Discovering Croatia

The world of wine continues to expand … or should that be that our knowledge struggles to keep up with what is out there?  I am happy to admit that before this week’s Vina Croatia tasting in London my knowledge of Croatian wine was just about zero.  I did know that what is now regarded as the great variety most in the west call either Zinfandel or, we Italophiles, Primitivo, is Croatian in origin.  Jancis Robinson and collaborators have done a great job in launching the name Tribidrag (or Crljenak in Croatian if you prefer) on an unsuspecting world.  I guessed, given the country’s location on the Adriatic, that it was likely to have a lively wine culture but that was it.  But even from half a day’s tasting it is clear that there is much to be discovered. There is far more to Croatia than just its coastline and history. There is great wine to be found and a feast of variety. 

The variety of Croatian wine comes from two fundamentals.  Croatia is really four very different regions each with its own climate.  The north west corner, Istria and Kvarner are influenced by both the Mediterranean and by cool air from the Alps, giving marked day-night temperature variation. This in turn leads to well profiled wines with relatively high acidity.  Dalmatia and the islands are on the same coast but further south. Here the influence of the sea means that it stays  warm pretty much through season.  Inland and behind a mountain range, the so-called Croatian Highlands are cool while Slavonia and the Croatian Danube owe more to central Europe than the Med.. incidentally, this is the source of all that Slavonian oak which you find in Italy.   But if there are four main regions, that is nothing on the huge range of grape varieties.  The 66 indigenous ones will keep the ampelographers busy for some time, not to mention the experimentation which will be necessary to find which are of more than local interest.  Finally, those in the know speak of the marked improvement in resulting wines in just the last three years as standards rise rapidly.  Progress will be uneven – Croatian grape growing is highly fragmented with 60,000 mainly hobby growers tending just 25,000 hectares but the vinous potential is enormous. 

But in today’s ultra competitive and vast market all this is of little interest unless the wines have something special to offer.  In a tasting of Dalmatian reds, three really stood out, two from familiar varieties and one from Croatia’s own speciality Plavac Mali, an offspring of Tribidrag.  Unlike some overly fat Zinfandel and even some Italian Primitivo, the best Croatian wines from Tribidrag have an elegance, tension and balance that is enviable.  Crljenak (the grape), from Krolo (the producer; picture on left from the Like Croatia website) 2010 was fully ripe with a thrilling acidity at just 12.4% alcohol by volume. OK, it was a cool and difficult year, but that is some achievement, producing wines that are drinking now but should age beautifully. 

Secondly, a Syrah of rare intensity and complexity.  This variety is increasingly being grown in central Italy to produce competent or very good wines – which could come from just about any warm spot on the globe. Korlat, Syrah, 2009 is a brilliant purple-tinged colour in the glass and is perfumed and subtle. Alongside fine fruit there are fine mineral notes and that zippy acidity again. This is a bigger wine, with 14.7% alcohol which is well covered by the fruit and a pH (measure of acidity) of just 3.4, typical of a white wine.  I rarely rave about Syrah outside of the northern Rhône but this is something really special. 

The real contribution of Croatia to the world of wine may well be Plavac Mali, its premier red grape variety, only grown here.  The Croatians may have been a white wine drinking country but the world will probably talk about its reds.  Plavac Mali comes in a range of styles, simple quaffing reds, a super polished version from the indefatigable consultant Michel Rolland for Saints Hill or the very rustic classic from Zlatan Otok.  My favourite was Korta Katarina, Plavac Mali, 2010, grown right next to the sea.  Rounded, baked plum and red cherry fruit, earthy, lifted by oak, a good tannic structure and fine acidity, this had everything you might want in a top red wine to drink in a couple of years or keep for a decade or two. 

And the problems which Croatia will need to face?  Apart from the over-crowded, every expanding range of choice in wine offered to the consumer, the difficulties are fairly clear.  The names are not easy (is that a region, a grape variety or a producer?) but only slightly more than, say, starting with Italian wine.  Price is an issue. As there is strong demand in the domestic market and from rich Croatians in the States, the top wines command good prices.  The Korta Katarina wine will be at least £25 retail in the UK which is quite a challenge for a new region.  (The entry level Plavac Mali in the tasting from Miloš also had a great deal of character.)  Finally, the cheap and dire wine offered to tourists – a legion of potential wine ambassadors for the country – will do nothing to spread the name of Croatia as a source of great and varied wine.  It will be up to those of us in the know to spread the word. 


With thanks to Vina Croatia and Joe Wadsack who conducted the Dalmatian reds masterclass

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