Thursday 15 April 2021 12:09 pm

Croatian wine is shedding its rep as cheap plonk – here's why

Croatia has an ideal climate for wine making, but lacks the reputation as a solid producer of premium bottles. For years its exports would feature in the bottom echelons of wine lists, labeled – mostly fairly – as cheap and cheerful plonk. But not any more. The UK’s first Croatian wine importer is run by two retired Lieutenant-Colonels, one from the British and the other from the US army.

Blue Ice Wine UK co-founder Guy Denison-Smith was deployed to the Balkans in 1999 while working as part of the NATO-led stabilisation force based in Sarajevo. It was there he met American Roger Olson, the owner of the sister Minneapolis-based business Blue Ice US, set up in 2016. They joined forces to  showcase “the extraordinary talents of dedicated artisans” and some of the best wines the Balkans can offer.

“Croatian wine is not readily available in the UK, but the market is ready for it,” says 51-year-old Denison-Smith who served in the Grenadier Guards for 27 years, where he was stationed in places including Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Kuwait. He was also based in New York for four years, working at the UK Mission to the United Nations as a military adviser. Olson spends his time between Minneapolis and Cape Coral, Florida.

“My first memory of drinking Croatian wine was during R&R on the coast near Split,” says Denison-Smith. “I remember thinking the wines were interesting but not great. There was definitely potential. This potential has now been realised, with amazing wines being made.

“Gone is the old communist concept of quantity over quality through mass production in cooperatives. You now see vineyards that have returned to family ownership on a smaller scale.”

There are now around 1,600 Croatian wineries together cultivating some 20,000 ha of vineyards producing around 700,000hl of wine a year.

Denison-Smith believes wines made from indigenous grapes including Malvazija Istarska, Teran, Plavac Mali and Posip offer something different, alongside international varieties such as Merlot, Chardonnay and Pinot Sivi (Gris).

Blue Ice UK, based in Thatcham, Berkshire, is now working with five vineyards, four in Istria and one based on the island of Brac, one of which is organic, and Denison-Smith is also hoping to secure the wines of another producer on the Dalmatian coast.

Mixed cases start at £87.60, giving you an excellent introduction to the range and quality on offer. The Blue Ice UK Spring Taster selection comprises Istrian and Brac wines including Benvenuti Caldierosso 2018 , Stina Cuvee Red 2019, Benvuti Malvazija 2019, Franc Arman Sivi Pinot 2019, Franc Arman Rose 2019 and Stina Opol Rose 2019. 

The  Lieutenant-Colonels are not the only expats who spotted the untapped potential of Croatian wine. On the island of Hvar – said to be the sunniest in the Adriatic – a Master of Wine from the East End of London is making her own wine, Ahearne Vino. Jo Ahearne MW first visited Croatia in 2003 after more than a decade of making wine in Australia. In 2014 she  set up her Vrisnik winery where she produces around 7,000 bottles a year. 

“I worked for a wine retailer in London  and applied for the Master of Wine programme. But I realised I needed some production experience so I went to Australia to work for the boutique winery, Charles Melton. I got hooked, sold my house, gave all my money to Charles Sturt university in order to study winemaking and my journey began.”

Jo also worked for Jacob’s Creek, Hardy’s and Harrods and made wine in France, Spain, Hungary, India and Macedonia. Starting out making wine in a garage, she is now Croatia’s only MW. Her orange wine, Wild Skins is her favourite of the wines she makes. They are available through  North and South Wines and Seven Cellars.