Its vineyards produced the ancestor of Zinfandel, and its modern vintages are attracting international attention and awards. As Croatia enters the EU in 2013, European wine consumers will have several new exciting options.
Imagine an island with a wine-making tradition dating back 2,400 years to the arrival of the Ancient Greeks. Imagine an island whose sun-kissed vineyards enjoy the most annual sun in the Adriatic, an average of 2,724 hours a year. Imagine an island which produces the country's only Grand Cru wine.
The story of the wines of the island of Hvar - better known for its beaches, nightlife and celebrity draw, which contributed to Lonely Planet naming Croatia's premier island its number 5 destination for 2012 - is part of a larger tale of the emergence on the international scene described in John Mariani's article Ancient Croatian Grapes Revive Wineries in Home of Zinfandel on January 3, 2012.
As Mariani notes, Croatia has about 33,000 hectares of vineyards, more than double that of New Zealand, and this despite ripping out 160,000 hectares of vineyards due to former Yugoslav government policies. Currently only 5% of wines are exported, a number which is bound to increase with the freer trading that will come with EU entry.
After a devastating attack of phylloxera in the early 20th century, followed by regressive Communist policies and the war in the 90s, Croatian wines are attracting increasing international attention, winning 65 awards at the prestigious Decanter World Wine Awards in 2011, for example.
The story of wine on the island of Hvar is perhaps the best example of the history and the potential of Croatian wine. When the Ancient Greeks settled in modern day Stari Grad, they established vineyards and olive groves, many of which have been tended uninterrupted for 2,400 years and form the UNESCO-protected agricultural colony known as the Stari Grad Plain.
It was the beginning of a fascinating wine story on Hvar, which has been painstakingly retold by Ivana Krstulovic Caric, secretary of the recently formed Hvar Winemakers Association and marketing director of Vina Caric in Svirce.
Many of the grape varieties are indigenous to the island and Croatia and are unfamiliar to European palettes, including the most important variety, Plavac Mali, which has since been proven to be an ancestor of the more internationally renowned Zinfandel. While most of the wines come from less familiar grapes, and President of the Wine Association, Andro Tomic, includes in his range a Sveti Klement, which is straight from the textbooks or Bordeax - 50% cabernet sauvignon, 40% merlot and 10% cabernet franc, a wine which can be found in restaurants as far away as Canada.
Hvar's leading producer, however, is Zlatan Plenkovic, whose base in the southern village of Sveta Nedjelja, is a favourite destination of an increasing number of wine tourists to the island. The jewel in the Zlatan Otok range is his Zlatan Plavac Grand Cru, which can be found in many locations internationally, including VinumUSA in New York, whose owner, Ilya Shchukin, is a big fan of Croatian wines:
"Americans are becoming a serious wine-drinking nation and are showing more and more interest in exploring new varietals and little known wine regions," said Shchukin in an email interview on January 3. "Plavac, Crljenak, Babic, Posip, Grasevina and Malvasia are Croatia’s most important grape varietals. These are the wines Croatia will one day be famous for all over the wine world. The Dalmatian coast of Croatia and the Island of Hvar in particular has become a trendy vacation spot for Americans as well. Those who seek to discover the best wines of Hvar usually make their way to Zlatan Plenkovic winery."
See the video below for more on the Zlatan Otok (which literally means 'golden island' story).
As Hvar's overall tourism success story continues and it heads towards the perceived tourism benefits of EU integration, its wine producers are becoming more organised. Wine tours are an increasingly popular attraction for tourists who can tear themselves away from the pristine water, and local specialists such as Hvar Tours are adept at giving visitors the fullest flavour of Hvar's wine heritage. Hvar Town, in association with leading hotel group, Suncani Hvar, also initiated the first Hvar Wine Festival in 2010 (see video below), an event which will be expanded into a wine and gastronomic event planned for May 2012.
Croatia's imminent European integration is great news for the EU's wine consumers, who will soon have better access to a new and interesting set of quality wines.