is actually Welschriesling variety, common across Central Europe, Croatian Graševina wines are by far the most diverse, and the best of them deserve the highest ratings. Moreover, many experts believe that Graševina’s origin is to be found in Croatia, before it made its way to the world. Indigenous and introduced varieties compete with each other in Croatia’s wine regions. Plavac Mali in Dalmatia and Malvazija Istarska in Istria and Kvarner follow after Graševina in terms of quantity, but French classics like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are also among the top five most wide-spread grapes. In Croatian wine regions, typical and desirable characteristics of grape varieties also gain their specific qualities and character from the local terroir.
This bustling new Croatian wine scene is quite interesting. There are numerous ideas, experiments and new labels, but only sedimentation of trends over the course of time will show true, long-lasting values.
Istria & Kvarner
It seems that the Phoenicians and Greeks brought wine to Istria. The settlers of that time, Histri, have successfully mastered the cultivation skills of this noble plant as well as the production of wine. In addition, the legend says that the Agronomas, the famous Greek sailors looking for a golden run, shouted “kalavojna”, which in free Greek translation means good wine. Where?
Along the eastern coast of Istria, on the place next to the Raški bay which has the same name to this day.
Istria and the Croatian coast are the westernmost vineyard sub-regions, excellent geographical location and mild Mediterranean climate. However, there is a huge influence of the continental climate, which because of differences of the ground types influence wines in a positive sense.
Slavonia & Podunavlje
In this area, the largest area is vineyards and the largest production in Croatia, and according to many, the best white wines of continental Croatia are also obtained. They stretch from Virovitica and Daruvar to the west to the Danube, covering the most beautiful and varied places where vineyards traditionally grow.
Most of the vineyards are situated on the gentle and spacious slopes of Dilja, Psunja, Požeška gore, Papuk, Krndija and Fruška mountains above. They are found on elevated terrains, most often 150 to 350 m above sea level, and in the far east, near the Danube, we find them below.
Zagreb is surrounded with Zagorje and Prigorje, with Plešivica, Moslavina and Međimurje in its close vicinity. Although Zagreb is the capital of Croatia, a city with a population of million, traces of vineyards and viticulture in the past are still present, in different ways.
The fact is, apart from a few miniature public vineyards of a purely symbolic and touristic importance, only the Faculty of Agriculture manages a demonstration vineyard and a fairly serious winery. Yet, in the aforementioned areas surrounding the capital, the winemaking story is fermenting rather strongly.
Dalmatia, previously a cheap summer destination for mass tourism, nowadays stands for a top tourist and nautical destination which attracts the most demanding visitors in its most attractive part, those who seek much more than just the sea and nature.
That kind of status cannot be achieved without a matching food and wine scene. Tasting rooms of certain wineries have grown into hangouts for high-class clients. From restaurants in the picturesque wilderness of Kornati Archipelago to upscale restaurants in the protected parts of historic old towns, the new Dalmatian cuisine introduces itself ranging from seafood minimalism to rhapsodies worthy of Michelin stars.