With its white stone villages, lavender fields and sapphire Adriatic water, it’s easy to see why Croatia is popular. The country’s history runs deep. Traces of Greek, Roman, Venetian and Austro-Hungarian culture remain intricately woven into the landscape, though the country’s tourism fortunes only recently skyrocketed.
Croatia’s coastline provides the perfect backdrop for a wine-soaked holiday. Viticulture holds a long legacy in this Balkan country. Croatian wine may not resonate in most American households, as producers were only able to export after the country joined the European Union in 2013. But wine lovers should pay attention. Italy’s ascent can be attributed in part to its indigenous grapes. Croatia produces around 40 native grapes commercially, and is the original home of Zinfandel.
From north to south, Croatia’s grapes change with both culture and climate. On the Istrian peninsula, the main wines are white Malvazija Istarska and red Teran and Borgonja (Blaufränkisch). Done right, unoaked Malvazija Istarska shows fresh citrus and stony minerality, while Teran pops with iron and rosebush florals atop red fruit. A few winemakers produce a “super Istrian” in emulation of Tuscany’s blends that use international grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon alongside local varieties.
Moving south into Dalmatia, red grape Babić crops up, known for its firm tannins and sour cherry notes. Fuller-bodied, versatile white Pošip, originally from the island of Korčula, appears alongside lemony Debit.
Zinfandel, called Tribidrag or Crljenak Kaštelanski depending on the locality, makes spicy, brambly wines. In the deep south around Dubrovnik, Plavac Mali dominates with its savory, figgy profile.
Istria, the arrowhead-shaped peninsula at the top of the Adriatic Sea, boasts some of the best olive oil and truffles in the country. Key grapes include Malvazija Istarska, Teran and a yellow Muscat locally known as Muškat Momjanski.
Wine tourism is growing as evidenced by the Roxanich Wine & Heritage Hotel. Chic interiors of gold subway tile and custom wallpaper provide a contrast to the old stone exterior. A new winery gives room for the production and aging of a dozen natural wines, at least six being skin-fermented whites left in barrel for years.
For a multi-course dinner, book a table at Restaurant Zigante. There, the wine list based on local grapes, pair perfectly with handmade pasta topped with shaved black truffles.
Though better known for its award-winning oils, family-run Ipša makes wine from hilltop sites. A skin-contact Malvasia and Santa Elena, a Merlot-Refosco blend, deserve spots in your suitcase.
Nearby, Kozlović, fourth-generation family winemakers, built a spectacular modern winery in 2012. Snack on salty-sweet Croatian prosciutto called pršut while you taste wines that include a Teran and an off-dry Muscat Momjanski. Stop for a late lunch at Konoba Stari Podrum in Momiano for a traditional dish of boškarin ox carpaccio.
Near the glittering blue coast in Bale, Meneghetti opened Istria’s other notable wine hotel. A winery, tasting room, guest rooms and restaurant breathe life into the vine-covered 19th-century building.
The jewel of the Istrian coastline is Rovinj. Jutting into the sea, this diminutive town’s narrow streets and waterfront bars make it a highlight. Evidence of centuries-long Venetian rule can be found in St. Euphemia’s slender bell tower, which is evocative of St. Marks, as well as detailed stonework and lion iconography found through out the town.
The city’s popularity has caused hotel prices to rise. The newest luxury hotel, Maistra Hospitality Group’s Grand Park Hotel, will likely push the bar higher, though a cellar full of Istrian wines makes the wallet-drain palatable. Break from the hotels for a drink where the locals go: Grota. Busiest in the mornings around peak-market activity, order a glass and watch passersby. A few more watering holes worth a look: seaside Mediterraneo Cocktail Bar and splashy Valentino Cocktail & Champagne Bar.
To catch the sunset, book a table at Puntulina. Croatians have a knack for turning waterfront rocks into bars, and Puntulina encapsulates the phenomenon. Gorgeous seafood, pastas and a cache of local Malvazija Istarska provide the perfect ending to a trip.
