The Istria Boys
Here’s my piece on Istria and its colourful winemakers published in the latest issue of Imbibe magazine:
It’s a rather surreal experience to traverse four countries in the space of half a day. But that’s often how it works when a visit to Istria, Croatia’s most northwesterly outpost, is on the cards. From London to an ex-army base-turned airport outside Trieste in northern Italy, you must then go by car through Slovenia to get to Croatia.
Perhaps it’s this relative remoteness that makes Istria feel like one of the last bastions of the old-style Mediterranean, where the majority of restaurants are populated by the locals and the very reasonably priced menus are comprised of wonderfully rustic seasonal dishes using ingredients (plant and animals) found in back gardens or in nearby waters; and where there’s a good chance the house wine was made by the bloke at the neighbouring table.
And if it was, your table-neighbour would probably strike up a conversation with you over a glass of his wine about his beloved Istria, considered by many Croatians to be a separate entity from the rest of the country. Over the years, Istria has been volleyed between the hands of the Italians to the Austrians, back to the Italians, and finally after the break up of Yugoslavia, to Croatia. Although street signs and town names are in both Croatian and Italian, a language almost everyone speaks fluently, Istrians emphatically remind you that they are not Italian. And they’re not really Croatian either.
After pouring you a few more glasses, your new friend would then tell you that thanks to his region’s vine-loving Mediterranean climate, its rivers, including the Dragonja and Mirna, the Učka mountain ridge, and of course the Adriatic, which all do their part to provide the vines with cooling breezes in the hot summers and mild winters, his grapes can ripen gently and slowly.
But a chat with a local winemaker wouldn’t be complete without a mention of Istria’s unique soils. Terra Rossa to the extreme, it’s this blood red earth covering much of Istria that gives the native Teran grape its typical iron and iodine qualities, once thought to help cure anaemia. Vineyards are also planted in the calcium-rich rendzina on marl, and in a mixture of clay and loam.
At this stage in the evening your new best friend (it’s of course assumed multiple bottles have now been polished off), would probably round off the evening by telling you with pride that an Istrian wine exists for almost anyone, from fresh and floral to rich and gutsy to wild and herbaceous. And the good news is that you no longer have to cross four countries to drink them.
The past few years have indeed seen Istrian wine making its mark on Britain, gracing the menus of some of our top restaurants and wine bars with new grape varieties for us to wrap our tongues around.
While international varieties like Merlot, Muscat, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and Sauvignon Blanc are commonly found in Istrian wines, it’s their native varieties, Malvazija, Refošk, and Teran which set this region apart on the world’s crowded wine stage.
One of the most planted white grapes in Croatia is Malvazija Istarska (aka Malvasia Istriana). It’s related to but not the same as Italy’s Malvasia and Malmsey used in Madeira. A much more scenic detour off the well-trodden Pinot Grigio path, Malvazija in its most common form delivers a more floral, spicey, and textured drop that nicely compliments the region’s favourite condiment, peppery green olive oil.
‘What I like about Malvazija is that it really reflects its terroir’, says ex-Les Bouchon Breton sommelier Donald Edwards. ‘It almost always shows a degree of salty minerality on the palette, and especially when compared with other non-aromatic varieties, it usually brings much more to the glass.’ So much so that Marks and Spencer have recently made room for a Malvazija (Pilato 2011) on their shelves.
Malvazija however, wears another mask. Influenced by the famous extended skin contact ‘orange’ wines of nearby Friuli, a handful of Istrian producers are making Malvazija in what they say is a more traditional style. Winemaker Giorgio Clai has gained something of a cult following in Croatia and Italy, and deservedly so. He makes some stunning (if pricey thanks to miniscule quantities) biodynamic wines. His complex ‘orange’ Malvazija is reminiscent of something wild yet beautiful, like fresh cut hay in a field of daisies and fig trees.
Mladen Rožanić leaves his Roxanich Malvazija ‘Antica’ for 80 days on its skins in large wooden casks until it is a deep amber colour with a perfume of sage, honey, and wild flowers. It is a to-die-for match with white truffles, found abundantly in the Istrian countryside and liberally shaved over everything when in season.
