A Crash Course in Croatia’s Surprisingly Excellent Wines

Some years ago, Anthony Bourdain visited Croatia to film an episode of his popular eponymous food show. After visiting famed Croatian winemaker Alen Bibić and sampling his extraordinary Bibich wines, he exclaimed, “This is world-class food! This is world class wine! If you haven’t been here yet, you are an idiot!”

You may not have guessed that Croatia has an amazing winemaking history going back millennia. Evidence suggests that the Greeks and Romans cultivated wine in the region. Croatian wine had a boom during the 1860s when phylloxera, or the Great French Wine Blight, nearly wiped out France’s wine industry.

The 20th century, however, wasn’t particularly kind to Croatian winemakers. Wars and politics ravaged the region, and during the Socialist era, winemaking was left to huge kombinats, industrialized wine factories where quantity was rewarded, not quality.

But after the Homeland Wars of the 1990s, Croatian winemaking returned with a vengeance, proving once and for all that the Croats never forgot how to make superb wines. Today, the wines rank among the best in the world—in 2016, an Istrian wine won the Decanter World Wine Award for best red single varietal, and Tomac Amfora, a sparkling Croatian wine, was named the most exciting wine in the world.

A primer on Croatian wine terms

Croatia uses a number of terms to classify its wines. Before sale, wines are assessed in Zagreb on density, alcohol, taste, sight, smell, and a variety of other factors. The system is old and many in the industry would like to see it abolished or updated, but it helps to understand the terms.

  • Stolno vino is the word for a table wine, the lowest rating. It does not indicate provenance.
  • Kvalitetno vino is a medium-grade “quality” wine.
  • Vrhunsko vino is considered an “excellent” wine.
  • Ahrivo vino is a rare, excellent wine meant to be aged for a long period of time.

You should also know the words suho (dry), slatko (sweet), and pola slatko (half-sweet). Barrique means the wine is oaked.

Meet the Istrian wines

Istria is in the western edge of Croatia, and the Italian influence is strong in the region’s food and wine. There are two main Istrian grapes, the red Teran and the white Malvazija.

Malvazija Istarska is the most widely grown grape in Istria. These grapes produce wines that are dry and refreshing, spicy, with notes of honey, fennel, quince, apricot. They take very well to oaking. In hotter years, these wines can hit quite high alcohol levels.

It’s important to note that there are a dizzying number of Malvasias grown around the world. In Croatia alone, there is the Istrian Malvazija and the Dalmatian Malvasia Bianca Lunga.

The Teran red wines are barrel-aged, earthy, full-bodied, robust, and chewy, with good tannin formation.

Although Croatia hasn’t fully developed its appellations, the IQ designation, created in 2005, indicates “Istrian Quality” and denotes wines that have met strict quality guidelines.

Notable Istrian producers include Matosevic, Roxanich, Trapan, Kozlovic, Fakin, and Franc Arman.

Plesivica, home of Croatia’s sparkling wines

Just an hour from Zagreb in the Zumberak mountains, there are 2,300 hectares of vineyards responsible for some of the most remarkable sparkling wines in the world. The Plesivica winemaking tradition extends back to the 14th century.

The calcareous soil in this mountain region is strikingly similar to the soil in France’s Champagne region, so perhaps it’s only natural that sparkling wines dominate. The most commonly planted grapes include Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Gris, Muscat Blanc, and Sauvignon Blanc, although there are many ancient indigenous grapes, as well.

The Tomac family, which has been pioneering new winemaking techniques in the region for over 200 years, is perhaps the best known. The renowned Tomac Amfora is a sparkling white aged in amphora, an Old World style of vinification brought back to life at the Tomac winery.

The Dalmation Coast wines you won’t want to miss

There are several regions within the Dalmatian Coast, including the central islands region (Hvar, Korcula, Brac, Vis, Pag, Solta), the Peljesac peninsula, and the southern coast.

