Over the past 12 years there has been a huge leap in the quality and diversity of wines from Croatia’s fascinating northwest peninsula, Istria. This is due to the new wave of winemakers finding their feet, massive investment in new wineries and equipment, and growing confidence in the indigenous grape varieties. Chris Boiling hits the road to discover more...
“Put your ear here, over the bunghole.” Winemaker Dimitri Brečević wants me to listen to his red wine, which is still fermenting seven months after the juice was put in the barrel.
There are three reasons for the long fermentation, he explains: The grapes come from old, nitrogen-poor vineyards, the yeast comes from the grapes' skins (not a packet), and – most importantly – the winery is damn cold. “If the door is closed, the temperature is around 10-11ºC. This is perfect for aging, but often too cold to get a native fermentation started. For successful fermentation I need to use a fan that brings some air from the outside to reach 14ºC,” says Dimitri, in an English accent acquired from his French mother. On balance, though, he thinks the low temperature is an advantage because the wines need fewer sulphites and they evolve at their own pace – “step by step, not too quickly, so there are no temperature shocks”.
A fan of lesser-known grape varieties and small-scale wine producers, I’m touring Istria to see what this 2,820sq km, strawberry-shaped peninsula has to offer the wine world – and I’ve started at the most unusual winery I’ve ever visited. Dimitri’s Piquentum wines are made in a massive concrete bunker that Mussolini had built in the 1920s. It is fairly well hidden at the foot of the hill supporting the historic town of Buzet (called Piquentum when Latin was used in this part of Croatia). The four huge concrete tanks, which have since been knocked through, were used to store water for a nearby army garrison when Italy ruled Istria between the two world wars.
The bunker first became a winery in the 1970s, under the control of the Yugoslavian government, which took over the area from Italy in 1947. Grapes from as far away as Macedonia were brought here to make cheap-and-cheerful plonk in two 80,000L concrete tanks. During the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s it was designated a shelter, but was never used as such.
Dimitri’s Croatian father bought the bunker in 2006 so his French-born son could make his own wines using grape varieties indigenous to this part of Croatia – Malvazija Istarska (Malvasia Istriana) and Teran. “When I first saw the place I couldn’t believe it – it was so impressive. Even though there was no light, no electricity, nothing,” Dimitri recalls. “We just had a torch and we were very surprised. It was a shame it was not functioning as a winery.”
Bordeaux-educated Dimitri has been using it for the past ten years to make “interesting” wines in a “traditional” way. The kind of wines that he likes to drink but are hard to sell.
“I really like natural wine, if we have to call it like that. I like to say traditional, old-style wine,” he explains, as we sample his Teran straight from old oak barrels. “Some kind of wines I can drink are very well done, very precise, very aromatic but for me they are so boring, not at all interesting. I can drink them but I can’t appreciate them. I say my wines are very raw. I like that, I like to feel the nature. I like to feel the earth, the grape. I like to sometimes find some kind of mistake, some technological mistake. I prefer that to something perfect – it gives the wine some kind of character.
“When I worked in France, Australia and New Zealand (after studying oenology in Bordeaux) everything was clean, clean, clean, but in the end it was so much clean it was dead. You just have aroma, nice things and a little bit of acidity and alcohol, but where is the wine, where is the material? I’m really so often disappointed with this kind of wine that I really decided to go my way even if it is the most difficult to market.”
He admits: “It’s difficult to find the customers for the wines that are a little bit more wild, but it’s for me. I can’t make something else. I tried it in 2007 with one tank with yeast. It tasted good at the beginning but after four or five months it was boring, whereas the other wines were showing their expressions. I sold it as an open wine. Very often people will find a mistake in my wine. Okay. It’s not perfect wine in a school way but I don’t look for that, I look for the expression, the feeling.
“If you choose this way sometimes you have to be ready to accept some mistake – sometimes you make mistake, sometimes nature makes mistakes, but the thing is I am ready to accept it, ready to have less money, ready to be sometimes very disappointed but that’s the way I choose. Sometimes at the end I even enjoy that part too, that’s why I like this job – I’m always learning something new, tasting something new.”
