In recent years, Croatia has shaken its image as a war-torn country crawling out from the disastrous breakup of former Yugoslavia, thanks in part to the touristic appeal of the blue-green Adriatic Sea. Following its independence, Croatia’s wine cellars were heavily privatized and modernized, and today, wine production in this country of only 4.5 million people rivals that of Canada. Even so, its wines continue to be a "discovery" for those who taste them.
Croatia has two main zones of production. The interior, continental area stretches from the hills around Zagreb to the border of Serbia. The coastal area nearly touches Trieste, Italy, to the north (only 40 kilometers of Slovenian coastline separate the two countries) and reaches as far south as Montenegro. Winemaking is drastically different in the two regions. Since the coastal wines are the ones more often encountered, it makes sense to introduce the wines of Croatia beginning with the coast and its two regions: Istria in the north and Dalmatia in the south.
Considering its location, it’s no surprise that a vast number of kingdoms and republics have ruled the Croatian coast throughout its history. An Istrian will often joke, "My grandfather was born in Austria, my father in Italy, me in Yugoslavia, and my son in Croatia—all without ever leaving our village." Dalmatia’s history, however, has been a bit more stable. For several centuries, it existed as the Ragusan Republic and was then absorbed into the Venice city-state.
The area’s winemaking history, like that of most all of Southern Europe, stretches back even further. There is strong evidence that the Greeks cultivated vines in the region, followed by the Romans, then all who came after them. Dalmatia saw a great boom when phylloxera ravaged France, followed by a great decline when the pest arrived to Dalmatian shores.
The 20th century was not terribly kind to Croatia's coast, which was affected by multiple wars. And though the collectivism of Yugoslavian times helped reinvigorate grape growing and wine production that fed into central cellars, these were more or less "wine factories" and had minimal impact on quality.
Then, there was the Croatian War of Independence from 1991 until 1995, known in Croatia as the “Homeland War." Its legacy continues in northern Dalmatia, where some vineyards remain untouchable due to lingering landmines. With less conflict, Istria has fared a bit better.
Croatian is considered a dialect in the continuum of the South Slavic languages and, with three genders and abundant consonants, it is challenging to learn. With the alphabet mastered, however, the language is relatively simple, as words are pronounced as written. It is helpful to know a few basic elements of the alphabet in order to read wine labels.
Croatia continues to use a number of terms and classifications inherited from former Yugoslavia, though there are efforts to do away with them. The main set of terms revolves around a rating scheme applied during the assessment that happens before sale, in the Croatian capital of Zagreb. This assessment is based on an analysis that identifies density, alcohol, total dry extract, total reductive sugar, sucrose, ash, total acids, volatile acids, pH, free SO2, and total SO2 as well as taste, sight, smell, and typicity to the wine’s region and grape variety. The resulting rating is placed on the label.
Many are opposed to the system, as it is based on dated concepts and has no flexibility. Not infrequently, a wine with a low rating will be far better than one with a high rating. Nonetheless, it is important to understand the system:
Barrique also appears on labels, as Croatian winemakers want consumers to know when their wines have spent time in oak. More important terms are Suho (dry), Slatko (sweet), and Pola Slatko (half sweet).
Geographically, Istria is located in the far west of Croatia, a somewhat independent entity removed from the rest of the country. The people there consider themselves Istrian first, Croatian second. They have their own dialect, which is Croatian tinged with Italian, and a unique cuisine that shows off the best aspects of the many cultural influences of their history.
Though these influences are many, there is a clear Italian leaning in Istrian food, language (children are educated in both Croatian and Italian), and wine. While a few French varieties have filtered in over the years, there are two dominant grapes: the red Teran and the white Malvazija Istarska.
There are also two main soil types. These are the white soils of limestone and the iron-rich red clay soils, which produce notably different wines.
