A treasure trove in central Europe

The Croatian wine industry gets its strength from an abundance of native grape varieties and the ambition and experimental fervour of its winemakers. Veronika Crecelius pays a visit.

The Croatian wine industry gets its strength from an abundance of native grape varieties and the ambition and experimental fervour of its winemakers. Veronika Crecelius pays a visit.
The Croatian wine industry gets its strength from an abundance of native grape varieties and the ambition and experimental fervour of its winemakers. Veronika Crecelius pays a visit.

In August 2018, the Minister of Agriculture performed a useful service for all those keen to get to know the world of Croatian wine. The country’s many scattered wine areas were officially divided into four main producing regions: two in the interior of the country with a continental or Alpine climate and two on the coast, characterised by a Mediterranean climate. The ‘Croatian Highlands’ in the north-west form a large circle round the capital Zagreb and extend to the border with Slovenia and Hungary. To the east, the Slavonian-Croatian Danube covers further parts of the humid Pannonian plain. Istria-Kvarner runs from the Istrian peninsula across the Kvarner bay with its many islands to the fourth region, Dalmatia, where every single island boasts its own grape variety. Naturally the four large regions are subdivided into smaller places of origin, each with their own character.

Pioneers in the highlands

From Zagreb airport it’s a one-hour journey through gently rolling hills to the country’s coldest wine region, the Croatian Highlands. The highlands area is almost entirely given over to international varieties because there are simply not as many indigenous varieties here as in the other three main regions.

The Petrač winery sits amongst the woods, villages and hills of the subregion of Zagorje. Steep slopes line the road up to the winery, which is perched on top of the hill. While Zagorje is noted for its white wines, Petrač is a red wine specialist, the first winery in the area to plant Bordeaux grape varieties. Its success motivated other winemakers to plant French grapes. The surprisingly good trial results led to the Petrač family and winemaker Igor Horvac, a cool guy who has been the winery’s resident wine expert for 20 years, focussing most of their efforts on Cabernet Sauvignon. The slopes face south to south-west while the ground is rich in limestone and dolomitic bedrock. Of the 40,000 vines on their 10-hectare vineyard area, 20,000 are Cabernet and the rest are made up of Merlot, Croatia’s main white grape variety Graševina (Welschriesling), Chardonnay and Riesling. The Cabernet Sauvignon is mostly used in the cool, elegant and long-lasting flagship wine, the Bordeaux blend ‘Karizma’. Igor Horvat also makes a creamy, bottle-fermented sparkling rosé from Cabernet which is full of character. However, his eyes light up when he talks about 11 January 2008: “That’s when we were able to make an Eiswein from it.”

At Petrač we tasted the wines of many winemakers, including some from the neighbouring region of Plešivica. Locals refer to it as ‘Croatian champagne’. This region is the centre of sparkling wine production but it is also producing very fine Pinot Noirs, such as that made by the young winemaker Josip Korak. The most exuberant figure on the scene in Plešivica is Tomislav Tomac, who set up his organic winery in 1991. Seventy percent of his production of 50,000 bottles is given over to sparkling wines and his passion for experimentation knows no bounds. Before venturing to expand into amphorae in 2010, he studied with Italian amphora guru Josko Gravner; a Riesling is currently maturing in a clay vessel underground. This will also become sparkling wine. Naturally all the wine is fermented in the bottle. Pressure tanks are hardly used anywhere in the country. Although international grape varieties dominate in the highlands, indigenous varieties such as Graševina and the rare and noble Kraljevina and Pušipel (Furmint) are also grown. Despite its high sugar content, even the Tokaij grape makes a crisply acidic wine in this cool climate. Red wines made from the varieties Portugieser and Blaufränkisch also feature in the repertoire here.