Dimitri, 37, is part of the new wave of winemakers who are riding the crest created by Croatia’s cult winemakers, such as Giorgio Clai and Mladen Rožanić, who have shone a light on the region’s two main indigenous varieties, Malvazija Istriana and Teran.
Dimitri only produces about 20,000 bottles of wine a year, but he is gradually adding to his 4.5ha, getting better grapes from local organic grapegrowers to top up his output, and upping his red wine production. At the moment it is 60/40 in favour of Malvazija, but he is aiming for a 50/50 split. The stats for the area show that about two-thirds of the region’s volume is white wine. Whereas the most-grown variety in Croatia is Graševina, in Istria the signature white is indisputably Malvazija.
When Dimitri’s bunker was state-owned and the local Malvazija vines were over-cropped, the wine was cheap and insipid. Now that the priority has switched from quantity to quality, Malvazija is showing its true character. The Piquentum Blanc is a great introduction to its potential. It has the typical straw to golden yellow colour; its delicate aroma is reminiscent of acacia flowers with apricot undertones; it is medium to full-bodied, has refreshingly broad acidity, a minerally, salty, slightly bitter finish and is an ideal accompaniment for a variety of Mediterranean dishes.
Unlike orange winemakers Clai and Rožanić who macerate their white grapes for weeks or months, Dimitri macerates his Malvazija grapes for only two to three days, and presses slowly to flush off the yeasts for the spontaneous ferment. Once the fermentation is under way, he puts about 70% of the must in old oak barrels (from France and Croatia) and the rest in stainless steel tanks. He usually blends the wines in May and bottles them in June. He fines the whites with bentonite and uses a little sulphur dioxide to help preserve the wine.
Istria’s signature red grape variety is the gum-drying Teran, although there is a dispute over the name – with Slovenia having won the right to use ‘Terrano’ for Refošk grown on red soil from the 2013 vintage onwards.
Dimitri doesn’t have to worry about this as his Teran is simply called Rouge. The barrel samples that we try are harsh and in desperate need of the malolactic fermentation that will only come in the summer, when Dimitri flings open his cellar doors to let some warm air stream in to the bunker. As we tasted back through the years, it became obvious that Teran is a grape that needs time for the tannins and acidity to meld and for the more pleasing secondary and tertiary aromas and flavours to take hold. On the nose the older Rouges offer black fruit, wet earth, fig, burnt chocolate and flint. In the mouth it feels medium-bodied, still quite tannic with a strong acidic backbone and lovely cherry flavour. And, like the Malvazija, the finish has a minerally, salty edge.
My next port of call was the Kozlović Winery in the bucolic Vale valley near Momjan. It is so, so different to Piquentum in so, so many ways. Visiting the two places back to back, though, shows the diversity of winemaking in Istria (or Istra, as the locals call it). The Kozlović Winery is a stunning-looking modern edifice geared to producing the freshest, cleanest, fruitiest wines imaginable – what owners Franco Kozlović and wife Antonella call an “unobtrusive stylistic expression” of the variety; what Dimitri would call ‘wines without mistakes’.
The other big difference here is the family heritage. Over the past 110 years the family business has grown from a farm to one of the largest wine producers in the region, with 25ha of vineyards, 15 employees, a winery that has expanded from 450sq m to 2,000sq m in recent years and spread from one storey to three. Although modern, it too is unobtrusive and blends in so well with the surrounding countryside thanks to the grass on the roof and the stone walls, made from rocks unearthed during the construction of the new winery.
As we tour the gleaming cellar with its 7.5m-high, shiny, temperature-controlled tanks, Antonella explains their philosophy and why they have embraced modern technology: “We think everything has to be done inside the vineyard and then you just have to keep it the right way in the cellar and that’s the reason why we try to prevent oxygenation with nitrogen, stainless steel. Our philosophy is wine for drinking, not wine for philosophy-making.”
Even so, when we taste the wines in the shadow of Momjan’s medieval castle, it’s obvious that third-generation winemaker Franco likes to experiment from time to time. “OK, yes, we have some wines for philosophy-making but not many and not every year, just a special year like the Sorbus, the Momjanski Muškat from 2009,” Antonella admits. “That was a great year and we do some TBA with completely dry berries and we do Malvazija that was aged in acacia barrels...” There is also a Bordeaux blend with a little Teran to add extra spice.