Plavac Mali is the most famous and dominant among the reds, although the thick-skinned, deeply colored Babić is a close second. Plavac Mali was the first grape to have its own appellations (Dingac and Postup), both on the Peljesac Peninsula. Plavac Mali wines tend to be low acidity, with higher tannins, peppery, but lush and fruit-forward, with blackberry, cherry, and spice notes.

Babić wines are especially inky and chewy, designed to be aged long term.

Some of the most interesting reds come from the Dingac and Postup vineyards on the Peljesac Peninsula. Winemakers such as Miloš, Vukas and Križ are creating impressive Plavac Mali wines.

It’s impossible to discuss Dalmatian Coast wines without mentioning the inimitable Posip, perhaps the best known of all Croatian wines. In fact, in a rather stunning blind-tasting upset, Croatian winemaker Mike Grgich won the best wine in the world at the Judgment of Paris in 1976 with a Posip wine.

Posip wines are crisp, citrusy, with hints of vanilla spice and subtle almond notes. Although Posip grapes are native to the island of Korcula, they are now widely grown all along the Dalmatian Coast. Some have compared Posip wines to Hungary’s Furmint

Other notable white grapes include the Malvasija Dubrovacka, sometimes called Malvasia Lupari, which has appeared in Croatian viticulture as far back as the mid 11th century. Grown in the Konavle wine region, Malvasija Dubrovacka is a well-known and esteemed dessert wine. Historical records suggest that it was exported to Venice sometime around 1080 AD, and to Bosnian king Tvrtko I Kotromanić in the late 14th century.

Today, the Konavle wine region supports a thriving agritourism industry, with six regional winemakers producing Malvasija Dubrovacka wines.

Notable Dalmatian Coast winemakers include Bibich, Crvik, Dubokovic, Grgic Vina, Kriz, Milos, Vukas, and Zlatan Otok.

Ready for your Croatian wine tour?

When you travel with Captivating Croatia, you’ll visit hand-selected vineyards and wineries, far and away from the typical tourist traps. We’ve spent years personally researching the best wines in Croatia—not just the widely known wines exported outside the country, but the hidden local gems you’d never find on your own.

If you’re ready to taste some of the most interesting and exciting wines in the world, get in touch today and let’s put some plans in motion. Now’s the perfect time to explore Croatia’s exceptional wine regions.

From the Sea to the Green: This Is Croatian Cuisine

Isn’t the best part about any vacation forgetting your diet and enjoying the local cuisine? And Croatian cuisine is totally worth the calories!

Imagine plate upon plate of premium meats, artisan cheeses, fresh seafood, and plenty of other incredibly mouth-watering delights… And we haven’t even mentioned the dessert!

Take a look at some favorite finds on Captivating Croatia’s culinary trail:

Croatia’s coast comes with stunning scenery—and sublime seafood.

If seafood is your thing, you can’t miss out on the choice catches on Croatia’s coast! Ever had black risotto before? Known as crni rizot, this dish uses squid or cuttlefish ink as a part of the sauce for the arborio rice. Squid, cuttlefish, or octopus is served atop the risotto, completing the entree.

Adriatic Tuna is another amazing fish dish you must try while in Croatia. But you better hurry—the local tuna is greatly sought after for its high quality.

If you want to eat as the locals do, try brudet, a fisherman’s stew using the catch of the day in a tomato-based soup.

And you can never go wrong with gridele, or grilled fish. With just some simple seasonings and olive oil, the fish is grilled over grape vines or olive wood, adding to the flavor.

Try a Croatian meat and cheese board featuring paski-sir.

Who doesn’t love a good meat and cheese board? And with lots of local meats and cheeses to choose from, you’ll get a good taste of Croatia while you’re at it.

The island of Pag is known for its long coastline (one of the longest of the Croatian islands) and artisan cheese, paski sir. The cheese is made from sheep’s milk, after the sheep have been munching on the salty island grass. It’s that salty flavor that makes paski sir so intriguing. And no one knows paski sir better than Gligora, the oldest and most famous maker of the Pag cheese!

