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Croatia guide: wine regions beyond Istria

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Beyond Istria, Croatia’s regions are a treasure trove of terroirs, grapes and styles. Veer off the tourist track and you’ll find many delightful surprises.

This article is part of a Decanter guide produced in cooperation with Vinistra, association of winegrowers and winemakers of Istria, and the Croatian National Tourist Board.


Think of Croatia, and you might conjure up images of a coastal nation with with deep blue seas, grilled seafood and uncountable paradise islands.

But attractive though this Mediterranean idyll sounds, it’s not the whole picture. More than half of the country’s landmass heads inland across the top of neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina before it eventually meets western Serbia.

This is especially relevant for wine, as about 60% of Croatia’s production comes from the two overarching inland regions: The Uplands and Slavonia.

This contrasts with the country’s tourism, which favours the two coastal regions, northerly Istria and Kvarner, and Dalmatia in the south.

Croatian Uplands

Škrlet grapes in Croatia

Škrlet grapes.

With vineyards scattered around the capital Zagreb, the Uplands is Croatia’s greenest and coolest wine-growing region.

Reflecting a strong influence from the old Austro-Hungarian empire, international white varieties dominate, along with Graševina (one of the synonyms of Welschriesling) and Pinot Noir. Furmint crops up under the names Moslavac or Pušipel.

The cool climate, plentiful rainfall and hillside expositions also allow aromatic varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling to shine.

One indigenous grape variety has recently enjoyed a small renaissance, too: Škrlet is a delicate, fresh-tasting white variety chiefly found in Moslavina. The variety surprised and delighted judges at the 2023 Decanter World Wine Awards, carrying home a clutch of medals including a Gold. 

The Plešivica region is notable for its focus on sparkling wines – a tip of the hat to the freshness afforded by the climate. Boutique producer Tomac has carved out a niche not just for exceptional traditional-method wines, but also qvevri and skin-fermented examples.

To the north of Zagreb, Zagorje focuses almost entirely on white wine. Bolfan Winery, which farms biodynamically, provides an excellent reference point for the region’s fresh, pure signature.

How to get there

Most of the Uplands are within an hour’s drive of Zagreb, so it’s a good day trip. Bucolic green hills and plenty of small, family wineries (many little more than weekend operations) make the area highly pleasurable to visit. 


Slavonia & Croatian Danube

Heading east from the Uplands into Slavonia, the climate becomes noticeably warmer and more continental.

Further inland still, the Danube snakes along the border with Serbia, creating a fertile sub-region which produces some of the ripest and richest wine styles.

The region’s forests occupy a vast area and are central to Slavonia’s dominance as a source of European oak. Not to be confused with Slovenian (relating to the separate neighbouring nation), Slavonian oak has been favoured by coopers for centuries.

Tight-grained and relatively neutral in flavour terms, it is the material of choice for many of Italy’s botti grande, and other large-format barrels across the Balkans and Austria. 

In among the forests, there is still room for Croatia’s most planted grape variety, Graševina. Making up around a quarter of the total vineyard surface, most is found in Slavonia.

For those used to the feather-light, neutral Welschrieslings popular in Austria, Slavonia’s Graševina tends towards a riper, fuller style when grown on the region’s vast, sun-kissed plains.

Graševina is also versatile. Closer to the Danube, late-harvest and botrytis-influenced wines are viable. Elsewhere, treatments vary from fresh and simple to rich and oaked.

In the famed Kutjevo appellation, Krauthaker is an iconic name. Owner Vlado Krauthaker was inspired after a visit to Georgia to produce an amber Graševina. Adžić, Buhač and Galić are also worthy of note.

Although Graševina is the main focus, Gewürztraminer (known locally as Traminac) and Frankovka (aka Blaufränkisch) are also plentiful.

How to get there

Reaching Slavonia is only really viable with a car, as Croatia’s bus and train network does not provide sufficient coverage. Bear in mind that Belgrade (Serbia’s capital) is closer than Zagreb to the Danube region.


Dalmatia

Trstenik village from the sea

Steep Grgić Winery vineyards above the village of Trstenik on the Pelješac peninsula. Credit: Milena Pigdanowicz-Fidera / iStock / Getty Images Plus.

Beginning about halfway down the country’s coastal spine at Zadar, the hot Dalmatia region keeps getting hotter as it heads south towards Montenegro.

There are three disparate chapters: coastal Dalmatia, the slightly cooler inland Zagora sub-region, and the islands off the coast between Split and Dubrovnik.

The ebullient, high-alcohol red grape Plavac Mali is arguably Dalmatia’s vinous calling card. It is now known to be the offspring of Zinfandel – or Tribidrag, to give it the most popular local name (it’s also known as Crljenak Kaštelanski).

Tribidrag has recovered from near-extinction now that growers are aware of its heritage. Plavac Mali’s ‘grand cru’ appellations are situated on the steep, sun-baked slopes of the southerly Pelješac peninsula, as well as the southern slopes of the nearby islands Brač and Hvar.

Dingač and slightly less famed Postup both yield thrilling wines, but overripeness and epic alcohol levels are common. Bura-Mrgudić makes typical examples, while Miloš and Križ offer lighter interpretations.

Some of the freshest and most exciting Plavac comes from Brač, Hvar and other islands Korčula and Vis – all accessible from Split by ferry.

On Brač, Stina makes polished styles while Senjković is a smaller, family operation. Lupanović is the acknowledged master on Vis.

Among Dalmatia’s white wines, two high-quality varieties originating from Korčula are worth seeking out. Pošip is planted all over the region and yields elegant yet full-bodied results.

Grk is a curiosity found only on the sandy soils around the village of Lumbarda, producing rich, honeyed and mouthfilling wines of exceptional quality. Bire and Zure are the go-to producers.

Indigenous white varieties with great potential include Debit, Kujundjuša, Malvasia Dubrovačka, Maraština and Vugava.

How to get there

Split is the obvious transport hub for Dalmatia, with a well- connected airport and express bus routes. Dubrovnik has a smaller airport and is the best choice for easy access to the peninsula. It’s also perhaps the epitome of that Mediterranean idyll – the place where all those dreams of blue skies, sea and the sun come to fruition. 


Simon J Woolf is an awarded author on wine and founder-editor of The Morning Claret online, which focuses on natural, organic, biodynamic and artisan wines. He is Decanter World Wine Awards joint Regional Chair for the Balkans and Caucasus & Eurasia categories, and a contributor to numerous other publications. 


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