Istria: The wine world’s best kept secret. (A whirlwind tour of Croatia’s hidden gem of a wine reg
Mordor-like fog on the Istrian hills
The following morning, bright and early, Trevor, Judith, and I headed to visit the supposed ‘best Grappa maker in Istria’. (Ok, it was a bit early to be indulging in the hard stuff, but sometimes a good journalist must make sacrifices for her craft, and if it means grappa tastings before noon, then so be it.) So on we drove through the hills of Mordor—I mean the Učka Mountains—plunging from sunshine into thick fog and back into sunshine within minutes.
Soon we arrived at the home of Marino Rossi, whose vineyards sit high on the hills overlooking the River Mirna. The wind from the not-so-distant sea rolls in and hits a wall of mountains creating a unique microclimate for Rossi’s vineyards. As Rossi himself told me, ‘it’s all about the grapes.’ In other words, no matter how talented the winemaker, his skills are useless without good grapes. Bad grapes equal bad wine, no matter what.
Rossi’s ancient pot still for distilling his Grappa
The pungent aromas of fermenting grapes permeated from the winery into the adjacent tasting room so strongly I had to go outside every time I tasted a wine! We started with Rossi’s Malvazija Templara 2009 (named after the Knights Templar who were said to have inhabited this land), and moved onto his oaky Teran 2008, which needed a few years yet to soften. His Refošk 2009 was my favourite although it wasn’t a finished product yet as it wouldn’t be released for another 4-5 months. It was soft and smooth–an easy drinking, unpretentious wine, refreshingly lacking the high acidity and tannins found so often in Refosco. Marino assured me it wouldn’t take on too much more oak in the coming months. I hoped not.
Rossi’s Malvazija (above) next to the cloudy must that will become this year’s wine
Yeast in a box!
Rossi have also earned their I.Q., or ‘Istrian Quality Control’ stamp which is a more regional version of France’s AOC and is awarded to wineries who meet strict criteria of making Malvazija in Istria. Although I am always skeptical of bureaucratic regulations when it comes to wine (or indeed most things), it might not be a bad idea to see a quality control regulation put in place for all of Croatia (although if it excludes making wine with skin contact it’s a shame), to tie it together as one winemaking country instead of separating the regions so distinctly (as most foreigners have never heard of the individual regions but know of Croatia itself). But it seems that as a country, the Croatian winemaking community still has a lot of working together to do. I hope they can realise that the more they help each other out, the more successful they will be as individuals.
Rossi’s line up of all star Grappa
Finally it was time for Rossi’s shining stars–his Grappa. Marino and his wife Ines had me taste through five very different styles of Grappa, from his basic ‘Komovica’ (clean and well balanced), his Žuti Muškat (floral, delicate herbs), to his ‘Travarica’ (a wonderful Christmas-y blend of 14 herbs including rosemary, mint, aniseed, fennel, lemon, mistletoe, and cinnamon), his Honey ‘Medenica’ (from bees who pollinate lots of different flowers), and finally his mistletoe ‘Biska’ Viscum Album (less like Christmas and more medicinal—meant to have Viagra qualities!) Each was very quaffable in its own way, but if you had to twist my arm, I think I’d go for the honey grappa.
After our tasting, the kind and wise Marino offered to drive us out to his vineyards to see the new fascinating sensors on his vines. We then bid goodbye to yet another extremely kind and generous winemaking family whose livelihoods depended entirely on their beautiful vineyards and the bello vino their grapes produced.
Our next winemaker, whom we visited early the following morning, was hit worse by the flooding than anyone else we’d met. But despite having lost his entire crop of Teran, and literally holding back his vines from slipping down the rain drenched hills, Franco Cattunar graciously invited us into his winery and tasting room. His gregarious wife Vesna and sister Dunja showed us around the cellar while I learned from Judith and Trevor that Franco had lost his father at an early age and had been working in the vineyards ever since. His vines have been in his family for three generations, since the 1930s. One of the biggest producers in the area, Cattunar makes 250,000 bottles a year (in comparison to the others who make about 10,000 a year).
Cattunar's beautiful vineyards facing yet another day of rain
We tasted our way through his Malvazija Istarska 2009, his smooth and creamy Malvazija Collina 2009, and his Chardonnay 2009. The Chardonnay came out on top for me. It was very aromatic (for the normally neutral Chardonnay grape), full of lemons and minerals. No Monet of the wine world, but very drinkable nonetheless. Moving onto the reds, we compared Cattunar’s Cabernet 2007 with his Cabernet Barrique 2005. Of the 2007, Franco told me the wine ‘escapes’. It still needs time for the oak and the fruit to come together. The Barrique 2005 had a gorgeously typical Cabernet nose—mint, cedar, and dark fruits, but the palate was still very tannic even after five years, and needed to rest for several more years. We also compared the Teran 2007 with the Teran Barrique 2005. The use of American oak in the 2007 gave the wine coffee, chocolate, and caramel notes, and Franco told me it needs another two years in barrel to mature. The Barrique 2005 hinted more sweet, mature fruits, as well as more savoury, integrated oak. I thought it was the only red that was ready to ‘drink now’. Franco’s patience with his wines amazed me and he waxed poetical about them. ‘If the wine runs too fast, it’ll never be good. You need to let it walk slowly so its beauty can be released’. I think you’d be hard pressed to find, say, a corn farmer talking in that manner about his ‘silky kerneled gems’…
We finished off a lovely morning with Cattunar’s Moscato 2008, a refreshingly low alcohol, fruity and floral little number. And also with a promise from Vesna to have me back for a multiple course meal matched with their wines at a restaurant in which I go with the chef to kill my own dinner. It must have been the influence of the wine, but amazingly, I agreed to go.