To add some charcuterie to your cheese, look no further than kulen, a pork sausage found in the Slavonian region. This traditional cured meat is smoked for several weeks at low temperatures in a smoking room, so it’s no surprise it’s the most prized Croatian sausage on the market!

When in Dalmatia, sample some prsut, or Croatian prosciutto, with your cheese. The salty, thinly sliced meat has no additives—just sea salt and smoked dried pork! The drying process is key—Krk actually has protected ham thanks to the dry bura winds blowing across the island!

Indulge with decadent truffles—at a fraction of the cost!

Did you know the largest truffle in the world was found in Croatia? Yes, like Italy, Croatia has truffles—but unlike their Italian counterparts, Croatian truffles have a stronger aroma and are a fraction of the cost.

Croatian truffles can be found in the Motovun forests on the Istrian Peninsula. In fact, truffle hunting is an old pastime, and one that you can take part in during your stay!

Truffles are often used as a garnish for pasta dishes, like fuzi. Fuzi is a traditional pasta made in diamond shapes with parmigiano cheese and a red sauce. Top your plate with a little bit of truffle shavings, and you’re in heaven!

No dish is complete without olive oil, aka liquid gold.

Pretty much any meal you have in Croatia will incorporate olive oil in some capacity. Yes, even certain desserts use olive oil! In fact, Croatia has won the best olive oil in the world for the last three years—have a taste, and you’ll understand why.

Olive oil isn’t new to Croatia. Pag actually has some of the world’s oldest olive trees. Dalmatian olive oil was considered better than France and Italy’s versions. And since the Croatian people have been making olive oil for centuries, it’s no wonder they’ve gotten the process down to a science.

Many other countries influence Croatian cuisine, Turkey included.

Croatia is surrounded by many countries who have left their mark on the culinary scene. Turkey is one of them.

Back in the days of the Ottoman Empire, sarma was introduced to the region now known as Croatia. This Turkish dish uses grape, cabbage, or chard leaves to roll up minced meat. The sealed sarma is then simmered in a sauce, made of various vegetables and, of course, olive oil, until the leaves are soft and the meat is cooked.

Cevapcici is another Turkish delight the Ottomans left behind. Sausages are made using a mix of lamb and beef and often served with onions, sour cream, and pita bread. They can be served as an entree or eaten as a snack.

And if you’re still not tired of meat, check out burek, a meat-filled flaky pastry rolled into a spiral. Honestly, who doesn’t love a good pastry filled with flavorful meats?

You can’t miss out on peka—or it’s unique cooking method!

You’ve never seen anything like the ispod cripnje, or bell-like dome, peka is cooked under. Peka is an assortment of vegetables and meats or seafood drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with herbs and seasonings, and then cooked under a dome-shaped lid, covered with coals.

The concoction of meats and veggies bake in the heat for hours, soaking in all of the flavors from the local herbs. Trust us, this dish is well worth the wait!

Give in to your sweet tooth and dive into dessert!

What vacation is complete without a little dessert? And Croatia’s sweet delights do not disappoint!

If you like doughnuts, fritule is the dessert for you. Dough made of everything from egg yolk, raisins, lemon zest, and more is fried to perfection, then topped with powdered sugar. They’ll melt in your mouth!

Arancini makes a great souvenir. These candied orange peels will survive your flight home—that is if you can manage not to eat all of them on your trip!

Finally, kremsnita’s custard texture makes for a deliciously decadent dessert. Originally of Austro-Hungarian origins, kremsnita has a custard-cream filling, topped with a puff pastry layer, and covered with powdered sugar. Consider pairing the pastry-pudding dessert with an after-dinner coffee.

Eat up in Croatia…  

Ready to hit Croatia’s culinary trail? Let Captivating Croatia take you there! We find the ultimate culinary experiences—while avoiding the tourist stops. Get in touch and start planning your trip today!

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