Photo by Zoran Jelača

Game of Thirst: The story of Zinfandel’s ancestors

With some 130 indigenous grape varieties, many of which are almost unpronounceable to the foreign visitor, with some even lacking any vowels, getting to know Croatian wines can seem a little daunting to the uninitiated. But, it’s worth it! Specially the ones of coastal Croatia that come with a beautiful wine. And some of the wines are actually more familiar than you would think.

American grape cousin
Take the tongue-twisting Crljenak Kaštelanski, for example, a big red variety from the Kaštela region, which was largely overlooked until the University of Davis confirmed a 100% DNA match with the famous American Zinfandel back in 2001. That’s right, that little tongue-twister is actually the original Zinfandel, just one of the many wine treats and treasures which are in store as you travel Croatia’s spectacular Adriatic coast and islands.

Little grape, big taste
The Zinfandel connection does not stop there, as Dalmatia’s most famous red, Plavac Mali (literally ‘Little Blue’ after the small intense grapes which deliver such a strong flavor), counts the original Zinfandel in its ancestral lineage. With its sloping vineyards on the Pelješac Peninsula and the impossibly steep vineyards on the southern tip of Hvar, Plavac Mali is one of the most challenging grapes to harvest, and its higher price is reflected in the small yields that come from its fruit, but for a quintessential Dalmatian red wine experience, there is none better. Plavac Mali is available over much of Dalmatia, but what makes the coast and islands all the more fascinating is the wealth of indigenous and location-specific varieties, for example Vis where the vines roots are embedded in sand, which offer a refreshing change to the more generic international varieties all over the world.

Ivo Biočina

Special grapes from special islands
Take the island of Hvar, for example. There are no less than six varieties that grow only on the island, including Bogdanjuša, an easy drinking white which translates as a ‘Gift from God’, and is now exported as far away as California. Or Darnekuša, a red variety which tends to grow 400m above sea level on an island whose peak is 621m.
The neighboring islands also have their own individual specialties. One wonders why Marco Polo ever left Korčula after trying Grk, a white wine sort that only grows in the sandy vineyards of Lumbarda, and is so popular that the limited quantities mean that when tasting clients can only buy two bottles at a time. Korčula is also known for Dalmatia’s best-known white, Pošip, whose grapes grow in the Čara region in the center of the island, and which can now be found on Hvar, Brač and other parts of Dalmatia. More indigenous treasures are to be explored further up the coast, most notably the white Žlahtina on the island of Krk, whose golden vineyards are centered on the charming wine town of Vrbnik.

The Grapeland
No Croatian coastal wine story would be complete without what some claim to be the gourmet heartland of the country, with local wines of exceptional quality. Istrian winemakers are fiercely proud of their two main indigenous varieties, and rightly so, and local restaurants strongly support them with lists heavily promoting the white Malvazija and red Teran.

Ivo Biočina

Croatia’s coast and islands offer a fascinating diversity of attractions, culture, tradition and gourmet options, a diversity that more than matches the grape varieties on offer. And we are sure that after a sip or two, you won’t have any problems with the pronounciation either!

Maja Danica Pečanić