Sailing and Drinking through the Croatian Islands

After sailing around the beautiful islands of Croatia last year, I’ve come to  know one or two things about the place. Firstly, it's a great place to hang out on a boat, and secondly, they have some fantastic wines. Since starting Grapes and Lager, I’ve been hassling Sean to get some Croatian wines on the website – especially from the island of Korčula where our great mate Rade lives and grows wine. 

So over the next few weeks you will see some fantastic wines from Croatia appearing on Grapes and Lager at

Croatian wine has a history dating back to the Ancient Greek settlers, and their wine production on the magnificent southern Dalmatian islands of Vis, Hvar and Korčula some 2,500 years ago. Many traditional grape varieties still survive in Croatia, perfectly suited to their local wine hills.

Then way back in the 15th century, the Ottoman Turks came and imposed strict anti-alcohol laws. Fortunately, the Ottoman Empire was tolerant of Christianity, and Catholic church traditions involving wine are thought to have “saved” European wine production from complete extinction.

There were further problems when Croatia was part of Yugoslavia, as government policies forced farmers to rip out more than 160,000 hectares of vineyards. Ethnic conflicts in the 1990s destroyed thousands more.

But despite all this, today with about 33,000 hectares under vines – which is more than double the amount of New Zealand -- Croatia is increasingly being recognized as a significant producer of different and surprising quality wines.

Croatian vineyards are some of the most beautiful places on Earth—vines clinging to rocky slopes leading down to the Adriatic Sea, vineyards on islands that are covered with wild rosemary and olive trees.

Croatia has a fabulous array of indigenous grape varieties, many of which don’t grow anywhere else on the planet. These aren’t oddball wines - they’re wines of character, with authenticity and a sense of place.

Croatia offers mostly small-production, handcrafted boutique wines. There are 17,000 registered vine growers, and wine drinking is an inherent part of the Croatian culture, lifestyle and tradition. Such was the significance of wine that a 1407 statue in Korcula has an inscription stating that landholders will lose their profits and have their right hand cut off for neglecting vineyards!

Here at Grapes and Lager, we’ve hunted down some iconic Croatian wine makers.

These include Ivica Matosevic, who is considered a visionary in the wine industry. His journey began when he took a degree in landscaping and horticulture at the University of Zagreb, followed by a Ph.D. in Biotechnology in Italy, focusing on the potential of terroir.

Matosevic returned to Croatia in 1996 at a crucial point in the industry’s redevelopment, as director for Istria’s institute for managing natural protected areas. He bottled his own first vintage that year. In 2011 he established the association of Croatian wine producers to represent family estates and small producers.

His vineyards are located in the Istrian wine growing region in the northernmost part of the Mediterranean, on white and red earth, ideally exposed to sunlight, perfectly suiting a wine maker's needs. Matošević is on the 45th parallel, a latitude it shares with some of the most renowned wine growing regions in the world. Wine making in this region is steeped in tradition and forms an integral part of everyday life. Compared to Dalmatia, Istria is significantly cooler. This is due to the Adriatic Sea’s lower water temperatures, along with the higher altitudes of the Istrian hinterland.

An hour’s drive north of the stunning walled city of Dubrovnik, the Pelješac Peninsula extends roughly 40 miles out into the Adriatic. Its extremely steep hill sides are covered in pine forest, olive trees, figs, herbs, and head-trained vines. The precipitous south facing sea cliff vineyards of Dingač are Croatia’s first protected wine region and the most famous site for Plavac, having a history of wine making going back 1000's of years. Vinarija (winery) Dingač takes its name from this special site. It was founded in 1937 by 550 winegrowing households contributing as one collective, and since the privatisation which followed the fall of Communism in the 1990's, the number has dropped to 300, but their challenges and successes are still shared.

The iconic Croatian wine, Plavac Mali is a cross between ancestral Zinfandel (known locally as Crljenak Kaštelanski) and Dobričić grapes, and is the primary red wine grape grown along the Dalmatian coast. The name refers to the small blue grapes that the vines produce: in Croatian "Plavo" means blue and "Mali" means small.

Motorised vehicles and mechanical harvesting are impossible and its for this reason that the stubborn donkey adorns the Vinarija Dingač labels and without whom, grape cultivation here would not have been possible.

And finally to Korčula, the island home of my good mate, Rade. We sailed into his village at Zavalatica on the south coast of Korčula and tied up at the village wharf. Korčula is where Vinarija Blato was established in 1902, and is now the largest cooperative on the Island of Korčula with access to the best fruits available, including the famous Pošip grapes, which go into Korčula’s flagship wine. Blato still employs traditional winemaking techniques such as long skins macerations for whites and reds and ageing in large Slavonian Oak barrels. They also ferment their white wines in stainless steel vats and handle them using a reductive method to preserve primary fruit characteristics.

Grapes and wine are integral part of the celebration of life for Korčula’s inhabitants. Since as far back as 1427, the 'Statute of the islands', the oldest code in that part of Europe, has regulated the cultivation of vines, wine production and trade on the island. Wines from the island of Korčula were exported to Venice and served regularly at the tables of the Viennese court.

To see my sailing blog and find out a bit more about sailing through those stunningly beautiful Dalmatian Islands, please click on La Mischief's Blog

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