Text and photos by Cliff Rames © 2015
It’s inevitable this time of year. Suddenly you notice passenger planes and the drift of jet trails among the clouds. You linger a bit longer than usual in daydreams. Bird songs awaken dormant desires to let loose and fly. You pine; an unsettled, almost haunting feeling settles in your breast. Call it an itchiness of the soul. You sense subliminal messages embedded in the whispers of warm breezes, summoning you: Go, they say. Make plans. Travel!
Paul McCartney once sang of this condition: “Light out, wanderlust…help us to be free…light out, wanderlust…head us out to sea…what better time to find a brand new day…oh, wanderlust away…”
And just as dandelions and pollen are harbingers of the season, so too are the numerous emails that arrive in my mailbox, sent by intrepid people bitten by the wanderlust bug. Any recommendations for winery visits, they ask. Best wine regions to explore in Croatia? Suggestions for wine tour operators?
A few years ago, the task of naming a “wine tour” operator in Croatia would have resulted in much head scratching and conjecturing. But in recent years wine awareness in Croatia has awakened and more travel agencies have seized the opportunity to link wine tourism to the larger tourism package – or as a stand-alone offering.
When planning a visit to Croatian wine country, keep in mind that most wineries are family-owned estates; not all have visitor-ready facilities or tasting rooms. Hours of operation are often unpublished; calling ahead is highly recommended. Better yet, leave the arrangements to the professionals!
Below is a list of seven wine tour operators who offer an array of options for vinous adventures. Five are local providers, two are specialized travel agents based in the United States. All can be researched on the internet and are featured here for their interesting and diverse choices of food and wine tours in Croatia.
Founded by Ilya and Olga Shchukin, who in the early 1990s began their professional careers in the special-interest travel industry with a focus on Central and Eastern Europe, Agro Trails offers unique experiences to those who like to travel off the beaten path – “from the Alps to the Adriatic” – in pursuit of delicious food and wine. The company currently offers two alluring itineraries. The first originates in the serene rolling hills and Alpine valleys of neighboring Slovenia, from where you meander through the pastoral sun-bathed hills of the Slovenian/Croatian littoral until you arrive in the medieval Adriatic fishing towns of Istria – the “Tuscany of Croatia”. Option two takes you down Croatia’s sunny southern coast, from Split to Dubrovnik, with visits to some of Dalmatia’s most beautiful, lavender-scented islands and rustic villages, where life moves “pomalo” (easy) and the slow food movement is not a movement but a natural part of the ancient customs and everyday life.
Art of Wine
Split city and wineries in its vicinity are the focus here. Now famous as the garden of “Original Zin”, you will visit Kaštel Novi and the unimposing vineyard where researchers from UC Davis discovered the missing link that established Croatia as the ancestral homeland of Zinfandel (Crljenak Kaštelanski, locally). Walking tours and tastes of local marketplace delicacies; “meet the winemaker” sessions; sips of barrel samples (including Croatian Zinfandel); and a sommelier guide are just some tempting possibilities (the group also offers a “Game of Thrones” tour through a sister site).
Dubrovnik Wine Tours
Mario Sehic, who holds a WSET Diploma level certificate, is your host for half-day or full-day tours that focus on the Pelješac peninsula and Dubrovnik areas along Croatia’s southern Dalmatian coast. Packages include a visit to an oyster farm to indulge in freshly harvested oysters paired with local wine; a journey to Croatia’s most renowned and scenic vineyard site, Dingač; local olive oil and cheese tastings; visits to wineries that produce the “noble wine of Dubrovnik”, Dubrovačka Malvasija; and even a sojourn into neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina for wine tasting at a historic monastery.
If the Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper were a respected Croatian foodie and wine authority bestowed with light years more charm, grace and good taste, his name would be Goran Zgrablić. With a PhD in laser physics, this self-described “gourmet vagabond” and founding member of Taste of Croatia seems more in his element as gourmand-in-chief of Eat Istria, which celebrates the diverse and spectacular culinary culture of northern, coastal Croatia. With three different packages to choose (Curious Wines of Rovinj; Wines of Central Istria; or Rich Reds of the Western Istrian Coast), it doesn’t take a scientist to deduce all are winners. Indeed, Goran’s Trip Advisor reviews are stellar, backing up his claim as the “friendly face of Istrian cuisine”.
In the nascent industry of specialized tour operators in Croatia, Alan Mandić is a pioneer, partnership-builder, and forward-thinking entrepreneur. With Secret Dalmatia, he showed the way, raised the bar, and set the standard for quality, professional, and interesting tours that tap into local talent and reveal the rich array of natural, cultural and gastronomical gifts ensconced in the coastal Dalmatia region. Signature tours include Secret Wines of Dalmatia and Tastes of Dalmatian Islands (“a unique sailing journey to Croatia’s most beautiful islands for wine tasting experiences you will never forget!”). Highly recommended is the tour to BIBICh winery – always an unforgettable experience and one that knocked globetrotting chef Anthony Bourdain right off his chair in an episode of “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel. Mandić offers similar tours through a sister site, Culinary Croatia, as well as tours in other regions through partners.
Visit Croatia – Tasteful Croatian Journeys
A Condé Nast Traveler’s World Top Travel Specialist for Croatia honoree since 2006, Wanda S. Radetti is a New York City-based travel expert widely regarded for her ability to design personalized itineraries and “enchanting discovery journeys in the pursuit of sensory pleasures”. The popular Croatia – Flavors of Spring tour takes you to Split, Korčula Island (birthplace of Marco Polo and home of Pošip, one of Croatia’s most beloved white wines), the Pelješac peninsula, and the old walled city of Dubrovnik – a journey that is “elegantly interlaced with the threads of history, art and culture.” In addition, Wanda can arrange private cooking lessons with professional chefs; “meet the winemaker” visits and tastings at local wineries; and fishing excursions in the Adriatic Sea so that afterwards you can dine on your catch of the day, pop open a few bottles of wine you collected along the way, and raise your glass with a hearty, “Ciao, Wanda!” (her signature greeting).
Another project from the talented crew of enthusiasts from Taste of Croatia (see Eat Istria above), Zagreb Bites celebrates the overlooked but compelling wine scene in Croatia’s capital city, Zagreb, and the surrounding Croatian Uplands wine growing region. Excursions typically include visits to 2-3 wineries and a traditional lunch at a local restaurant or farmstead. Customized itineraries are also an option, as is the Winer Lovers Zagreb walking tour of the city’s vibrant café culture and wine bars. Your guides, Lada Radin (a self-described “curious hedonist and food forager”) and Morana Zibar (“Gurwoman”) are fun, energetic, and ready to share their insider tips and help you uncover secret food and wine treasures, while also teaching you to do “as the Zagrebians do” and “make friends with Zagreb, bite by bite”.
Zinfandel Origin Tour/Opcija Tours
Aficionados and advocates of Zinfandel, this one is for you. History buffs too will find this tour charming and informative, as you trace the steps and delve into the fascinating story behind the discovery of Zinfandel’s origins in Croatia and meet some of the people who are playing an important role in the recovery and restoration of this nearly lost variety in its ancestral homeland. The half-day tour includes visits to three wineries, two museums, and the opportunity to taste “Original Zin” and other wines produced from rare indigenous grape varieties (there’s even a horse that has been known to pop its head in at one of the wineries).