Malvazija Istarska, planted to well over 3,000 ha, is the main motor for Istrian viticulture. This spelling is meant to distinguish it from the dizzying number of other Malvasia grapes in the world, including one in the south of Dalmatia that's completely different. It’s hard to pin down an exact style for this grape, as the wines range from powerful and heavily oaked to more basic, fruity, refreshing, and young. In hot years, Malvazija Istarska can easily reach high alcohol levels.
Teran is the second most important grape of the region, with around 500 ha of vineyards planted. Its identity is disputed, as some say it is the same as Refošk (Refosco in Italian), with minor clonal differences, while others argue that these are different grapes. Regardless, Teran produces wines with good tannins that respond well to barrel aging.
Croatia has yet to fully define its appellations, but the association of Vinistra, something of a private appellation body, created an “IQ,” or “Istrian Quality,” designation in 2005 to mark quality wines that have met stringent guidelines. A version of this qualification was later implemented for Teran as well.
Over the last 10 years, there has been a definite upward trend in the quality of wines from Istria. There are currently over 60 cellars in Istria, not to mention those in Slovenian Istria. A number of large cellars produce a majority of the wine, but smaller, boutique cellars are demonstrating what else might be possible. Some of the quality producers whose wines can be found outside of Croatia include:
The coastal Kvarner region located between Istria and Dalmatia produces some wine as well, though far less than its neighbors. Kvarner’s best-known grape is the white grape Žlahtina, believed to be native to the region. The most significant wine production takes place on the island of Krk, where Šipun Estate is a notable producer.
The most famous stretch of Croatia’s 1,800 kilometers of coastline is that of Dalmatia. The waters are warmer and clearer than elsewhere on the coast. Dalmatia is home to the appealing towns of Split and Dubrovnik (now famous as filming locations for Game of Thrones). And then, of course, there are the islands: all 1,200 of them, each seemingly more remote, rugged, and unexplored.
Contained within stony and unforgiving karst soils that plunge into the Adriatic is a viticulture treasure trove of native Croatian grape varieties, still being cataloged and analyzed to see how they connect to the rest of Europe.
Production is centered in the northern and southern portions of the region. Traditionally, most vineyards were planted on the sloping shores, but many new vineyards are being planted inland. There is also a great deal of wine production on islands such as Hvar, Korčula, Brač, Vis, Pag, Šolta, and Lastovo.
The stunning maritime city of Dubrovnik
Red production is dominant in Dalmatia, with Plavac Mali the main grape. Other red grapes include Babić, Plavina, Lasina, Vranac, Dobričić, and Tribidrag. These last two have been identified as the parents of Plavac Mali, and DNA testing in 2000 found that Tribidrag (also known as Crljenak Kaštelanski) is the same as Primitivo in Italy and Zinfandel in the US.
A decade ago, Tribidrag grew in very limited amounts, but efforts to recuperate it have emerged in recent years. Some producers have labeled their bottles Crljenak or even Zinfandel. While it’s true that the wines share similarities with California Zinfandel and Primitivo from Puglia, Dalmatian Tribidrag is still in its infancy.
Plavac Mali, on the other hand, is very well established. Many expressions of the grape are available. Generally, it is quite fruit forward, with notes of eucalyptus. In the past, potent extraction was de rigueur, and the wines were a wall of flavor, a style preferred by the local market. More recently, extraction and new oak have been dialed back, revealing Plavac’s notes of limestone and other identifying characteristics.
Some of the most promising takes on Plavac Mali (and, for that matter, most of Dalmatia’s grapes) are coming from the more interior regions of Dalmatia, which are buffered from the sun and sea, with larger diurnal shifts. Also, in the more northern areas near Skradin and Zadar, there is more soil variation, which affects the profile of the wines as well.
Babić is another important red grape in Dalmatia, more typical in the mid-to-northern regions. It is quite thick skinned and deeply colored, with bountiful tannins. Many think the grape has an auspicious future and are working on producing wines designed to age.
Notable white grapes include Rukatac/Maraština, Debit, Pošip, and Malvazija Dubrovačka. Rukatac and Maraština are the local names for yet another Malvasia: Malvasia Bianca Lunga. Bianca Lunga is genetically very similar to the Malvazija Istarska found in Istria. It exists throughout Dalmatia, both on the mainland and on islands such as Hvar, Vis, and Korčula, though there are just 500 ha planted at most.
