Then my Croatian hosts and I set off to tour three wine regions. Slavonia links Zagreb with the Danube: a long green tongue of forest and vineyard thrusting east, the eventual border closer to Belgrade than to Zagreb itself. We twisted our way through the hidden, flower-clustered intricacies of the highlands north of Zagreb, stretching up towards Slovenia and the Hungarian west. Then we crossed the Istrian peninsula south of Trieste: bright, sunlit, stony, its olive groves and vineyards punctuated with truffle oaks. There wasn't time, alas, to potter up and down the Dalmatian coast, where the land frays into Europe's most intricate archipelago. Best, I think, to find a friend who can hoist a sail for that, and take a few months over it. (I'm looking.)
I tasted and travelled with Saša Špiranec, Croatia's leading wine writer, and his colleague Ana Hozjan, an organiser so effective that she'd generally fixed something before it even occurred to you that it might be a problem. We chatted about the 'terrible times' of the Yugoslav Independence wars in which Saša fought, gun in hand – then Igor Lukovic joined us, having driven from Belgrade. He's Serbia's leading wine writer; he's Saša's good friend. It was hard not to think back to 1991. How impossible all this would have seemed back then.
Time's engine can't be turned off, of course; political developments are what provide the direction of travel. Your nation can take the coastal road, head up for the mountains – or get itself lost in the marshes. From a wine perspective, as indeed in others, Croatia seems to have left the marshes behind it.
Which, since we are in the heart of Europe, means recovering its past. These are old Habsburg territories, and 'the Habsburg white' is one of my keen interests. What might such a thing be? The opposite of New Zealand sauvignon blanc or Australian riesling, estimable though the best of these wines are. The perfect Habsburg white should have an unfamiliar and possibly unpronounceable name, not be crisp, not be fruity, but instead be full, structured, intriguingly scented, difficult to understand, maybe a bit fat but somehow sappy and muscular and perhaps a bit stony or fiery with it, and always taste better on the second glass than the first, especially with food. It should be so unfashionable as to be secretly fashionable.
Croatia has some magnificent Habsburg whites: doughy, sappy, honeysuckle-like graševina; the delicately zesty, sometimes salty pošip; the oleander-scented, honey-haunted malvazija Istriana. There's even a richly decked white variety called grk, being tugged back by one or two producers from extinction: top that for unpronounceability. And a suite of similar reds to discover, too. I returned home thinking, not for the first time, that our hierarchies of wine value may be subject to imminent revision. And that the secretly fashionable may cease to be secret.