Tanya Schmitt is keen for the world to know the beautiful wines and destinations of Croatia through her company Croatia Unpacked. Amanda Barnes interviews her about how she got into the wine world, why she thinks Istria is a hidden gem (especially in Autumn and truffle season) and how Grk has finally reached the shores of Ontario, Canada.
What sparked your interest in wine?
I’ve always enjoyed wine, but it was when I met my husband – a self-confessed old-world wine snob – in 2005, that my interest was really sparked. Thanks to some wonderful trips (the only rule we have when we travel is to eat and drink local) and many enjoyable dinners, my palate swiftly evolved, and I quickly became a wine lover with, who would have guessed it, a preference for old-world wines…
It was, however, only when we discovered Croatian wine that I ever considered entering the wine industry. Croatia produces intriguing wines that, on tasting for the first time, were both familiar to us yet, at the same time, totally unique. Before I knew it, I found myself on a fascinating journey of discovery – exploring wine regions where indigenous grapes thrive, and where the influence of Croatia’s distinctive terroir is ever-present. Although I am no wine expert, I was quickly convinced that this was a wine experience that deserved attention.
You’ve been involved with Croatian wine and tourism since 2019. What attracted you to Croatia initially?
I am English, my husband Dutch, and outside of work we are history & art lovers, explorers, foodies and wine lovers. We live in Canada today, but holidays typically take us back to Europe, where we jump on a motorbike and hit the open road. Before heading out on a road trip a few years ago, a friend recommended that we visit Istria (north west Croatia, a short hop from Trieste in Italy).
We took his advice, and discovered a region so culturally rich yet relatively undiscovered, a gourmet’s paradise and a land of opportunity. During our short stay there, we visited one of the best maintained roman amphitheatres in the Mediterranean, learnt about the ancient technique of Amphora winemaking at a beautiful local winery, saw mosaics in Poreč that rival those in Ravenna, and were wowed by the food and wine scene. As entrepreneurs we also saw incredible potential: gaps begging to be filled in the tourism sector, as well as opportunities to introduce the relatively unknown yet extremely high-quality local produce to the global stage, to name but a few.
You also co-founded ‘Experience Istria’. What do you think is the quintessential Istrian (tourism) experience?
Istria is a hidden gem. In recent years it has been labelled the “New Tuscany” – and with good reason. I often say to people that if you were parachuted into Istria, you could easily be mistaken for thinking you were in Italy, but [it is] a very rustic, natural version of its more developed neighbour. Tourists typically flock to Istria’s Adriatic coastline, with destinations such as “Venetian” Rovinj, being an eternal crowd pleaser.
For me, however, it is time spent in the hinterland of Green Istria that reveals the true, authentic heart of the region. Picture a landscape of rolling hills, medieval hilltop towns, mysterious truffle laden forests, and olive groves and vineyards stretching as far as the eye can see.
In October 2016, my husband and I visited Istria “off-season” for the first time. It was during this trip that we promised each other we would return at this time, every year. Autumn in Istria is difficult to beat. You will find yourself treated to the pungent aroma of generously shaved white truffles in the traditional konobas (local restaurants) scattered around the interior. Take a truffle hunt with a trusted guide and you may be lucky enough to find one yourself! It is also harvest time for both grapes and olives. As you roam the endless wine and olive oil roads, you will witness the locals coming out in their dozens to gather the precious fruits by hand, which will soon be lovingly transformed into the next great vintage, or in the case of olive oil, into liquid gold.
Unknown to many, Istria has been named the best olive oil producing region in the world for the last six years, and an olive oil tasting experience is not to be missed. Istrians are proud of their cultural heritage and this can be witnessed in Autumn through a host of local festivals filling the cobbled marketplaces of hilltop towns. As an added bonus, with the summer crowds long gone, all that the region has to offer can be explored in relative isolation.
What really excites you about Croatian wine at the moment, and what do you think wine writers really ought to put on their radar?
