Unpacking Croatia: One Variety and Region at a Time – Special Feature

By Janet Dorozynski, DipWSET, PhD

This feature was commissioned by Croatia Unpacked

If you have yet to hear about or taste Croatian wine, then you are not alone. Aside from the supportive and vocal Croatian diaspora and a few champion writers, restauranteurs and sommeliers, overall awareness of Croatian wine and the indigenous grape varieties has been relatively limited to date. But I have a feeling this is about to change…..

Going Back in Time

My best friend in high school was of Croatian origin, and because I practically lived at her house, I heard her speaking Croatian with her parents and community all the time and often got to taste loads of lovely Croatian food. I also heard many stories about how Croatia was the most beautiful part of then Yugoslavia but never saw a bottle or heard anything about Croatian wines.

Fast-forward a few decades and I find myself traveling the breadth and length of Croatia, tasting its delicious food and hearing the familiar sounding Slavic language with the few odd words I can still understand. Before lockdown, I visited the key wine regions of Croatia and tasted hundreds of wines: this has left no doubt in my mind that the best wines from Croatia stand with the finest from anywhere.


Croatia Happy Hour – June 12th at 5pm

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Despite low awareness, Croatia has been in the business of growing grapes and making wine for thousands of years. Evidence of wine production dates back to the 5th century BCE on the island of Vis in southern Dalmatia and has continued to present day in various parts of the country. Disruptions to wine making occurred during the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century and similar to the rest of Europe, phylloxera ravaged the country in the late 19th century. The pest took its toll on many of Croatia’s indigenous varieties and in Slavonia were replaced by German and Austrian varieties brought in by the new rulers of the Hapsburg Empire. While Istria and Dalmatia also suffered, the large plantings of indigenous varieties fared better and continue to dominate production in these regions.

The 20th century had a profound impact on Croatian wines, with much of the last century eclipsed by the rise and fall of communism. Similar to other Central and Eastern European countries, this resulted in establishing large cooperatives and state enterprises that churned out vast amounts of low quality wines. It also ushered in the movement to replace indigenous varieties with higher yielding international varieties to satisfy growing production and exports of bulk wine, mainly to Germany. Under communism, Croatian wine exports were greater than they are today but could only be in bulk, not bottled wine, pumped out by large state enterprises. Private citizens were also forbidden to own more than ten hectares of land, which not only assured the dominance of large-scale state owned wine production but also led to the proliferation of thousands of family grape growers and wineries that continues to this day.

Kozlovic Vineyards – Istria

The Modern Industry

As the 20th century was ending, the former Yugoslavia witnessed years of bloody civil war and the dicing up of the country into the myriad separate nation states that exist today. Croatia became an independent country in 1991, and with the return to a free market economy, the wine industry grappled with a past closed off to outside winemakers, innovation and technology, which had little need or motivation to make quality wines.

A significant factor in the rise of wine quality can be attributed to Croatia joining the European Union in 2013. This not only opened up export markets and information and technology transfers within Europe, but also allowed wineries to access the generous pot of EU wine industry funding that led to increased plantings and replanting, new equipment purchases and the expansion of modernized production facilities.

Croatia’s vineyard area is still small by world standards hovering at just less than 19,000 hectares (in 2020). Many of the 1575 or so producers are small to medium sized family run operations, with only 145 producers owning more than 10 hectares of vineyards and the remaining not registered for business but for personal consumption. Commercial production in 2019 was 525,000 hectolitres (the smallest harvest in a decade), most of which goes to supply the country’s thirsty tourism industry and millions of not always discerning holiday seekers that flock to Croatia each year (over 20 million in 2019 according to the Croatian Tourist Board). Seventy-six per cent of production is white with 21% red and 3% rosé (2019). Croatia imports five times more wine than it exports with the small amount exported (about 10%) going to the surrounding markets of Serbia, Bosnia Hercegovina and Montenegro, with lesser amounts making its way to Germany, Austria, the UK, the USA and Canada.

Stina Vineyards Brac – Dalmatia

Travelling the Regions

Croatia has four main wine growing regions divided into 16 sub-regions or Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and 66 appellations. With the exception of Dingač for Plavac Mali, the first appellation established for this Southern Dalmatian red in 1961, it is rare to see a PDO or appellation mentioned on a Croatian wine label even though over 70 % of Croatian wines are from PDOs. This is not surprising since the modern Croatian industry is still relatively young with most of the wines never leaving the country. When they do, the PDOs that delineate proximity to the sea or hinterland (or geopolitical areas within regions) likely appear as a jumble of consonants and squiggly accents to non-native speakers, making varietal labelling both more approachable and common.

