Dalmatian Coast, Croatia
There’s no reason Croatian wine can’t receive the same accolades as Italian or Greek wines. The history of grape growing is thousands of years old and as varied as those two countries. It shares many of the same climatic and geological influences - mediterranean/adriatic cooling influences, unique soil types, interesting native grapes, arid inland climate, and old vines. But there’s plenty of reasons it *currently* doesn’t. The first would be its relative youth as a country (and economy) embracing the quality over quantity aspect of capitalism, rather than Yugoslav pseudo-socialism. The second would be its quick descent into war after said independence. Third, many of the grapes are indigenous and hard for non-native speakers to fully understand.
In the 1970s, when Croatia was part of larger Yugoslavia, the whole country was one of the top-10 wine producing countries. And while the top-10 is impressive, a large majority of that was low-quality wine produced for local consumption and regional export. Private wineries like Bura did exist at the time, however they were required to give upwards of 60% of their crop to the government. This stifled most effort to create high-quality wines. That said, there was still some effort to produce quality wine - this article from the Washington Post archives (dated 11/9/1980) is an interesting look at the efforts of a Yugoslavian exporter trying to make an impression on the US market.
Once Croatia partially gained independence in 1991, a few intrepid winemakers staked their claim and founded wineries, including Zlatan. However it would be many more years, some tragically bloody, before the true Croatian wine renaissance came about.
Today, roughly 30 years after independence, the Croatian wine scene has fully blossomed. It is still a small fish in a big pond, producing just 70 million hectoliters a year, on par with Switzerland, Peru, or Uruguay. Not quite wine powerhouses on the global stage. However, if the quantity has stagnated, the quality of the wine has increased greatly. And they’re just getting started.
Climate and Geography
Croatia shares many similarities with its Mediterranean neighbors as far as both climate and geography. Growing regions range from the coast, which is heavily influenced by the cooling factors of the Adriatic Sea, to the inland plains, which see more severe continental weather patterns. The mountainous area between the coast and the inland areas (where the country narrows, between Slovenia and Bosnia & Herzegovina) is not home to any major designated wine regions, though I can guarantee that locals still grow grapes and make wine for at-home consumption or local sales.
The regions of ‘Uplands’ and ‘Slavonia’ in inland Croatia share many of the same characteristics as southern Hungary/northern Serbia - continental climate and a combination of volcanic and sedimentary soils from around the Danube river basin. Due to the heavy agricultural history of this area, plus relative ease of farming compared to the rugged coastline, the majority of Croatia wine production (by volume) comes from here.
In Istria, on the northern coast, one will find either white limestone soils or red, iron-rich soils. These iron-rich soils are considered very unique to the region and give many of the wines from Istria a sanguine characteristic (namely the reds). We hope to profile Istria as a unique region one day!
Further down the coast is Dalmatia, where our focus lies this month. Stretching from Zadar down the Pelješac Peninsula to Dubrovnik, this is the ‘picturesque’ Croatia that many imagine. Game of Thrones fans know Dubrovnik as ‘King’s Landing’ and tourism has exploded since the show. For history buffs, the town of Stari Grad on Hvar is considered one of the oldest towns in Europe (384 BC). On the remote island of Mljet, one can find Odysseus’ Cave, harkening back 3000 years of Greek History.
Here in Dalmatia, the soils are almost entirely Karst, white limestone that is highly permeable and prone to dissolving from rain/water. This low-moisture holding soil is pivotal in creating low-quantities of very high-quality wines, with deep roots and minimal irrigation. Most grapes will flourish on karst, but native grapes have always fared better than ‘international varieties’ in Croatia. In a bit of irony, this coastal, seafood loving region is the only wine region in Croatia that produces more red wine than it does white wine.
Zlatan Otok, White Blend, Hvar 2021
Zlatan was founded by Zlatan Plenković in 1991, right after the independence of Croatia from Yugoslavia. In fact, they were the second private winery to be founded after the split. In that relatively short amount of time, they’ve made a big splash; often being considered the most awarded winery in Croatia and Zlatan as the ‘father of modern Croatian wine’.
The principal winery is located in Sveta Nedjelja, on the southern coast of the Island of Hvar. Here, they farm 10 hectares of vineyards and purchase from an additional 80 hectares, making them by far the largest producer on the picturesque island. On the mainland, they farm an additional 75 hectares in Baška Voda, home to their larger facility, and 65 hectares near Šibenik (halfway between Split and Zadar). As a whole, the winery produces 75,000 cases per year of white, red and rosé wines! Their tasting room on Hvar is located in a beautiful private marina, called Bilo idro. While I haven’t been myself, this video makes me think it’s a must-visit.
This name cuvee, aptly named ‘Zlatan Otok’ is a blend of five indigenous grape varieties - Kuč, Bogdanuša, Prč, Maraština, Pošip. All the grapes for this cuvée are grown on the island of Hvar. It is fermented and aged entirely in stainless steel and meant to be a light, elegant expression of dalmatian wine. Perfect for pairing with any seafood, and while it will definitely continue to improve until the dog days of summer, it isn’t meant to be cellared for years.
Bura-Mrgudić, ‘Fresh’ Plavac Mali, Pelješac Peninsula 2021
Bura is one of the few wineries that existed before, during, and after the existence of Yugoslavia. The small family winery in Potomje has been producing wine for sixteen generations - since 1410! The Bura family has kept the winery small, producing just what is in their means and not growing beyond what the family and village could produce. While their total production is not listed, I can be absolutely sure it is well below 75,000 cases.
As a whole, they are known as experts of the Plavac Mali grape, which is a cross between a native grape called Dobričić and Crljenak Kaštelanski, aka Zinfandel. Plavac Mali (meaning ‘small blue’ due to the berry size and color) is grown all through Dalmatia, far and away being the most prevalent red of the region. The appellation of Dingač, where a majority of the Bura production comes from, was the first geographically protected wine region in Croatia, gaining its designation in 1961. The region is defined by karst soil, ample sunlight, and steep hillsides making farming and harvesting incredibly difficult. In the past, there was a small one lane road going 16 km around the mountains that all grape growers had to navigate, usually using donkeys and a cart. In 1973, local wineries banded together to dig a one-lane tunnel from Potomje through the mountain, cutting the commute down to a lovely 600m.
This cuvee is based off of the same organic Plavac Mali, but instead of being grown immediately on the coastal area of Dingač, it is farmed inland where winds are less extreme and farming is easier. Additionally, instead of the deep extraction and oak-aging, it sees a short skin maceration and stainless steel fermentation. Aptly dubbed ‘Fresh’, the wine is youthful, easy drinking, and juicy. It still has the deep berry notes and herbal backbone that are quintessential to Plavac Mali, but the palate is more approachable.
Like many lighter-extraction (aka crushable) reds, this would greatly benefit from being served around 50 degrees and doesn’t demand food, intense aging, or decanting. Just open and enjoy the fresh-ness.