Curious & Thirsty: Wines of Croatia
by Cliff Rames, Sommelier & Founder of Wines of Croatia
For a relatively small country, Croatia is poised to make a lasting mark on the international wine scene. In a few ways Croatia’s promise has already been delivered.
Zinfandel, the sweetheart grape of California (Primitivo in Italy), actually originates in Croatia, where it is known as Crljenak Kaštelanski. (The multi-year investigation and DNA-profiling that proved Zinfandel’s roots extend all the way to Croatia is a fascinating story for another time). Since the “CPZ” (Crljenak/Primitivo/Zinfandel) discovery, a number of Croatian wineries have begun to produce “original Croatian Zin” – Zinfandel grown in its native turf on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, and some of these bottles are already available on the market. Look for Zlatan Crljenak, available from Blue Danube Wine.
Chardonnay is no stranger to the glasses of many worldly wine lovers. But many don’t realize that it also has Croatian roots via a grape called Štajerska Belina (aka Gouais Blanc), a white variety that in ancient times migrated to France from the territory that is now northern Croatia and parts of Slovenia. There it cross-bred with Pinot Noir and gave birth to Chardonnay. (For more about the Štajerska Belina/Chardonnay story, check out this post.)
Clearly Croatia has history on its side. Wine grape cultivation there dates back twenty-four centuries to the age of the Greeks and was later developed and expanded under the Roman Empire. Stari Grad Field, established in 385 B.C. on the island of Hvar, is the oldest continuously cultivated vineyard in Croatia and is a living example of an ancient agricultural system.
In 2008 the Stari Grad Field was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Today Carić winery produces wines from vineyards on Stari Grad Field. Look for its lovely Jubo’v, a red wine made from the indigenous Plavac Mali grape and available in Chicago at House Red and The Bottle Shop. (both shops can ship the wines to most states in the U.S.)
Another Croatian contribution to the world of wine is Slavonian oak from the country’s northern forests. Renowned for its unique qualities as wood for the production of wine barrels, Slavonian oak casks are often employed for aging some of Italy’s finest wines, as well as many Croatian wines.
Croatia is roughly divided into four winemaking regions, two in the continental zone (Slavonia and the Danube; Croatian Uplands) with a cooler climate; and two along the Adriatic coast (Istria; Dalmatia) with a Mediterranean climate. Within each region are several sub-regions – or “wine growing hills” – and smaller appellations. All told, Croatia boasts of having over 300 geographically-defined and distinct wine producing areas.
White varieties such as Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc dominate the growing areas of continental Slavonia, the Danube, and the Croatian Uplands. The most widely planted grape in the area – and in Croatia – is Graševina (Welschriesling), whose styles range from light, crisp, mildly aromatic refreshing wines from the cooler areas of the Croatian Uplands, to rich, viscous, savory, and age-worthy whites from the warmer zones of Slavonia and the Danube. Luscious world class dessert and ice wines are also produced in the region, primarily from Graševina and Gewürztraminer. Look for bottles by Enjingi, Krauthaker, Kutjevo d.d., Mihalj, Adžic, Buhač, and Iločki Podrumi.
On the northern part of Croatia’s Adriatic coast lies the heart-shaped Istrian peninsula, home of ancient hill-top villages, white truffles, olive groves, prized Boškarin oxen, and terra rosa soiled vineyards. Here Croatia’s second-most planted grape reigns supreme: Malvazija Istriana. A member of the larger Malvasia Bianca family, Istrian Malvasia is unique to the peninsula and produces award-winning wines of diverse character, from lean and light to unctuous and sweet; from crisp stainless steel versions to acacia wood-aged and even orange wines. Examples to seek out are Matošević, Piquentum, Kozlović, Roxanich, Trapan, Gerzinić, Degrassi and Clai. (For more about Istrian Malvasia, see this post.)
Istria also boasts a signature red variety: Teran. In the right hands Teran can produce wines high in acidity with deep, dark expressions of black fruits and cured meat. Excellent examples are produced by Arman, Coronica, Piquenum, Radovan, Roxanich, and Terzolo. International varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Muscat also do well in Istria.