Continental Croatia – Slavonia and the Croatian Uplands

The wine regions of Slavonia (31% of plantings) and the Croatian Uplands (22% of plantings) are lesser known but produce over half of all Croatian wine. Both are inland with a moderate to cool continental climate, with the Croatian Uplands being the coolest and wettest growing area in Croatia.

The Croatian Uplands are the hilly areas surrounding the capital city Zagreb. This is classic cool climate territory, with white varieties Muscat, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, along with Furmint, known as Pušipel or Moslavac. There is also a smattering of Pinot Noir and Purtugizec (aka Blauer Porturgieser) with the region’s cooler climate well suited to sparkling wine production.

Slavonia encompasses the sprawling plain that stretches east from Zagreb to where the Danube forms the border with neighbouring Serbia. The fields and gently rolling hills of Slavonia are home to vineyards and wheat fields as well as forests of the prized slow growing Slavonian oak used to make wine barrels. This is a quintessential continental wine region with warm sunny summers and moderately cold winters.  It is also home to Croatia’s most planted white variety Graševina that thrives in the Kutjevo appellation in the heart of Slavonia.

Coastal Croatia – Istria and Dalmatia

Coastal or Mediterranean Croatia consists of Istria, the large northwestern peninsula jutting out into the Adriatic, along with Dalmatia, Croatia’s southernmost and best-known wine region. Combined they account for more than 47% of the country’s vineyard area.

Coastal Croatia enjoys mild Mediterranean temperatures with a large number of sunny days throughout the growing season. Summers are hot and dry, with mild winters and abundant precipitation. While both Istria and Dalmatia have a Mediterranean climate, Istria is where the cold from the Alps to the north meet the warmth of the Adriatic, making it cooler than hot and dry Dalmatia. Istria and Dalmatia are particularly inviting as wine tourism regions with scores of picturesque coastal and hill top towns and villages sprinkled amidst rolling hills and steep and sloping vineyards.

Stina Winery Brac – Dalmatia

Dalmatia spans the coastal and inland area from Zadar south to Dubrovnik. The region is a labyrinth of rocky karst (a type of limestone) outcrops and hundreds of reefs and islands that are home to a greater number of indigenous varieties and old vines than any other region in Croatia. Vines in Dalmatia intrepidly grow on steep inland slopes and on the island-like Pelješac Peninsula, with many of the wines echoing the hot, dry growing conditions. There are also a number of vineyards and wineries on the islands of Brač, Vis, and Korčula and on Hvar, which boasts the world’s oldest continuously cultivated vineyard at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Stari Grad Plain. 

North of Dalmatia is Istria, where the rocky white soil landscapes give way to gently rolling hills and iron oxide rich red soils. Istria produces some of Croatia’s most exciting and audacious wines, experimenting with skin maceration or contact orange wines and single block whites made from Malvazija grown on Istria’s different soil types. This northwestern corner of Croatia has been part of Austria, Italy and Yugoslavia over the last century and the influence of each is apparent in both the cuisine and wines of region.

Janet and Moreno Coronica, owner of Coronica, tasting Malvazija in the vineyards on the red soils of Istria

Istria is a large peninsula with an extensive coastline dotted with numerous hilltop peaks and flatter areas that result in numerous microclimates and growing conditions throughout the 4,000 hectares of vines. The region is best known for the indigenous white grape Malvazija Istarska (known as Malvasia Istriana in Italy) which accounts for over two-thirds of Istria’s production. It is increasingly known for the native red variety Teran that produces uniquely fresh and aromatic medium to full bodied reds which excel when planted on the predominantly clay-based terra rossa soils that are widespread in the region. International varieties like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay have also joined indigenous grape plantings over the past few decades.

Terra Rossa – Istria

Getting to know the Grapes

Croatia is home to over 120 indigenous grape varieties that survived phylloxera though only forty of these are made into wine of any significant quantity, either as single varietal wines or blended with the usual international suspects like Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Pinot Noir.

The three most planted native grape varieties in Croatia are Graševina and Malvazija Istarska for whites and the red Plavac Mali; together they account for more than one third of the country’s total production. They, along with a handful of other distinctive indigenous varieties make their way into many of the country’s most notable wines worth seeking out.

