Monday, August 15, 2022
Croatian Grapes The Basics

Making Sense of Croatian Grape Varieties

Croatian indigenous grapes

As a wine lover, you probably know what you like. Maybe it’s a nice, plush Cabernet or a crisp Sauvignon Blanc. But in the wine aisles of Croatia, you’re more likely to find varieties like Žlahtina or Plavac Mali.

Which grapes are good? What should you expect from the wine? Before you develop an unhealthy Fear of Strange Grapes, here is how you can begin making sense of Croatian grape varieties.

International versus indigenous grapes

The first step is to distinguish between international grape varieties and indigenous grape varieties. International grapes are those popular favorites like Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc that grow well from Chile to France and seemingly everywhere in between. International grapes are the varieties most people have heard of. For the moment, we can set these aside and focus on the real challenge: indigenous grapes. 

Indigenous grapes are the grape varieties that are native to a country or specific area. Most grape-growing countries have their own indigenous varieties. Italy, France, Greece, Portugal—all have hundreds of indigenous grapes.

Croatia, too, has a remarkable number, and they are prized expressions of Croatian wine heritage. You can call them indigenous, native or local varieties; Croatians say “autohtoni” (autochthonous).

Indigenous grape varieties, by definition, have grown here for centuries. They are especially abundant on Croatia’s coast, where ancient trade routes introduced varieties from foreign lands. Over hundreds of years, some of these varieties mutated or spontaneously bred to become unique, new varieties.

Some were simply called by different names in different places. Before the advent of DNA testing, it was very difficult to determine which varieties were truly unique—or which version was the original.

Here’s an example of the confusion. The Dalmatian white grape Maraština (which is called Rukatac on the island of Korčula) might be native to Croatia. But DNA testing has determined that it is genetically the same as Malvasia Bianca Lunga, which is well known in Tuscany, and also grows in Greece, where it is called Pavlos. Where is its true home? We may never know.

There’s another reason Croatian grape varieties are challenging: they’re unfamiliar.

Unlike the international varieties, indigenous grapes are the ones you’ve never heard of. This is partly because indigenous grapes are hyper-local. Some are grown on only one island in the entire world, like the variety Vugava on Vis. Or in one small region, like the variety Kraljevina, a specialty of Zelina, east of Zagreb. It is also because the wines are made in tiny quantities, and very little (if any) is exported. If you weren’t physically in Croatia, you would never get to try them. Even many world wine experts haven’t.

Why indigenous grapes are important 

International varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay may dominate the world in terms of their market value or collectibility, but indigenous grapes are the genetic spice of life. They contribute to biodiversity and foster scientific study.

Just as important, they give a sense of place—they so perfectly express the land and conditions where they grow, and pair with the foods, and weave into the history that they become ambassadors. To taste an indigenous wine is to truly experience a place and a culture.

After more than 100 years of declining numbers of indigenous grape varieties—in Croatia and around the world—these grapes are now being protected and in some cases reintroduced.

Croatia has about 100 grape varieties that are thought to be indigenous, and more may yet be discovered. Happily, there is an international trend now among sommeliers and wine lovers for obscure or indigenous grapes, and more winemakers are interested in making wine from them.

3 ways to try Croatian grape varieties

1. Focus on region.

Whether your taste runs to international or indigenous varieties, different grapes grow best in different regions. You won’t find Riesling growing in Dalmatia, and there’s no Pošip in Slavonia.

In Croatia, wines also tend to be sold in their own region, especially wines made by smaller wineries, from local, indigenous grapes.

Focus on the region you’re in, and you’ll have access to more wines. And it’s easy to go straight to the source—visit the winery for an in-depth tasting and learn why a local grape thrives in that place. 

[Here’s what you need to know about Croatian wine regions.]

2. Use a cheat sheet to find the best varieties for your taste.

We made a quick-reference chart to help take some of the randomness out of trying indigenous grapes. But don’t expect indigenous grapes to taste exactly like your international favorites—the similarities are more about qualities like crispness, body, richness or spiciness. You’re not matching, you’re exploring!

If you love…

Try…

Cabernet Sauvignon
It is not common in Croatia; only
a few wineries grow it.


Chardonnay
It is made in all regions,
oaked and unoaked.


Merlot
It is made in all regions.


Pinot Grigio
It is not common in Croatia; only
a few wineries grow it.


Pinot Noir
It is grown in continental Croatia.


Riesling
It is grown in continental Croatia.


Sauvignon Blanc
It is grown in continental Croatia.


Syrah
It is not common in Croatia; only
a few wineries grow it.

Plavac Mali (Dalmatia)
Babić (Northern Dalmatia)
Tribidrag/Crljenak Kaštelanski (Dalmatia)


Pošip “sur lie” (Dalmatia, especially Korčula)
Malvazija Istarska (Istria)
Vugava (Vis)


Babica (Kaštela, Northern Dalmatia)


Žlahtina (Krk)
Debit (Northern Dalmatia)
Bogdanuša (Dalmatia)


Lasina (Northern Dalmatia)
Drnekuša (Hvar)


Graševina (Slavonia and Danube, Uplands)


Kraljevina (Prigorje-Bilogora, east of Zagreb)


Teran (Istria)
Sansigot (Krk)

3. Full-immersion method.

There are so many indigenous varieties to try in Croatia that you can sit down at almost any restaurant or winery and ask what is available. Keep track of new-to-you varieties so you can boast/post about it, or start a friendly competition to see who can taste the most. There’s really no way to lose!

Don’t say, “Where’s the Cabernet?” 

Say, “Je li ovo autohtona sorta?” (Is this an indigenous variety?)

[Title image: Staff/CCM]

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.

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