The drive down the coast from Rovinj to Zadar takes a few hours. If your schedule allows, take a brief detour by way of ferry to Pag, famous for its windswept landscape, beaches and sheep cheese. Cross back to the mainland using the bridge to Zadar.
Settled between the 8th and 9th centuries B.C., Zadar highlights include its cathedral’s bell tower and Roman ruins excavated after being exposed during World War II bombings. Along the waterfront, two contemporary art works by architect Nikola Bašić—the Sea Organ, which makes music from wind and waves, and Greeting to the Sun, a collection of 300 photovoltaic cells programmed into a lightshow—are perfect for sunset.
Spend an afternoon with Zadar Cooking Class for hands-on guidance on how to prepare regional dishes and pair with Croatian wines. Pick up wines or cherry brandy from noted producer Bibich Winery at the shop on Ulica Kraljskog Dalmatina. Each day, Bistro Pjat creates a market-driven menu of traditional foods like brudet, a Croatian fish stew. Two more spots: down a hidden street to whitewashed La Gavun Food & Wine Bar for stuffed squid, and over to Pet Bunara which features a strong Dalmatian wine list and seasonal dishes made with local ingredients.
Several excellent and beautiful wineries line this stretch of coastline. Outside of Zadar, book a tasting with light bites at Kraljevski Vinogradi, which translates to Royal Vineyards. Sea views and lavender bushes greet guests as they pass beneath the stone archway to the property. Owners focus on Pošip and Plavac Mali.
Head about an hour south to Baraka Winery, just north of the town of Šibenik. The white variety Debit is fermented and aged in concrete eggs allowing Owner Filip Baraka to add dimension to this often-simple wine. Baraka also makes Timbar, from the Babić grape.
If time allows, pause for a visit to Šibenik proper. The tiny town, the first in the world to have electrical lights, thanks to Nikola Tesla, harbors a high density of unique sites. Both the Cathedral of St. James, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the unbeatable island views from St. Michael’s Fortress are worth a stopover. Dine at one of Croatia’s best restaurants, Pelegrini. If you stay overnight, sleep in a former nobleman’s house, the Hotel Life Palace in the heart of old town, or just have a glass of wine on its splendid terrace.
Check your rental contract for off-road driving before you head to Testament Winery. The brand focuses on minimalist winemaking with indigenous grapes picked early for freshness. Testament’s chief winemaker, Juraj Sladić, experiments with wine aged under the sea, a burgeoning trend across the country. The theory is that three atmospheres of pressure is the equivalent to 18 months of aging, or what they call the “sea effect,” which possibly produces finer tannins.
Split is the second largest city in Croatia. It saw double-digit growth in visitors in 2018. The Roman emperor who erected the city’s famous palace in the 4th century, Diocletian, lived a life akin to a Game of Thrones character. He was a commoner who became a ruler, appointed leaders to nearby regions and fancied himself a living god.
Though the Riva seafront promenade features dozens of waterfront venues patronized by the bevy of yachties with boats anchored nearby, the most transporting experiences happen inside palace walls.
Within Old Town, start at Mazzgoon near Željezna Vrata, the west or iron gate, snack on contemporary Croatian by candlelight, then post up for creative cocktails at adjacent bar Noor. La Bodega, a chain found in several Croatian cities, has a lively location near the Venetian tower. Settle inside the vintage-style tavern to nibble on pršut while you peruse the 250-label Croatian wine list. Zinfandel Food and Wine Bar pays homage to the native grape with a variety of flights alongside 100 bottles and 30 wines by the glass. Paradox Wine and Cheese Bar highlights Dalmatian cheese producers like Gligora from Pag to pair with 70 Croatian wine labels. Uje Oil Bar and Diocletian’s Wine House are also bars worth a visit.
From Split, catch a ferry to Hvar. Celebs may dock mega-yachts in Hvar Town, but all visitors can take great interest in the city’s food and wine. Head deep into the island for vineyard scenery and quiet strolls through tiny villages.
Why is Hvar notable for grape cultivation? Despite its relative obscurity abroad, it boasts the Stari Grad Plain. In continuous cultivation since 400 B.C., the plain is protected by UNESCO and still divided into the plots created by the ancient Greeks. Hvar also holds high number of native grape varieties, about 100. Jo Ahearne, a Master of Wine, was intrigued enough by the island’s history, beauty and vinous potential to establish a winery there, Ahearne Vino.
To visit wineries, the island’s slow and windy roads necessitate a car. Head southeast from Hvar to reach one of the country’s best-known properties, Zlatan Otok. Set beneath a dramatic mountain slope that drops to the sea, visitors can also arrive by sailboat. Park or anchor in the tiny fishing village of Sveta Nedjelja, then feast on fresh seafood and sip on wines. Try the Pošip, Crljenak and Plavac Mali, then tour the restaurant’s underwater cellar built by the family’s deceased father, Zlatan Plenković.
Farther down the coast, visit Andro Tomić’s winery in Jelsa to sample barrel-aged Plavac Mali while gaping at the view.
Back in Hvar Town, a few spots offer good opportunities for wine tasting, and almost every bar and restaurant carries local labels. The Adriana Hotel, right on the picture-perfect waterfront, stocks an extensive list. Visit Vintage Wine Bar for an upscale experience, or Bosscat, a relaxed spot for craft beers, wines and cocktails.
Better dinner options include Ko Doma, set in a pretty courtyard behind a souvenir shop. The kitchen turns out traditional four-course menus that change daily. Black Pepper puts a modern spin on Croatian cuisine, while Dalmatino, known for steak and seafood, prepares tonnato, the popular dish of tuna carpaccio. The rich and famous go to Gariful on the waterfront for high-end whole fish.
Take a 10-minute water taxi to Zori Restaurant on the beach of Palmižana island. Indulge in fantastic seafood paired with a Croatia-heavy wine list and fresh fruit cocktails created by well-known bartender Chris Edwardes. Pop over to Laganini for a glimpse of the bacchanal unfolding in the Lounge Bar before a water taxi home.
Dubrovnik juts off the coast like the crown tip of Croatia. The Old Town, with only two entrances and a protective wall of tall ramparts, was completed in the 13th century. The city remains almost unchanged today, recognized by UNESCO for culture and history in 1979.
However, it does swell with crowds. Fortunately, the intact city of luminous white stone, worn smooth by people, water and time, still excites the most jaded of travelers.
A good time to visit is April during Festiwine, Dubrovnik’s wine festival.
One of the city’s best hotels is The Pucić Palace, set inside a 17th-century Baroque building. It also conveniently has a wine bar adjacent to it: Razonoda. It focuses on Croatian tapas and stocks 70 wine labels, including a dense roster of Plavac Mali from the Pelješac Peninsula.
D’Vino Wine Bar has a no-pretense vibe that allows guests to explore without intimidation. Restaurant 360, famous for its setting and Michelin-starred food by Marijo Curić, features an exciting Croatian list plus selections from Bosnia. Bar by Azur and Nautika Restaurant both have knowledgeable wine pros behind them.
If ancient Dubrovnik can feel modernized by tourism, then nearby wine region Pelješac peninsula provides a pastoral setting evocative of older times. A spine of craggy limestone stretches to pretty coves, slopes blanketed in vineyards of Plavac Mali. It’s an old land of magnificent scenery. Quaint tasting rooms—occasionally in a winemaker’s living room—bring visitors close to the farmer. The village of Potomje, for example, is dense with farmhouse wineries.
Two towns bookend the peninsula: Ston and Orebić. The former has a reputation for Croatia’s best oysters. Just east of the latter, two of Croatia’s first wine appellations, Dingač and Postup, hug the shore. Classic Plavac from the region shows off the grape’s powerful tannins along with notes of meat, smoke, licorice, fig and baked plums.
Follow the area’s well-marked wine route to visit Miloš and Saint Hills, both outfitted with tasting rooms. Korta Katarina recently opened a boutique hotel and restaurant inside a fancy villa, while the full-bodied, powerful Bura Dingač from Vinarija Bura-Mrgudic makes world-renown Plavac Mali.