Croatian Wines

You will be forgiven if you've never heard of Croatian wine. While it has a winemaking history that dates back to the Illyrian tribes in the 11th century BC, with input from the Romans, Greeks, and Austrians over the centuries, the 20th century was bad for the wine business here. The insect pest phylloxera, war, and crippling economic policies ravaged Croatian wineries; under Communism, private wineries were abolished and only a select few state-run winemakers were allowed to produce wine, with a major focus on quantity over quality. The war from 1990-1995 wiped out what remained. Many vintners fled to the United States, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and South America, taking their knowledge with them and leaving Croatia's vineyards virtually deserted.

But a wine renaissance is occuring in Croatia today. Blessed with a unique, mineral-rich terroir that's ideal for grape-growing, Croatia currently grows more than 130 indigenous grapes and its wines are once again finding a special place in the hearts of oenophiles everywhere. Many who left have come back to reclaim their family land and revive their winemaking traditions.

Wine-Making and Its Deep Roots

The Delmati, an Illyrian tribe, were the first to cultivate the vine in modern-day Croatia, as early as the 11th century BC. When the Romans invaded the Dalmatian Coast in the 3rd century BC, they discovered an entire wine industry. The Greeks, who'd been sharing the region with the Illyrians, had not failed to exploit Vitis sylvestris (the wild grapevine), which was plentiful there, merging it with the strains of the cultivated vines they brought from their own country. The conquering Roman soldiers also brought new varietals with them as a way of expanding their culture; the vine itself was a symbol of their power.

By the 9th century, Croatian princes had a cup bearer as part of their court staff. When Venice subjugated much of Dalmatia and Istria in the 14th century, the planting of new vineyards was restricted to the areas around Split. It was in this period that noble families, after building their vineyards, built fortresses in the middle of their estates for protection, perhaps anticipating the destruction of the coming Venetian-Turkish wars. By the time the Habsburgs had ousted the Ottomans, the Austrians were already well on their way to introducing new varietals to the area, capitalizing on the superior wine-producing capacity of their newly acquired resources.

Modern developments in cloning techniques and the use of industrial machinery brought wine-making in Croatia to the economic position it occupies today, where 10% of the population derives income from the industry.

The Napa Valley Connection

Croatia has had some world-class help in reestablishing its wine-making industry. Miljenko "Mike" Grgić, one of the founding fathers of the Napa Valley wine industry, is at the forefront of the race to realize the potential of Croatia's indigenous varietals. Born in Dalmatia in 1923, he left for California in 1954 and went on to become one of its most renowned wine producers. He was one of the first to notice that the ubiquitous Zinfandel grape of California (also known as primitivo in Italy)—whose origin had long been guessed at but remained shrouded in mystery—had similarities to the Plavac Mali grape that he had cultivated in his youth back in Dalmatia.

In 1998, Professor Carole Meredith, a renowned grapevine geneticist who had previously uncovered the origins of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Syrah, began a similar search for Zinfandel's origin. The exciting four-year project, known as the "Zinquest", entailed the collection of leaf samples from indigenous varieties of southern Dalmatia, DNA fingerprinting analyses of samples’ cultivars, and comparisons with Zinfandel cuttings from California. The team of scientists eventually discovered an old vineyard in Kaštel Novi, where a few additional "suspects" were discovered, and the DNA analysis confirmed that a wine locally known as Crljenak Kaštelanski, or Tribidrag—completely forgotten and virtually eradicated from Dalmatian vineyards—is the long-sought Croatian corollary of Zinfandel.

Regions and Wineries

Almost 70% of wine produced in Croatia is white, coming mainly from the country's interior, while 30% are reds, mainly produced along the coast. The four most important wine producing regions are: Slavonia, home to the country's principal white variety, Graševina; Central and Southern Dalmatia, where the hearty Plavac Mali flourishes on the Pelješac Peninsula; Istria, known for its Malvazija (white) and Teran (red); and increasingly Zagorje, which produces small quantities of very crisp dessert wines and Rieslings.

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