Croatia

Croatian wine (vino, pl. vina) has a history dating back to the Ancient Greek settlers, and their wine production on the southern Dalmatian islands of Vis, Hvar and Korcula some 2,500 years ago.  Like other old world wine producers, many traditional grape varieties still survive in Croatia, perfectly suited to their local wine hills. Modern wine-production methods have taken over in the larger wineries, and EU-style wine regulations  have been adopted, guaranteeing the quality of the wine. There are currently over 300 geographically defined wine regions, and a strict classification system to ensure quality and origin. The majority of Croatian wine is white, with most of the remainder being red, and only a small percentage is rosé wines. In 2005, Croatia ranked 21st in wine producing countries with 180,000 tones.

Wine is a popular drink in Croatia, and locals traditionally like to drink wine with their meals. Quite often, the wine is diluted with either still or sparkling water - producing a drink known as gemišt (a combination of wine and carbonated water), and bevanda (a combination of wine and still water).

History

Like the rest of Central Europe, viticulture in the present-day Croatia existed hundreds of years before the rise of the Roman Empire. Recent research has shown that the Illyrians living in Dalmatia during the Bronze Age and Iron Age may already have grown grapevines. However, the true beginning of grape cultivation and wine production in Croatia is related to the Ancient Greeks settlers, who arrived on the Croatian coast in the 5th century BC.  The Greek writer Athenaeus wrote 22 centuries ago about the high quality wine produced on the Dalmatian islands of Vis, Hvar and Korcula. Coins from the period have motifs related to grape cultivation and wine, demonstrating the importance of wine in the economics of the ancient Greek colonies.

Under the Roman Empire, the production of wine grew, becoming more organized. Wine was exported to other parts of the empire. Artifacts from this time include stone presses from which wine was squeezed, amphorae from sunken Roman galleys, and decorations on numerous religious and household items bear witness to the wine-making culture.

As the Croatians arrived and settled the area, they learned from their predecessors, and wine production continued to expand. During the Middle Ages, there was a royal court official called the "royal wine procurer", whose responsibilities included the production and procurement of wine. Free towns adopted legal standards on winegrowing and protected it accordingly. For example, a statute of the town and island of Korcula in 1214 contains strict rules protecting the vineyards. Priests and monks continued wine production.

In the 15th century, the Ottoman Turks arrived in South Eastern Europe, and imposed strict anti-alcohol laws as part of the new Islamic law. Fortunately, the Ottoman Empire was tolerant of Christianity, and Catholic Church traditions involving wine are thought to have ‘saved’ European wine production from complete extinction. Priests and monks were permitted to continue producing wine in order to provide for Church services.

In the 18th century, much of present-day Croatia came under control of the Habsburg Empire, where wine production flourished through the 19th and 20th centuries. But the history of wine was to change dramatically in 1874, when phylloxera, a hazardous grapevine pest, started to appear in Europe. Wine production dropped, first in France and Germany, as the growers struggled to combat the blight. For a time, Croatian vineyards remained unaffected, and wine exports greatly increased to fill the extra demand. Some French companies even planted vines in Croatia with a view to expanding operations in the safe area. However, by the turn of the 20th century, Croatian vines had also succumbed to phylloxera, leading to the destruction of the vineyards and the collapse of the local economy in many areas. Large numbers of wine growing families moved to the new world, contributing to the growth of wine production there.

Under the communist system of Yugoslavia, wine production was centered in large cooperatives, and private ownership of vineyards was discouraged. Quantity rather than quality became the main focus. The Croatian War of Independence in the early 1990s saw many vineyards and wineries once again destroyed. However, with the move back to small, independent producers, Croatian wines are once again competing with the best in the world wine market.
 

Geography and climate

Croatia is a Mediterranean country, lying to the east of Italy, across the Adriatic Sea. Towards the north lie the Alps, and to the north-east the country forms the western end of the great Pannonian Plain. The interior of Croatia has a continental climate, with cold winters and hot summers with enough rain for this to be a major agricultural area. Wine-growing is concentrated in the hilly areas bordering on the Pannonian Plain.
The Dalmatian Coast is typically Mediterranean in climate, although the Dinaric Alps mountain range creates pockets of alpine climate at higher altitudes. The coastline of the Adriatic Sea is ideal for grape cultivation with its hot, humid summers and mild winters. Further down the coast, and on the islands, grapes are grown on the karst hillside, sometimes steep slopes with little rainfall. Some of the best-known wine-production areas are on the Dalmatian islands. Located along hillsides and slopes, wine regions along the coast receive many hours of sunlight, ideal for grape production.

Croatia is also home to the Slavonian oak forest, producing the oak casks favored by many winemakers in Europe for aging their finest wines.

The average inland temperature is between 0 and 2 °C in January and between 19 and 23 °C in August. Average coastal temperatures range from 6–11 °C in January to 21–27 °C in August. Sea temperature averages 12 °C in winter and 25 °C in summer.
 

