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Croatia may be known for its serene beaches or as the setting of “Game of Thrones.” But thanks to its sprawling coastline and fruitful terrain the country is on the map as a leading wine producer that is popping up across the American market.
In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers gives us an overview of the wine regions in Croatia, how the nation’s political history shaped the land, and popular Croatian varieties listeners can find in the States.
Tune in to Episode 10 of the bonus season of “Wine 101” to learn more about wine from the small coastal country.
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Keath Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups put out a peanut butter cup without the chocolate — just the peanut butter. It’s glorious.
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 10 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast bonus season. My name is Keith Beavers, and how are you doing?
OK, we got to talk about Croatia. This place is getting very popular in the American market. There are reasons why: The wine is awesome. So we’ll get to know Croatia and get into the awesomeness that you’re gonna see on the shelves.
When I was talking about the word obscure in the Georgia episode, I was saying that there is nothing really obscure about it. There are just places that make wine that we just haven’t learned about yet. One of the wine-producing countries that is just amazing, but we haven’t learned about fully yet, is Croatia. What’s really wild is that Croatia is just across the Adriatic Sea from the east coast of Italy. It’s a small-ish country just because it’s part of the former Yugoslavia. So it’s been cut up for years and finally, we’re at the place where it’s going to probably stay for a long time because it’s now in the EU. But this is another one of those places in the world that is ancient with wine. It doesn’t have the focus of Georgia, but like Georgia, Croatia claims to have the oldest continuously cultivated viticultural or wine-growing site in the world, dating back to 4 B.C. on the island of Hvar, which we’ll talk about in a bit.
Archeologists have found old parcels of vineyards in this area, so it shows that this area has been cultivated for a long time. Just like the Italian East Coast, a large part of the country is a coastline on the Balkan Peninsula, and the coastline runs pretty much from the southeast near Montenegro. There they have a major town and city in Croatia called Dubrovnik, and it goes about 1,200 miles north up the coastline. As it goes up the coastline, it’s dotted with over 1,000 small islands. Some of those islands are very important for wine. This coastline is a Mediterranean climate like any other wine-growing region in this area. As it gets north, the country takes a hard right towards the east, and then you have a whole continental climate over there. So it’s a small-ish country with both the Mediterranean and continental climates. It’s perfect for wine and has been for a long time. It has mountainous wine regions. It has flatland wine regions. It has coastal wine regions. It has island wine regions. It’s awesome. And what’s cool is, this country is not only the home of the grape Primitivo, which thrives in Apulia in southern Italy, but it’s also the home of our Zinfandel grape. I do a whole episode on Zinfandel. I think it was in Season 1, so check that out.
But the thing is, like Georgia, this happens to be a part of the world that went through a lot of economic and political struggle throughout history. This is another one of those places where we’re just now starting to enjoy what the people of Croatia have enjoyed for centuries: their wine. The history of Croatia is long and complicated, and it’s actually fascinating, and I wish I could get into it. I mean, it wouldn’t be, it’s not really a wine thing. It’s just a really fascinating history.
But in 2013, when Croatia was brought into the EU, things really started going for the wine industry in Croatia, especially on the international stage. Because of its beauty and because of its islands, landscapes, and its geography, it is naturally a tourist attraction. But when they were brought into the EU, that went a little bit crazy. They weren’t brought into the EU until 2013, but in 2012 there was a study that said that the population of Croatia was 4.3 million. In that year, over 12 million people visited the country through tourism. I mean, this is a country that had to break away from former Yugoslavia and then have to deal with brutal wars of independence through the 1990s. In 2013, 630 square miles of agriculture in Croatia were deemed minefields. The fact that they’re here is wonderful, and we get to try and enjoy these wines. So let’s get into Croatia and understand it so you can see what you’re looking at on these wine shelves and understand it because these wines are common, they’re not going anywhere. They’re on the market, and they’re making their way into the country.
Croatia is bordered to the north by the country of Slovenia, to the east and southeast by Hungary and Bosnia, to the southeast by Montenegro, and, of course, the west is the coastline border with the Adriatic Sea. Again, just like Italy, because of its coastline and its position in the world with the history of wine, Croatia has identified 200 grapes, 40 of which are indigenous to the country of Croatia. It makes sense; it’s a Mediterranean climate, just like Italy, which has hundreds and hundreds of native graves as well.
There are four general and large wine regions, which are divided into 12 subregions, which are in turn divided into 61 wine districts. So, of course, we can’t get into all that. Let’s just talk in general about these four wine regions and give you a sense of the varieties that are being used to make wine there so you can recognize them. In the northern inland part of the country where the continental climates are, you have two regions. You have the Croatian uplands, and then east of that, you have what’s called Slovenia and Croatian Danube or just Slovenia and Danube, because it’s that side of the Danube that is Croatian. On the other side is the Republic of Serbia.
