By Robert Horvat
The accession of Croatia in the middle of last year was an important step in the integration of the smaller nations of Europe to the European Union. It definitely hasn’t hurt it ability to produce good wines. In fact, EU style regulations has likely improved and guaranteed the quality of wine that larger wineries produce. Even though Croatian wine may be new to world markets in recent years, its history and traditions date back to ancient Greek settlers. The Greeks and later the Romans determined that the geography and climate of what was once known as Illyricum and Dalmatia was rich and favorable for wine growing. Wine growing, in particular, under the Romans grew into an organized industry. Imagine seeing the retired Roman Emperor Diocletian enjoying a beautifully fragrant wine from a region close to his retirement palace in Split–now that would have been a sight !
The Croats didn’t appear in the region until around the seventh century and quickly learned from their predecessors continuing and expanding upon wine production. For centuries wine production grew and prospered, almost coming to an end under Ottoman rule and later succumbing to phylloxera, a disease brought on by a plant louse in the early part of the twentieth century. While many wine growers rebuilt their vineyards, others chose to leave to ‘new worlds’ like Argentina, Australia and the United States to try their hand at wine production. Australia, in particular, became home to tens of thousands of Croatians, which included my family who were looking for a better life. My uncle, who lives in Geelong, Victoria, successfully in the late 60’s and 70’s grew and managed a small vineyard in rural Geelong.
In the 1990s the Croatian War of Independence saw the wine industry take another unfortunate turn for the worse, destroying many important vineyards and wineries. However, following the war, a new generation of winemakers made it their mission to get back to basics in producing and bringing back old customs and local varieties of grapes. In 2005, some ten years after the war, Croatia was ranked 21st in the world among wine producing countries. Indeed, an impressive come back that even old Emperor Diocletian would have been proud of.
Two members of the Horvat family turning over soil in a plot that later became a winery, late 1960s. Photo from the collection of Robert Horvat.
There are currently four main winemaking regions in Croatia, all with their own distinct grapes, in color, taste and quality. These are Slavonia (where my parents are from) on the inland continental zone, where the climate is cooler than say compared to the coast and islands, where you will find the other three wine regions of Istria, Kvarner and Dalmatia. These last three are often made up of rolling hills and pockets of stony soil. One of Croatia’s great wines ‘Plavac Mali’ comes from Dingac in southern Croatia on the Adriatic, where its vineyards are set on very steep hillsides that, in the old days, only donkeys were able to negotiate. Ironically, on the label of ‘Plavac’ is a picture of a donkey to remind everyone proudly of an old tradition.
The majority of Croatian wine is white, followed by one third in production being red and a very small percentage being rose wines. With all these different types of wine, production varies both in quality and quantity. Some of the more popular or better known wines are ‘Zlahtina’ from the Kvarner region, ‘Posip’ from Dalmatia, ‘Postup’ from the Peljesac peninsula on the Adriatic coast, and from my families region of Slavonia there is “Kutjevo Grasevina’.
Almost a year ago, my mother embarked on a short trip back ‘home’. She returned to tell us wonderful stories how progressive Croatia has become and that drinking customs hadn’t changed. Croatians, in particular, like a drink or two (or three). It is customary to drink a lot. Often you will find a good wine at the table with their meals. Quite often, the wine is diluted with still or sparkling water, known in the north as ‘gemist’ and in the south as as ‘bevanda’. My father still mixes his cheap casket wine with sparkling water to my disgust.
The influence of Croatian wine makers, is spreading around the world. I only need to look into my own backyard for inspiration (not literally). In Landsborough, Victoria, the Horvat Estate (no relation) run a family wine business with traditional ‘hands on’ methods and ideas, sprung from in part from their Croatian backgrounds. The use of Croatian oak barrels is but only one of their secrets.
I wish you the reader well, and hope that you may be inspired to look for a Croatian wine in one of those hard to find independent wine stores. Even better, why not go to Croatia and sample their wines with the locals.