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Croatian wines start to make serious inroads in to the UK

Published:  09 December, 2013

High-end and with bags of niche appeal, Croatia is turning heads among sommeliers and independents. Andrew Catchpole reports on the opportunities for Croatian wine in the UK.


High-end and with bags of niche appeal, Croatia is turning heads among sommeliers and independents. Andrew Catchpole reports on the opportunities for Croatian wine in the UK.


If 'interesting, individual and indigenous' are the buzzwords increasingly turning on an upcoming generation of wine drinkers, then Croatia is well placed to meet this thirst for the authentic and original. Offering up an array of varieties such as Plavac Mali, Babi?, Teran, Refo?k, Po?ip, Gra?evina and Malvazija, from a mosaic of distinct terroirs that span Dalmatian, Istrian and continental vine growing regions, there's much to engage the adventurous imbiber.

It's a picture of wine geek heaven, with the appeal of 200-odd grape varieties - many cultivated only in a very limited area - compounded by an attractive mix of good value for high end, typically boutique scale wines. Croatia may have delivered the forebears of such grapes as Zinfandel and Chardonnay to the world, yet it clings tenaciously to its Balkan identity, with the overwhelming majority of vineyards planted to some of its 60 indigenous vines. Many examples of organic, biodynamic and natural winemaking also add to the appeal.

And, gradually, Croatian wines are gaining a foothold among sommeliers and independent merchants in the UK - albeit in a very niche way, but with a collective portfolio that typically weighs in far above the average price per bottle in this market.

 Several factors lie behind this growing interest in Europe's newest member state, the most intriguing of which is that to date Croatia's biggest champions come from beyond the wine trade. Leading importers Pacta Connect and Vino Nostro were both founded relatively recently by business-minded Croatian wine enthusiasts, lending a pioneering appeal to their image.

 Other, longer established importers, including Novum Wines (Hallgarten Druitt), Bancroft and Coe Vintners, have followed suit, adding Croatian agencies to their portfolios as interest grows.

 "It was just a mad idea that sprang from a meeting in Zagreb where we did some wine tasting and were surprised and impressed with the quality of the wines," says ?eljko Tufek?i?, a long term British resident who co-founded Vino Nostro in 2011.

 "We made a good start with an initial selection of some of the top winemakers in Croatia," continues Tufek?i?. "The UK is seen as a shop window by Croatian winemakers and, after some quelling of over-ambitious expectations, a lot [of the producers] have been happy to get listings in top restaurants where they will be noticed."

 Similarly, Pacta Connect's Judith Burns and Trevor Long began to import Croatian wines in the late 2000s. Holiday recces to cellar doors morphed into a serious business that now represents several of Croatia's leading producers, some of whom also fall into the fashionable natural wine camp.

Managing expectations  

"One of the more difficult things initially was to manage the expectations of producers, many of whom are famous in their own country, but are completely unknown in the UK," says Burns. "It has been the on-trade that has been most receptive to Croatian wines, as our wines are very food-friendly and pair well with British local produce, which is a big surprise to chefs and sommeliers."

To anyone who's spent time tasting Croatian wines, the food matching potential certainly rings true across a host of varieties and styles, and judging by the listings achieved across many of the UKs leading restaurants by Vino Nostro, Pacta Connect and other Croatian importers, the sommelier fraternity increasingly agrees.

 Sat Bains, Oxo Tower, Harvey Nichols, Hakkasan, China Tang, Peckham Bazaar and Allium are just some of the higher end restaurants now listing Croatian wines. Independent merchants are also catching on, with companies as diverse as Theatre of Wine, Loki Wines, Lea & Sandeman, DVine Cellars and - most recently - Hennings taking the plunge.

 "I think there is a great potential for Croatian wines, but I have been saying that for ten years!" says Ronan Sayburn MS. "The main obstacle is that people don't know the wines, but as a sommelier you can win people's trust and Croatia's central European location and interesting indigenous varieties are good approaches."

Tufek?i? agrees, adding: "The top selling point is the native varieties, which are turning heads, and this strategy works for us - with a couple of very good 'international' exceptions, we have great producers making indigenous wine styles."

