Most people will have a view about the classic “old world” wine producing nations – France, well it’s expensive, the name of the grape isn’t on the bottle, they’re still the greatest wines in the world, and so forth. Spain – they use a lot of oak, it’s all about Rioja, er.. and they make good value fizz. Italy? A multitude of confusing grape varieties and regions, those funny straw bottles… and more cheap fizz from Prosecco. Going a little further off-piste, ask for opinions about wine from Portugal (well, it’s fortified, or Mateus Rose. Is there anything else?) or Hungary (Bulls Blood? Aren’t they a bit rustic? Ah and that lovely sticky stuff from Tokaj) you’ll probably still find well embedded views. But what about Croatia?
I’ve asked many wine lovers, foodies and near neighbours from Italy and Slovenia for impressions of the Croatian wine industry. Assuming I’m not just met with a blank stare, opinions range from derisory to neutral – but rarely upward from that. This is entirely undeserved, hence various previous posts about the numerous high quality wines emerging from Croatia. Most recently, I had the chance to spend a few days in North-Westerly Istria, in the company of some wine and food writers of rather more provenance than myself. I already felt comfortable with the wines from the region, but what I had previously struggled to do was to figure out the area’s “USP” or driving force.
Istria wears a strong Italianate influence on its sleeve – particularly in terms of cuisine, which tends to focus on simple yet elegant treatments of the very high quality produce available in the region. I visited during the wild asparagus season, something of a delight as these slightly bitter, yet delightfully nutty vegetables are not commonly found in the UK. The favoured Istrian treatment is a dish of scrambled eggs, prsut and wild asparagus – quite delightful, especially if it’s cooked for you by wine-maker Mladen Roxanich (who also happens to be a chef, and a good one at that).
Yet the Italian influence is much less than the whole picture when it comes to wine. In some ways there are similarities between Friuli (Italy’s most North-Easterly wine region), Slovenia and Istria – the climate and soils have their similarities, but there are key differences too. For example, instead of the myriad local grape varieties in each sub-region (as you would expect to find in Italy), Istrian winemakers concentrate on just two indigenous grapes – Malvasija Istarska and Teran (which is related to Refosco, or Refosk to give it the local name).
Perhaps the biggest difference is down to recent history – in many ways, the modern Istrian winemaker started with a clean slate from the mid 1990s. Following the civil war, and collapse of communism in the former Yugoslavia, Istrians were once again free to make wine for themselves, rather than just delivering the years’ harvest to the government owned cooperative (which would knock out cheap glugging wine in vast quantities). Effectively, there was no serious quality production of wine until 1995 – and many of the region’s best producers have set up shop much more recently than that.
This “ground zero” approach is quite apparent when you visit local wineries. At Bruno Trapan‘s recently completed gleaming new winery, they talk about their “old vines”, and “new vines”. But the latter are not 40 year old gnarly “Vielle Vignes”. The old vines are a mere 15 years old, and the new ones still in nappies – at three years old, barely ready for production.
The Trapan wines are made in a modern style – accessible and generally easygoing. There’s a conundrum here – Bruno’s vineyards are now certified organic, demonstrating a commitment to the land and its preservation. Yet in other respects, the production methods are quite interventionist, with cultured yeasts and numerous wood aging regimes (oak barriques plus some acacia barrel aging for the Malvasija). Micro-oxygenation and filtration are also used to achieve a consistently marketable product. The wines are pretty exemplary in terms of quality, but I felt they lacked the last degree of character. Still, with so much change and experimentation going on at Trapan, perhaps they need a few years to settle down?
In comparison, Mladen Roxanich believes in a more pragmatic approach to viticulture, which is neither full-blown organic or biodynamic – despite using many elements from both philosophies. For Mladen, it was “central to enter winemaking without any dogmas”. However, in the winery, his approach is ultra-traditional – in sharp contrast to Trapan. The wines are fiercely individual, with Malvasijas, Chardonnays and white blends that undergo extremely long skin-contact, to extract enormously complex flavours and stabilise them for long aging. For Mladen, “Secondary and tertiary flavours provide the real terroir characteristics”, and the fermentation on the skins, and use of large oak barrels (barriques are being summarily phased out) helps to generate these flavours.