Going south along the coast, Dalmatia is marked by over one thousand islands scattered like oyster shells across the blue Adriatic Sea. Some of the more important wine-growing islands include Hvar, Vis, Brač and Korčula – the legendary home of world explorer, Marco Polo. Here the climate is generally hot and dry, resulting in wines of higher alcohol and richer character.
While Dalmatia is home to a fascinating array of indigenous grape varieties, one dominates above all others: Plavac Mali, a red variety that descended from a cross between Zinfandel (Crljenik Kašteljanski and an obscure native variety called Dobričić.)
Wine from Plavac Mali can be found in a number of different styles, from light and fruity to bold and hearty. Bottles labeled simply as “Plavac” are leaner in style with lower alcohol and straightforward notes of cherry, some fig and tobacco, and Mediterranean herb, and are made from grapes grown in lesser appellations – usually cooler fields away from the sea. An excellent entry-level example is “Pelješac” from Dingač winery (imported by Blue Danube Wine.)
Croatia’s oldest official geographically protected appellation for wine production is Dingač. Certified in 1961, Dingač is a rocky, sun-baked, southwest facing slope on the Pelješac peninsula in southern Dalmatia planted exclusively with Plavac Mali grapes. Wines from here will be labeled simply as “Dingač”, along with the name of the producer. Production is very small and the wines often command a premium price, as all vineyard and harvest work must be done by hand due to the extreme conditions and steep slope of the vineyards hundreds of feet above the sea. A benchmark example of a Dingač wine is called “Bura” (imported by VinumUSA.)
Other native varieties from the coastal region to watch out for are (reds): Babić; and (whites): Pošip, Debit, Žlahtina, Malvasija Dubrovačka, Grk, and Vugava.
Speaking of Pelješac, Croatia has produced another famous addition to the wine world: Mike “Miljenko” Grgić, the iconic owner and winemaker of Grgich Hills Estate in Napa Valley, California. Grgić famously claimed his place in history when, as a young winemaker at Chateau Montelena in Napa, he crafted the Chardonnay that went on to trump the world’s top wines at the Judgment of Paris competition in 1976 – the subject of an eponymous book by George Taber and a film called Bottleshock. Grgić was also a leading sponsor of the research behind the discovery of Zinfandel’s Croatian origins. In addition to California Zinfandel, Grgić imports Plavac Mali and Pošip wines from grapes grown at his vineyards in Croatia. These wines are now available for purchase at the California winery.
Another curious Croatian contribution to wine is leading American restaurateur and wine writer, Joe Bastianich, whose family – including famous chef mother Lidija – is from Istria. At his Eataly food hall (co-owned by Mario Batali) in Manhattan you can order a bottle of Croatian Malvazija Istriana called “Adriatico” to go with your charcuterie or branzino.
From the balmy banks of the Danube to the crystalline shores of Istria and Dalmatia, from the historic hills of the Croatian Uplands to the ancient walls of Stari Grad Field, and from the tables of Manhattan to the tasting rooms of Napa Valley, Croatia offers a diverse selection of wine styles and native grape varieties to suit every palate.
Croatia may be a small country but it is rich in tradition and deeply rooted in the production and consumption of wine – an alluring pastime that is increasingly available for the adventurous wine lover to discover.
As they say in Croatia with glasses raised: “Živjeli!”
Cliff Rames is the founder of Wines of Croatia, a wine marketing initiative to organize, support, coordinate and/or conduct ongoing educational and promotional activities and events that raise awareness and expand appreciation of the wines of Croatia. Cliff is also an accomplished freelance writer, having been published in the North Dakota Quarterly (short story), Every Wine Tells a Story, and as a regularly contributor to Wines of Croatia.
Cliff also serves as sommelier for the Caudalie Viontherapie Spa at the Plaza in New York City, where he manages the spa’s French Paradox Wine Lounge. Serving as Caudalie’s media spokesperson for wine-related topics, he conducts onsite wine lessons and organizes special tasting events. He has been spotlighted in Wine Enthusiast, nymag.com, traveltowellness.com, trendceteramag.com, passportmagazine.com, and many others.
Cliff’s formal wine training began with the completion of the French Culinary Institute’s Fundamentals of Wine course. In May 2007, he passed the rigorous Court of Master Sommeliers Certified Sommelier exam and the WSET Advanced Certificate course.