Croatia has quickly become one of the hottest destinations on the planet. From its historic cities to its beautiful, sweeping coastlines and alpine peaks, there really is something for every traveler in the small Balkan country. It’s clearly no longer the hidden gem it once was.
The same can be said about its wines. The secret lies in the country’s many vintages, some of which have recently brought great awards and accolades.
Let’s get something straight: I’m a wine lover, not a wine snob. I drink what I like. In Croatia, everything tasted fabulous. If you’re like me, here are seven reasons why the gorgeous country should be on your travel bucket list!
1. It is the home of the original Zin
Croatia’s wine tradition is so deep that it is where one of the world’s most popular varieties first took root. Most red wine lovers have heard of zinfandel. The hardy, big-bodied variety is beloved in America, and the grape grows especially well in California. It has been in the United States since the 1820s, but no one was sure where it actually came from. As it turns out, one of Croatia’s indigenous vines is actually the original zini!
Legendary California winemaker Mike Grgich was born in Croatia and long suspected that zinfandel had Balkan roots. He collaborated with Dr. Carole Meredith of UC Davis, who DNA tested samples from many Croatian vines. In the resulting analysis, she and her team proved that the local crljenak Kaštelanski grape was actually zin, and had been piggybacked on America centuries ago by immigrants seeking to plant vineyards here. Crljenak Kaštelanski was close to extinction by the time the DNA discovery linked him to mourning; it has since returned, with vineyards reviving the old standard. It’s a fantastic wine story and today you can try a glass of original zin (its Croatian name is quite difficult to pronounce) in some wineries in Croatia.
2. Perfect climate
Like California or Italy, Croatia is the perfect place to grow grapes and enjoy the resulting wine! The Adriatic Sea it borders is the northernmost arm of the Mediterranean, after all, and is blessed with the same beautiful, mild climate. Dry and hot summers eventually give way to cool and wet, but not cold, winters on the coast of Dalmatia and Istria. Just keep in mind that the further inland you move and the further east of the country’s stunning Dinaric Alps, the colder the weather will be.
Croatia also has an extended shoulder season, so expect pleasant temperatures starting in April before the summer heat and warmth until October. The grapes love it, and so do the visitors who come to taste the resulting wines.
3. There’s something for everyone
As for wine, there really is something for everyone coming from Croatian vineyards. The terroir is diverse; grapes grow on the Dalmatian coast of the mainland, as well as on islands scattered across the sea. While you’ll find international favorites including chardonnay, merlot and riesling, why not try indigenous options too?
The most common of these is graševina, which can produce white wines ranging from sweet (sweet) to dry (dry), and even with gas. I ended up drinking more than my share of the poship, a lovely dry white with mineral notes made with a grape that is native to the lovely island of Korčula. Plavac mali is a descendant of the aforementioned crljenak Kaštelanski grape and makes a big red wine with lots of tannins and an alcohol to match. You will find it in smaller cafes – called Kornobas — up and down the Dalmatian coast.
Bottom Line: The names can be intimidating, but the wines are worth it. Don’t be afraid to ask questions—everyone loved answering even the dumb ones—and let your server know your preferences. They will find the perfect sip for you during your visit to Croatia.
4. The Roots of Winemaking Run Deep Here
The history of wine in Croatia dates back to before the Romans. Artifacts left behind by the Illyrians, an Indo-European people who first settled on the islands off the Dalmatian coast, show the presence of wine in their early culture. The Greeks also brought vines before the Romans expanded their empire into Croatia and continued the practice of planting and harvesting wine grapes. When Rome fell, the Croatians took over the production and it has continued ever since. Through the Venetian, Ottoman and Habsburg conquests, wine traditions remained constant. These roots really run deep and you can taste that fact in every sip.
5. Crops stay mostly local
While Croatia’s rocky soil and favorable climate are excellent for grape and wine production, export supply remains low. Croatian wineries are not big money makers like their French and American counterparts – instead they are on the small side, with limited amounts released. And Croatians love their wine; I understand why they want to enjoy it themselves!
That’s not to say you can’t find vintage Croatian in the United States or elsewhere, but they won’t be in your local grocery store or really available. All the more reason to enjoy them on your vacation… and consider bringing some home. (More on that later!)
6. It’s Been An Underdog
The more I learned about it during my visit there, the more I came to admire the very existence of Croatian wine. That’s because relatively recent disasters have really pushed it to the brink. When the phylloxera plague that devastated French vineyards first struck in the late 1880s, it appeared that Croatia might be spared. But the bug eventually showed up, ruining the wine craft there for years. Communism also took its toll, with private ownership of entire wineries banned and quantity emphasized over quality. Last but certainly not least, the Croatian War of Independence also stunted the country’s winemaking capabilities.
Yet through it all, Croatian wine has continued to make a comeback. Old traditions may be bent, but they are not broken, at least not in this respect. Makes me appreciate the wines there even more.
7. Coral wine and other unusual offers
While on a recent trip to Croatia, I was able to try some creative twists on the typical glass of vino. In Split, I visited the wonderful MoNIKa wine bar. It proudly serves Croatian wines, pairing them perfectly with delicious tapas dishes. I first went in to try some rosé pours made with babic, an indigenous red grape grown in northern Dalmatia. They were dry and tasty, but then something else caught my eye on the wine list.
“Um, what’s coral wine?” I asked the bartender, who laughed and brought a strange bottle and accompanying glass to my table.
That bottle was covered in a thin layer of lacy coral (or some other kind of water creature), and the white wine inside was a chardonnay that had been aged not in steel or oak, but near the Adriatic Sea. In the coral wine method, the bottles are placed underwater at a depth of 45 to 90 meters for anywhere from a few months to 2 years. About 15,000 bottles a year receive this special treatment.
The wine’s aging conditions at sea are said to soften the wine’s tannins and acidity while preserving the aromatic profile. I’m not usually a big fan of grains, but this aging method lends itself well, toning it down a bit. It was a fun thing to try!
There are different ways Croatians like to mix their wine. i enjoyed it gemišta refreshing mix of dry white wine with high acidity (such as Graševina or Pošip) and seltzer water.
The only thing I didn’t research: BAMBOO. It’s equal parts red wine and cola served over ice. I decided to skip the sugar and left. However, Croatians love this strange mixture.
Don’t make the mistake I did. I wasn’t prepared for how delicious some of the wines in Croatia really were and found myself wishing I could take some home. Anyway, I packed everything into handbags because I didn’t bring a case of wine with me. I could have easily checked an empty one and filled it during my stay, and I’m still kicking myself that I didn’t. Plan ahead to take some home for your basement and bring what you need to get it home safely.
One more thing: I have found that the spills in Croatia are significantly smaller than what we usually get in the United States. This is not necessarily a bad thing, just a change in culture; and the bottles weigh the same 750 milliliters that we are used to here.
Regardless of the size of the pour, or the type of Croatian wine you choose, acclamation!