A decade ago, Americans barely knew Croatia. The slender, coastal country hugging the limpid Adriatic was associated with the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the bitter regional strife that followed. Today, all that has changed. Tourism is on the rise, hitting records levels in part due to cruise ships plying the port around Dubrovnik. Of course, the medieval jewel of a town exudes undeniable charm. There’s a reason foreigners flock to explore it. Coincidentally, not far from the city are some of the country’s most interesting vineyards. In fact, vineyards can be found all over Croatia, from its string of beautiful islands to its verdant interior. Vineyards bearing 130 indigenous grapes, with about 40 in commercial production today.
In a new book called Cracking Croatian Wine by Matthew Horkey and Charine Tan, the couple decode the labyrinth of local grapes (and unfamiliar names) and break it down for lay people. The book isn’t meant as an academic study; it’s for both casual and enthusiastic wine drinkers to use as a guide on the ground when looking to find wines to taste or bring home. Of course, if Croatia’s not on your travel calendar in the short-term, you can still track down wines in the U.S. market to try – and inspire you to book a ticket to the capital of Zagreb.
Here are six wines worth finding, presented at a recent tasting hosted by Horkey and Tan in New York City. If you can’t find these exact wines, just ask your local retailer for alternatives made with the same grapes.
Badel 1862, Vezak Graševina, 2017. This is an everyday white wine made from the Graševina grape, also called Welschriesling. It is the most widely planted grape in Croatia and generally produces food-friendly wines with good acidity. This bottle sells at an entry-level price point, so it won’t be a big risk to try at home to see if it’s appealing. The wine showed crisp mineral, apple and citrus character with a clean finish.
Vina Laguna, 2017 Malvasia/Malvazija. The producer, Vina Laguna, hails from the region of Istria which is close to Italy. The grape, Malvasia, is the flagship of the region. Dry, medium-bodied, and refreshing, this bottle showed notes of pear, white peach, and apple floating atop a slight underlying bitterness akin to almond skin. This is quintessential Malvasia with a touch of chalkiness on the finish.
Vina Bibich, Debit, 2017. The producer of this wine, Alen Bibić, is a champion of the Debit grape and on a mission to bring it to the world’s attention. It’s often a high-yielding grape, capable of producing a neutral blending wine with low acidity, but in the case of this bottle, there’s lots to enjoy. The wine showed as crisp and dry with a little palate weight and broadness on the finish. Another food-friendly example.
Grgić, Pošip, 2016. Mike Grgić is a legend in Napa Valley, but Croatia is his homeland. He has a winery outside of Dubrovnik on the Peljesac Peninsula where he sells Pošip and Plavac Mali. Posip is indigenous to the pretty little island of Korčula, near Hvar, and has long been an important grape for making sweet wine. Winemakers like working with it for its malleability, similar to Chardonnay. The 2016 from Grgić shows smoky notes with accents of pineapple and citrus and a viscous, mildly oily texture. Again, another great wine for food.
Milos, Stagnum Rosé, Plavac Mali, 2017. Milos is considered one of the first “cult” producers of Croatia, and Plavac Mali, one of the country’s most important red grapes used to make both rosé and robust, age-worthy dry red wines. This rosé wine is made in traditional fashion, eschewing stainless steel for open top fermenters and barrels. Flavors of sweet berry and cherry ride high on fresh acidity, followed by a touch of bitterness on the finish. Unlike many parts of the world, enjoying rosé is not new to Croatians.
Stina, Zinfandel “Tribidrag” 2015. Tribidrag is genetically similar to Zinfandel. It’s considered to be the “original Zin” and parent of Plavac Mali. While you wouldn’t call most Zinfandels from California elegant, this bottle from Stina, made on the island of Brac north of Hvar, certainly was. This wine showed remarkable restraint, characterized by bright acidity, that’s typical of Old World growing regions. With sweet red fruits and an earthy, mineral note on the palate, this should be your summer burger/BBQ Zin swap.