This heart-shaped, northwest corner of Croatia has been billed as the ‘New Tuscany’ and is home to a diverse range of exciting wines. But will they find their place on the world stage? Simon Woolf reports

Istria at a glance

Area under vine 3,102 hectares
Annual production About 200,000hl
Grape varieties for quality (PDO) wines*
White Malvazija Istarka (1,688ha), Chardonnay (130ha), Muškat (90ha), Pinot Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Trebbiano Toscano, Zlahtina Red Merlot (314ha), Teran (230ha), Cabernet Sauvignon (187ha), Refošk (115ha), Borgonja (51ha), Cabernet Franc (51ha), Hrvatica, Barbera, Pinot Noir, Syrah

* Quality wines have the Hrvatska Istra regional denomination. The sub-region (Western, Central or Eastern) and vineyard name are also permitted on the label.

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When I ask winemaker Franco Cattunar how it feels now that Croatia is officially part of the EU, he smiles patiently. ‘We always felt like we were part of Europe – nothing’s changed really,’ he says. 1 July 2013 may have been a political milestone, but Croatia’s accession has barely caused a ripple in the region’s fermentation tanks.

Istria is entitled to its European sensibilities. After a 200-year tug-of-war between Austria and Italy, Croatia’s northwesterly peninsula still refuses to be neatly contained, slipping quietly over both Slovenian and Italian borders. The Italian influence is strong – Istria has excellent cuisine and some of the Balkan’s most elegant wines, not to mention olive groves, truffles and idyllic coastal towns. The ‘New Tuscany’ moniker is deserved.

The high quality of the wine is no secret, but Istria’s impressive and increasing international profile is recent. Producers were only freed from the shackles of bulk-producing state cooperatives in 1992. The early 1990s were pivotal, as a new generation of pioneers reinvigorated small family estates, modernised wineries and started focusing on quality. Gianfranco Kozlović, Moreno Coronica, Moreno Degrassi and Elidio Pilato were some of the first to push the boundaries, and even the giant Vina Laguna cooperative (now privatised) began to produce serviceable, if unexciting wines.

The explosion in modern winemaking coincided with Istria’s rise as a boutique tourist destination, something that producer and Vinistra president Ivica Matošević feels is crucial to the region’s success. ‘Connecting wine and tourism is a way to tell our story, to communicate our unique terroir,’ he says. And Istria is blessed, with rolling hills, a temperate climate modulated by sea breezes and at least four soil types (white marl/karst, terra rossa or red clay, and black and grey sandstone). That diversity is reflected in a multitude of wine styles – reds, whites and rosés – from native and international varieties, plus smaller quantities of sparkling and sweet wines. But young, fresh Malvazija Istarka is the benchmark, representing 70% of production. It has become Croatia’s favourite white wine, bar none.

Championing native varieties

Kozlović kick-started the revival of Malvazija as a quality wine. ‘It took years to get people to take it seriously – I spent most of the 1990s opening bottles in restaurants persuading people to try it,’ he says. The indigenous Malvazija Istarka deserves its popularity. Though not hugely aromatic, it has a fuller body and more generous fruit than many comparable Italian whites. Typically, there should be a whiff of honey, zesty citrus and pear fruit, and a nutty, bitter finish.

Despite only moderate acidity, Malvazija can be coaxed into a more full-bodied and ageworthy style. Giorgio Clai, Roxanich and Benvenuti have reinvented traditional skin-contact methods, while others (notably Cosetto and Cattunar) leverage late harvesting or oak ageing. New oak is declining in popularity, as producers aim for more subtlety and less overt wood influence. Some are turning to acacia barrels – a plentiful wood in the region – while Kabola has proved that Malvazija can be outstanding when fermented in Georgian amphorae.

If Kozlović was Malvazija’s saviour, Moreno Coronica is Teran’s high priest. Like Kozlović, Coronica inherited the family vineyards at the start of the 1990s and was determined to concentrate on native varieties. His rich, barrique-aged Gran Teran has set the standard for this difficult red grape.

Teran is hard to ripen, and can suffer from brutal tannins and mean acidity. As Cattunar says, ‘To get good results, you must know Teran better than your wife.’ But its unique selling point is its wildness – herby and highly-strung, never bland or heavy. Oak ageing is popular, but the best results are those that don’t overawe the grape, or dumb down its individuality. Franc Arman, Benvenuti, Cattunar, Geržinić, Kabola and Piquentum all make convincing examples, at their best after a few years of bottle age.

Istria’s second native red variety, Refošk, is softer and more accessible, but has suffered from nomenclature confusion: Teran and Refošk were considered to be essentially the same variety, until disproved by recent DNA profiling and research by Dr José Vouillamoz. To make matters worse, the Slovenes insist on calling their Refošk ‘Teran’ and have attempted to protect the name in a political spat that Matošević dismisses as ‘a nonsense’.

Compared to Malvazija, Istria’s varietal Terans show a frustrating lack of consistency, with some producers turning out thin, acidic fare and others using oak or blending international varieties to mute its assertiveness. Yet Merlot is hugely successful here, both in blends and as a fresh, herbaceous varietal. British wine critic Oz Clarke said Istria might be the world’s second-best Merlot terroir after Bordeaux. Does blending hold the key? Many winemakers believe it might. For me, the individuality of Teran and Refošk holds still greater potential, once producers become more adept at handling them.

Riding the wave

The new crop of winemakers emerging from Poreč (the region’s wine school) must be encouraged to take up this challenge. French/Croatian Dimitri Brečević believes they will: ‘Our terroir is vital, and we still don’t understand it properly, but I’m heartened when I see students asking about native varieties, typicity and sustainable viticulture.’

Brečević is one of the second wave of younger producers. Enfant terrible Bruno Trapan has proved that even the stony terroir near Pula has potential, and his surreal railway station-themed winery is worth a visit in its own right, while Benvenuti and Geržinić have established impressive track records. Matošević is enthusiastic: ‘We need young guns, more self-confidence and better communication.’

Vinistra’s IQ (Istrian Quality) denomination is a response to this need, theoretically denoting the best and most typical wines. Arguably, there are too many technically correct but stylistically dull IQ offerings, but there’s no question that it has helped push the region as a whole.

Slovenian Istria’s much lower profile is notable by comparison. There’s no doubting the potential in the Koper and Kras sub-regions, as demonstrated by Uroš Rojac or Uroš Klabjan, but the tiny size of most estates and the lack of a dedicated promotional body seems to keep them out of the limelight.

Istrian wines can be world class, but more ambitious producers need to step up to the plate. From Vinistra’s 120 members, barely 30 produce anything of interest. Estates are small and prices relatively high – and with a strong domestic market where producers sell out every year, that’s not going to change. But if Alto Adige, Friuli and Austria have succeeded with high-quality and premium prices, then Istria can surely do the same. The main issue is availability – these wines are hard to find on our shelves. Is it fanciful to hope that being part of the EU will ease red tape and reduce prices? Perhaps, but I’m confident that this ‘New Tuscany’ can triumph on quality, without a fiasco in sight.

Written by Simon Woolf

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. Six Istrian wine producers to watch
  3. 3. Eight of the best wine buys from Istria
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