The star for me, though, is the competition-winning Santa Lucia Malvazija, a big, beautifully structured, fruit-filled white from vines that are more than 50 years old. Tullio Fernetich, the sommelier-owner of the region’s top boutique hotel, the San Rocco in Brtonigla, told me the 2009 was “one of the best white wines ever made”. No sign of mistakes and full of character – it might even make Dimitri change his mind.
The final difference I notice here is that this winery is geared up for passing tourists, whereas most of the others require an appointment (by email or telephone).
Another winery near Momjan that welcomes tourists is the Tuscan-like stone farmhouse of Kabola, the region’s only certified organic producer. Winemaking started here in 1891 but it is only since 2005 that Marino Markežić has switched from producing wine for his restaurant to making wine for the international market. He has 20ha of vines and makes a wide range of wines from international and indigenous varieties.
Over plates of locally cured pršut (Croatian prosciutto), goat’s cheese, homemade bread and olive oil, I go through the range, guided by Marino’s daughter, Martina, who has returned from working for Google in Dublin to run the winery’s sales and marketing. The Malvazijas include a fresh and fruity version, as you would expect, a barrique-aged riserva, a newly bottled sparkling Malvazija and my favourite – probably my favourite wine from this whole trip – an amber-coloured Malvazija that has spent six months macerating in 2,000L Georgian amphorae in the garden, followed by another year in large oak barrels (a mixture of old and new barrels from France, Italy and Slavonia) and another year in a bottle. “My father is a bit crazy but you have to be crazy if you want to make these kind of things,” Martina says with a smile.
But it doesn’t seem crazy to me. The Kabola Malvazija Amfora is the perfect combination of ancient and modern techniques. I love the colour and the aromas. It reminds me of many of my favourite things: raisins, dried figs, honey and cognac. It is beautifully structured and balanced and the finish goes on and on. But it still only costs about €20. “We want to make this wine available to everyone,” Martina explains.
On its website, Kabola describes it as “a wine for philosophy and conversation”. Dimitri might love it too!
The other wines that stood out were a Teran rosé and a sweet Muškat Momjanski (see below) which paired so well with some of grandma’s delicious homemade fritule. The majority of grapes for the wines come from about 3km away, where the family had its restaurant for 32 years. It’s where the region’s distinctive iron-rich red and marly white soils meet.
As you travel around Istria, past its crumbling hilltop towns and over its undulating hills, you will hear a great deal about its soil, and how the four different types contribute their own distinctive, rich flavours to the wine. Generally, the red ‘terra rossa’ is found near the coast and the white and grey are found more inland. Each winery, not surprisingly, claims to have the best soil.
Cattunar, which is located in Nova Vas, near Brtonigla, was the only one I came across that had all four soil types (including black) and made a Malvazija from each so everyone could see, smell and taste the subtle differences. To me, the Malvazija from red soil tasted slightly more minerally and salty; the wine from the white soil was slightly more floral; from the grey soil it was both grapey and flowery; and the one from the black soil seemed heavier. I liked them all but when forced to pick one I opted for the black – for its structure and balance.
Owner Franco Cattunar agreed: “It is more complete.” Franco is following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who started producing wine here in the 1930s. Although Franco is 60, he has the passion and enthusiasm of a much younger winemaker. He is constantly experimenting with barrels and yeasts, even developing his own strains specially for Malvazija. He believes this yeast will show the true flavour of Malvazija as many of the wines currently on the market were fermented with yeast developed for other white varieties, such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. He is also a big believer in leaving the wine in contact with the lees for as long as possible and aging it in the bottle for five to seven years – even though the local restaurants demand young, fresh wines from him!
From his 45ha, built up since 1985 by buying state-owned vineyards, Franco also makes Teran, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and the rare Muškat Momjanski and Muškat Ruža (see below), in a winery built in 2007. It is a family business: Son Edi makes the wine; daughter Nicole is in charge of sales, and wife Vesna handles the paperwork. “My task is to provide healthy, good quality grapes,” Franco says, having started working in the vineyard at the age of 12 – when his father died.
