When I first traveled to Croatia in 2004, the wines tended to be innocuous at best. On this most recent visit, they were positively arresting. The quantity-over-quality philosophy of former Yugoslavia has been cast aside in favor of carefully crafted small-production wines, often made from steep terraced vineyards where mechanized farming is impossible. Croatian winemakers now fully exploit the immense potential of the country’s surprisingly diverse terroirs, ranging from cool Slavonia and Plešivica in the north, well-suited to German-style whites and precise sparkling wines, to the Dalmatian Coast in the south, the birthplace of Zinfandel.
Many Croatian wineries make use of international varieties such as Pinot Noir and Syrah, but the country’s real treasure is its trove of more than 30 indigenous grape varieties. I became especially enamored of Pošip, a white Korčula-based grape that can range in style from something like juicy Sauvignon Blanc to sumptuous white Burgundy.
I visited four contrasting wineries on this trip, each of which impressed me greatly. In addition to wines from the producers below, I highly recommend trying the sparkling wines by Tomac and still wines by Bibich, Bire and Grgić.
This unassuming family winery near Krka National Park and Šibenik produces wines of real character from two indigenous grape varieties. The personable winemaker first shared some Maraština, a specialty of the region, with ripe stone-fruit flavors balanced by refined, driving acids. I also liked the youthful Babić, which offered a blast of juicy sour cherries and hefty tannins. The older Babić Barrique was absolutely gorgeous, with its deeper fruit, plush oak and fine-grained tannins. Also don’t miss the Opolo, a unique oak-aged rosé of Babić available only at the winery and the nearby Michelin-starred Pelegrini restaurant in Šibenik.
If I could visit just one of these wineries, it would be this gem, tucked into a village on the exquisite island of Korčula. I sat down with the fascinating owner and winemaker Luka Krajančić on the winery’s balcony, overlooking the town’s harbor, for a splendid tasting of refined Pošip and Plavac Mali. I adored the 2015 Sur Lie Pošip from a 55-year-old vineyard, which rose to the heights of white premier cru Burgundy. Many Plavac Malis can feel a little unruly, but Krajančić’s example seemed both powerful and carefully controlled. What a joy of a tasting.
Just across the channel from Korčula on the mainland’s Pelješac Peninsula, Korta Katarina is also family-owned, but it feels more slick and commercial than the other three wineries on this list. While enjoying a platter of Pag cheese and local ham, I tasted a ripe and zesty Pošip and some fruity, focused rosé of Plavac Mali. But the real stars were the 2012 Plavac Mali, a massive wine full of cherry fruit and carob-like tannins, and the subtler, more elegant 2009 Reuben’s Private Reserve Plavac Mali. Both blend fruit from the peninsula’s two top Plavac Mali regions, Dingač and Postup. A 10-suite seaview luxury villa is scheduled to open on the property this summer.
On the opposite end of the Pelješac Peninsula from Korta Katarina, about 10 minutes from the elaborately walled town of Ston, this winery focuses on organically produced Plavac Mali. There I met the luxuriantly bearded Ivan Miloš, whose family has lived in the region for some 500 years. His father was one of the first winemakers in post-socialist Croatia to aim for quality rather than quantity. The wines he poured had the rich cherry fruit and serious tannins I associate with Plavac Mali, as well as a lift of freshness, adding balance and complexity. The 2007 and 2008 Stagnum vintages felt particularly well integrated, and both still seemed fresh. I also loved the portlike 2012 Stagnum Desertni, made from raisinated Plavac Mali grapes.