High tech and talent in Slavonia

The journey continues into the heart of the Slavonian Danube and to the region’s most famous wine village. In Kutjevo, local celebrities and fellow winegrowers come together to celebrate the official opening of the new winery of Josip Galić. The wine producer and building contractor has created for himself and his well-travelled wine expert Slaven Jeličić a playground containing a wealth of state-of-theart winemaking technology. Compact rather than vast, up to 300,000 bottles can be produced here. Galić owns around 60 hectares of vineyards. “You could easily feel envious. They have four Bucher grape presses. But Josip and Slaven are really good lads, so I’m happy for them,” says Igor Horvat, the Petrač winemaker. Naturally the vats are made of Slavonian oak, but manufactured by the high quality barrel-makers Seguin Moreau. Why not a Slavonian company? “We may have fantastic wood but not a single decent cooper,” laments Horvat. The delighted Galić wine expert Slaven Jeličić has already brought the 2018 harvest into the “space shuttle”, as the journalists have christened the winery. Jeličić is macerating the grapes in the concrete eggs and trialling sulphite-free vinification. His Graševina is one of the best in the country and the Sauvignon is fine too. This is not purely down to his talent, but also to the special location of Kutjevo. “Kutjevo is surrounded by a ring of mountains, so the temperatures here are at least one degree lower than elsewhere in Slavonia. The wines from Kutjevo are noted for a particular liveliness and freshness, including those made from Riesling, Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. Otherwise the climate in the Slavonian Danube is milder than in the highlands and more humid too. However, the winters are very cold,” explains Saša Špiranec, Croatia’s most experienced wine expert and our contact partner on the trip. Autumn is warmer than spring, which has a positive effect on the ripening process and the accumulation of sugar. Graševina dominates in the Slavonian Danube region with over 51 percent of the vineyard area but Riesling also yields good results. And the Cru Rosenberg Chardonnay made by the Krauthaker winery in Kutjevo could give a number of French wines a run for their money. Logically there are fewer red wines, with only Blaufränkisch grown alongside the French varieties.

Lifestyle in Istria-Kvarner

On the long journey to the coast of the Istrian peninsula there is time to reflect on the chequered history of Croatia. It’s clear that winemaking in the country goes back to ancient times, to long before the Greek colonisation. However, over the last 150 years Croatia’s winemakers have had to start from scratch every few years. They had barely recovered from the phylloxera disaster when the First World War destroyed large areas of vineyards in what was then the kingdom of Yugoslavia. More destruction followed in the Second World War and then the founding of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia resulted in a planned economy. The state cooperatives were governed by the laws of mass production. All grapes went to the cooperatives and winemakers were only allowed to make enough to supply their own private needs. Croatian independence in 1991 was followed by yet another war, whose trail of devastation also affected viticulture in the country. In practical terms it was not until 1995 that the Croatian winemakers could start rebuilding their industry.

Most wineries were set up around the turn of the millennium. Since then, as in Italy and France, entrepreneurs have been investing in wineries and providing them with high calibre restaurants and hotels. They make perfect destinations for sophisticated wine travellers, as exemplified by our next destination. The hotel and restaurant in the Meneghetti winery in the southwest of Istria is part of the Relais & Châteaux group and harvested its first grapes in 2002. It is owned by a lawyer, Miroslav Plišo from Zagreb, who from the start put his faith in the winemaker Walter Filiputti from the Friuli region. The most striking feature of the Meneghetti is its round, terraced vineyard. Istria is one of the best winegrowing areas of Central Europe. It is divided into three parts with different soil conditions: White Istria in the hills of the north-east then Grey Istria in the middle with flysch, as in the Collio. And at Meneghetti we are two kilometres from the sea in Red Istria, where the ground is rich in limestone and iron oxide. Not only has the winery successfully tapped into French grape varieties, but it is also heavily involved in the leading variety of the region, the Malvazija Istarska (Malvasia Istriana). A star find is the Black Label Malvazija, which was first pressed in 2017. Twenty percent of the grapes are left on the vine for an additional 15 days so that they dry out slightly. They give the wine, half of which is made in large wooden barrels and half in stainless steel, great depth of character. “In Istria the reds have more acidity than the whites. The region is seen as the second-best growing region for Merlot after Pomerol. Here it is also the most widely grown red variety, followed by the Teran,” explains our wine expert Saša Špiranec. The Teran is a variety characterised by an extremely high acidity. The winery of Benvenuti in Central Istria (on flysch) is nevertheless able to produce wines that are smooth, balanced and very pleasant to drink because the grapes are harvested very late when they have already begun to shrivel.

