This article is part of a Decanter guide produced in cooperation with Vinistra, association of winegrowers and winemakers of Istria, and the Croatian National Tourist Board.
Surrounded by sea on three sides, with the Julian Alps to the north, Istria is the largest peninsula in the Adriatic.
Today 90% of the zone falls in Croatia, with a small part in Slovenia and an even tinier area in Italy close to Trieste.
The landscape is dramatic, with its hilltop medieval villages, olive groves producing award-winning olive oil, woods full of wildlife (and truffles – one of the largest ever white truffles was found here; it even has its own statue) and, of course, vineyards everywhere.
Istria facts and figures
The neighbouring regions of Istria and Kvarner are one wine region – Istria is the peninsula while Kvarner covers the islands and coastline of the bay to the east.
Croatia today has 17,700 hectares (ha) of vineyards. Istria and Kvarner is the smallest of its four wine regions with 3,010ha under vine in 2022, 190ha of which are in Kvarner. This is less than 10% of the area under vine in 19th-century Istria, when plantings reached about 44,000ha, mostly red grapes at that time.
Istria is today dominated by white grapes with Malvazija Istarska the most important, accounting for 55% of all grapevines in the region. In Kvarner, the lightly floral, mineral white Žlahtina is the most important, while there also is a small movement to revive the rare local light red Sansigot.
Istria has about 250, mainly family- owned wineries, more than 120 of which are members of Vinistra, the regional association of winegrowers and winemakers. There is one large, but also very good, producer called Agrolaguna that produces about half of all Istria’s wine.
Pioneers of quality in the region include:
- Arman Marijan
New names and younger winemakers are increasingly joining the scene.
The region’s historic name, Histria, may derive from the fierce Histri, an Illyrian tribe known for piracy along the rugged rocky coastline and finally subdued by the Romans in 177 BC.
It is believed that winemaking may date back to this era. Istria has often been tied up in a political tug-of-war, having been governed variously by the Venetian Republic, Napoleon, the Habsburg monarchy, Italy, Yugoslavia and, since 1991, Croatia.
It was winemaker Ivica Matošević who first highlighted this complex identity to me – his family has lived in the same house for 200 years, but the last four generations have been born into different nationalities (Austro-Hungarian, Italian, Yugoslavian, then Croatian).
This may help to explain why there is better cooperation between winemakers here than is otherwise common in this part of Europe – including among neighbours in Slovenian Istria.
And in that communal spirit, representing many of the most significant wineries, Vinistra – the regional association of winegrowers and winemakers – was founded in 1994 with the aim of improving viticulture and winemaking, as well as being a voice for the region.
It is determined to raise awareness of Istrian wine, and to that end, in early May 2023, the 29th edition of the Vinistra wine fair – Croatia’s best-loved wine exhibition – was held in Poreč.
More than 10,000 visitors, including a large number of international guests, were able to enjoy the wines and meet the winemakers of more than 80 producers, who shared stands to present a united front.
In early April, Vinistra had also held the 14th edition of its international The World of Malvasia competition, breaking all previous records with 317 Malvasia wines from seven countries tasted and judged.
This was in addition to the 325 other wines and 58 spirits entered into Vinistra’s international Wine & Spirits Awards competition.
Soon after the wine fair, 11-14 May, Vinistra also hosted 350 international expert wine judges at the 30th annual Concours Mondial de Bruxelles competition. The association also organised a guided press trip for journalists to discover the area in more depth.
Climate, soil & rock in Istria
With warm summers and mild winters, the climate in Istria is Mediterranean – snow is rare. Almost constant winds mean relatively low disease pressure on vines.
The strong, cold dry bura wind from the north is occasionally strong enough to blow cars off the road. The mild maestral sea breeze in summer and the warm, rain- bringing jugo winds also moderate the coastal heat.
Annual rainfall is between 600mm and 1,300mm, though drought is an increasing problem. Vineyard altitude varies from sea level to around 400m.
The peninsula is largely underlaid with karst limestone bedrock, with four main soil types: white, grey, black and red.
White Istria lies to the north and northeast, where the topsoils are white, thin and rocky, and limestone-rich. Further south and inland is the central zone of Grey Istria, where flysch (ancient marine sediments of mixed shales and sandstones) appears, with marl and sand, and also humus-rich deposits of black soil.
Towards the coast and on lower-lying western areas is Red Istria, with distinctive, rusty terra rossa soils. In terms of terroir impact, the red soils give the most structured wines (be they white or red).
Wines from the white soils are the most fragrant, while black soils seem to emphasise fruitiness and grey soils are somewhere in between. In some areas these soil types do become mixed, so the impacts are not always clear-cut.
Recent, producers have started to move on from adding ‘value’ through more work in the winery to identifying the best specific locations for single-vineyard wines and terroir selections.
The area around Vižinada village is highly regarded and features all four soil types – leading producers here include Agrolaguna, Arman Marijan, Pilato and Rossi.