Debit is an unsung hero. Though it can be planted throughout the region, it is most often encountered in the middle and northern areas of Dalmatia. Often bold and full bodied, it can take well to oak aging.
Pošip is a star on the island of Korčula, where it was heavily planted during Yugoslavian times. Today, it can be found on the mainland as well. Despite the region’s heat, elegant wines can be made from this grape. Due to early export pushes by the cooperative on Korčula, the varietal versions of this wine are often found in the US under the label Marco Polo, as Croatians believe he was born on the island. Some antiquated references still confuse Pošip as a synonym for Furmint, but DNA evidence has proven it is native to Croatia.
Malvasija Dubrovačka, yet another Malvasia, is better known as Malvasia di Lipari. This grape is found throughout the Mediterranean and even on the Canary Islands. Though the grape’s origins are unknown, it has been documented in Dalmatia back to the 14th century, when the area around Dubrovnik was the Ragusan Republic. It is still found in this area though in small quantities, even though it is easy to farm and grows well in the more fertile area south of Dubrovnik.
While a truly functional appellation system has yet to take hold in Croatia, there are several PDO appellations in Dalmatia that are recognized at a state level (unlike the voluntary IQ system, which is fully private). These are not a guaranteed mark of quality but do show provenance.
This was the first appellation recognized in Croatia, and it remains one of the top regions for wine production. Located just over the coastal mountains, Dingač is accessible via a long, narrow tunnel from the village of Potomje on the Pelješac Peninsula north of Dubrovnik. It's a steep slope with a southwest orientation that tumbles down to the water.
Because of the way Croatian wines are labeled, many assume that Dingač is a grape. All of the red wines in this appellation are made from Plavac Mali. The wines can be quite high in alcohol, up to 16%, but this is slowly changing as winemakers approach the region with a more gentle touch.
Dingač vineyards on the Pelješac Peninsula
Like Dingač, Postup is a coastal appellation, located just 10 kilometers up the coast but with a much more southern orientation. The grapes here are Plavac Mali as well. Postup isn’t as famous as Dingač but is still a well-regarded region.
A decade ago, there were few quality-minded producers in Dalmatia, and brett and vintage variance were significant issues. The wines have improved considerably in these areas. Further, while many young producers had to break their backs dragging their family cellars into the 21st century, recently, new cellars have been established, offering opportunities for faster development. In total, there are over 100 wineries dotting the Dalmatian coast. Here are a few producers to look for:
When exploring Europe’s wine regions from west to east, Croatia demands attention. It begins as familiar and reminiscent of Italy in Istria but pivots into an unfamiliar—but still approachable—realm in Dalmatia. With its complex history, striking geography, and abundance of unique grapes, the Croatian coast offers a tremendous wealth to be explored.
To learn more about Dalmatia’s wineries, check out Miquel’s book in his Vinologue series.
Vladimir Kojic Istria, despite putting out a reliable product still has a good deal of vintage variation and the reds from Teran can be quite big and blocky across the palate unless worked and aged properly. There are some good wines with a coastal orientation but they're usually just part of the whole line of a winery that might have its cellar in the interior as they source grapes from all over the peninsula.
Great to see that somebody write about this part of the world. On my last visit last year, we found that most of the wines south of Istria are quite high in alcohol. Istria is having some serious wineries, but i still think that best wines are not coming from Costal part. Life of Croatian winemakers is not easy, hopefully in future we will see lot of changes.
It's no secret that the Adriatic has become a hot travel destination, and a lot of my guests are really excited to see that we've included Croatia and Slovenia on the Friuli page of our big Italian wine list. It wasn't long ago that a great majority of people scoffed at any wine that sounded vaguely Eastern European, so I'm excited to keep tasting these wines and hopefully see interest continue to grow . Thanks for the great read!