On a recent trip to Croatia, there was a poignant moment during the drive back to Zagreb airport. At the summit of a giant water tower at Vukovar on the Danube fluttered the Croatian national flag, the contrast between it and the pockmarked tower beneath it a constant reminder of a not-so-distant turbulent period in the history of this troubled country. It brought home one of the main reasons why Croatian wine remains the dark horse of Europe, for the time being at least; war in the Balkans followed by reconstruction has played a large part in preventing the country's wines from becoming better known outside its borders.
But the locals, whose enthusiastic support for local wines has also played a part in keeping export low, won't have been surprised that at the Decanter World Wine Awards this week their wines won more gold medals than more established rivals such as New Zealand, Argentina, California and Portugal. They have, after all, been making delicious wine in the two decades since taking the quality route. Most of the gold medal-winning wines were sweet wines, repeating the success that Austria had a while ago. But scratch beneath the surface and it becomes clear that Croatia has a diverse indigenous wine culture whose dry whites and reds, as well as its sparkling and sweet wines, have the potential to add significantly to the wine styles we enjoy in the UK.
Croatia is divided into two distinct wine regions, the Dalmatian coast on the Adriatic, and continental Croatia which juts into Serbia and Montenegro, with Hungary to its north. Closest to Italy in Croatia's north west, the 80 kilometre (50 mile)-long heart-shaped peninsula of Istria, with its beautiful Mediterranean coastline, is home to refreshingly crisp, full-flavoured dry whites made from malvazija istarska which, like Galicia's albariño, have a special affinity with the local seafood. The Istrian vineyard was 10 times its present size before the Second World War but systematically abandoned during the communist era. Moreno Coronica, one of Istria's best producers, dates the start of the modern wine industry from 1992, when growers were allowed to bottle their own wines.
Further down the Dalmatian coast, taking in the narrow strip of the Peljesac peninsula between Dubrovnik and Split and the islands of Hvar, Brac, Lastovo and Vis, plavac mali is Croatia's main red grape variety. Zinfandel was recently discovered to be one of its components, so it's not surprising that plavac mali adapts well to the warmer southern Dalmatian coast. Here, grown as a bush vine on rocky soils, it's able to produce richly flavoured wines with aromas and flavours of dark fruits like black cherry, plum and blackberry. Good native red varieties include zlatina, pošip and babic.
Croatia's other principal dry white grape variety is graševina, a Danubian grape variety much maligned as welschriesling, and blamed, usually justifiably, for boring wines like Lutomer laski riesling. Along with better-known grapes like chardonnay, riesling, pinot noir, pinot gris and merlot, it's grown in the hillside vineyards of Kutjevo in continental Croatia, where it produces high-quality dry aromatic whites full of juicy apple and citrus flavours. Is it too much to hope that before long we'll be able to enjoy Tesco Finest Graševina, Asda Extra Special Malvazija and Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Plavac Mali?
For the full Croatian experience, see anthonyrosewine.com