Get Inspired in Istria
Grapes have been growing in Istria, the northern region of Croatia, since the Greeks and the Romans planted them more than 2,000 years ago. Residents of the Adriatic’s largest peninsula have been making wine ever since. The region holds roughly 120 small, family-owned wine producers and until recently, few Istrian wines were known outside Croatia.
In 2015, “Wine Enthusiast” magazine named Istria one of the top 10 wine travel destinations in the world, catapulting it into the heady company of wine regions, like Italy’s Piedmont and France’s Rhone Valley. As a result, oenophiles are flocking to this region overflowing with vineyards, hilltop castles, sublime cuisine, and people who seem to have invented the concept of hospitality.
Some of the most interesting places to taste the region’s best wine and food are:
Savudrija (sah-VOO-dree-yah) is in the extreme northwest corner of the peninsula. It is where Moreno DeGrassi presides over his tasting room/konoba/cellar and award-winning vintages. DeGrassi produces 130,000 bottles of wine a year made from French grapes planted by a government co-op during Tito’s reign. The vines are now mature, and DeGrassi’s talent as a vintner has made the resulting wines remarkable. He still sells most of his wine in Croatia, but demand has grown and his exports are growing.
Momjan is less than half an hour southeast of Savudrija on a hill that affords incredible views of the surrounding landscape and the Adriatic. It is divided into upper Momjan, where ruins of the 13th century Momjan Castle oversee the terrain. St. Martin’s Church in lower Momjan is much newer—from the 15th century. Momjan also is the gateway to the wine and olive oil roads of northern Istria and home to the acclaimed Kozlović winery. Owner/winemaker Gianfranco Kozlović was the first Istrian winemaker to win a national award (1998) when his Malvasia was named the best white in Croatia. His winery welcomes visitors for tours and tastings, but call ahead—reservations are required.
Expert tip: Momjan hosts an annual Bike-Wine Marathon on November 13 to celebrate the town’s patron saint, St. Martin. St. Martin also happens to be the patron saint of wine and wine growers, which is handy for tasting the new vintage ala Nouveau Beaujolais.
Outside Momjan, on the way south to Buje via a steep, winding road, the Kabola winery is presided over by owner Marino Markežić (mar-kehzh-its). He employs an English-speaking staff and welcomes drop-in visitors. Besides classic Istrian wines (white malvasia and red teran), among others, Kabola has a small wine museum, a tasting room, and Marino Konoba, Markežić’s Michelin-star-worthy restaurant.
Expert tip: Istria’s olive oil industry has received international acclaim as the world’s second-best olive oil region (2010). See here for a guide to the region’s olive trails and its 177 olive growers.
Sipping in Slavonia
Just 100 miles east of Zagreb is the fertile Pannonian Plain that runs all the way to the Danube. The towns and villages along the way--Požega, Kutjevo, and Baranja--deliver a historical perspective and some of the most rewarding wine touring experiences in the country. There are nearly 30 wine cellars on three distinct wine roads in this part of western Slavonia and each has a unique character.
Expert tip: Požega-Pleternica, Kutjevo, and Pakrac have collaborated in creating a terrific wine road website with an interactive map that lists and describes vineyards, accommodations, and specialties. It lets you plot your own tasting stops through the terroir.
Požega (POH-zheh-gah)-Pleternica (pleh-tur-neetz-ah) was once called Vallis Aurea (Golden Valley) by the Romans who settled there. This basin surrounded by Slavonian mountains has been producing wine for centuries. Now it is emerging as a center of food and wine tourism.
There are 7 wineries spread over 390 acres on the Požega-Pleternica vinska cesta (wine road). As a bonus, you can hike or bike the route and even climb Požeška Gora (pozh-ehsh-kah aka Požega Hill), along the way.
Kutjevo: The Kutjevo (KU-tyea-voh) wine road covers twice as much territory as Požega-Pleternica—800 acres. Its 20 wine cellars are among the region’s oldest and most acclaimed, with one dating from the 13th century. Kutjevo also is a gateway to gorgeous Papuk Nature Park where visitors can book organized tours, cycle along 6 trails—3 in Papuk (PAH-pook) and 3 in Kutjevo. Hiking and rock climbing are also popular there. Or, you can just enjoy the endless forest land and the park’s diverse collection of rocks and fossils.
Pakrac: The vineyards of Pakrac (pahk-rahts) were close to the front lines of the Homeland War, and they still are recovering from the devastation they sustained. In the meantime, you can see their progress and visit nearby Lipik’s thriving equestrian center. Several eco-farms are open for tours. Others offer fishing, biking, and the opportunity to visit a goat farm and an apiary for a first-hand look at the sources of products like goat cheese and honey.
