I expected to find the good, the bad and the ugly in my latest wine adventure through the wilds of Slavonia in Croatia’s continental eastern half of the country. Instead, what I found has led me to develop a new philosophy; if you can’t pronounce the grape variety, the producer or the region, the wine is probably a belter.
It was an eye opening experience; away from the well trodden tourist paths of the Mediterranean west of the country we drove through beautiful forested countryside that still bore the scars of the brutal war just 20 years before. We passed through grey communist era towns were bullet holes still pock marked the cement and mortar holes left buildings half demolished. Quality wine production had all but ceased, first under the communist regime, and then as the country was ripped asunder by war. In 1991 independence was declared and a number of small private wine estates began to emerge and the development of quality, passion and confidence in only twenty years has been astonishing.
They growers have generally stuck to their guns and are producing indigenous grape varieties to tremendous effect; Grasevina (white wine in dry and sweet forms), Frankovka (Blaufrankish) and Zweigelt have proven to be particular success stories. The Croatian producers however will be facing an uphill struggle to get their wines internationally recognised. Not because they lack the quality, but because the majority of people don’t even realise Croatia produce wine, the producer names demand an acrobatic feat from your tongue and the grape varieties sound like native folk dances.
Take my word for it and get your tongue dancing to that native tune. Some of the highlights for me were a sparkling Riesling, undisgorged and 12 years on the lees from the force of nature that is Davor Zdjelarevic; it was enough to silence even me as I languished in its beauty. The achingly elegant red Frankovka’s from Feravino were simply gorgeous and when Ilok Cellers emerged with a bottle of 1982 Grasevina, I was embarrassed (only briefly) to find that, at the same age as me, it boasted far more complexity, finesse and freshness that I did.
The phoenix of great wine production has risen swiftly from the ashes of communism and war, emboldened by a patriotic pride in their local varieties and local talent. It is now up to us to open our eyes and start indulging in the fruits of their labour because they really are worth hunting out. There are currently only a handful of Croatian wines available on the UK market including the stunning wines from Vina Matosevic (Istria) and Krauthaker Winery (Slavonia). Find them, buy them, drink them. You won’t regret it.