On the Trail

A Taste of Croatia

Olivia Ragni

At the Hollywood store we occasionally have small Thursday tastings that focus on wines of a lesser-known region. Today we will be tasting wines from Croatia. Wine is an integral part of Croatian culture, but it's not as widely known in the United States as its European counterparts. Grape cultivation in Croatia pre-dates the Roman Empire by several hundred years, originating with Ancient Greek settlers. Once home to 400 different native varietals, the country now cultivates 130 unique, indigenous varieties. Croatia is the only European wine region with five different climatic zones, making for a diverse portfolio of wines. The country has three major wine growing regions, but most of the wines we see in the US come from Croatia’s coastal regions. Dotting the coastline are hundreds of islands, almost all of them a wine-producing island, their hillsides covered in vineyards.

Three years ago, I was lucky enough to visit some of Croatia’s vineyards. I stayed in the city of Vrbnik, the chief winemaking region of the island of Krk. It is a small, medieval town of only 944 inhabitants that boasts picturesque views of the Adriatic Sea. The town sits atop a limestone outcrop, surrounded by lush hills lined with vineyards. In the city center, winemakers showcase their wines in tiny storefronts that resemble caves more than shops. Walking through town, we were greeted by charming winemakers inviting us to taste the fruits of their labor. We quickly learned there are no spit buckets, and a zero tolerance policy on wasting wine. I made the mistake of leaving a sip of wine behind, and the winemaker nudged it back in my direction. In Vrbnik, you drink the whole glass. That’s easy to do when the wines are bright, crisp and insanely refreshing on a hot summer day. We made our way through the small village, sipping on Žlahtina—a light, floral, mineral-driven white wine—and delicious, lifted reds made from who knows what (due to the finish-the-whole-glass policy, my memory got quite fuzzy).

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Local wine is ingrained in the village. It was everywhere. We stumbled upon a small house with its own patch of vines growing outside. As we were admiring them, the owner came out and offered us a taste of the wine he makes in his home from those very vines.  We loved it. It was light, juicy, and made ten feet away from us. We purchased a liter and a half, for only one euro, that was sold in a recycled, plastic water jug. That’s real down-home winemaking, integrated into the fabric of life.   

With companies in the US just slapping the word "local" or "seasonal" on anything domestic, we couldn’t possibly understand what those words really mean until we go to places like Vrbnik. The people there live off the land and the sea. Every restaurant featured freshly caught fish from the waters just off the island and served local wine in traditional, handmade ceramic carafes. My favorite restaurant on the island even featured housemade Istrian prosciutto a ham that was air-cured atop the highest peak on the island. Picture thick-cut jamon iberico with a touch of ocean brininess.

Walking through the quaint, medieval roads of Vrbnik, the sea in the distance, a light breeze blowing, the vineyards simply feel like they belong. It makes me wonder how Croatian wine has been kept secret for so long. While I would like the wines to remain undiscovered for selfish reasons, they are just too good to keep to myself. I know it’s easy to overlook Croatia and go straight to its more famous winemaking neighbors, but next time, look to the undiscovered. Surprise your friends at your next gathering with elegant, esoteric whites and bright, refreshing reds. After all, you have 130 varieties to choose from.

Come hang out today, Thursday May 5th from 5:30 PM until 7 PM, and try out the wines of Croatia for yourself. The lineup will include whites made of old vine debit (a local varietal), malvasia (a varietal shared by many of Croatia’s Mediterranean neighbors), as well as both light and full-bodied indigenous varietal reds. Hope to see you there!

~Olivia Ragni