Croatia: myths and legends
Visitors to this crossroads of Central and Southeast Europe are rewarded with a burgeoning and vibrant oenotourism scene. Where sparkling Mediterranean coast meets vertiginous Alpine slopes, pioneering producers are giving ancient grapes a rebirth worthy of their world-class contemporaries.
Just as the mythical Argonauts of ancient times travailed the Croatian landscapes in search of the Golden Fleece, holidaymakers and oenophiles alike are now making the pilgrimage to this mystifying former Soviet-bloc country to sample the local delights. Among these delights include, of course, an enticing range of wines comprising anciently cultivated native varietals such as the Teran, Babić and Plavac Mali, to world-class vintages of the more well-known Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.
A wine tour of Croatia could begin in the historic capital of Zagreb; a city in which rivaling medieval, Austro-Hungarian and Soviet influences somehow coexist alongside one other. This bustling heart of Croatia is home to world-class galleries and heritage sites, such as the Stone Gate of Gradec, and the newly completed and cutting-edge Museum of Contemporary Art. Oenophiles will be treated to a variety of wine bars, including Wine Bar Bornstein (www.bornstein.hr), where visitors are invited to sample local wines alongside traditional Croatian dishes, under the elegant vaulted ceilings of this basement vinoteka.
But the real delights begin upon leaving the capital and journeying north, to the verdant, rolling hills of the Plešivica region. The vineyards here are nestled in the lush Alpine foothills, affording them the altitude that in combination with calcareous soil gives a terroir suited to sparkling wine cultivation. The vines find themselves typically on steep southern facing slopes, shielded from the harsh northern winds. One gets the impression that the hills have protected this place from the ravages of time, too—quaint Alpine cottages and misty horizons give the sense of a mythical land not dissimilar to Tolkien’s Shire. There is also a sense in which these highlands are the ancient cradle of viticulture; the mother to the Chardonnay grape, the Štajerska Belina, is native to here, and ancient winemaking techniques are used. Make your way along the winding “Plešivica Wine Road,” comprising over 40 wineries, to the picturesque Šember estate (www.sember.hr), where a relatively young establishment pioneers ancient methods of amphora fermentation to give an acclaimed selection of Rajnski Riesling and Pinot Noir. The Šember family will host you in their rustic tasting room and guide you through the story behind their marvelous and pioneering wines. Pay a visit also to Tomislav Tomac (www.tomac.hr) on his 200-year-old vineyard, which ages some wines in huge subterranean clay amphorae (of the Georgian style), lending his sparkling Chardonnay a uniquely oxidized quality. Intrepid oenophiles may be inclined to do a tour of the “Wine Road”, which promises accommodation and familial hospitality in the winery farmhouses (www.etnoart-travel.com). Be sure to taste the favored local varietals on offer here too—the likes of early ripening Portugizac, for instance—the Croatian alternative to Beaujolais.
It won’t be long, however, before the beckoning of the sea will draw you towards the largest peninsula on the Adriatic—the venerable Istria. Where Plešivica is familiarly Teutonic and continental, the variation Croatia has to offer is abundantly clear when a short journey westwards will transport you to a Mediterranean paradise. The goddess Athena is said to have had her goatskin shield broken by Poseidon while protecting the Argonauts; and from this broken shield Zeus created Istria. The goat remains on the Istrian coat of arms to this day. As well as a landscape very reminiscent of Tuscany, Istria boasts strong Italian influence in its cuisine, language and, indeed, viticulture. In contrast to the Romantic antiquity of the northern highlands, wineries such as Roxanich (www.roxanich.hr) and the Clai winery (www.clai.hr) capitalize on contemporary trends such as “Orange Wine” and biodynamic viticulture. Though Roxanich has won international acclaim for its fine Merlot, it is the distinctiveness of the native varietals to be found in this region that have earned Istrian wine its acclaim. Try a bold red Teran, or its slightly subtler, younger cousin, the Refošk, or the white Malvazija Istarska. A generally respected feature of these wines is the way they elegantly express the local terroir. One is said to be able to taste the character of the Adriatic in a good Malvazija, so much so that they have earned themselves niche popularity in some Michelin star restaurants. As well as exquisite wine, this peninsula is famed for its bountiful truffles. If the thought of shaved truffle paired with a crisp glass of aromatic Malvazija white whets your appetite, look no further than the truffle foraging expeditions here (www.eatistria.com). As a means of familiarizing yourself with the beating heart of Istria there is no better way, for Istria is said to be “…the land of peasants who brunch on truffles and sparkling wine.”
