If you love wine, one of the first things you do when you’re in another country is find the good stuff—whatever is “good” for you. But different countries have different wine traditions, and wine marketing is more effective in some places than others. How can you know where to go? Whether you want a carafe of wine with your weeknight dinner or you’re searching out the weird and wonderful, here are 9 insider tips for buying wine in Croatia.
1. The best source is the winery.
This is true for a number of reasons. First, wine bought from the winery (vinarija in Croatian) is the freshest and the cheapest. But one hidden advantage is, believe it or not, selection.
Wineries often sell only their biggest-production wines to shops and supermarkets. The cool and interesting stuff, often made in tiny amounts, is sold only at the winery and to a few, select restaurants. Buying at the winery gives you access to the limited-edition or experimental bottles, if these are for sale. The selection isn’t broad, but it’s deep!
2. Buy in bulk.
Most Croatians who drink wine as part of daily life do it the old-fashioned way: they drink their family’s homemade wine. The wine of a neighbor or friend also fits the bill. This is wine as it used to be—local, inexpensive, uncomplicated by labels or marketing campaigns.
If you can’t be bothered to read reviews or hunt for bottles, connect with Croatian tradition. Find your own “house wine” to buy in bulk (called u rinfuzi) each week. Many wineries sell their least expensive wines this way—just ask. The wine will be dispensed for you from the tank at the winery into a reusable plastic bottle or jug. You’ll pay less per liter than for the same wine in a glass bottle.
Tip: Konobas are a great inspiration for house wine, as their carafe wine is often made by the konoba owner or bought u rinfuzi from a local winery. Just ask who made it—chances are you can buy some for yourself.
3. Check for pop-ups and satellites.
Some wineries are making an effort to be more visible and convenient by opening winery pop-ups and satellite shops.
Pop-ups are stands by the roadside where you can pull up, admire the view, buy some wine and get going again. And some of the most creative wineries are popping them up! They are an easy way to try wine without searching for the winery or spending time at a tasting, but they are generally open only in summer.
Satellite shops can be found in some cities. For example, Iločki Podrumi, a historic winery in the Danube region, has shops all over Croatia where you can buy bottles or u rinfuzi.
4. Wine shops: the widest selection at the best prices.
Supermarkets cover the basics, but wine shops (vinoteke) aim higher. This is because most Croatian wine shops are run by wine distributors. They need to carry higher-end wines for hotels and restaurants as well as affordable bottles for regular consumers. So you’ll find the truly special wines of the local region, a range from other Croatian regions, and some imported wine.
The news about price is also great. The team at Edico, the distributor in Split that operates Vinoteka Terra, writes, “In Croatia there is very little difference between wholesale and retail prices. In our country [the markup] is 7 to 10%.”
This applies to wine shops only, however. Gift shops and web-only shops price higher, and restaurants and hotels higher still.
5. At wine shops, if you don’t see it, ask.
Depending on size, wine shops may not display every product sold by the distributor—only those most popular at retail. So don’t be afraid to ask for that bottle you’ve been looking everywhere for, especially if you see other wines from that winery. The staff may be able to duck into the store room and get it for you, or request it from the warehouse for a later pickup.
6. Supermarkets: the bigger the better.
Supermarkets are in the tough position of catering to everyone: residents and tourists, boozers and gourmets. Most of them seem to hold a wishy-washy middle ground, offering no thrills to anyone.
Supermarkets do carry the biggest brands at some of the best prices, due to volume discounts. But if you’re looking for something out of the ordinary, your best bet is a supersize store—usually in a mall or on the outskirts of town. The largest stores have the largest selection, and the stock doesn’t sit around too long.
7. Gift shops: for emergencies only.
Gift shops are a little different from wine shops because they don’t sell wine exclusively. This means the person who works there is probably not a wine specialist.
Another important distinction: the selection is targeted to tourists. Expect “icon wines” like Dingač, or other giftable bottles like dessert wine. Also expect “convenience” pricing—up to twice the price of the same bottle at the winery.
8. Know your online options.
These fall into the categories of winery, wine shop or web-only source.
Wineries that have a website may include a web shop where you can order online. The online selection is generally more limited than that at the winery itself. The winery web shop is still likely to offer the best price compared to other online retailers, but be sure to figure in any shipping costs if you’re comparison shopping.
Some wine shops have online ordering, and most distributor wine shops will deliver orders of 12 bottles or more in town, even if they don’t have an online shop. Delivery is usually next-day, and local delivery may be free above a certain total.
Finally, the best-known web-only source for wine in Croatia is Wine&more, which is based in Zagreb and offers more than 600 Croatian wines and wine bundles. Shipping within Croatia is fast and reasonably priced, and their customer service is excellent.
9. Beware of light and heat!
Even the most basic wine has storage requirements. When those are not met, you risk exchanging money for spoiled wine. And many supermarkets and nonspecialized shops are unaware of the dangers of light and heat on wine.
Ultraviolet light from sunlight reacts with substances in the wine and produces sulfur compounds that smell oniony or cabbagey. If a shop sells wine from a sunny window, it is more likely to be selling spoiled wine.
Wine in clear glass bottles can spoil in as little as 3 hours of direct sunlight. Wine in green bottles is 50% safer, and amber or brown bottles are virtually light-safe. But heat is a danger in any type of container.
Wine stocked right beneath the heater in the supermarket, in that sunny window, or shipped in an unrefrigerated truck (almost any courier van) in hot weather—all these are in danger of being “cooked.”
Cooked wine tastes like baked fruit instead of fresh fruit, and may also be oxidized. Watch where wine is stored in winter, and consider saving big online purchases for a cool month.
[Title image: A. Jurić]
This article was originally published as a guest contribution to Expat in Croatia–all you need to live and travel like a local in Croatia.