Istria: The wine world’s best kept secret. (A whirlwind tour of Croatia’s hidden gem of a wi
Have you ever tried something with a stellar reputation—that thing that everyone raves on and on about, insisting that you just HAVE to try it, and when you finally do, it’s been so built up that you can’t help but be disappointed in its reality? But then there are those rare moments when you try something with no reputation at all and it turns out to be great. You’re amazed that the world doesn’t know about its greatness, and afraid if they do, the thing that makes it special will be altered forever. You’ve discovered the undiscovered.
You’ve probably guessed by now that I’m talking about Istrian wine. And actually I can take no credit at all for ‘discovering’ it. Wine has been made in this part of the world as long as anywhere else in Europe. Some of it gets imported to Italy, Slovenia, and other parts of Eastern Europe, but the majority of it stays within Croatia. It was Judith Burns and Trevor Long who actually discovered the potential of importing it into the UK. And they have not set themselves an easy task.
Judith and Trevor in Umag where they live for part of the year
Judith and Trevor, of the newly formed Pacta Connect (website coming soon!) are not ‘wine people’. Up until recently they did not work in the wine industry, they do not swirl and slurp and wax lyrical about the ’09 vintage in Bordeaux or the haunting expressions of a good Barolo. They are wine drinkers.Judith’s parents have been holidaying in this part of the world for several years and Judith and Trevor became enamoured with the place as well, and now spend several months of their year here. Through tastings at the many delicious restaurants in the area, they fell in love with Istrian wines and were amazed to discover that they were not available anywhere in the UK. So began their arduous task of letting Britain in on their little secret. What’s so refreshing about Judith and Trevor is that they worked hard for many years in other careers and are now investing in something they’re passionate about. They love Istrian wines and the people who make them, and they want to help producers expose their wines to a broader audience. Sounds like the beginnings of a great Cinderella story. It’s up to us to ensure it has the same ending.
Most people probably couldn’t point to Istria on a map (and I venture to say some would struggle to find Croatia in general). To be honest, although I had no problem with Croatia, Istria was another thing entirely. A big peninsula situated in the northwest corner of the country, Istria was part of Italy until the end of World War II. Indeed I often had to remind myself that I wasn’t in Italy. The architecture and landscape are the same, the food is very similar, and everyone speaks Italian. Istria is a far cry from the ex-communist Eastern bloc landscape we think of in this part of the world, and seems more like it belongs in Western Europe.
When Judith asked me if I’d like to visit Istria and meet the winemakers they so adore, I jumped at the opportunity to explore an unknown wine region with a pair of knowledgeable guides. The trip was a flurry of tastings–driving from one producer to the next to hear their stories, taste their wines, and admire their vineyards. Straight from the airport and on one hour’s sleep (thanks to working an event in Edinburgh the night before), we drove through Italy, Slovenia, and into Croatia directly to the tastings rooms of Moreno Degrassi.
Moreno’s wife Alison was our attentive host
Moreno became his family’s third generation winemaker after running a restaurant for which he wanted to make wines that matched his cuisine. It seems he’s quite the Francophile and loves his vin de France. Incredibly, he’s managed to make a dizzying array of wines in an uncannily similar style to the French, from Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet, and Merlot. I tried his ’07 Bordeaux blend with its green notes from the Cabernet Franc, pepper, cedar, and tobacco and I had to keep reminding myself I was in Croatia. But he also makes use of Istria’s indigenous grapes and has a very oaky Refosk (Refosco) and a lovely Malvazija Istarska (Istrian Malvasia) that bursts with white flowers, cashew nuts, and minerals. (The high minerals in Istrian wines would become a theme—the red soil here is rich in iron, and is aided by the salty sea air.) I still think the sweeties are top in this part of the world, and loved Degrassi’s Moscato which was slightly fizzy and rose scented and perfectly refreshing after a line up of big reds. The soft spoken and kind-faced Moreno, always the chef, suggested it with a lemon and ricotta cheesecake. Perfect.