Wine styles

There are two distinct wine-producing regions in Croatia. The continental region in the north-east of the country produces rich fruity white wines, similar in style to the neighbouring areas of Slovenia, Austria and Hungary. On the north coast, Istrian wines are similar to those produced in neighbouring Italy, while further south production is more towards big Mediterranean-style reds. On the islands and the Dalmatian coast, local grape varietals, microclimates and the rather harsh nature of the vineyards leads to some highly individual wines, and some of Croatia's best known.

The majority (67%) of wine produced is white and produced in the interior, while 32% is red and produced mainly along the coast. Rosé is relatively rare. Some special wines, such as sparkling wine (pjenušavo vino or pjenušac) and dessert wine are also produced.

Wine Regions

Croatian regional administrative divisions
Croatia has two main wine regions: Continental (Kontinetalna) and Coastal (Primorska), which includes the islands. Each of the main regions is divided into sub-regions which are divided yet further into smaller vinogorje, (literally wine hills) and districts. Altogether, there are more than 300 geographically-defined wine-producing areas in Croatia.

Continental Croatia

The inland wine region, stretching from north-west to south-east along the Drava and Sava rivers, has a typical continental climate with cold winters and hot summers. Production is concentrated in white wine varieties. The best-known area within this region is Slavonia, and the most widely planted grape is Graševina, which yields light, crisp, refreshing, mildly aromatic wines.

The coastal region is divided into the following sub-regions
(listed from north to south):

Sub-region

Winehills (Vinogorje)

Istria (Istra)

Western Istria (Zapadna Istra), Central Istria (Centralna Istra), Eastern Istria (Istočna Istra)

Croatian Coast
(Hrvatsko Primorje)

Opatija-Rijeka, islands Krk, Rab, Cres-Lošinj, Pag

Northern Dalmatia
(Sjeverna Dalmacija)

Benkovac-Stankovci, Drniš, Knin, Pirovac-Skradin, Primošten, Promina, Šibenik, Zadar-Biograd

Dalmatian Interior
(Dalmatinska Zagora)

Imotski, Sinj-Vrlika, Vrgorac

Central and South Dalmatia
(Srednja i Južna Dalmacija)

Kaštela-Trogir, Split-Omiš-Makarska, Neretva, Konavle, Pelješac peninsula, islands Brač, Hvar, Korčula, Lastovo, Mljet, Šolta, Vis

Grape Varieties

The grape varieties in use in Croatia can be very confusing to foreigners, not simply because the Croatian names are unfamiliar, but because many of the varieties may not be in use beyond a very limited area. Croatia's long history of wine production has left it with a rich tradition of indigenous varietals, especially in the more out-lying areas, or the more extreme growing conditions. Some of these have been so successful that they are in widespread use within Croatia, yet remain relatively unknown outside the country. One such is Plavac Mali, the foundation of many highly-regarded Dalmatian red wines, such as Postup and Dingac.

The well-known Napa Valley winemaker Miljenko ‘Mike’ Grgich is a Croatian native, and he has argued the case for Zinfandel being descended from the Plavac Mali grape. DNA testing has now demonstrated that Plavac Mali is in fact a child of the true original Zinfandel, which is a little-planted grape from the same area named Crljenak Kašteljanski.

Following the devastation of the vines by phylloxera at the end of the 19th century, Croatian vineyards were replanted by grafting the traditional varieties on to American root stock. Only a very few pre-phylloxera vines still survive today on a couple of the islands (Korcula, and Susak). In recent years, foreign-based winemakers and investors are taking an interest in Croatia's many indigenous grape varietals. As the battle against phylloxera continues, broadening the gene pool may be one way to help prevent a recurrence.

Classification

In 1961, Dingac and then in 1967, Postup were registered for Yugoslav state protection.  The Croatian Institute of Viticulture and Enology  was set up in 1996 to oversee the country’s wine industry, and be responsible for regulating wine-growing and wine production. Standards, similar to the EU wine regulations were set up, to ensure the consistent quality of the final product.

Croatian wines are classified by quality, which is clearly marked on the label.

  • Vrhunsko Vino: Premium Quality Wine
  • Kvalitetno Vino: Quality Wine
  • Stolno Vino: Table Wine

In addition, wines may qualify for a geographical origin stamp, if it is produced from grapes grown in the same wine-growing region. The definition becomes stricter for higher quality classifications, so that a premium quality wine with geographical origin stamp must meet criteria for the type of grape, the position in the vinogorije (wine-growing hill) with the distinct quality and characteristics for the varietal. If the wine has a grape varietal stamp, it must be at least 85% of the grape type whose name it carries. Distinctive quality wines are the wines that have a special quality, attained in certain years, in special conditions of maturation, manner of harvesting and processing, and have to be produced only from the recommended sorts of grape for the particular wine-growing hills.

Wines qualifying for a vintage designation, known as Arhiv must be kept in cellar conditions longer than its optimal maturation period, and not less than 5 years from the day of processing grape into wine, of which at least 3 years in a bottle.

Important words: Suho: Dry, Polusuho: Semi-dry, Slatko: Sweet, Bijelo: White, Crno: Red (literally Black), Rosa: Rose & Prošek: Dalmatian dessert wine made from dried grapes. Similar to Italian Vin Santo)