Franco also likes to experiment. It seems to be a particularly strong trait in Istria. Robi Jurman, Cattunar’s trade sales and marketing manager, reveals Franco is experimenting with the length of maceration (up to four months) and different barrels, including American oak, “to see what brings out the best in Teran. Franco thinks Teran is only showing 50-60% of its potential at the moment.”
Robi adds: “It is a very interesting wine. It is rich with tannins and has strong acidity as a young wine, so you can do anything with Teran – you can do sparkling (coming soon), you can do rosé, you can do young wine, mature wine and old wine that lasts for 20-25 years, no problem. It has 10-15 times more tannins than a Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. It could almost be like medicine when you take it.”
Franco told me of a little experiment he did for his own amusement. He added 200g of tannins to a litre of Teran from red soil and it was still drinkable.
Future plans for the winery include guest rooms, a restaurant, and conference centre. I make a note to return in a couple of years when the rooms are ready, so I won’t have to spit out so much of these delicious wines.
As I drive towards the long coast and the Adriatic Sea to taste wine from purely red soil, the wineries seem more numerous but smaller and often appear to be run from the back of the family home. However, most have obviously invested heavily in modern equipment and charming tasting rooms.
There is a particularly interesting cluster of young winemakers near Tar, on the way to the beautiful seaside town of Poreč, famous for its 1,500-year-old Euphrasian Basilica. Within a 10-15-minute drive of each other are Rossi, Gerzinić, Peršurić, Cossetto and Radovan.
At the Rossi’s home in Vižinada I meet Luka, the fifth generation of Rossi to live here. Like many Istrians, he illustrates the changing regimes by telling me his great-grandfather was Austrian, his grandfather was Italian, his father was Yugoslavian and he is Croatian, and they all lived in the same house! But he adds: “We don’t feel Croatian, like the people from Slavonia, Zagreb or Dalmatia; they really love Croatia, sing Croatian songs. For us it is not important. We just work and every 20 or 30 years we change the flag.”
It is the close proximity to Italy that seems to be the biggest influence on the winemaking here and the reason that Istria is ahead of other parts of Croatia when it comes to making an impression on the international stage. “We take the best ideas and the best equipment from Italy,” Luka explains. “This is a big plus for us.”
He is studying to be a winemaker but at the moment it’s his father, Marino, who is in charge of making the fresh and more complex Malvazijas. The herby, green-grassy, minerally Templara comes from vines that could be up to 120 years old; the grapes undergo two days of maceration and the wine is left on the lees for an extended period. “It’s the perfect, it’s the best,” he says matter-of-factly. The family has been making wine since 1885 but only started bottling it in 2003. They have 12ha made up of “0.5ha here and 2ha there”.
Brothers Marko and Marino Gerzinić took over their family vineyards in 2003, bottled their first wine in 2005, and have slowly been increasing their land holding from 2.5 to 10ha. They specialise in the “fresh style” Malvazija but are experimenting with longer maceration and maturation in oak barrels. “We try with one or two barrels but have no room for bigger production – we are at full capacity,” winemaker Marko told me.
They also make an award-winning Teran which has a splash of Syrah in it and a lovely rosé from Teran. This has a beautiful colour and hints of wild strawberries on the nose and palate.
The most interesting – and surprising – winery in this cluster was the one found in the village of Peršurići, near Višnjan (where Roxanich is based). Sisters Ana and Katerina Peršurić are doing it for themselves and making superb sparkling wines under the Misal brand, set up by their viticulturalist father, Đordano, in 1990. The sisters use indigenous and international grape varieties to produce a range that goes from classic extra bruts to a semi-sweet red made from Muškat Ruža. All 40,000 bottles are made in the traditional Champagne method with yeast from Epernay and are left to age in the bottle for at least two years “to ensure elegant bubbles”.
