A few fabulous wines from Croatia

Grk Vines at the Bire Vineyard on Korcula, Croatia
Grk Vines at the Bire Vineyard on Korcula, Croatia

Unless you are an avid football fan, Croatia seems to sit at the back in terms of profile when it comes to teams, although there are a number of world class players on their side.

The individuals are excellent, but when they come together as a national team somehow they seem to lack some co-ordination necessary to excel.

Nevertheless, they have performed well in previous tournaments and they are now through to the quarter finals – albeit on a penalty shoot-out.

When it comes to wine, the same principles seem to apply. Many people are unaware that Croatia makes wine at all, let alone top-quality wine that’s capable of standing-up for itself in an international market.

Much of the cause of this low profile is due to the recent past history of the country. Only just over 20 years ago, Croatia was embroiled in a devastating war involving several countries in the Balkans and prior to that, it formed part of the Communist regime of Yugoslavia under the Dictator Marshal Tito.

Under communism, everything concerning wine production was controlled by the State, whose only priority was quantity to the expense of quality. All grape varieties were mixed and with no investment in wineries, wines were basic in the extreme.

Croatia became independent in 1991 with the break-up of Yugoslavia and gradually the vineyards and wineries have returned into private ownership. With investment in equipment and changes of vineyard management, some excellent wines are now produced, but it must be remembered that these are still the minority and the changes have only happened in the past 20 years – a very short period of time in wine region terms.

Two of the draw-backs as regards international distribution of Croatian wines, are that the quantity of fine wines produced is small, most of the consumption being on the domestic market and the local grape varieties from which most are made, are very difficult to pronounce. In the North of the country, where there are some cooler micro-climates, some very good sparkling wines are made using the traditional method as in champagne. The Tomac winery has excellent white and rosé sparkling wines and also produces a very acceptable Sauvignon Blanc.

Wine-making in Croatia goes back to pre-Roman times to the Greek period and there is one grape variety which is unique to Croatia and in-fact is only grown on one of the coastal islands called Korčula. A white grape brought there by the Greeks around 2000 BC, it is known as Grk and only grows well around the small town of Lumbarda. Only 7 producers make Grk white wine and one of the best is the Bire Winery, with its four hectares (10 acres) of vines, comprising Grk for the whites and Plavac Mali for the reds. It is the biggest winery on Korčula, and a mid-size producer for Croatia.

Ivo Milina, son of the owner and wine-maker Frano Milina, explained that the family owned winery and vineyards have a 250-year history of wine-making experience, albeit much of it going into the communist vats in years gone by. Very modern wine-making techniques are now used in an up-to-date winery, and the Grk is fermented at 12 degrees C over an extended period.

At 13 percent alcohol, the 2017 wine was well balanced with a fresh acidity and pale-yellow colour. The aromatic nose had citrus and herb notes and the medium-bodied palate showed flavours of stone-fruit, pineapple and pink-grapefruit.

“We produce a total of 33,000 bottles per year on average,” said Ivo.

“We concentrate only on quality and are not interested in increasing the quantity.”

Ivo was born when Croatia became independent and he has a passion for both the history of his country and the wines that his family produces.

Some Croatian wines can be found online in the UK, but the best way in which to try them is to fly to Dubrovnik and island-hop on the ferries.

Fabulous scenery, wines, food and people.

Richard Esling BSc DipWSET is an experienced wine consultant, agent, writer and educator. An erstwhile wine importer, he runs a wine agency and consultancy company called WineWyse, is founder and principal of the Sussex Wine Academy, chairman of Arundel Wine Society and is an International Wine Judge. Twitter @richardwje. Visit www.winewyse.com.

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