Babić

The red variety Babić is not as well known as Plavac Mali but what it lacks in recognition it makes up in elegance and finesse. Grown in small amounts (less than 500 hectares) in Northern Dalmatia on less than fertile karst limestone soil vineyards, there is also a smattering of plantings on the island of Korčula. It is a deep blue-skinned variety with recent DNA profiling identifying it as related to Dobričić (either the grandparent or half-sibling), which is also a relative of Plavac Mali. Wines made from Babić are densely fruited and full bodied with an herbal spice lift and freshness similar to some Italian varieties like Sangiovese or Aglianico. Babić preserves acidity better than Plavac Mali, resulting in more harmonious and balanced wines.

Testament Babic 2017, Dalmatia ($29.80)

Graševina

Graševina (aka Welschriesling, Laški Rizling, Riesling Italico, Olasz Riesling) is Croatia’s most planted white and grape variety overall. Grown extensively as a workhorse grape in many parts of Central and Eastern Europe, it has come into its own in the continental climate on the plains of Slavonia. A prolific late ripening variety, it retains good acidity if yields are controlled. It is also relatively cold-hardy and enable to withstand Slavonia’s colder winter temperatures. Light bodied and fairly aromatic, it is made into a range of wine styles, from sparkling to dry and off-dry fresh and easy drinking styles to oaked with richer floral and stone fruit complexity and even ice wine.

Malvazija Istarska

The Malvasia grown in Croatia is known as Malvazija Istarska and is not related to the Malvasia grown in Greece or Italy. It is predominantly grown in Istria, where it accounts for over 50% of all white grapes and made into varietal wines, usually fermented and aged in stainless steel. Fresh and fruity (stone and citrus fruit) with a honeyed floral character and lowish acidity, this green hued wine often has a slight saline note and attractive bitterness on the finish. A number of Malvazija from Istria are fermented or macerated on their skins. The variety is well suited to maceration which balances the flavours of the variety and gives texture and interest to the finished wines. There are also wine makers aging their Malvazija Istarska in new and neutral oak (French or acacia) for varying periods, with the more adventurous using amphorae, concrete and quervi as well. The variety is both unique and a perfect match for Istria’s bounty of outstanding seafood and fish.

Coronica Malvazija Istarska 2019, Istria ($29.90)

Kabola Malvazija Amfora 2017, Istria ($65.80)

Clai Baracija Malvazija 2018, Istria ($34.85)

Plavac Mali

Plavac Mali is Croatia’s best-known red and the county’s third most planted variety. Its name in Latin means small blue, an accurate description of the small dark blue berries that grow in tight clusters. Though previously mistaken to be Zinfandel, the variety is actually cross between Crlenjak Kaštelanski (an ancestor of Zinfandel) and Dobričić (an ancient red wine grape variety from the Dalmatian coast). It is largely planted in southern Dalmatia where it is often grown as bush vines in rocky soils on steep south-facing slopes, like those in the well-regarded Dingač appellation overlooking the sea at a gradient of almost 50°. Yields are quite low, but sugar content is high with 13 to 15% alcohol being usual in finished wines, with some producers reaching 17% alcohol! Plavac Mali makes full-bodied and robust wines, with black cherry, peppery spice and smoky notes, substantial tannins and lowish acidity. Most are aged in oak with long-term aging potential and styles range from coarse and rustic traditional examples to more modern examples with a fresher fruit and acid profile. A bold red to be sure.

Korta Katarina Plavac Mali 2012, Peljesac ($59.95)

Stina Majstor Plavac Mali 2016, Brac, Dalmatia ($34.95)

Saints Hills St. Roko Plavac Mali 2016, Dalmatia ($44.90)

Saints Hills Dingac 2016, Dingač, Dalmatia ($67.85)

Volarevic Plavac Mali Gold Syrtis 2016, Komarna ($54.75)

Pošip

Pošip is an indigenous white grape variety that is originally from the island of Korčula in Dalmatia. Sheltered from phylloxera, it still grows on its own rootstocks in sandy soils mostly around the villages of Smokvica and Čara. Pošip also grows on the Pelješac Peninsula and on Brač and Hvar, as well as other small islands. The variety is highly aromatic with a tendency to produce high sugars and alcohol. It is a good yielder and early ripening and is qualitatively one of Dalmatia’s most important white varieties whose superiority was recognized through the creation of the first white wine appellation of Korčula in 1967. The stone fruit aromas are reminiscent of viognier and it is usually made in two styles: dry, fresh for early drinking or oaked, and lees aged in a richer, more opulent style that can age.