Youth appeal

Perhaps equally significant is how Croatian wine appears to be tapping into a growing trend for (especially) younger wine drinkers to be receptive to and even actively seek out original and off-piste discoveries. Again, it's a tendency that plays directly into the hands of sommeliers and independent merchants, who can hand sell.

 "We have expanded our range of Croatian wines because they have been incredible popular," says Phil Innis at Loki Wine Merchant and Tasting House in Birmingham. "The prices are quite high, with our cheapest at £15, but these wines are also very good value, and as people are increasingly looking for something different and interesting, Croatia has developed a good following."

Moreover, Croatia has become a fashionable UK tourist destination over the past decade, even being dubbed the 'new Tuscany' for its mix of vineyards, beautiful scenery and superb regionally-focused cuisine. And this in turn is creating consumer-driven demand where and when Croatian wine is listed.

 Novum Wine's Steve Daniels, who took on the agency for Kozlovic Vina last year, selling Malvasia and Terainto "mainly Michelin level restaurants", agrees that tourism is playing an important part in the recognition and premium positioning of Croatian wine.  

 "Wines at £10 and over represent little more than 1% of the market but this is where Croatia sells," says Daniels. "People visiting Croatia tend to have disposable income, have an interest in what they eat and drink; it's fairly high end tourism, so these people can afford to drink Croatian wines when they return to the UK."

Export opportunities 

Of course, with Croatia's entrance to Europe bringing down trade barriers against wine imports and a recession also biting, producers are increasingly keen to tap into export markets, which helps explain the influx of Croatian wines. But what is most notable is the way in which Croatia's winemakers and their importers are committed to ensuring that the country's wines are established from the top down, preferring to remain niche rather than chasing lower cost volume.

The price of most Croatian wines available in the UK perhaps ought to be a significant drawback. But by selling in to high-end on-trade, focusing on the originality of the wines and encouraging adventurous drinkers to explore, the country has pulled off the neat trick of underlining the good value inherent in its wines.

 "We will retain our niche higher end credibility because we choose that route," says Burns. "We took the view that the British market is already flooded with fairly cheap wine, and for Croatian wine to stand out we needed to target the high-end market."

 For now, the drip drip approach of education remains the Croatian approach, winning converts through steady organic growth. Among Croatia's newfound UK advocates is Daniel Illsey, Theatre of Wine owner and Balkan wine champion, who recently forged a partnership with Vino Nostro to sell Croatian wines into the on-trade.

 "We are a very price conscious company and quality is very important to us, and a young at heart audience is not following the traditional formula of Bordeaux and Burgundy," says Illsey. "These holy cows have almost priced themselves out of the market, but when people come and see and taste Croatian wines, learn about the terroir, the limited production, the relationship with food, the wines have instant appeal and are selling very well."

 Illsey agrees that Croatia could benefit from a greater presence of well-made, accessible, single variety brands on the shelves of multiples at £7 to £8 "to help give people a gateway to the wines". Ultimately, though, the high average price, boutique scale and off-piste profile of Croatian wines means they are likely to remain the preserve of those who can hand sell. And it's a situation that seems to suit Croatian producers well.

 Producer Views

Leo Gracin, winemaker, Suha Punta

"Our wines have always been represented in the higher end of the on-trade, aimed at customers who understand wine, and we look for the same positioning in the UK market. This presents an additional appeal as the UK is recognised as one of the most important culinary destinations in terms of the range of restaurants and the variety of cuisine on offer."

Ivica Kova?evi?, business development manager, Jako Vino

"In the past decade, Croatian wine-making has undergone a big step forward in raising the quality of the wines, establishing new vineyards and reconstructing wine cellars. The mosaic and diverse nature of Croatia offers the UK high quality and indigenous wines, presenting the opportunity to discover a totally authentic offering, which is hard to find in many producing countrys."

Croatia: in a nutshell 

With its triad of Dalmatian, Istrian and continental vineyards, Croatia boasts an array of distinctive terroirs and grape varieties including Plavac Mali, Babi?, Po?ip, Gra?evina, Teran, Refo?k and Malvazija.

Croatia has around 800 wineries and 17,000 registered wine producers, with 33,000 hectares planted to vines.