Expert tip: A 3-mile-long road runs from Pakrac to Lipik. It links the towns to two notable equestrian centers. One is a Lipizzaner stable built in the 19th century. The stable was destroyed and its horses stolen in the Homeland War, but the facility has been rebuilt, some of the horses have been returned and the stable is back in business. The Diamant stable near Lipik trains trotting horses and their drivers. It also provides therapeutic riding for kids with disabilities.
Baranja: Požega may have its Golden Valley, but Baranja (bar-ahn-ya), in the northeastern part of Slavonia, has its Mons Aureas (Golden Hills). The name came from the Romans, who built settlements along the Danube and recognized the suitability of Baranja for growing grapes.
The legendary Iločki Podrumi is here in Ilok, which is one of the first towns Serbian forces entered when they crossed the Danube on their way to war in 1991. The Serbs didn’t destroy Iločki Podrumi, but they did drink all the wine they could find there. Luckily, the good stuff was hidden by the cellar staff and just recently put out for tasting. Most of the 20 wineries in Baranja are family-owned and small, and many also offer food and lodging.
Baranja is close to Kopački Rit Nature Park and its bike and hiking routes, so it’s easy to combine a nature walk or ride with a few winery stops. With its many local organic farms, Baranja is a popular destination for agritourism and it was one of the first areas to develop trails for cycling tourism.
Expert tip: Many places in Baranja rent bikes and the county officials are working with neighboring Hungary to create an international bike rental service.
This long, narrow peninsula juts into the Adriatic at Ston, just north of Dubrovnik. This hot, rocky, environment might seems inhospitable for growing anything, but it produces magnificent grapes. Some of Croatia’s most celebrated winemakers like Dingac (ding-ahtz) and Postup (post-up) are here. Grgić (grrr-gitch), the cradle of the Grgich wine label from California, was here, but the winery burned down in 2015.
There’s even a place that sells its wine on the honor system. Bring a container and take as much vino as you want from outdoor barrels. Then leave money. Indijan Winery is a curiosity that has been in business for ages and the wine isn’t bad, so the system must work. The peninsula also is dotted with wine cellars with more traditional tasting rooms, but most require advance notice for tasting.
If you need a break from all that sipping, Pelješac is surrounded by water on three sides, so there’s always the opportunity to jump into the sea from wherever you are.
Expert tip: Biking is a popular way to move along on the Pelješac wine route, but be warned that the terrain is extremely hilly and sometimes downright scary.
Taste History on Korčula, Hvar, and Vis
The “big three” wine-producing islands of southern Dalmatia have a lot in common:
- All three produce excellent wines.
- All have their biggest population centers at extreme ends of their respective islands.
- All three once were inhabited by the ancient Greeks.
- All are perfect for cyclists who want to travel the islands from end to end because the vineyards and wineries are nestled mid-island, usually in valleys surrounded by hills, which makes for an interesting and doable ride, even for day-trippers.
Despite the similarities, each island has a distinct personality.
Vis (veece) is a mystery island and the smallest of the three. It also is one of the farthest from the mainland and the least touristy, thanks to Tito’s restrictions on visitors during World War II. Just when Vis was opening its door to tourism, the industry was dealt a second blow by Homeland War travel restrictions. Vis has spectacular secluded coves that lie in the shadow of steep cliffs, a sophisticated dining scene, and an upscale yachting clientele. There’s even a winery with World War II war memorabilia left behind in one of Tito’s communication caves built into a hill. Whites made from the Vugava grape lead Vis’s wine production.
Korčula (core-chew-lah) is the reputed birthplace of Marco Polo, though no one can prove it. It is the most medieval-looking of the islands with its walled city center and cobbled streets. It looks like a Dubrovnik Mini-Me. Korčula has a reputation for fine white wines made from the pošip grape. Smokvica and Lumbarda are the best-known wine-making towns on the island. Food-and-wine bike tourists regularly stop at Vinarija Toreta, which is on a very hilly road with spectacular views of Smokvica’s vineyards. Find out about a fun wine and cycling tour given by Korcula locals Rachael and John.
Hvar (huh-vahr) is just 20 miles off the coast from Split. It has been a center of viniculture since the 4th century B.C., when the Greeks planted vines there. Cyclists can enjoy a ride similar to Korčula’s, complete with vineyards, hills, and valleys. Zlatan Plavac is its grape, but Hvar may be more famous for its wine-drinking than its winemaking. The island is known for lavender fields, its luxurious hotels and villas, and its raucous celebrity party scene. Read more about things to do in Hvar here.