Merga Victa Posip 2018, Korcula ($25.90)

Saints Hills Posh 2018, Korcula ($39.95)

Korta Katarina Pošip 2018, Korcula ($50.00)

Stina Posip 2018, Brac, Dalmatia ($41.85)

Teran

The red variety Teran (aka Cagnina, Refosco del Carso, Refosco d’Istria which is Refošk in Slovenia, Terrano del Carso) has been grown in Istria for centuries and comprised 90% of vineyard plantings in the 19th  century. Mostly grown inland in the western part of the Istrian Peninsula, it is a late ripening variety with large clusters of densely packed berries. The variety produces wines with naturally high levels of acidity and marked tannins that make it ideal for barrel aging and long-term bottle aging and cellaring. It is deceptively dark in colour for such a lively and aromatic variety with bright red fruit and herbal peppery notes. Medium full-bodied, it is slightly Italianesque and often mistaken for refosco.

Coronica Teran 2016, Istria  ($29.90)

Kozlovic Teran 2018, Istria  ($29.95)

Vugava

Vugava (also known as Bugava) is a high quality, aromatic white variety found mostly on the island of Vis in central Dalmatia. It is rumoured to have been introduced and cultivated by the Greeks who colonized the island thousands of years ago. Vugava is often compared to Viognier due to its intense, at times overripe, aromatics of apricots and honey, with high alcohol and lowish acidity.

Indigenous over International

After tasting a wide selection of Croatian wines, while in Croatia and since, and as a panel member at the Decanter World Wine Awards, what strikes me is that while Croatian wines made from or blended with international varieties can be well-made quality wines, they could come from almost anywhere in the world. The wines made from Croatia’s indigenous varieties, however, are what makes this part of the wine world distinctive and idiosyncratic and the unique selling proposition of the country.  

English wine journalist Andrew Jefford, who has also visited Croatia, told me he considers the focus on international varieties to be “a bit of a trap”.  He believes that “once you start producing international varieties you will be condemned to selling on price. A much better idea is to create an international reputation with indigenous varieties and Croatian uniqueness because no one else can compete away that advantage. This is especially true since Croatia has no particular need to export and is a net importer of wine”. 

Jefford, like I, was impressed with the wines made from indigenous varieties and describes Croatia in a way that only he could: “as a kind of mini-Italy, a reflection of Central Italy in the mirror of the Adriatic, with Mitteleuropa complexity and a hint of Balkan exoticism, too”.  After seeing and tasting many Croatian wines, I could not agree more.

You can read more about this topic in my article published on Jamie Goode’s Wine Anorak Website.

Where to buy Croatian wine?

There are only a few Croatian wines currently listed at the LCBO with the majority of intriguing Croatian wines brought in by Croatia Unpacked.  The agency is little more than a year old but specializes in some of the country’s top producers and unique indigenous varieties. They have been selling direct to consumers throughout the pandemic and the WineAlign team had the chance to taste most of the Croatia Unpacked portfolio. A listing of the wines tasted with full reviews are found here.


Croatia Happy Hour – June 12 (5pm)

Mind-blowing” reds and “scintillant” whites – Michael Godel

the most illuminating tasting of the year to date” – David Lawrason

the best wines from Croatia stand with the finest from anywhere” – Janet Dorozynski

With quotes like these from Canada’s leading wine critics, it’s time to get in the know …

Join Janet Dorozynski (DipWset, PhD) and John Szabo (MS) on Saturday, June 12th and discover the new old world of Croatian wine. Janet and John have curated a selection of 6 Croatian wines that best represent the varied regions and indigenous varietals, which they will be tasting during this live webinar. Register Here

Purchase the DISCOVER THE NEW OLD WORLD Discovery Pack or Exploration Pack and taste along with Janet Dorozynski and John Szabo as they explore the wine regions of Croatia and taste 6 premium wines. You will receive your case before June 12th. Individual wines may also be ordered online at the LCBO. 

Discovery Pack (3 wines): $109.64

This introductory pack includes 3 of the 6 wines that will be featured in the Croatia Happy Hour. 

Coronica Malvazija Istarska 2019, Istria 

Clai Baracija Malvazija 2018, Istria

Saints Hills St. Roko Plavac Mali 2016, Dalmatia 

 

Exploration Pack (all 6 wines): $237.29

This full experience pack includes all 6 bottles of premium wines to be featured in the Croatia Happy Hour.

Coronica Malvazija Istarska 2019, Istria 

Clai Baracija Malvazija 2018, Istria 

Stina Posip 2018, Brac, Dalmatia 

Kozlovic Teran 2018, Istria  

Saints Hills St. Roko Plavac Mali 2016, Dalmatia 

Stina Majstor Plavac Mali 2016, Brac, Dalmatia 

This feature was commissioned by Croatia Unpacked. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery, region, or country. Our writers independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted on WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the article. Wineries and wine agents pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign.