The industrial port city of Pula, founded by the Romans, sits on Istria’s southern tip, while the cheerful seaside resorts of Rovinj and Poreč lie on the west coast. Inland you’ll find undulating hills supporting vineyards, olive groves and oak forests (concealing pungent truffles), overlooked by medieval-walled hill-towns such as Motovun and Grožnjan.
Culturally, the Illyrians, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians and Austro-Hungarians have all left their marks here. Much of Istria came under Venice from the 13th century till 1798, and the Italian influence is apparent in the centuries-old fortifications, churches and loggias, in the local cuisine (lots of pasta, gnocchi and risotto dishes, plus fresh Adriatic seafood) and the dialect (Italian is the second language here). Tourism developed under Yugoslavia in the 20th century, when modern resorts were built along the coast. Since then niche markets have flourished: cycling, hiking and agrotourism inland, and sailing, sea-kayaking and scuba-diving on the Adriatic.
Winemaking here dates from Roman times – hordes of amphorae have been found on the sea bed. Red Teran and white Malvasia prevail, and both are very versatile. The Romans probably brought Teran here, while Istrian Malvasia is said to have arrived from Monemvasia in Greece aboard Venetian ships some 600 years ago. And there’s Muscat too. There are two main types of soil: red soil, containing a lot of iron, which tends to produce fruity wine; and white soil, which gives forth aromatic wine with notable minerality. Many wineries are organic and the grapes hand-picked. All those listed here are open for tasting by appointment.
Pula‘s skyline is dominated by an impressive Roman amphitheatre, while the site of the Forum is now the main square, overlooked by the proud Temple of Augustus. Roman relics are displayed in the Archaeological Museum, reopening in summer 2023 following renovation. Each morning, Pula’s covered market puts on a show of fresh fruit and vegetables and Adriatic seafood displayed on crushed ice. Come sunset, the industrial port zone lights up, as eight giant cranes are illuminated by multicoloured lighting.
On the edge of town, sisters Katarina and Ana run the welcoming Benazić winery with a cellar carved out of the rocks below the family house, and a slick tasting room of polished concrete. The standard tasting offers six wines and a platter with carefully prepared snacks – the stand out wine is the aromatic Katarina Malvazija Istarska 2020, awarded a Silver medal at Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA) 2022.
For many people, Rovinj is Istria’s loveliest seaside town. Built around a sheltered fishing harbour and overlooked by a hilltop church with an elegant bell tower, you can clearly see Venetian influence in Rovinj’s pastel-coloured facades. With two Michelin-star restaurants and a handful of big modern 5-star waterside hotels (one a member of Design Hotels), Rovinj is Croatia’s second most luxurious destination after Dubrovnik. It lies 36km northwest of Pula.
You’ll find two wineries open for tasting in a residential neighbourhood of Rovinj. Dobravac, where you should try the Sonata Riserva 2020 and orange Simfonija, both from Malvasia; and Vivoda, best known for its fruity St Euphemia 2018, made from Malvasia and aged 16 months in oak, which won a Gold at DWWA 2022.
On a carefully-cultivated hillside southeast of town, Stancija Collis produces good Malvasia and Teran, as well as award-winning olive oil. The winery also keeps donkeys and sells donkey milk.
In inland Istria, 68km north of Pula, the medieval-walled hilltown of Motovun is central Istria’s most popular destination. From the fortifications, you have spectacular views over the Mirna Valley, with its lush vineyards, and oak forests loved by truffle hunters. Motovun is exposed to two climates, Mediterranean and Continental – in summer temperatures vary from 40°C during the day to 15°C at night. Teran does especially well here, and Motovun Malvasia has a herbal flavour.
In Motovun, Klaudio Tomaz, a former butcher and keen game hunter, heads the Tomaz winery. His best seller, Malvazija Avangarde, is an easy summery wine. His powerful ruby red Barbarossa Teran 2019, aged 18 months in oak, won a Gold at DWWA 2022. In summer 2023, Tomaz will open a stylish new winery, built from concrete, stone and oxidised metal, with a tasting room overlooking the vineyards.
Below Motovun, in the village of Brkač, at the Fakin winery Marko Fakin grows Malvasia down in the valley, where it is warm and damp, and Teran up on the sun-drenched hill of San Tommaso. His vibrant fruity Fakin Teran 2021, aged six months in oak, also won a Gold at DWWA 2022.
In the village of Kaldir, 5km southeast of Motovun, Benvenuti is run by brothers Albert and Nikola. Taste their superb Teran Livio Benvenuti 2019, and their sweet San Salvatore Muškat 2017, awarded a Platinum medal at DWWA 2022.
Buje & Momjan
Lying close to the Slovenian border, hilltop Buje has a medieval-walled old town with a 16th-century Baroque church on the main square. Amid lush green undulating hills, 6km northeast of Buje, tiny Momjan is famed for Muškat Momjanski, declared a protected label of origin by the EU in 2021 – just five wineries, within a 5km radius of the village, produce this sweet dessert wine. Malvasia and Teran do well here too.
In Momjan, family-run Prelac can truly claim to be a garage winery – in the tasting room, a former vehicle inspection pit has been concealed by an oxidised metal cover. Be sure to try the award-winning Momjan Muškat 2022, and also look out for the quirky Malvazija Under the Sea, aged in bottles at a depth of 20m for one year in the Kvarner Gulf.
Approached up a driveway lined by cypresses and olive trees, Marino Markežić’s Kabola winery occupies an old stone farmhouse. You might recognise it as a location for the 2021 film, Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard. Kabola’s top seller is its light and fruity Istrian Malvasia. Also, try the full-bodied golden Malvazija Amfora – inspired by a visit to Georgia in 2000, Markažić started making wines in big clay amphorae.
Hidden in a cool damp valley, with a stream and natural springs below Momjan, the slick contemporary Kozlović winery, designed by Fabrika architects from Pula, is a world unto its own. The valley produces a delightful fresh Malvasia, while the hot, dry, white-soil vineyard near Buje produces Kozlović Santa Lucia Malvazija 2017, which is aged in big 5,000-litre wooden barrels for 12 months, and was awarded a Platinum medal at DWWA 2022.
On the road from Pula to Rovinj, surrounded by flat fertile land supporting olive groves, Bale has a sleepy old town with cobbled alleys leading to the 16th-century Soardo-Bembo Castle.
Lying 8km southwest of Bale, Meneghetti is a luxurious wine resort, with rooms, residences and villas, set amid vineyards and olive groves. Its modern winery, designed by Fabrica architects, has a slick tasting room. The extensive portfolio includes sparkling wine and several conceptual labels, such as ‘White’ and ‘Red’. Inspired by memories of time gone by, when the two colours were the only way people differentiated wines, Miroslav Plišo tasked himself with producing the best white and the best red possible. The results are impressive. The fruity mineral-rich Meneghetti White 2021 combines Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc, while the powerful Meneghetti Red 2018 uses Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Both are aged in oak.
My perfect weekend in Rovinj
My favourite base in Istria, Rovinj offers a choice of classy waterside hotels. Of these, I’d suggest the newest, the Grand Park Hotel, enjoying magnificent views of the old town across the bay, plus contemporary design, gourmet dining and a rooftop spa.
Having booked in at the hotel, stroll along the seafront promenade to Rovinj’s lovely old town. Walk around the pretty fishing harbour, rimmed by pastel-coloured houses, hosting seafood restaurants and ice cream parlours, then continue around the peninsula. Originally a tiny island, Rovinj was connected to the mainland coast in 1763, when the sea channel was filled in.
From the harbour, take an early-evening ride in a traditional flat-bottom batana rowing boat, lit by a fishing lantern. Then return to the hotel for a spectacular dinner at Cap Aureo.
Start with breakfast on the hotel’s Laurel & Berry terrace – the eggs Florentine are divine. Walk over to the old town and up to the hilltop Church of St Euphemia, to climb the bell tower for fantastic views. Then head east of the centre, to visit two wineries, Dobravac and Vivoda. Returning to town, near the port, take a look at the colourful open-air market. Have lunch at waterside Puntulina – I recommend sea bream carpaccio followed by ravioli with truffles
Cycle (the hotel has bikes) south along the coast, through the parkland of Zlatni Rt peninsula, then inland to Stancija Collis, which makes its own wine and olive oil. On the way back, stop for a swim at a pebble cove shaded by pine trees on Zlatni Rt.
Enjoy Maistra’s Kozlović Dinner and Wine Tasting package, which includes transfer from the Grand Park Hotel to Momjan, for a tour of the Kozlović winery with tasting, followed by a private dinner on the winery rooftop with wine pairing.
After breakfast, drive to Paladini, near Buzet, for truffle hunting in the Mirna Valley with Karlić Tartufi. You’ll be walking through oak forests with dogs, after which you’ll have an optional truffle cooking demonstration and a light lunch. If you forgo lunch, head up to hilltop Motovun to eat at Konoba Fakin.
Depending how much time you have, visit the Tomaz and Fakin wineries (both open Sundays) below Motovun. Depart via Pula airport.
Your Istria address book
Cap Aureo, Rovinj
Reserve in advance to experience Jeffrey Vella’s six-course degustation menu with wine pairing. Expect a sensuous journey, full of surprises, with treats including artichokes, truffles, turbot and lamb.
This waterside restaurant, on the rocks on Rovinj’s old town peninsula, specialises in fresh fish (including raw options, such as carpaccio) and homemade Istrian pasta dishes.
Overlooking the fishing harbour, this informal eatery does typical Istrian fare – try the crni rižot (black risotto made from cuttlefish ink) with a carafe of house wine, white Malvazija from Vivoda.
In Motovun’s old town, Fakin’s terrace affords sweeping views over the Mirna Valley. Come here for creative dishes based on local seasonal produce, such as tagliatelle with wild asparagus and goat’s cheese, plus Fakin’s own wines.
Konoba Rino, Momjan
Owned by the Prelac winemaking family, Rino stays busy all year, serving authentic homemade dishes, such as fritaja (omelette) with black truffles, and apple strudel paired with a glass of Momjan Muscat.
La Parenzana, Buje
Much-loved by touring cyclists and foodies, steaks and fish are cooked over an open fire, while the kitchen prepares gnocchi with venison at this rustic eatery.
Grand Park Hotel, Rovinj
A smart 5-star hotel with lovely views of Rovinj’s old town across the bay, with contemporary design and a vast rooftop spa.
Grand Hotel Brioni, Pula
By the sea on Verudela peninsula, 5km from the centre of Pula, this big modern 5-star hotel reopened after renovation in 2022.
A sprawling complex of luxurious rooms, suites, residences and villas, with two restaurants, a spa and an outdoor pool, set amid beautifully curated gardens and vineyards.
La Parenzana, Buje
This renovated stone farmhouse offers comfortable rooms and a restaurant with outdoor tables on a terrace with wisteria and lavender.
Hotel Kaštel, Motovun
In a 17th-century building on Motovun’s main square, Kaštel has 33 rooms and a café-restaurant with tables shaded by towering chestnut trees.
Hotel Parentium Plava Laguna, Poreč
A big modern 4-star hotel, with outdoor pools and a spa, set amid pine trees on the coast, 5km from Poreč old town.
Wine shops and bars
You’ll want to do your wine shopping direct at the wineries you visit.
Caffe Bar XL, Rovinj
A fine place for a sunset aperitif, with gorgeous views, next to Rovinj’s hilltop church.
Café Cvajner, Pula
On the Forum Square, Cvajner has to be Pula’s coolest spot for coffee or a glass of wine.
Things to do
See the Arena (Roman amphitheatre) in Pula. Originally built to host gladiator fights, it now stages open-air summer concerts and the annual Pula Film Festival. Northeast of Pula, visit Brijuni National Park (accessed by boat from Fažana), an archipelago of green islets, where former President of Yugoslavia Tito kept a summer villa.
Visit the Unesco-listed Euphrasian Basilica in Poreč, adorned with glittering golden Byzantine mosaics
In the Mirna Valley, near Buzet, go truffle hunting with Karlić Tartufi.
Also in inland Istria, cycle along the Parenzana, a former railway line running from Poreč to Trieste, which now connects several wine routes.
How to get there
Fly to Pula, served by flights from various airports in the UK.