Almost half of Croatia's total vineyard area is planted to three indigenous varieties - Gra?evina, Malvazija and Plavac Mali.

Croatia has around 200 grape varieties, of which at least 60 are indigenous.

85% of growers have less than one hectare and 80% of vineyards are family-owned.

Croatia produces around 60 million litres of wine per year - 0.5% of the total world production.

A taste of Croatia 

Following Croatia's EU entrance this year, the 4th Vina Croatia trade tasting in London this October was the country's biggest UK outing to date, with 150 wines presented by 30 leading producers spanning the incredible diversity of the country's myriad varieties and wine producing regions.

 Elvira Belovi, marketing manger for Vina Croatia, said: "Our EU membership marks the start of a real commitment to the UK", identifying the UK as Croatia's "key export market", while confirming that the country will now maintain a generic presence to build sales in this market.

With both indigenous and international varieties showcased, from regions including Istria, Dalmatia, Kvarner, Slovonia, Croatian Danube and Croatian Uplands, along with a masterclass led by charismatic presenter Joe Wadsack, the event clearly tapped into a thirst among restaurant and independent buyers for original and exciting new wines with almost 150 people attending.

With Croatia now establishing typically high-end listings, Harpers spoke to both importers and buyers about the appeal and commercial viability of this Balkan producer.

Views from the trade

 "I was impressed by the diversity and also the style of many wines at the tasting. We list a Teran and a Malvasia, at around £50 and £35 respectively, and these wines represent great value at the price. Croatia is doing a really good job with wines that have some grip, but are not too weighty, so are good food wines, and if customers are happy to be adventurous, to go off-piste, then Croatian wine is ideal."

Mark Graham, head sommelier, Oxo Tower

"First and foremost consumers love the quality of the wines. This always leads to re-orders. The influx of tourists into Croatia has also helped enormously. When we present a masterclass there's a very high percentage, particularly of younger people, who have recently visited Croatia. Restaurants and merchants tell us they have noticed people asking for a Croatian wine, either by grape variety or even a winemaker by name, because they've tried them on holiday."

Judith Burns, Pacta Connect

"We are always looking for interesting wines from lesser known countries or varieties as we like to showcase what the world of wine has to offer. This brings two things; fun for us sommeliers as we get to discover more about these hidden gems and the opportunity to make our guests travel with wines they perhaps would never have chosen alone. Our wine list isn't very big but we try to keep it original, exciting and adventurous so of course Croatia is part of that."

Laurent Richet MS, head sommelier, Sat Bains


"When we started putting our list together the focus was 'Greece and beyond'. Then I visited Croatia with Pacta Connect and liked the wines - varieties like Teran and Malvasia are very easy for people to enjoy - so I listed Croatian wines from Pacta and now Vino Nostro and others. A surprise is that Croatia is acting as a point of familiarity with younger people, who are ordering wines with a confidence that you don't see with countries like Greece, Georgia or Bulgaria, because they have holidayed in Istria and recognise the quality of the wines."

Donald Edwards, co-founder, Peckham Bazaar


"Education is a crucial part of the success of Croatian wines as a whole in the UK market. They are still relatively unknown here and there's a lot of work to be done but we know there are plenty of people, particularly in the on-trade, who 'get' Croatian wines and are willing to be brave and get behind them."

?eljko Tufek?i?, Vino Nostro


"Croatia has come a long way in five years and the trade is always looking for something new. Our philosophy is to make sure that our clients are offered interesting wines and taking on [the agency for] Matosovic fits perfectly with our growing Eastern European portfolio. The wines sell very well to the on-trade and there is new uptake in independents."

Claire Scott-Gall, Bancroft Wines


"Croatia is an exciting place at the moment. Visiting recently, the level of finesse in the reds was incomparable to even five years ago, with Plavac Mali and its associated varieties now using less oak, reigning back on alcohol, but showing a better balance of tannins and acidity. With the whites, there are all sorts of interesting varieties, with the increasing global acceptance of Malvasia as a noble variety helping to bring recognition to the quality of the wines. The indigenous varieties can show great quality and this grows exponentially each year. The input of international consultants, such as Michel Rolland, has been part of this movement."

Joe Wadsack, presenter and consultant