Another vineyard not to be overlooked is that run by Moreno Coronica (www.coronica.eu), a winemaker who is credited with rebirthing the Croatian wine industry away from its collectivized past and into private, family-run enterprises with international ambitions. If you are lucky, a visit to some of these vineyards will earn you a complimentary bottle of homegrown olive oil, the quality of which rivals the best Tuscan offering. Like much of the produce in this corner of the world, though, the accepted means of exchange is not legal tender but good conversation and swapping favors. If you begin to tire of this rudimentary way of life then why not check yourself into the exquisite Grand Hotel Palazzo (www.hotel-palazzo.hr), a four-star hotel oozing Austro- Hungarian eloquence, and in close proximity to all vinous destinations. If you make your way further south, treat yourself to a stay in the glamorous Hotel Monte Mulini (www.maistra. com) in the historic port city of Rovinj. But if mere proximity to vineyards doesn’t suffice, the Meneghetti Wine Hotel offers the opportunity to stay among Istrian vines (www.meneghetti.hr). Moving south from Istria, one is met by the rocky outcrops and gleaming turquoise waters of Dalmatia—home to some of the most picturesque coastal landscapes the world over. The turbulent history of Croatia is, however, apparent here, as the violence of the recent “Homeland War” has marred the viticulture—to the north of Dalmatia there remain vineyards rendered unusable by landmines remaining from the conflict. Nonetheless, one is struck by Dalmatia’s resilience in the revival of wine production, exemplified by wineries like that owned by Alen Bibić (www.bibich.co), whose vineyards were completely destroyed in war and were only replanted as late as 1995. Bibić is a pioneer not only in wine but also the culinary world, and travelers to his remote countryside villa in Plastovo will be treated to a 13-course tasting menu as well as world-class Debit, Zinfandel and Plavina wines. It was recently discovered that a native varietal to this region, the Crljenak, is genetically identical to the internationally popular Zinfandel. This has caused a boom for local producers, who now market some of their wines as Zinfandels to compete with the American market. For Babić, this has caused his Zinfandel to receive praise from such renowned American chefs as Anthony Bourdain. Venturing south from here, pay a visit to the Kraljevski Vinogradi (www. kraljevski-vinogradi.hr) and explore the vineyards of the native Pošip grape; a wine that savors of apricots and figs, with a subtle hint of Mediterranean herbs.
But a trip to Dalmatia must include a sojourn to the spattering of idyllic rocky islands and islets that hug the coastline. A good starting point is Hvar, where the eccentric Andro Tomić (www.bastijana.hr) is far and away the most successful wine producer on the island. His vineyards can be found on the slopes, where Tomić cultivates the indigenous grape of the Plavac Mali, and a sensational dessert wine made from dried Prošek grapes. While in the area, take a ten-minute taxi-boat trip to the neighboring islet of St Klement, and indulge in a gourmet meal of freshly caught seafood at the prestigious Zori restaurant (www.zori.hr). Other islands worth visiting (ideally by yacht, to fully appreciate the majesty of the seascape) include Mljet—allegedly the place Odysseus was held captive for seven years by a seductive nymph. The main port here is that of Polače, an unspoiled Mediterranean fishing village with fascinating medieval history.
When venturing back inland, be sure to stop to embrace the rugged medieval charm of Dubrovnik. The city is best viewed by taking a walking tour of the ancient city ramparts, where one is afforded a mesmerizing view over the glistening white pavements and terracotta roofing, while the Adriatic laps softly against the fortifications below. Stay in the Villa Dubrovnik (www.mythahotels.com) for a luxury room in a hotel carved into the cliff face of the coast, also boasting the rooftop Prosciutto & Wine Bar. Lastly, make a stop at the Miloš winery on the Pelješac peninsula (www.milos.hr). Vigneron Miloš pioneers organic fermentation techniques using only natural yeasts and Slavonian oak barrels, ageing the Plavac Mali up to six years for a true depth of character.
Situated in the sun-drenched Opatija resort district of Istria, among a sheltered stretch of beaches and restaurants, Hotel Mozart offers a range of opulent rooms and apartments for those who are looking for a regal experience in Austro-Hungarian style.
M Tita 138, 51410 Opatija | +385 51 718 260 | www.hotel-mozart.hr
The Milenij Hoteli collective owns a range of hotels in the Opatija area, ranging from the boutique Sveti Jakov, to the family-oriented Grand Hotel, to the gorgeously romantic Hotel Agava. Sleek and sophisticated, these hotels have a well-deserved reputation as among the finest Croatia has to offer.
Opatija | +385 51 278 007 | www.milenijhoteli.hr
Nestled on the coastline of the quaint, rustic paradise of the islet of Čikat is the Hotel Bellevue, a minimalistic, modern compound offering state of the art accommodation and fine dining. Proudly the first five-star hotel in the Lošinj area, it also offers spa treatments.
Čikat 9, 51550 Mail Lošinj | +385 51 679 000 | www.losinj-hotels.com
This white stone aristocratic mansion offers you the opportunity to stay among the vineyard and indulge in some of Meneghetti’s own sparkling wine cuvées. The rooms offer a homely, countryside feel with the comfort of modern facilities.
Stancija Meneghetti 1, 52211 Bale, Istria | +385 52 528 800 | www.meneghetti.hr
Rated as one of the best small luxury hotels in the world, this converted Mediterranean villa oozes class and comfort. Visit Restaurant Alfred Keller on site for truly gourmet dining and a wine list of over 350 bins while overlooking the picturesque Čikat bay.
Čikat 16, 51550 Mail Lošinj | +385 51 260 700 | www.losinj-hotels.com
The first Croatian restaurant to receive a Michelin star, this vibrant Istrian gem will dazzle even the most discerning gourmands with its range of dégustation menus. Take time to enjoy the wine list, too, which offers a wide selection from the most prominent Croatian producers.
Montalbano 75, 52210 Rovinj, Istria | +385 52 830 203 | www.monte.hr
Giaxa has earned much of its reputation from the 15th-century white stone building in which it is situated— but the cuisine is not to be overlooked. Feast on the likes of monkfish carpaccio or octopus ragú, accompanied by a selection of almost exclusively local wines.
Petra Hektorovica 3, 21450 Hvar | +385 98 748 695 | www.giaxa.com
No trip to Istria would be complete without sampling the fine regional truffles on offer—the raison d’être of Zigante. Head chef, Damir Modrušan, channels the flavors of the local environment; seamlessly connecting the taste of forest and sea.
Livade 7, 52427 Livade, Istria | +385 52 664 302 | www.restaurantzigante.com
For more restaurants with award-winning wine lists click here.
Located on the magical island of Hvar, the Tomić winery continues a tradition begun by the ancient Romans. Reserve in advance a tasting at their Roman-style wine cellar, Triclinium, in the port of Mina Bay.
Jelsa 874a, 21465 Jelsa, Hvar | +385 21 762 015 | www.bastijana.hr
Found in the hills of Skradin in northern Dalmatia, this winery will treat you to an exemplary 13-course tasting menu and wine pairing session. Complete the day with a tour of the nearby UNESCO-protected cathedral in Plastovo.
Zapadna Ulica 63, 22222 Plastovo, Skradin | +385 91 323 5729 | www.bibich.co
This Istrian winery is a tourist hotspot—offering no fewer than nine different "Wine Experiences", including food options, a scenic driving tour and exclusive tastings hosted by the owners in person. Book well in advance.
Vale 78, Momjan, 52460 Buje, Istria | + 385 52 779 177 | www.kozlovic.hr
A little off the beaten track, this restored castle (formerly the summer residence of the Duchy of Ilok) is situated in the northeastern corner of Croatia, on the majestic Danube. Stay in their four-star apartment accommodation and try their revered Gewürztraminer in royal style.
Dr Franje Tuđmana, 72, 32236 Ilok | +385 32 590 003 | www.ilocki-podrumi.hr
The Tomac family farm in the dreamlike Plešivica has a solid 200-year history of fine winemaking. A particular treat if you have a taste for unorthodox sparkling wines. By appointment only.
Donja Reka 5, 10450, Jastrebarsko | +385 98 351 036 | www.tomac.hr
The vineyards, nestled on the slopes between Split and Dubrovnik, provide the perfect stopover for those traveling between these two cities. A relatively young but ambitious winery, building on family tradition. Reservation required.
Stolovi 2, 20356 Klek | +385 20 611 135 | www.rizman.com.hr
Krauthaker winery, famed for its Welschriesling vintage, will host your group, led by a professional sommelier, in its tasting halls. Available in both English and German.
Ul Bana Josipa Jelačića, 34340 Kutjevo | +385 34 315 000 | www.krauthaker.hr
Another Istrian gem, this vineyard balances the strength and prestige of an international exporter with the humble coziness of a family-owned winery. Highlights include Malvazija vintages and Akacija, all in close proximity to the beautiful coast.
Fuškulin 50, 52440 Poreč, Istria | +385 52 654 120 | www.damjanic.eu