On the way to Dalmatia, a stopover on the Kvarner island of Pag at the Boškinac winery is an absolute must; the journey across the water is an experience in itself. You feel as if you are landing on the moon. Half of the island was left completely denuded after the maritime republic of Venice cut down all the trees for timber, while any scrub that was left was swept away by the north wind known as the Bora. Boškinac, on the green half, offers wine tourists an all-round carefree package with rooms and a top restaurant run by the Jeunes Restaurateurs d’Europe, who prepare food in the style of molecular cuisine. Boškinac is said to have saved the white island variety of Gegić from extinction. It has high acidity levels and is traditionally macerated in wooden barrels. This winery is also famous for its elegant and complex Bordeaux blend Black Label.

Getting wine from stone in Dalmatia

In the southernmost region we start off in the northern tip with Alen Bibić and his 24-hectare Bibich winery in Skradin. He is a major national figure and 15 years ago was the first producer to export his wine to the USA. Bibić studied Slavic Languages before deciding in 1995, after the war, to pick up the reins of the family winemaking business. He bought some vineyards from the church. “Between 1988 and 1995 we had lost everything as a result of the Bosnian occupation. In the days when Yugoslavia existed, my father was not allowed to supply grapes to the cooperative because of his non-conformist political views. He sold it secretly at night as so-called ‘open wine’,” says the charismatic and entertaining king of Skradin. Bibić’s wines show great depth and strength while his sparkling wines are noted for their finesse and freshness. He chose to specialise in the local white variety Debit, which is not found anywhere else. His Debit Brut, which matures on the yeast for 36 months, is outstanding. Bibić also grows the indigenous white variety Pošip, which is more aromatic than Debit. His personal preference, however, is for red wine, and in particular his complex Syrah from Cru Bas de Bas. Tastings in the winery are highly recommended, in part because his wife Vesna is an exceptionally creative cook.

 

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Our journey continues to the beautiful

Pelješac peninsula, home of the Dingač, which is considered to be the ‘Barolo’ of Croatia. Like the second most important protected origin Postup, it is made from the Plavac Mali variety. It is a cross between the old indigenous Dobričić and the Primitivo-like Crljenak Kaštelanski. On Pelješac it is traditionally grown in the form of small trees, which cling to breathtakingly steep slopes overlooking the sea. The plants have got used to the extremely barren soil, which is virtually nothing but stone and quartz. There is hardly any clay. The entrepreneur Ernest Tolj founded the Saint Hills winery here in 2006 and employed the celebrated winemaker Michel Rolland as consultant. Saint Hills offers not only award-winning wines, a top quality restaurant and guest accommodation, but is also the only modern winery to focus exclusively on Croatian varieties. Dalmatia with its 1,000 islands has the most native grape varieties in Croatia. Unlike the other regions, it was replanted after the phylloxera outbreak.

Into the future

The young world of Croatian wine has huge potential. At the start of its renaissance towards the end of the 1990s, the winemakers tended to choose varieties that were well known and respected in international markets in order to win the respect of wine critics and raise awareness of the country. The new wave currently sweeping through the country shows a greater degree of self-confidence and courage as they experiment more and more with varieties that are virtually unknown. This is vital, as the market needs unique selling points - and exciting stories. Croatia has everything it needs to become one of the great wine producing countries of Europe.

CROATIA: AN OVERVIEW

Vineyard area: approx. 21,000 hectares

Wine production: annually 700,000 to 750,000 hectolitres

Wine producers: 1,575 businesses (2016)

Indgenous grape varieties: between 120 and 140, depending on the source

Recognised grape varieties for wine production: 258

Protected areas of origin: 16

Main wine producing regions: Croatian Highlands, Slavonian Danube, Istria-Kvarner, Damatia

Most widely grown varieties: White: Graševina (Welschriesling), Malvazija Istarska Red: Plavac Mali, Teran

Graševina with 5,582 hectares of vineyard area is by far the most widely grown variety in Croatia; 24 percent of bottling involves this type of Welschriesling. Malvazija Istarska is grown on nine percent of the vineyard area. Plavac Mali is in third place and is grown on eight percent of the overall area. It is a cross between the old indigenous varieties of Dobričić and Crljenak Kaštelanski. The latter has the same DNS as Primitivo or Zinfandel. Plavac Mali means ‘Little Blue’ and is used in the country’s first and most important protected origin designations: Dingač and Postup.

Source: Vinart based on data from the Agency for Agriculture, Fisheries and Rural Development, Grand Cro

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