My favourite was Misal Istra, made exclusively from Malvazija Istriana. It’s a blend from three years with each year given a different treatment. 2007 was kept in an old oak barrel in their grandfather’s cellar. 2008 underwent seven days of maceration. 2009 is young, fresh and fruity, with big acidity (to counterbalance the acidity lost by the first two treatments). The aim is to showcase all the desirable characteristics of Malvazija in one glass: a golden colour, good acidity, good structure, and a little wood. It took these perfectionists six years to strike the right balance. What I liked was how the aromas changed: The fruit and fresh acidity from 2009 hits you first, followed by the wood influence from 2007, then the effects of the extended skin contact in 2008. I also liked the instruction from ever-smiling Ana: “Pour a big quantity and drink slowly” to witness the changes. Apparently after two hours you can only smell the oak from 2007 – but who wants to wait that long when it’s this scrummy?
What also becomes clear very soon is that these sisters are passionate about what they do. “Sparkling production is our life,” 29-year-old Ana states. “We go sleep with the sparkling wine, we start day with sparkling wine and we never think nothing else, we only think sparkling wine. We only think what we can produce from sparkling wine or what we can do better with our sparkling wine but we never think something else.”
Ana is in charge of the vineyard and marketing, and Katerina is in charge of the cellar and buying machines (from Champagne and Italy). “It’s a very complex process and it’s better to have two parts,” Ana says. “When we are in the cellar my sister is boss. When we are in the vineyard I am boss. This is the best combination. My father says this is very nice.”
To complete my short introduction to Istria, I went to a wine bar in the beguiling fishing town of Rovinj. At the Piassa Granda, run by sisters Helena and Dragona Trst, I tasted the wines of a big player on the Istrian winemaking scene. Ivica Matošević, who has a PhD from Udine University in Italy, is president of the annual wine fair Vinistra (early May). The output from his winery in Krunčići includes Malvazija blended with Sauvignon and Chardonnay and Malvazija aged in small acacia barrels to bring out the acacia blossom aroma inherent in this variety. He also makes a delectable blend of Merlot and Teran.
While I was there I also heard of enough other good winemakers (including Degrassi, Franc Arman, Sergio Delton, Elidjo Pilato, and Moreno Coronica) who would make a return visit equally memorable. And especially Alfredo and Melinda Cossetto in Kaštelir and the Benvenuti brothers Albert and Nikola in Motovun who make dessert wines from dried Malvazija grapes! I’ll definitely be back – make no mistake!
Places to stay
- San Rocco Hotel, Brtonigla
- Vela Vrata Hotel, Buzet
- Villa Meneghetti, Bale
- Hotel Lone, Rovinj
Places to visit
- The medieval hilltop towns of Buzet, Motovun, Hum and Groznjan
- The seaside towns of Rovinj, Poreč and Pula
Places to eat
- Kamene Price, Bale
- Wine Vault Restaurant at Monte Mulini Hotel, Rovinj
- Stari Podrum, Momjan (near the Koslović Winery)
- Konoba Batelina, Banjole (south of Pula)
- Blu in Rovinj
- Konoba Morgan, just outside Brtonigla
As well as Malvazija and Teran, there are two other varieties that the Istrian winemakers are proud to call their own. These are Muškat Momjanski and Muškat Ruža Porećki. They are the perfect way to complete any meal in the area. The two wines that stood out the most were the Cattunar Muškat Ruža 1992 (above left) – a sweet red wine that had spent 15 years in oak, including three sur lie, and has a finish that never wants to finish – and the Kabola Dolce, which is made from dried Muškat Momjanski grapes. As I discovered there, it pairs brilliantly with Istrian desserts such as fritule.
My main mission was to try the indigenous varieties and see if they are ready for the international stage. They are! But I couldn’t leave this beautiful land without seeing how the international varieties stacked up. Most were very enjoyable but there was one that was truly outstanding: Franko Radovan’s Merlot. My tasting note reads: “Red soil, small yield equals sublime red wine.” I also found several winemakers producing great blends from international and local varieties. A prime example is Cossetto’s Mozaik – a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Istrian Borgonja and Merlot. Another example comes from Bruno Trapan’s Wine Station in Šišan, on the outskirts of Pula. His Rubi Rosé, made from Syrah, Merlot and Teran, is both complex and rich and, along with Gerzinić’s Teran rosé, changed my view of pink stuff.