The Roxanich wines are quite extraordinary, with the whites perhaps shining most brightly in the firmament. Chardonnay, Malvasija Istarska and the white blend “Ines in White” are bottled typically after three years in large wood barrels. These wines are expansive, complex and utterly beguiling. I loved the apricot, lime and candied peel notes in the Chardonnays, and was almost more enticed by their freshness in youth (2011), although admittedly they gain in richness as they age (2010 and 2009). The “Malvasija Antica” has a sherried note, along with figs, honey and lime – and again is fascinating to taste as it evolves over the years. “Ines in white” though is the standout, a fascinating field blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Glera (AKA Prosecco), Friulano, Vermentino, Riesling Italico, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Blanc. It’s an incredibly long and complex wine, with the Sauvignon contributing a lovely grapefruit note (reminding me of what this grape can achive in Friuli).
The reds are scarcely less enticing, although it was interesting to taste the older vintages of the Teran (2005 and 2006), which were noticeably less polished than the more recent “Teran-re”, where Refosco softens the blend. If one red shines through however, it is the “Super Istrian” – an elegant, yet quite massive (by Istrian standards at least) blend which I describe in greater length here.
Returning to the Italian influence, Giorgio Clai still reigns supreme in Istria. Originally from Trieste, Clai has built a name for uncompromising but always successful winemaking techniques, again centreing on largely biodynamic methods of production, skin-contact and use of indigenous yeasts. Clai’s Malvasija “Sveti Jacov” is in some ways a very traditional treatment - a white wine given long barrel ageing and slightly oxidative treatment. However, Clai’s attention to detail (and, one suspects, hygiene in the winery) produces an utterly compelling result, which feels perfectly integrated despite high alcohol levels. The flavours span honeysuckle, caramel, candied peel and peach blossom, and matched with food such as local salami there is nothing finer.
Clai has just bottled a sparkling wine which also wowed us – a blend of Malvasija, Chardonnay and Plavine, this almost rose-coloured wine had a lovely biscuit and spiced red fruit character and just radiated class. Look out for it when it is on the market.
Right next door to the Clai winery, Moreno Coronica is making slightly more traditional wines, but with equally consistent results. Coronica’s Gran Teran 2008 might just be the best example of this tricksy grape I have ever tasted. Bright cherry fruit, and the typical teran herbaceousness are balanced perfectly with a mocha note. Teran benefits from a bit of oak ageing, to flesh it out, and Coronica’s wine is supple and wonderfully moreish. His muscular Cabernet “Grabar” 2008, also impressed, with attractive medicinal and chocolate overtones.
Misal Sparkling wines
There really is no end to the experimentation and variety to be found in this compact region, and what better way to illustrate that than with a tasting of the sparkling wines from Misal - interestingly, sisters Ana and Katarina Misal are intolerant of Sulphur Dioxide (the wine maker’s “cure all” when it comes to stabilising and protecting wines), so their entire range is made with a miniscule dose of So2 – good news for natural wine fans who prefer to taste the grape and not the winemaking.
There are no less than seven different sparklers on offer, and although they vary in terms of success, all are worth a look. The standout is possibly the Misal Istra Brut, produced from 100% Malvasija, and displaying wonderful high-toned apricot fruit, and a refreshing bitter almond finish – a perfect rendition of Malvasija’s varietal character, with bubbles.
Ultimately, Istria is a region of contradictions – sometimes, what seems new is actually firmly embedded in tradition: for example, Clai’s reinvention of long aged, semi-oxidised white wine. And equally, what seems very traditional (Coronica’s barrqiue aged red wines) is actually quite new, in terms of quality red wine production, which really did not exist before the 1990s. The paradox of a long wine-producing history, whose traditions were physically and psychologically erased, and the “year zero” approach of the last 15 years, is both fascinating and problematic – and hard to compare to any other major wine-producing region.
Perhaps these apparent contradictions will resolve into an Istrian “style” in the decades to come. 15 years is after all a relatively short length of time in wine making history. But for the time being, it’s hugely enjoyable to experience the rampant innovation, experimentation and drive for quality that seems to radiate from every corner.
Istria still houses mainly small producers – Franco Cattunar‘s estate of 46 Hectares is one of the largest – and adherence to largely organic and biodynamic farming methods remains popular. Dimitri Brečević has however noticed a worrying trend of growers being increasingly wooed by the petrochemical companies. There is definitely a risk that this fertile and pleasant land could be turned over to more mundane commercial production. Of course therein lies the rub – prices for these lovingly made, small production wines are not cheap, especially when they are exported to the EU. Perhaps Croatia’s succession to the EU in 2013 will see a readjustment in pricing, which could certainly boost the profile of the region. With Marks and Spencer having just announced that they are adding a Malvasija Istarka to their UK range, Istrian winemakers could be on the crest of a wave.
I travelled to Istria as the guest of Pacta Connect and the Istrian Tourist Board. All the wines mentioned above are available in the UK via Pacta Connect and a number of retail and on-trade establishments.