Wines of Croatia: A Taste of the Adriatic

Croatia has the perfect conditions for growing wine grapes — the “C” shaped country overlooking the Adriatic Sea shares latitudes with Italy (from Trieste and Venice in the North down to Abruzzo) and Southern France, and winemaking in the country goes back for ages.

Interestingly, Croatia is not one of the first countries we consider when discussing fine wine. Well, that changes today because winemakers in Croatia make beautiful wines that can surely make your wine journey much more interesting! Here’s our quick guide to the wines of Croatia, from the most popular grapes to the best wines in Croatia for all budgets and preferences.

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The History of Croatian Wine

Viticulture in the Mediterranean Coast and the area we know now as Croatia goes back to the Phoenicians at least two thousand years ago. Still, some sources suggest grapevines thrived in the area in the Bronze Age, three thousand years ago. We know some of the oldest viticultural are in modern day Iran (near Shiraz) and Georgia. Trade routes from the Euphrates River and Caucasus region must have passed through modern day Croatia en route to Western Europe. There’s no doubt by the time the Romans dominated Europe, Croatia was a considerable wine source.

In the 15th century, the Ottoman Turks dominated the area and restricted alcohol production and consumption. The country’s wine scene resurfaced in the 19th century, although the Croatian vineyards weren’t spared from the devastating phylloxera vine pest.

Croatia fell under communist rule in the mid-20th century, and wine production focused on quantity and not quality. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that Croatia, as its own country, emerged, and it soon developed a wine identity. Croatia’s wine traditions might be ancient, but its wine industry is one of the youngest in Europe. Croatia became independent only in 1991.

Croatia’s Wine Industry

Croatia’s current wine production is focused on white wine. Around 67% of the country’s production is dry white wine, followed by red wine with 32%. Croatia is not about producing copious amounts of wine; the country ranks 32nd in the list of wine-producing countries; it produces around 45,000 tons of wine per vintage, equivalent to only 1% of what France, Spain or Italy make in the same period.

Since its independence, wine production has become a cornerstone of Croatia’s economy, and wine tourism is noteworthy in the verdant country. Of course, Croatians love their wine, and there’s not enough to get around — the country’s wine imports are four times higher than its exports. Given Croatia’s proximity to the sea and the Mediterranean, it’s not surprising that the diet is rich in fish and seafood, which ideally pair with the white wines.

Wine Grapes in Croatia

Croatia’s wine production might be small, but grape growers in the country cultivate over 80 different grapes, red and white — some of them are local specialties not found anywhere else.

Grasevina (Welschriesling) is one of the most planted white grapes in Croatia, a slightly aromatic, high acidity grape, followed by Malvasia and a few local white grapes: Grk, Posip, Bogdanusa and Vugava.

Producers make Croatia’s red wines with the robust and rustic Plavac Mali. Crljenak Kaštelanski is another popular red grape, known as Primitivo in southern Italy and Zinfandel in California.

International varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, have found their way to Croatia’s vineyards and offer a more familiar take on the Mediterranean terroir.

Croatia’s Wine Regions

Croatia has vineyards along its coast and further inland. Coastal Croatia, known as Primorska Hrvatska, is the most significant for the quality of the wine produced on the Dalmatian Coast and Istria.

The Alps divide Croatia. On one side you have the coast, and on the other, Continental Croatia, which is hillier and colder than the warm coast. The inland vineyards are divided into Eastern Continental (Istočna kontinentalna) and Western Continental (Zapadna kontinentalna). Each region has thriving subregions, showing Croatia has many micro-climates, each specializing in particular wine grapes and styles. It is still soon to know which subregions will stand out in the future, but promising wines are coming from all around the country. These inland regions benefit from the altitude and cooler climates.

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Wine Laws in Croatia

Croatia is still working on its own version of Europe’s appellation system, so there are yet to be regions at an AOP or IGP level. Still, the country’s wine has distinct quality tiers, which might help wine enthusiasts worldwide find the best wines in Croatia.

Wines labeled with the term Vrhunsko Vino are of premium quality and are often concentrated wines with complex bouquets. Wines labeled as Kvalitetno Vino are medium-quality and best suited for casual occasions. Wine labeled as Stolno Vino is table wine and could be a nice everyday wine. Finally, the term Arhiv is Croatia’s version of Reserve wines, and they’re often cellar-worthy.

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Croatian Wine, A Hidden Gem

Croatian wine might not enjoy the popularity of neighboring countries, but there’s no doubt talented and enthusiastic winemakers around the country are making extraordinary wine in all styles.

Wine from Croatia represents extraordinary value and a unique take on the acclaimed Mediterranean terroir. Add Croatian wine to your repertoire, if you can find it, and treat yourself to an authentic, hidden gem in the world of wine.

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