I hadn't planned on putting an equal number of reds and whites on this list—Croatia produces more white wine than red—but you'll find five of each. With each wine I also share basic grape info. Croatia's grapes may have freaky names, like debit, graševina, plavac mali, and marastina, but their flavor profiles are downright homey. Picture this: You're sitting in your backyard on a warm June evening with a glass of light, fruity graševina. Or this: You're grilling up ribs with a tangy BBQ sauce that pairs perfectly with a bottle of teran. Mmmm... Croatia!
Top 10 Wines from Croatia (from my October trip)
Matošević Winery's 2008 "Grimalda" (50% Chardonnay, 25% Istrian Malvasia, 25% Sauvignon Blanc) - This was one of my favorites whites of the trip. It is barrel aged and shares some characteristics with California-style chardonnay. The wine's powerful acidity cuts through the toast and butter, allowing the intrinsic quality of the other grapes to shine through on a long finish. The wine is medium bodied and dry. I got aromas of buttered toast and dried flowers and flavors of luscious white fruit, especially peach. The grapes were grown in central Istria. The most famous Istrian wines are made with Istrian malvasia. Istrian malvasia is one of 84 different types of malvasia found in the Mediterranean.
Sladić Winery's 2009 Marastina - The marastina grape is prevalent on Croatia's Dalmatian Coast, particularly on the island of Korcula. This wine's grapes were grown in Krka National Park on mainland Croatia, just outside the city of Sibenik. The wine is dry and full-bodied. I found aromas of peach, honey, and almonds, with flavors of ripe fruit and an almost oily texture that was very pleasant with food. A unique wine that pairs well with seafood, especially seafood served with Dalmatia's buzara sauce.
BIBICh Winery's 2010 Debit - Another grape found on the Dalmatian Coast, debit was once rare but is now becoming more common. Legend has it that the grape was named after the debt that farmers owed to Napoleon. Napoleon accepted his payment in the form of wine, of course, smart man that he was. Though I tried several debit wines that were too minerally and short on acid, I found BIBICh's Debit to be very well crafted. The wine is light bodied and dry. I tasted bitter lime peel and butterscotch, and it was a bit grassy and quite chalky. Just to give you a sense of the grape, it shared some qualities with trebbiano and sauvignon blanc. It costs $16 in the U.S., and I think it's worth every penny for the chance to taste something new and delicious. (Image courtesy of Marcy Gordon)
Antun Adžić's 2010 Graševina "Vallis Aurea" - Likely the most planted white grape in Croatia, graševina has an unknown history, but today it is planted throughout central and eastern Europe. This wine was medium-bodied and verging on off-dry. I got aromas of petrol, grapefruit, and bright fruit, and I tasted honey-dew melon followed by a crisp acidity. The wine was exceptionally clean and bright. Adzic's graševina grapes were grown in the Pozega valley (Vallis Aurea in Latin), in inland Croatia.
BIBICh Winery's 2008 Lučica (100% Debit) - This is BIBICh's more complex debit. It features fruit from one of the oldest and best vineyards, where most of the vines only produce enough fruit to make half a bottle of wine each. The debit grapes are not pressed. Aged in American oak for 16 months, the wine has aromas of toast, rosemary, and bright fruit, and I tasted peach, vanilla, and a little saltiness on the finish. The wine had a viscous texture and a very, very long, mineral finish. It was dry and medium-bodied. (Image courtesy of Cellarette)
PZ Svirce Winery's 2007 Ivan Dolac Plavac Mali - Two things about this wine are immediately surprising: it is dry, even with an alcohol content of 14.5%, and it pairs well with seafood, even though it is full-bodied with a rich ruby color. Also somewhat surprisingly, this plavac mali comes from the island of Hvar, not the Dingac region, where most of Croatia's best known plavac mali wines are born (Hvar is just north of the Peljesac peninsula). This was one of my favorite reds of the trip and definitely my favorite plavac mali. I got floral and dark fruit aromas, and I tasted lavender, plum, chocolate, earth, and cloves. The earthiness keeps the fruit in check, and the tannins are solid, giving the wine exceptional structure. This wine is excellent for pairing with meat dishes, particularly Croatia's pasticada, a dish of beef stewed in a complex sauce that can involve everything from Prosecco to peaches. It also pairs well with grilled white fish and mussels alla buzara. (Image courtesy of Cellartracker)
Ivan Dolac is a Grand Cru vineyard on the island of Hvar, and the wines made with Ivan Dolac fruit proudly display the name Ivan Dolac on the label. These wines are all 100% plavac mali. Check out this beautiful shot of an Hvar vineyard courtesy of PZ Svirce:
Krauthaker Winery's 2008 Pinot Crni (100% Pinot Noir) - The wine was light bodied and dry with a soft mouthfeel. I got aromas of smoke and roses, and the flavors of fresh plum, sour cherry, and smoke. It was round with soft tannins. Krauthaker's pinot noir grapes were grown in the Pozega Valley, aka Vallis Aurea (shown on the wine label below), in the famous Slavonia region of Croatia. Slavonia has a long history of producing excellent wines as well as the top quality Slavonian oak used to make wine barrels. The 45th parallel, the same longitude as Burgundy in France, runs across Croatia, and pinot noir is planted throughout the country along this line. Croatia is not known for pinot, but this one is great.
Franc Arman Winery's 2007 Teran "Barrique" - In 1999, Franc Arman's Teran "Barrique" became the first teran wine to be aged in oak barrels. The wine is dry and full bodied. I got powerful aromas of juicy, dark fruit. The tannins are middle-ground, capable of pairing with beef involtini or other big-flavor dishes (the local prosciutto, called pršut, is a favorite). The tannins were also friendly enough that you could drink the wine sans food. Flavors of juicy blackberries, a little vanilla, and baking spices, like nutmeg and cloves.
In Croatia, the teran grape is primarily grown on the Istrian peninsula. The northern part of the Istrian peninsula is Slovenia, where teran is used to make a wine called refošk, which clues us in to the fact that teran is related to Italy's refosco. Just how related it is is debated, and the grape is sometimes called Istrian teran because the local soil, a mix of red, brown, and white soils, changes the qualities of the grape. In Istria, it is also common to grow international grape varieties such as cabernet franc, merlot, and pinot noir.
BIBICh Winery's 2005 Sangreal (100% Merlot) - This merlot comes from the Dalmatian Coast and I think the growing region really creates a unique merlot. The wine is dry and medium bodied, however, the wine had a very light and nimble character thanks to good acidity. It is not very fruity though there is some raisin on the nose. It has a very long finish and a powerful tannic structure. BIBICh's merlot vines were first planted in 1970, and the wine is aged for 24 months in French oak. (Image courtesy of Vinologue)
Matuško Winery's 2007 Dingac (100% Plavac Mali) - This austere wine represents the Dingac growing region very well, and it isn't going to break the bank like so many Dingac wines (that is, if you can find it—try Dubrovnik). It is bone dry and full bodied. I got balanced aromas, with notes of chocolate and dark fruit. The wine is rich and earthy, with some chocolate. This wine needs to be decanted: an unpleasant cola flavor that was present at first that went away with time. The Dingac growing region is located on the Dalmatian Coast on the Peljesac peninsula, and it centers on the town of Potomje.