The Sommelier's Tour of Croatia

by Joe Campanale
This way to great wines in Croatia. All photos by Joe Campanale.

Sommelier Joe Campanale is renown for finding some of the world's most interesting wines and featuring them at his  Italian restaurants in New York City, L'Artusi, Dell'Anima, and L'Apicio, and his wine bar, Anfora. On a scouting trip in Croatia, he added a few more to his list.

What brought you to Croatia? I was on a six-day trip with the good people of Wines of Croatia, exploring the emerging wine regions and getting a taste of local culture.

Who were you with? I was there with my friend, wine journalist Talia Baiocchi, and a couple of European sommeliers. 

What was the best tip you got before you left? My friend Cliff Rames, the sommelier at the Plaza, encouraged me to taste as many Croatian wines as I could ahead of time. He was right.

What’s the #1 tip you’d give a friend who wanted to go? It’s easy to be drawn to the stunning coastline of Croatia, but make sure you save some time to visit wineries, as Croatia has an exciting winemaking tradition.

Wines in Croatia

Croatian winemakers and their steep vines.

What did you do? We visited Tomac Winery near Zagreb, then spent two days in the stunning coastal town of Opatija, where I had great meals at Bevanda and Plavi Podrum. We went island hopping on Korcula and Hvar and sailed down the coast for seafood in Split and Dalmatia, visiting a few more wineries along the way. Korta Katarina, a beautiful and impressive winery on the water in Orebic, is owned by Texans, which is a little unlikely. Vinarja Miloš in Ston is more rustic and old world. It’s not nearly as beautiful as Korta Katerina, but it’s definitely more authentic. We ended the trip with one night in breathtaking Dubrovnik.

Were you there for the right amount of time? NO! We needed much more time.

How did you get around? By bus and by boat.

Can anyone visit the wineries you had access to? Yes, although as with any good European wineries, you need to call ahead and make an appointment for a visit.

This was especially great: The views. The coast. The fresh, fresh fish. The crisp white wines and the natural wines.

But this wasn’t: We crammed a lot into a short time and didn't have any time to relax and enjoy the scenery or the beaches.


A typical plate of appetizers in Croatia.

Favorite meals? Local cheese, homemade breads, and local meets with organic wines at the Tomac winery.

Favorite sites? Dubrovnik. It is just so beautiful. Oh yeah, and the coasts everywhere. And the islands, especially Korcula. 

What did you bring back? Two bottles of wine, both from Tomac and aged in amphora.

Clearly amphora means something to you, since it's the name you gave your wine bar. What's special about wines aged in amphora? Wine was made in amphora, clay pots, and earthenware for thousand of years until the 5th or 6th century when production styles changed. But now there’s a movement to go back to making wine this way, because it’s a more gentle way for aging wines that doesn’t impart the same flavors as oak and more oxygenated wine processes. I share a lot of the ideals with the people who make wines in this style. Although the vessel isn’t as important as the method. Amphora isn’t easy to maintain. It’s all hand-produced. It’s labor-intensive. But wine doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s also about the story and the romance.

Joe on Location

The author, on location.

One thing/place you didn't get to visit, but wanted to? The beach, we saw it, but... 

Would you go back? In a heartbeat.

What would you do differently? I would spend more time there and try to see less. 

Any surprises? How "Western" Croatia felt. I thought it would be much more foreign feeling, but everything was pretty approachable.

What are the best Croatian wines available in the United States? Three wineries that I like are Bura, an organic winery from the central Dalmatian area that focuses on plavac mali, a grape that's a relative of zinfandel. Bibic produces several interesting native grapes and makes wines that are well priced and modern. And Matoševič from Istria specializes in in aromatic malvasia.

the coastline

The Croatian coastline.

What was your Kodak moment? Mostly all of them, but especially the electric blue water and extraordinarily steep, striking vineyards.

I can't stop thinking about: The intense blue water and the kindness and approachability of the Croatian people.

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