Motovun is another quality hotspot and is increasingly being noted as a potential ‘grand cru’ for the Teran red variety, though there are also distinctive, aromatic Malvazijas here which benefit from the influence of the Adriaticand the nearby Mirna river, with its morning fogs. Look out for leading producers Benvenuti, Fakin, Ipša and Tomaz.
The Buje area is home to some pioneering names, especially Bastian, Franković, and the pioneeering Kabola and Kozlović.
Single-vineyard selections worth looking out for include Kozlović’s groundbreaking and always impressive Santa Lucia, and Matošević’s amazing Grimalda blends.
Key grape varieties to know
Istria is dominated by Malvazija Istarska (officially Malvasia Istriana, though the local spelling highlights its Croatian identity and likely Istrian origin).
Many take the name ‘Malvasia’, but genetics show this one is not closely related to any others nor, as has often been claimed, to any Greek varieties.
The first mention of the Malvazija name in the Adriatic has a documented history back to 1385, when a physician named Bartolo requested a permit to buy 5.5 litres of Malvasia wine. Today it is Croatia’s second-most planted grape (after Graševina), at 1,555ha, and all but 6ha grow in Istria.
There’s a strong argument that Malvazija Istarska should be considered a great grape variety – capable of producing high-quality, ageworthy wines and able to reflect terroir.
It was treated as a volume workhorse in the previous era, but thanks to better vineyard management, meticulous winemaking and better understanding of the grape’s essence, it is increasingly regarded as a top variety.
The vast majority (at least 70%) is vinified in steel for simple, fresh summer drinking – perfect for the vast numbers of tourists enjoying the Adriatic coastline. Usually consumed within a year of the harvest, even these simple wines can age remarkably well.
But Malvazija is also incredibly versatile – it suits skin contact, for example. This is usually in the form of cold maceration of the juice with the skins before fermentation, but some producers also go for extended maceration (weeks or even months) along with alcoholic fermentation to make amber or orange wine styles, occasionally using amphorae.
The result is wines with wonderful texture and mouthfeel, and layers of complexity.
Fermentation and ageing in wood can also work well – options include large or small oak, mulberry and even acacia. Malvazija often has a gently honeyed, floral character which works particularly well with the fragrance of acacia barrels.
Teran is a sometimes-controversial grape, now officially named Terrano but called Teran in Istria, where it must also state Croatian Istria or ‘Hrvatska Istra’ on the label.
Its most likely origin is the Istria region, where it was first documented in 1390. By 1880 it covered 80% of Istrian vineyards, according to Vinistra, but today grows on just 232ha, according to official figures in 2022.
Teran can be beauty and the beast all rolled into one. Top modern versions show inky deep purple colour, and juicy raspberry and bilberry fruit with bright freshness, firm but food-friendly tannins, and a hint of rustic savouriness and iron in the background.
It can be made without oak for young drinking or with oak for ageing (10 years is no problem). There are also flavourful, deep-coloured rosés and a handful of lively, fruity sparklers.
It’s naturally capable of massive yields (15-20 tonnes per hectare was common in the past) and like this Teran used to be thin, unripe and austere with tooth-hurting acidity. (To compare, according to Wine Australia, in 2022 the 10-year average yield across Australia was 12.5t/ha).
Moreno Coronica was arguably the winemaker who first changed Teran’s fortunes. He spotted similarities with northwest Italy’s Nebbiolo and had a moment of revelation seeing green harvesting (removing selected unripe grape bunches to concentrate flavour in the remaining bunches) in Piedmont – though his father didn’t speak to him for 10 days after he first carried out green harvesting back in Croatia.
Producers such as Benvenuti, Fakin, Kabola, Kozlović, Tomaz and others making serious Teran today work hard to control vine vigour and reduce crop levels, often by 70% or more.
They may also leave grapes to dehydrate on the vine; all this to ensure ripe flavours and tannins.
The process of changing Teran’s fortunes started later than for Malvazija, so there’s still work to do to find the best sites and ways to work with the variety, but the results are already impressive.
Best of the rest
The numerous varieties of Muscat (or Muškat) deserve a mention. The pink-skinned Muškat Ruža is tricky (it needs a cross-pollinator) but produces grapey, raspberry-scented pink or light red wines in medium-dry or dry styles.
Muškat Momjanski is a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) for deliciously aromatic white Muscat wines around the hilltop town of Momjan.
Muškat Žuti (Yellow Muscat) is popular for its jasmine-scented, gently sweet but fresh wines. And there are a handful of impressive sweet wines from passito (dried grapes) Malvazija and Muscat.
On the red side, Merlot does especially well in Istria and, as one winemaker says: ‘We can play in the Champion’s League with Merlot.’
The sunny Mediterranean climate, with cool alpine breezes at night, allows full ripening while keeping freshness and avoiding the typical flabbiness of Merlot in a warm climate. It also works well in blends, for instance to soften and fill out Teran.
In light of today’s thirst for authenticity and great quality in wine, Istria has plenty to explore, but to get the full picture you should visit for yourself. Great scenery, wine, olive oil and truffles with sea, sun and history should ensure that it is a highly memorable experience, however you go about it.