Thursday, January 5, 2012

Why Croatia? The Wine...Of Course

It has been predicted that Americans will travel farther and spend more in 2012, with long-hauls to Europe, Asia and Australia already up for the year. And when travel agents were asked to pick the top up-and-coming international destinations, over a third of them said Croatia.

There are some obvious reasons why agents chose Croatia: its timeless treasures, breathtaking seaside views from rocky coves, throbbing nightlife, angelic forests, picturesque mountain waterfalls, baroque architecture, storied history, dynamic culture and delectable dishes. But one aspect of the country that does not get as much hype or attention is its wines.

A little background. Croatia's wine history dates back to the Ancient Greeks, and wine production has been going on in the southern regions for over 2,000 years, so clearly it has deep roots and experience in viticulture. Talk about impressive credentials. Many traditional grapes still live on in Croatia, and many of the wineries have introduced modern technology and techniques in order to bring out the very best of those grapes.


Plavac Mali. Credit: Snooth.com
According to an article in Bloomberg, under Yugoslavia's communist rule, Croatia was forced to destroy more than 160,000 hectares--a unit of land surface equal to 2.5 acres--of vineyards. The war with Serbia in the 1990s ruined thousands more of the fertile land. Economic and ethnic turmoil in the country caused Croatia to fall behind in the saturated global wine market, a sad setback for a country that used to make 650 different wines. However, it has more than double the vineyard land that New Zealand has, posing it as a real competitor in today's industry. It also helps that California's popular varietal zinfandel is a variant of Croatia's plavac mali--or "little blue"--meaning it has a flavor complex that millions of people will enjoy.
In the last 10 years, Croatia has opened many wine roads as a major part of its gastronomy tourism efforts. Most of them have opened in Central Croatia, mainly in the northwest areas and Moslavina. And while they are very busy all year round, the fall harvest time is most interesting to witness. Croatians are proud of their heritage, and enjoy celebrating their various traditions. November 11 is St. Martin's Day, the final and most important holiday of the year for winegrowers. It is when farmers christen the young musk and its transformation into wine. The country throws many festivals in honor of this day, and the events include a number of local customs.

Clearly, Croatia has a long-standing wine history, so why don't more people drink its products? Well, as of right now, it only ships about 5% of its 60 million litres of wine out of the country, which means most of the good stuff remains within the borders. The solution? Go there!

But where exactly should you go? Croatia has over 300 wine regions, and a very strict classification system that guarantees a wine's proper origin. Some of the best wine production can be found on the Dalmation islands, and there are a number of top wineries and vineyards that dot the countryside in the Peljesac Peninsula. Here is where you will find Grgic Vina, the Croatian counterpart to the acclaimed American winery Grgich Hills. Other areas in the Coastal region are Istria, in the north, where the focus is fruity white wines, with most being made from the Malvazija grape.

The Continental wine region stretches along the Drava and Sava rivers, and production is focused on white wines. Slavonia is the best-known area, and the most common grape planted there is Grasevina, which creates light, refreshing and crisp wines.

Zinfandel grape. credit: snooth.com
I could continue to list all the wine regions of Croatia, but I find that would get rather old and tedious. Instead, I recommend finding a good travel guide book or doing a little research online before deciding where to go. But do not limit yourself to one location, because then you'll be missing out on some truly incredible wines. Find the places that make varieties that fit your taste, and then make a plan to try to hit all the wineries in those regions...a true Croatian wine tour. (Perhaps this will be my next project.)

With its vast expanse of land, wide grape variety and ideal climate, Croatia has more than enough options for you to choose from when it comes to wine. No matter what area you visit, you will more than likely find a fantastic vineyard nearby that provides tastings, tours and bottles for sale. Croatia has been slow to market its wines outside of the country, and not many people in the U.S. have had the privilege of trying them--which is a real shame. However, this can easily be remedied by those who are willing to take a long journey abroad.

Croatia has always been on my list of destinations, and with this newly acquired knowledge about its wines, I have even more reason to plan a trip there--sooner rather than later.

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