Wine Regions to Watch: The Croatian Coast

 

This month, we’re featuring some delicious Eastern European wines. Two of these hail from the coast and islands of Croatia. Wines from this area are inching into the international wine spotlight, but the regions are not yet well understood. So we’re delving into the history, geography, and wine styles of the Croatian Coast and the Adriatic Islands. Read on for some serious exploration. Grab a glass of Bibich Sparkling Plavina or Šipun Sansigot for a more authentic experience!


So how long has wine been made in Croatia?

When we talk about Croatian wine, a common response we get is “they make wine in Croatia?” But don’t be fooled… the history of Croatian wine is lengthy and rich.

c. 1000 BCE: Illyrian Occupation
The Illyrians are said to have been the first documented grape growers in the Balkans. There is much Greek mythology referencing this mysterious group of people that crossed Greek paths during the Iron Age. Today it is theorized these peoples were ancient Indo-Europeans from the steppe, occupying the Balkan regions during the Bronze Age (~1700 BC). Illyrians likely made wine from autochthonous varieties from their arrival onward.

500 BCE: Greek Occupation
This is when winemaking really took off. The Greek writer Athenaeus praised the wines of Vis, Hvar, and Korčula highly. These wines were still made with the native varieties in the area and were traded with other Greek colonies, commanding high values.

art depicting an ancient Roman wine press found in a village in Croatia

art depicting an ancient Roman wine press found in a village in Croatia

200 BCE: Illyrian Wars and Roman Conquest
Illyrian pirate attacks on Roman envoys sparked Roman retaliation, resulting in the three Illyrian Wars of 229 BCE, 220 BCE, and 171 BCE. During these battles, Roman armies expelled citizens of a number of Greek towns and took occupancy. They took over the well established winemaking in these areas as well.
The Romans modernized and organized wine production. Stone wine presses and more regulated procedures allowed for better and more stable wines to be made. These wines were exported all over the Roman Empire, which catapulted the region’s wines to a legendary status.

700 AD: Arrival of the Croats
The Croats began immigrating to the region in the 7th century from the south of Poland. These peoples intermingled with the Romans residents, adopting their wine production methods and increasing production volume. As time went on wine became a more and more important commodity for the Croats.
Throughout the Middle Ages protection and perfection of winemaking regions and techniques seem to have been focal points. A position called “Royal Wine Procurer” was officially established for the court. Written laws defining allowed practices in vineyards began popping up in the 1200’s as precursors of an appellation system.

1500’s: The Ottoman Turk Influence
Islamic rule (and anti-alcohol laws) took over with the arrival of the Ottomans. However, luckily, the Turks were tolerant of Christianity, and churches continued wine production in the Ottoman Empire. Volume declined, but methods were preserved throughout this time.

1800’s: The Habsburgs and Phylloxera
Wine production reached an all-time high under the rule of the Habsburgs. As an additional albeit temporary boon, phylloxera hit Western Europe hard in 1874. Croatia escaped the root louse for a time, and demand for Croatian wine peaked as countless volumes were exported to quench European thirst. After a while the pest reached the booming Croatian vineyards and devastated the vineyard land, and the wine industry took a hard blow.

wine boats loading up wine for export, c. 1904

wine boats loading up wine for export, c. 1904

1918: Yugoslavia and Communism
The formation of the communist state of Yugoslavia sank the Croatian wine industry like a rock. Quantity-focused co-ops replaced quality producers and cheap plonk was churned out for decades. Winemaking families had either left or been completely suppressed, and much of the millennia-old techniques were lost. Thus the depths of the industry were reached.

1990: Croatian Independence
The Croatian War of Independence had two effects on the wine industry. The immediate effect was additional downturn: most of the vineyard land was completely destroyed. The longer-term effect was extremely beneficial however. Independent producers began piecing together and rebuilding vineyards and cellars, while taking advantage of modern technology and learning. Over the past few decades Croatian wine volume and quality have skyrocketed, and this country is now a major international competitor in wine.

As you can see, the history of Croatian wine is long and storied. Only quite recently did the area lose its high quality wine reputation. The recovery of the industry has been rapid, and it’s very likely that these wines will soon rank among the best on top rated wine lists throughout the world. So yes, they make wine in Croatia.

What are the top Croatian wine regions, and what are they like?

Croatia can be seen as two distinct wine areas stuck together. The Kontinentalna region is the continental interior of the country. The Primorska region is the coastal strip on the Adriatic. These regions make very different styles. Let’s explore them.

typical Slavonian vineyard

typical Slavonian vineyard

The Kontinentalna Regions
These regions collectively produce about two thirds of Croatia’s wine. The most famous of the interior wine regions is Slavonia, which is best known for its fresh, crisp whites from Graševina (aka Welchriesling, unrelated to Riesling). The relatively warmer continental climate allows for Burgundy varieties to grow quite well here too. Slavonia is also the home of notable forests used for barrel production.
In the western regions, aromatic varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat, and Riesling are common. The climate here is extreme continental, and the area is much colder than its surroundings.

typical Dalmatian vineyard

typical Dalmatian vineyard

The Primorska Regions
The lengthy coastline of Croatia encompasses many different wine regions. From north to south, a drive down the coast will take you through Istria, Croatian Littoral, Northern Dalmatia, Central Dalmatia, and Southern Dalmatia. A quick jaunt inland from Split puts you in the Dalmatian Hinterland. All along this drive you’d see countless vineyards spilling down to the sea.
Grapes along the coast may have unfamiliar names, but we know a few of them well. Plavac Mali is one of the famous red varieties and is a crossing of Crljenak Kaštelanski (true Zinfandel) and a native grape called Dobričić. It is from here that the famous California Zinfandel arose! Plavina and Teran are more local favorite reds. The white Pošip, Debit, and Malvasija Dubrovačka (aka Malvasia di Lipari, introduced by the Greeks) dominate white wine production. International grapes like Syrah and Grenache are making their appearance in some regions as well.
This region has a hot Mediterranean climate featuring high temperatures, strong winds, and long growing seasons. Stony karst soils and iron-rich red clays provide ideal conditions for grapegrowing.


some excellent examples of Croatian wines

some excellent examples of Croatian wines

What are the styles we can expect from Coastal Croatian wines?

A wide range of wine styles can be found along the coastal regions. These include:

  • spicy, full-bodied reds from Teran

  • smooth, elegant reds with soft velvety tannins from Plavina, as well as beautiful methode champenoise bubbles

  • aromatic, rich, medium-bodied reds from Plavac Mali

  • light, delicate, flavorful reds from Sansigot

  • mineral, complex whites from Pošip

  • bright, crisp whites with excellent texture from Debit

  • intensely aromatic, light whites from Malvasija Dubrovačka

This post is meant to be a very brief introduction to Coastal Croatian wines. If you’re interested in reading more, we recommend checking out Wine Folly’s Croatian wine article and this piece on GuildSomm by Miquel Hudin.

Now go drink some Croatian wine… živjeli!