I am excited about seeing Croatian wine increasingly recognized on the international stage. The tally of awards at the top competitions is growing year after year, and the global exposure to Croatian wine seems to be growing with it. This is a trend that I hope we will see continue.
The pandemic has, without doubt, been extremely challenging for the wine industry, as it has for many others. I do believe however that there has been one key learning out of it that will hopefully benefit Croatian winemakers in the long term. It is not easy to sample Croatian wine outside Croatia. Exports are notoriously low, with the output largely being consumed within the country by locals and tourists, with minimum quantities making their way to some fortunate countries throughout the EU.
With restaurants shut down, and tourism at all time lows in the last 12 months, many winemakers have recognized the importance of diversifying their sales channels. This heralds an opportunity not only for the winemakers but also for inquisitive winelovers, with previously unheard of varietals making their way onto wine shelves around the world. A few years ago, the intrepid explorer in search of sampling Grk, would have no option but to make the journey to the distant island Korčula, off the Dalmatian coast. To think that this wine will be available in Ontario (Canada) this summer, is pretty exciting!
As for what I would like to see wine writers put on their radar, my answer would be Croatian wine! There is still relatively little coverage of the region, which historically may be tied to the low exports and thus lack of availability. However, as more and more wine agents, ourselves included, are bucking the trend and focusing on making Croatian wines available around the globe, it would be great to see wine writers embracing this evolution, and helping to educate consumers on this emerging new old-world wine destination.
Which Croatian wines are particularly resonating with the Canadian market? And what is the greatest challenge in selling Croatian wine to Canada?
The greatest challenge in selling Croatian wine in Canada is one of education. Croatia is not recognized by the average Canadian wine consumer as a wine producing destination, let alone an old-world wine region. This is somewhat understandable, given that 12 to 18 months ago, you would have had to search high and low to find a single bottle of Croatian wine on a physical, or virtual, store shelf across Ontario – Canada’s largest province.
Changing this perception takes time – it will not happen overnight, but we are confident that it will happen. With the goal of shifting this perception, we spend significant time on promoting the brand of Croatia as a whole, rather than the brand of winery A or winery B. The wineries we partner with understand this challenge, and have taken steps to form an association with this collective goal in mind. We are cautiously optimistic that, thanks to this association, we will secure EU funding in 2021 / 2022 for some pretty exciting promotional activities that will take place both in Canada and Croatia (as the situation allows). In the meantime, we are starting to see a shift emerging. As more wines are available on the market, inquisitive wine lovers are excited to try new varietals, are intrigued by the taste profiles and, invariably, are surprised by the quality.
Wines with a great story are definitely resonating with the Canadian market. For example, the majority of Canadian wine lovers may not be familiar with Plavac Mali, but they most definitely know Zinfandel. Plavac Mali is the renowned offspring of 2 ancient Croatian varietals, one of which – Tribidrag – is in fact the original Zinfandel. Telling this story draws an immediate connection in the mind of the consumer with something known and trusted, and it has definitely opened the door to a new and growing following for Dalmatia’s flagship red. Followers now start to embrace Plavac Mali and compare it to a Californian Zinfandel, in the same way others compare a Burgundy to a Californian Pinot Noir.
We have, most recently, had incredible success with Dalmatian Dog Babić from Testament Winery. Babić is a lesser known varietal, comparable to the much loved Italian Chianti. It is the price to quality ratio of this wine, outshining similar wines from its Adriatic neighbour, that has contributed to its success, with its latest release in Ontario selling out in less than a week. This will not be a one off. There are many other success stories like this just waiting to be told!
Finally, do you have any exciting travel plans post-pandemic lockdowns? What’s next on your bucketlist?
Like so many, I am longing to travel again, once it is safe to do so. Priority number one will be spending some time with my close family in England. After this, we will definitely be heading back to Istria, hopefully just in time for white truffle season!
In a few years time, we are looking forward to calling Istria home. In addition to the pleasure that we know this will bring us in our daily lives, its central location, in the heart of Europe, also opens up easy access to a range of new bucket-list targets. First on our list will definitely be riding on our motorbike into Istanbul!