We finally pulled the cork on that bottle of Croatian wine we’ve been saving. It was a Babić from Rak winery — a gift from Dr. Matt Horkey that we set aside to share with a particular Croatian-American friend and then, well, covid happened and lots of things, including this wine, were put on hold.
Croatian Wine Uncorked
The wine was terrific. Babić is a medium-bodied red wine with nice fruit and good balance and acidity, and a certain distinctive character. It matched up well with the sausages we served that night.
Babić is a common family name in Croatia, I’m told, but the wine less so both because Croatia produces more white than red and because another red grape, Plavac Mali, is more famous and readily available. The sources I consulted all talked about the potential of this wine when the vines are not over-cropped and the Rak wine we tasted makes a strong case. Croatia is blessed with dozens of indigenous grape varieties. Our first taste of this Croatian wine makes us thirsty to learn more about them.
Croatian Wine in Context
Croatian wines have yet to make a big dent in the U.S. wine market. A search of Total Wine’s national online inventory turned up just 9 wines in total including two Plavac Mali and a cheery cherry wine, which I think we found at a local store a few years ago and enjoyed.
When Croatian wine comes up in conversation it is often in an unusual context. The famous California winemaker Mike Grgich, for example, was born in Croatia and many fans of his Napa wines know that he has established a winery called Grgić Vina in his native region of Croatia.
Croatian wine also comes up in discussions of international economic relations. You probably know how protective some European regions are about their appellation designations. Don’t even think about calling your local sparkling wine a Champagne, for example. It’s a big deal because that designation is very valuable.
Prosecco is a valuable name, too, and Prosecco producers are doing their best to keep others from using it. Australia and the European Union, for example, have had fairly high-level discussions about the fact that the sparkling wines the Aussies make in the King Valley are called Prosecco. The Italians object on both principle and economic interest, as you might expect.
They have also objected to the name of a Croatian dessert wine called Prošek. It isn’t hard to tell the wines apart. Prosecco is light and sparkling, produced in vast quantities for a global market. Prošek, made from dried grapes, is sweet with a tiny total output. The similarity in names has been a sticking point in relations between Italy and Croatia before and, as The Guardian reported last month, has become an issue once again.
Croatian Wine Touring Guides
The idea of visiting Croatia and exploring the wines in person at some point is very appealing and I already have two guide books to help me navigate the complicated wine scene. The first, which we reviewed back in 2017, is Crackling Croatian Wine: a Visitor-Friendly Guide by Dr Matthew Horkey and Charine Tan, written as part of their Exotic Wine Travel collection.
The second book, which was published just a few months ago, is Croatian Wine: Regions, Grapes, and History by Greg Viola. Viola is a U.S. Foreign Service Office who obviously used his time assigned to the Croatian embassy to learn as much as he could about the country and its wine scene.
First glance at these two slender paperbacks (or handy e-books) suggests that they cover much the same territory: regions, grape varieties, wineries, and so forth. Both provide tips for wine tourism in Croatia, which was a growing activity before the pandemic and is sure to return as travel opportunities re-emerge.
Having spent a little time with the books, however, I’ve come to think of them as complements, not substitutes. The authors may write about many of the same topics, but they come to Croatia from different places and look for (and see) different things.
Viola admits that he’s not a expert wine taster, for example, so his tasting notes aren’t quite as rich as those of Horkey and Tan, who have served on professional tasting juries and offer more information about particular wines and winemakers.
On the other hand, Viola provides a really strong sense of place and seems particular good at giving the local knowledge that wine tourists typically crave. When we read Viola’s description of Brac to our friend he said “that’s it!” That’s where his family came from. There are lots of travel tips and I admit that my favorite appears in an endnote, where he advises that the island of Vis, like most of the Croatian islands, is free of the roughly 31,000 unexploded landmines left over from the Homeland War. Good to know.
Both books are well written and interesting and, together, are offer a fun and informative introduction to Croatian wine and wine tourism. A good place to begin if, like me, you want to scratch the surface of Croatian wine.