Croatia's popularity is booming. So much so that it's started to put much-needed speed bumps on high-traffic, particularly to the Medieval city of Dubrovnik, which has struggled to accommodate an influx of cruise tourism. But unless you are in this sun-soaked country solely for a Game of Thrones tour, of which there are many, there's so much more to explore in Croatia. In particular its wine culture.
Šime Botica of Art & Nature Travel, which specializes in gastro-tourism, explains that the country’s wine provenance dates back hundreds of years to the 4th century BC. Today, the wine industry in Croatia is a boutique experience, with vintners and winemakers focusing on small-batch wines and producers who champion organic, local grape species, of which there are over 100; Croatian wines garnering praise from the Decanter World Wine Awards and International Wine Challenge (among others). Outside of Croatia, these wines are often difficult to procure—all the more reason to visit this enchanting country for a boutique sipping tour.
Below, we've mapped out the perfect wine-inspired road trip through this vibrant and diverse country.
Istria & Kvarner in the northwest tip of the country, bordering Italy and Slovenia, has long been considered one of the most important growing regions. Their indigenous Malvazija Istarska (Malvasia Istriana) grapes produce refreshing white wines with spice notes, while the Teran grape lends itself to robust reds.
Winemakers in Dalmatia favor traditional winemaking methods, with hand-harvesting the norm—due in part to the fact that most of the grapes are grown on a steep incline, making mechanization near impossible. Native varieties such as Plavac Mali and Pošip thrive here, the former producing deep reds with cherry-pepper notes, the latter offering dry whites with floral and roasted almond notes.
The Croatian Uplands in the north of the country, where the capital, Zagreb, is located, has the highest altitude of the growing areas. Here, the cold climate, with hot, humid summers, shares the same longitude with Champagne, France. This results in fresh, sparkling varieties and dry whites; the exceptions are the northern area of Međimurje County, where ice wines excel and Prigorje, an hour north of Zagreb, where whites are fresh and crispy.
The northeast area of Slavonia and the Danube is the oldest wine region in the country. The land here is primarily flat, and the climate is hot and dry. Frankovka thrives in this terroir and produces medium-bodied reds with fruit aromas and smokiness, and medium-bodied aromatic whites made with Graševina grapes. The vines here are considered young at about 30 years old and were replanted due to damage caused by the Homeland War.
Wineries and Wine Bars
Situated on the Danube river, ločki Podrumi is a centuries-old winery that straddles the border of Croatia and Serbia. Croatian wine was historically gifted amongst royals, and ločki carries this torch into the present: they are the only award-winning Croatian vineyard whose wines are served in the British Royal court. Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation toasted to a 1947 vintage (89 remain for purchase); a 2007 Traminac was enjoyed at Kate Middleton and Prince William's wedding in 2011. Meghan Markle and Prince Harry recently toasted to their nuptials with a Decanter World Wine Awarded Selected Berry Harvest Traminac 2015. Along with an affordable price tag, the dry white wine offers a bouquet of lush berries and sweet honey, raisins, and rose aromas.
Recommended: Ilok wine cellars dd bar offers flight tastings of Traminac wines, along with other specialties such as Graševina (medium-white) and Kapistran (crni), a structured cuvée blend of Frankovka and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Opened in 1992 on the eastern tip of the island of Korčula is Lumbarda Winery. Here, Branimir and Maja Cebalo have owned, operated and produced effervescent wines with their sandy vineyards, growing Grk Bijeli, an ancient native variety of white grapes that have flourished in the area for over 2000 years. Praised for its sunshine hue, Branimir Cebalo Grk 2015 radiates grass, yeast and tropical fruit scents. The palette is awakened by a crisp, refreshing texture, lingering citrus-vanilla notes and earthy herbal undertones.
Recommended: Aterina - wine bar and restaurant in Korčula. Beautifully nestled in the corner of a small square in the Old City, its excellent choice of local wines pairs well with traditional Dalmatian food.
Opened in 1904, Antonella and husband Gianfranco Kozlović are the 4th generation owners of Kozlović Winery. Located at the northwest tip of the country, the winery cultivates indigenous grapes that include Malvazia Istriana & Muscat Momiano (for their whites) and Teran (for their reds). One of their flagships is the Santa Lucia; the 2008 vintage showcases the depth and complexity of the surrounding terroir. Made with 100% Malvazia Istriana grapes, it tickles the nose with fuzzy peach and apricot along with an undercurrent of nutmeg and cloves.
Recommended: 25 minutes west of the winery is IIstria Wine Bar and Cafe. Situated in Umag city on the Istrian peninsula, it spotlights regional wines including Kozlović, Cuj, Degrassi, and Coronica; the vino paired with local specialties like Istrian truffle pasta and locally-caught razor clams and mussels.
On the Pelješac peninsula, an hour north of Dubrovnik, Ivo Šegović’s Edivo Vina is the first underwater winery in Croatia. Using the Adriatic to age their robust Dingač wines, made with a blend of Plavac Mali and Pošip (also referred to as the King of Croatian wines), the wine is then sealed in amorphous clay jars and submerged at 20 meters deep for about 700 days. Then, it is transformed and becomes a part of their Navis Mysterium series.
Recommended: Whenever Ivo is in Zagreb, he frequents the Basement Wine Bar, where guided flight tastings are offered with over 120 local wines by the glass. Their website, The Wine & More, is not only an educational resource but one of the few online shops offering Croatian wines (and they ship to the U.S.).
With vino flowing through his family’s bloodline for over 150 years, Andro Tomić is passionate about wine. At his namesake winery in Jesla, on the island of Hvar, he grows international and native grapes, the latter of which includes Plavac Mali, Pošip, and Bogdanuša. The Mediterranean climate, dry and warm summers, and mild and rainy winters, produce stellar blends such as their Tomić Caplar (vintage 2011), an innovative coupage between Cabernet Sauvignon and Plavac Mali. Tannins are silky and fine; the wine is emboldened with plum, dried grapes and earth on the palette. Blackcurrant and Christmas spices are prominent.
Recommended: Uje Oil and Wine Bar in Split, on the Dalmatian Coast, is the first oil and wine-focused bar of its kind in the area. Flights focus on small-batch producers, with cherished Dalmatian recipes on offer, including creamy fish pie from the island of Vis and tangy marinated white fish.
Rizman Winery is named after the Štimac family’s beloved great-grandfather, Mihovil Mijo Popich, aka Rizman, who first began planting vines in 1885. Today, their winery in Klek (Southern Dalmatia) continues to produce indigenous varieties of Plavac Mali and Pošip, along with Tribidrag. The property, with its large slopes, limestone rocks, and windy climate, produces wines that are dry with a natural acidity: ideal for aging. Try the Tribidrag 2015 vintage: a unique coupage between Tempranillo and Tribidrag, perfumed with plums, wet clay, and raisins. It’s powerfully rich yet elegant tasting, with a savory allure.
Recommended: Gatsby Restaurant and Wine Bar in the Old Town of Dubrovnik. The riblja plata (fish plate) is a must-order and teeming fresh delicacies: octopus salad, house smoked tuna and salmon, local cheeses and Dalmatian prosciutto.