I think Moreno has an incredible talent as a winemaker because he has the ability to replicate great French wines. However, when it comes to Istria’s reputation on an international scale, I think the focus should be on expressing its indigenous grapes so that they reflect the soil and landscape of this part of the world and not an imitation of another. Within Croatia, just like with England’s array of Champagne lookalikes, I’m sure Degrassi’s French beauties go down a treat. But its his Malvazija and Refosk that may be most interesting to UK consumers.
Moreno Coronica, his red soil encrusted jeep, and the white rocks of Istria
The next morning, bright and early, we headed to see another Moreno and his immaculately tended (if a bit soggy) vineyards. Istria has been pelted with more rain in the past few weeks than they get in a year. It’s rather bad timing that it happens to be right at harvest time, and many of the winemakers are wading through swimming pools of water in their vineyards, waiting for it to drain out so they can pick what’s survived of their life’s blood.
Moreno Coronica was hit quite badly by the flooding and I felt bad interrupting him when I’m sure he would rather have been in the vineyards. Always the gentleman though, Moreno gave generously of his time and took us on a bumpy tour in his jeep of his terra rossa vineyards. On the way, between frequent stops to direct his workers to one task or another, I learned about Moreno’s philosophies as a winemaker.
View from the jeep of Moreno giving instructions to his workers
A passionate man, Moreno believes he was meant to tend this plot of land in this part of the world. His family has been here forever and his town is even called Koreniki! He is forever tied to the land and has enormous respect for it. Nearly organic (although he would probably never be bothered with the effort or fee of gaining certification), he uses no fertilisers, and very little sulphites (which means less of a headache for us the next day!). Moreno’s deep connection with his vineyards means he makes wines which strongly express the land from which they come. He also believes, like I do, that in order for Istria to gain a reputation as a winemaking region, they need to focus on their native grapes. And so he makes mostly Malvazija for whites and Teran (similar to Refosco) for reds.
Moreno shows Judith how to check the sugar levels of the grapes to get an idea of final alcohol content
While his wife Susanna laid out plates of prosciutto and Gran Padano, I tucked into Coronica’s Gran Malvazija 2008. Honeycomb and minerals danced delicately in the glass and I thought, ‘THIS is Istria’. Moreno told me it was a perfect match for the asparagus that grows in abundance in this part of the world, and roast fish or a meat plate. I concur Signore Coronica.
His Teran came next, and was full of mature fruits but also fresh and spicy after 14 months in oak. I would find this balance of fresh and mature commonplace in Istria, but it never ceased to impress me. This wine, according to Moreno, would continue to improve in bottle for up to 15 years. Teran is said to be great for anaemics because of the large amount of iron in it from the red soil.
Only one day in Istria and I was already beginning to have a great respect for the winemakers and their beautiful land. ‘If only everyone could experience the people and the landscape behind the wine they drink’, I kept thinking. ‘People would run a mile from the huge commercial chemical-laden wines’. In an ideal world I would cut out the best wineries like paper dolls and drop them into the middle of the world’s biggest cities for consumers to see the blood, sweat, and passion that goes into making the bottles that appear on their dinner tables. But that’s not possible so it’s up to the labels to tell the story of what’s inside the bottle, and I still think many Istrian wineries have a long way to go with their labelling; in understanding the buying power that the visual aspect of their wine has on consumers. Like it or not, humans go for what is attractive on the eye. It’s also of course up to bloggers, and distributors, and restaurateurs, and journalists to give the small producers a voice and make it heard. Ok, ok, I’ll get off my soapbox now…
Coronica’s beautifully tended vineyards. He lets olive trees and other vegetation grow in the midst of his vines to keep the land balanced and healthy
I was impressed with Coronica’s philosophies on wine and life itself. But little did I know, I was soon to meet the Godfather of natural wine producing in Istria. A man whose name other producers uttered with pure reverence. But that, my dear wine-loving friends, will have to wait until Part Two!