The Croatian uplands is a very cool region and it’s around the large city of Zagreb. It’s very hilly, and it’s very fertile. This is an area where you’re going to see what we call international varieties, right? Varieties that mostly come from France that are planted all over the world. Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris. They’re making very crisp, high-acid wines from these grapes. I’ve had a few. They’re very cool. But the area also has two indigenous white wine grapes, one called Moslavac and one called Moslavina. Moslavac is what the Hungarians called Furmint, and they make clean, fresh, fruity, high-acid, white wines. East of that in the region called Slovenia and Danube or Croatian Danube, this is actually a flatland. You don’t see a lot of hills here, but this is home to the grape Graševina, which is a white wine that’s making it onto the American market. You’re going to see Graševina around. They also make a red wine from the Blaufränkisch grape, which is an Austrian variety, which is a couple of countries north. But they call it Frangofka. I haven’t had a Frangofka, but I love Blaufränkisch, so I would like to try it one day. I have had a lot of Graševina at that bar Ruffian I talked about in the last episode about Georgia. It’s a nice off-dry, clean, easy-drinking wine. But they also make Graševina into late-harvest sweet wines, which is very good as well. West of the inland, we’re getting towards the coast, and there’s a whole section of the coast in the north that’s called Istria Kvarner, and this is an area that shares a lot of it’s cultural influence with northeast Italy.
So here we’re in the Mediterranean climate. One of the reasons why this place is special and why it’s a wine region is, not only does it have the coastal influence, but it has cool air coming from the Alps that helps moderate the temperatures in this area. These climatic conditions make it ideal for two native grapes, one called Refošk and one called Teran. Now when I say Refošk, it might sound like Refosco. It’s not. It’s a different variety, but it’s in the same family. Teran is a different variety altogether, but it’s a great area for these wines because they have this soft, smooth fruit with good acid and a slight fruit depth, and they can get a little bit dark. But they’re very similar to Merlot, which actually does very well here as well. I say similar to Merlot in texture and style, not in aromas and stuff like that. They are completely different varieties when it comes to aromas in the nose, but they have a similar texture to them.
They also do a white grape here called Malvazija Istarska, which is just an Istrian Malvasia. It’s awesome. It’s dry, a little bit honeyed, a little bit floral, and beautiful. On the island of Krk, there is a very well-known wine. It’s a nice, lean, almost delicate white wine made from a grape called Slatina. I say that because I’ve seen a lot on the market, it’s around.
But it’s Dalmatia, the fourth, coastal region that gets a lot of attention. Number one, because the Dalmatian islands are a tourist attraction. Also, as Jedi Wine Master Jancis Robinson says, it’s the treasure trove of native varieties in this country, and it makes sense. The coastal Mediterranean area has been occupied by so many cultures so many times, it makes complete sense. But it’s here that we have these very important islands I was talking about before. This is where Zinfandel comes from, where they call it Tribidrag. This is a place where you’re going to see the majority of the wines from Croatia on the American market, and they’re mostly going to be red, dominated by a grape called Plavac Mali. Plavac Mali is important because there are two wine regions of this area — one called Postup and one called Dingac — that were some of the first recognized areas in Croatia only back in the 1960s to be protected as wine regions. So Plavac Mali is a very important grape for this part of Croatia, and they’re great wines. They’re medium-bodied. They can be a little bit heavy as well and dense fruit core to them. They’re excellent with lean meats.
But not only does the coastline make wines from this variety and other varieties in the area that we may not see right away on the American market, but you also see wines coming from the islands of Korčula, Hvar, Vis, and Brac. It’s the island of Korčula where they have this native grape called Posip. It’s an island white. If you’re sitting with a bowl of mussels or some seafood or some shrimp and you just want a nice, clean, crisp white wine to drink that goes well with seafood, that’s Posip.
So those are the four wine regions of Croatia, and those are some of the varieties that are grown that we’re going to see on the American market. It’s really interesting because the majority of the wine — almost 60 percent — in Croatia is made in the inland regions, with a little over 40 percent in the coastal regions. But because of the tourist attraction of the coastal regions, I think we see more of the coastal stuff on the American market, and the wine categories are similar to what you would see with a European Union or an EU market. You have the PDOs and then you have the IGPs. I have a whole appellation episode that you can listen to, but they have your premium-quality wines, your quality wines, and then your table wines just like any other place in Europe.
They have different names for them, of course, because of their language. So you have the PDO wines that are like the D.O.C. wines, like the higher-quality stuff. The premium-quality wines are called vrhunsko vino. The next level down is just quality — not premium quality — and is called kvalitetno vino. Then you have your table wines, your everyday wines, and they’re called stolno vino. So although Croatian wines might or wine labels might be a little bit difficult to read, that’ll give you a sense of the categories.
One more thing I should say about the continental climate inland regions is the Slavonia area is very popular with Italian winemakers for the oak that is there. You’ll often hear — mostly in central and northern Italy — wines being aged in Slavonian oak. That’s where that comes from.
So that was a little crash course on Croatia. I hope you enjoyed it and got a little bit of information. So when you’re in the wine shops and people are talking about Croatian wine, you’ll know what’s going on and you can actually enjoy the wines.
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And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.