It’s simultaneously one of Europe’s most ancient winemaking regions – and one of its most up-and-coming. And yet, for whatever reason, Croatia is perhaps not the first holiday destination to come to mind for the vinous traveller. But the appeal of the sun-soaked Istrian peninsula, circled in blue Adriatic Sea, becomes abundantly obvious when you check into Meneghetti Wine Hotel. Set just inland from a west-facing coast flecked with beach, ancient Roman ruins and vineyards aplenty, the secluded Relais & Châteaux estate dishes up both old-world charm and an exciting wine offering; including bottles crafted onsite. Dare we say it, who needs Italy or France?
Indulge on the ground
On the approach to Meneghetti – via its pin-straight, tree-lined drive – you might momentarily imagine that you’ve landed in Tuscany. Manicured vines radiate outwards amid bushy patches of gnarled olive trees. Rigid cypresses flank stone farmhouse buildings with terracotta roofs. But though the Italian border is less than a two-hour drive away, this is firmly Croatia. Here Malvasia Istriana grapes dominate in a range of styles – from zesty and floral to oak-aged and honeyed – while red grape Teran reaches tannic, inky depths.
Meneghetti was designed to celebrate the region’s long wine history. Vineyards encircle the estate and, by the pool, rows of ripening grapes are in view when you relax with a good book. Likewise, you’ll see them from the grounds of the private villas, which exude a rustic but sophisticated Provençal-style mood. Elsewhere, green vines creep across the stone exterior of farm-style buildings, and wind over pergolas.
Of course, the proof is in the pudding, and there is ample opportunity to drink the fruits of the vineyard too. Meneghetti’s own wines, born from the stone- and iron-rich terra rossa soils, are showcased in the design-forward cellars. Book in for a vertical tasting, sampling reds from 2009 onwards, or take things more relaxed, sipping golden-hued Malvasia with a charcuterie board on the terrace. Do try the olive oil, too, which has won plaudits from Flos Olei, one of the most respected expert olive oil guides.
Food is another highlight. Daytime relaxed affairs unfold at Oliveto, where sea bass ceviche and burrata with prosciutto are plated up under umbrellas overlooking the vines. Come evening, a refined tasting menu takes centre stage at the main restaurant, as diners parade through the likes of ravioli with black truffle; crispy egg with wild asparagus and caviar; braised beef cheek with polenta. All washed down, of course, with a considered wine list that features not only an excellent back catalogue of Meneghetti wines but a vast range of fine European bottlings. Take your pick from Château Lafite Rothschild 1990, or a red from neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina.
From its ancient Greek winemaking roots – via the Yugoslavian era, which largely quashed quality – Istria has newly emerged to be one of the Mediterranean’s most exciting vinous pockets, particularly for white wines. And the visitor experience is growing in reputation too. Between a half-hour and hour’s drive north of the hotel, a glut of options awaits for a day of tastings.
At Kozlović Winery, founded in 1904, indigenous varietals such as Malvasia Istriana, Teran and Momjan Muscat rule, with tastings held alfresco on warm days. Further south at Matošević, old Malvasia vines perched on hilltops above the sea provide a different profile. Or try long-established Kabola Winery, an organic producer running the gamut from sparklings to sweet wines.
Beyond the grape, take time to enjoy Istria’s other pleasures too. To the south in Pula, a remarkable Roman-era amphitheatre towers above the coast. Inland, deep caves welcome cool, adventurous exploring. And in opulent Opatija, regal Habsburg villas line the waterfront, a scene so photogenic it’ll have you instantly contemplating a return visit to Croatia.
For more information, visit the Meneghetti Wine Hotel website.