It only takes one meal to learn how important wine is to daily life in Croatia. Like many of its Mediterranean neighbors, a combination of perfect weather conditions and a true love for viticulture has led to a robust and high quality wine culture. Although wine’s presence in Croatia makes sense, I don’t think most of us outside of the region fully know just how varied and delicious Croatian wines are, I know I didn’t. So to learn a little more about the wines I took a day trip into the heart of one of the country’s prime wine growing regions, the Konavle Valley.
Thanks to its proximity to the top tourist draw in the country, Dubrovnik, visiting Konavle is easy and convenient. I used a tour company, Gulliver Travel, but there are many others including Viator who provide similar outings. Driving out of Dubrovnik it was nice to leave the madness of the tourist crush and instead enjoy the rolling hills and mountain peaks in the distance. Like most of the great wine regions in the world, Konavle is a very fertile valley, the weather conditions ideal for cultivating the best grapes. While there are some large vintners in Croatia, the day I spent in Konavle was devoted to learning more about the wine, food and cultural heritage of the area’s family wine producers.
The tour I was on was a group tour, something I usually shy away from but it was only for the day and really was the cheapest and easiest way for me to get to experience life in the vineyards. Was it hokey at times? You bet; I could have done without the Wine Train. But on the whole, I learned a lot and really enjoyed talking with the local farmers.
Like many countries in the region, the cultivation of wine in Croatia is an ancient practice, going back to at least to the Ancient Greeks. Most of the wine in Croatia is white, but reds are starting to gain ground among locals.
There are two main reasons why many of us in the U.S., and indeed the world, don’t know more about Croatian wines. Under the communist system of Yugoslavia, wine production was controlled by the government and private ownership of wineries really didn’t exist in any appreciable way. This meant that the quality suffered, the focus being on quantity instead. The second reason is the Croatian War of Independence in the early 1990s that lead to the destruction of many vineyards and wineries. But don’t despair, the Croatians haven’t given up on this ancient practice and there is a strong movement back to independent wine producers, usually small, family run businesses.
In addition to the wine, the food offered along the way was a pleasant surprise and I even discovered a couple of new favorite snacks: candied oranges and sugared almonds. It wasn’t just light fare offered though, at one farmhouse the wine maker and his wife shared enormous plates of homemade breads, meats and other tasty tidbits; a perfect way to spend the afternoon literally in the middle of the vines.
It was the diversity of the wines that surprised me the most though, not just on the tour but throughout my journey around Croatia. Hearty reds, delicate whites and everything in between were usually on offer and always seemed to be excellent. I still wonder why it is that most of these wines don’t make it into common distribution in the United States. The best Croatian wines can easily stand amongst the best in the world and it’s only a matter of time until the secret is fully realized.
More than just the libations though, it’s everything about the food and wine culture that makes Croatia such a fun place to visit. In any country one of my favorite things to do is sit with friends at a local cafe, sip wine, eat some meats and cheeses and just enjoy each other’s company. That’s an art form Croatia has mastered and is just one of the many reasons I loved every moment of my trip.