If, like me, you enjoy the odd glass or three of vino, then a wine-tasting holiday has a definite appeal. Wine tourism is big business in France and Italy or, for the more adventurous traveller, New Zealand and Australia. So when I was invited to take part in a tour of the vineyards and wineries of central Croatia, I was hesitant.
However, the bottles of Graševina and Traminac now sitting in my wine rack at home are testament to how I was soon converted.
Croatia’s Adriatic coast is becoming a popular tourist destination, but the more inland regions of Slavonia and Baranja are well worth a visit, particularly for their stunning vineyards and top quality wines. Indeed, since winning a clutch of awards at the Decanter World Wine Awards a few years ago, Croatia has put itself firmly on the map for wine tourism.
“The microclimate around the Danube is very good for growing wine. The soil is very fertile and we get a lot of sun,” explains my guide, Marina Bede, as we drive through the rustic, agricultural landscape to our first winery, Vina Belje.
Rather aptly, it’s located in the region of Boranya, which means Mother of Wine. Meandering along past fields bursting with crops and fertile vineyards, we pass through tiny villages where groups of farmers sat outside the local shop, enjoying a beer in the sunshine.
With its sparkling whitewashed walls and colonnades, Vina Belje looks more like a Spanish hacienda than a Croatian winery. Its vineyards were first planted in the 17th century and enjoy the benefits of the nutrient-rich black soil in the Croatian Danube region. The addition of the yellow loess (a dusty, wind-blown silt) gives the grapes their special character.
Walking through a labyrinth of underground hallways, we are shown the restored wine cellar where the white wines are kept in stainless steel casks and the reds are kept in barrels made from Slavonian oak. We are also told that during the Croatian War of Independence in the 1990s, the Yugoslavian army ransacked the cellars and stole 14,000 bottles of wine.
In the tasting room I get my first taste of the famous Graševina, a white wine that is Croatia’s most popular wine, and similar to an Italian Riesling. I’m pleasantly surprised by the fruity, flowery notes and the hints of apple and grapefruit.
I’m also rather taken by the Chardonnay, with its rich, fruity bouquet and soft, drinkable taste. But my favourite has to be the Frankovka, which is a rich, plummy red with hints of chocolate and vanilla.
During the tour we stop for lunch at Restaurant Kormoran, which is set in the heart of the Kopački Rit nature park. It becomes apparent that Croatian food is heavy on the meat and portions are generous. We sample kulen, a type of sausage made from minced pork and flavoured with paprika, which is the signature dish of the region.
This is followed by another popular local dish, cobanac, a type of stew originally made from sheep’s meat but that is now made with pork or beef. Like most dishes in Croatia, it is flavoured with paprika and has a rich orange hue and spicy flavour.
After lunch, we are taken on a boat trip around the backwaters of Kopački Rit, which is home to more than 260 different species of bird and 40 freshwater fish species. Motoring along the sun-dappled lake, we spot cormorants, herons, kingfishers and a rare glimpse of a white-tailed eagle.
Bright blue dragonflies dance around the edges of the water as we glide past thick forests of white willow and oak trees. It’s certainly a pleasant way to digest our generously portioned lunch.
Wine tourism around Ilok
The following day we drive to nearby Ilok, a charming medieval town with a strong history of winemaking. The vineyards in this region reportedly date back to Roman times. Every year, on 22 January, Vinko’s Feast is celebrated here, with a vineyard blessing and the consumption of copious amounts of food and wine.
“Wine tourism has been actively promoted here since 2005,” says Marina, “and there are well-defined routes that tourists can follow, stopping off on the way to visit the region’s many wine cellars and vineyards.”
She shows us around the Ilocki Podrumi winery, which houses one of the oldest wine cellars in Croatia, dating back to the 15th century. We see an entire wall filled with bottles of a 1983 Graševina (it was a good year, apparently) and we learn that Ilok is well-known for its Traminac and Silvanac wines, which were served at the English Court of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
We taste a light Traminac, which is aromatic, floral and fresh, with hints of apples and quince. We also try a Frankovka, a lovely red wine with notes of blackcurrant, cherry and vanilla, and a hint of spice. Afterwards, in the restaurant, we dine on veal in a sauce made from Graševina, tomato and the ubiquitous paprika.
Leaving Ilocki Podrumi, we take a quick tour around the town, including the 18th-century Franciscan monastery and the 13th-century castle, then make our final stop on our wine-tasting tour at the Principovac Estate. This stunning estate, built in 1864 as a summer residence for the princely Odescalchi family, is perched high on a hilltop offering panoramic views of the surrounding towns and countryside. With acres of vineyards on all sides, lush green fields and the Danube in the distance, it’s nothing short of spectacular.
Settling down on the terrace to take in the view, I realise I’ve been completely won over by this lesser known part of Croatia. For the adventurous wine lover who’s looking for a new destination to visit, this really is an undiscovered gem.
• For more information on what to see and do in Croatia, visit Croatia365. Return flights from London to Osijek with Ryanair start from £67.98 per person including taxes and charges. See Ryanair for fares and schedules