Croatia is a nation of islands. More than a thousand isles, keys and peninsulas dot the aquamarine waters along its Adriatic shores. It’s also a land of vineyards, with more than 300 geographically defined wine districts corralled into an area roughly the size of the state of West Virginia.
Croatia’s 2 primary wine regions, Primorska Hrvatska (“coastal Croatia”) and Kontinentalna Hrvatska (“continental Croatia”), are divided into a total of 12 subregions, themselves further divided into smaller vinogorje (literally, “wine hills), which spread northeast from the radiant shores of the Dalmatian Coast to the sprawling floodplains of the Danube River. (It was in one of these vinogorje that the origin of California’s beloved zinfandel grape was ultimately discovered.)
The main point of entry for air travelers into Croatia is Zagreb Airport, just outside the capital city. Spend a couple days wandering Zagreb’s old cobblestone streets and you’ll eventually find yourself at Vinoteka Bornstein, at Kaptol 19, where an outrageous selection of rare Croatian wines and truffle products are housed in a cavernous 19th-century vaulted brick cellar. Chat with the shop’s gregarious owner before embarking south to begin your tour.
There’s little doubt that Croatia’s wine regions offer an impressive mix of maritime wonderment and inland rusticity. Here are 5 of the best places to visit while you’re here.
Central and South Dalmatia: Birthplace of Zinfandel
Get your bearings in the southernmost subregion — Central and South Dalmatia (Srednja i Južna Dalmacija), where many of Croatia’s best (and most expensive) wines are made. The area comprises several well-regarded vinogorje, such as Kastela, where zinfandel’s ancestor, Crljenak Kaštelanski, was ultimately discovered, and Dingac, where the best Plavac Mali (an offspring of zinfandel) is grown.
On the Peljesac peninsula, winemaker Frano Milos makes some of Croatia’s most revered wines; unsurprisingly, tour buses frequently line up to visit his vineyards and winery. The islands of Korcula and Hvar, which produce the cult varietals grk and bogdanuša, respectively, are also part of Central and South Dalmatia, and the cities of Split and Dubrovnik have become regular stopovers for cruise ships traversing the Adriatic Sea between Italy and Greece.
While often overlooked in favor of its glamorous neighbor to the south, North Dalmatia (Sjeverna Dalmacija) boasts a profound beauty all its own. Stretching from the old coastal town of Zadar to just north of Split, the subregion is famous for the Babić grape, a native Croatian varietal that produces inky red wine of considerable tannin and strength.
Premium quality Babić comes from terraced vineyards near the shores of Primosten, where generation after generation have carved dry-stone clusters of small rectangular plots into the rocky, improbably vine-bearing landscape that juts steeply from the Adriatic. A few miles inland, near the small town of Skradin, the Bibic family has been making wine from indigenous Croatian vines for nearly 5 centuries!
Examine the wine and cuisine of Istria and it becomes clear that this peninsula, the largest in the Adriatic Sea, was once part of neighboring Italy, from the early to mid-20th century. The Italian language is commonly heard in town squares, and moscato, trebbiano and verduzzo flourish in Istria’s hillside vineyards. Terrano, a varietal with denominazione di origine controllata (“controlled designation of origin”) protection in Italy’s Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, is grown here, on the western edge of peninsula, in red clay soils similar to northern Italy’s terra rossa (“red earth”).
One of the truest expressions of Istarski teran (as Terrano is known locally) comes from Coronica Winery, just outside the port town of Umag, where winemaker Moreno Coronica crafts organically grown grapes into a red wine of extraordinary character. Coronica also produces gorgeous whites, which are exceedingly fresh and exceptionally floral, from an indigenous strain of the malvasia grape called Istarska malvazija.
Unlike Croatia’s coastal wine areas, which harbor sunny beaches and warm maritime climates, the far northeastern subregion of Slavonia is characterized by cool continental weather and a divergence of geographical features. Slavonia’s undulating hills and peak mountain summits give way to sprawling plains and fertile river basins. (The region is bordered by 3 large rivers: the Danube, the Drava and the Sava.) This is the epicenter of Croatia’s most widely planted vine, the native Graševina, which produces dry, fresh, lightly aromatic white wines.
Winemakers here absorb the influence of their Austrian neighbors to the north, crafting beautifully floral gewürztraminer and jammy, full-bodied zweigelt. Krauthaker Vineyards and Winery in the town of Kutjevo, at the foot of mount Krndija, grows a dizzying medley of both native Croatian vines and international varieties, like chardonnay and Sivi Pinot, the Croatian version of pinot gris.
The cool rolling hills of Plesivica are seated 30 miles west of Zagreb. This northwest subregion, which shares a border with the nation of Slovenia, is blanketed with a mosaic of churches and Alpine-style houses that dot the hillsides.
Tomislav Tomac, a local winemaker whose family has produced wine near the ancient town of Jastrebarsko for more than 200 years, grows riesling, chardonnay and native vines along steep, rocky slopes that are typical of Plešivica. The winery specializes in sparkling wines, some of which are made in the méthode champenoise (the traditional way of making champagne and sparkling wine). Since 2007 Tomac has been aging some of his still wines in clay amphora — large ceramic fermentation vessels that are buried underground, which lend an oxidized, sherry-like quality to the wines.