London’s Hakkasan restaurant features Roxanich on their wine list, where it’s paired with anything from Asian cuisine, to seafood to spicey meat. ‘Sommeliers love to recommend it to our guests who are looking for something outside the box’, deputy head sommelier James Teng told Imbibe. ‘Not only does it start a conversation with the guest, it also never fails to impress!’
Both Clai and Roxanich work with a ‘hands off’ approach in the winery.
This more ‘natural’ way of working seems to have come full circle, with several winemakers rejecting the chemicals and sprays that have been fairly recently introduced to Istrian producers. These are the wines that seem to be listed most in top restaurants around the UK.
Aumbry in Manchester lists eight Istrian wines. ‘We were blown away by the wines when we first tried them,’ says Mary-Ellen McTagueex, the restaurant’s ex-Fat Duck chef and wine buyer. ‘The quality is up there with the best of the wines we’re getting from other countries at the moment. The clarity and purity of flavour, especially with the natural wines is excellent. The fact that they come from individual producers and not huge co-operatives fits really well with [Aumbry’s] ethos.’
When it comes to reds, Refošk, in the same family as the Italian Refosco, is the packs-a-punch younger brother to Istria’s more grown up grape, Teran. More approachable and easier to glug, it drips in chocolate and ripe fruits, and a mouth-puckering acidity.
Dimitri Brečević, a young winemaker who makes his organic wines from a converted World War I bunker under the label Piquentum, is producing some of Istria’s top Refošk. Although his spicey, nutty Malvazija is exceptionally food friendly, it’s his fireside sipper of a Refošk that would be polished off most rapidly.
But for Brečević his broody rustic Teran is his shining star. ‘Most people like Refošk because it’s more fruity and therefore easier to understand, but I think Teran has the biggest potential in Istria.’
Often thought to be the same as Refošk, the Istrians vehemently argue that in fact they are only related. And indeed, tasting them side by side, it’s easy to tell who got the longevity genes. Big, irony and peppery, Teran is a more serious, more long-lived wine occasionally compared to Austria’s Blaufränkisch.
So in this competitive world of wine, what does Istria’s future look like? ‘Istrian wine seems to me somewhat caught on a crossroads’, says Edwards. ‘The wineries pursuing modern techniques don’t to my mind make wines that are sufficiently distinctive to really stand out in a London restaurant context. However the wineries venturing a little bit outside of the box are making some really beautiful wines.’ Brečević agrees. ‘There have been big changes towards modernity in Istria in all aspects which is a shame. In a short time you can destroy Istria’s beautiful nature. It’s not about learning to make wine from a book. You have to try and understand the grapes, the terroirs, and the consumer and to find the truth. I want to find the character of this land.’
More wine recommendations:
Misal (listed at Hotel du Vin Cheltenham, supplied by Pacta Connect)
From the biggest sparkling producer in Croatia (at a still tiny 40,000 bottles a year), these traditional-method bubblies are made with very low levels of sulphur because one of the family members is allergic to them (the better for us)! They are all delicious, but the Brut 2009 (mostly Malvazija) with its buttery honeyed bready notes, the Rosé 2009 (mostly Pinot Noir), off-dry strawberry goodness perfect with seared tuna or blue cheese, and the Rouge 2008 (mostly Teran and Muskat Rose) which is like drinking liquid cheesecake with tinned strawberries on top all make a refreshing change from Champers.
Franc Arman 2011 (listed at Maes-yr-Haf and Carlton Riverside restaurants, supplied by Croatian Fine Wines):
A great example of what a good modern Malvazija should be like. A nose of spiced pears and grapefruit, white pepper and a salty sea breeze opens into a big textured spice fest. Perfect for white truffle and wild mushroom pasta dishes.
Clai ‘Ottocento Crni’ 2010: (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Refošk, Teran) (listed at Hibiscus, supplied by Pacta Connect).
There’s a pureness to Clai’s wines and a complexity that’s often hard to describe. Layer upon layer of delicate herbs and fruit reveal themselves slowly and gently, all the while ensconced in a seductive veil of silky smooth tannins and mouth-watering acidity. This is one to ponder the meaning of life over.
Coronica Gran Teran 2008: (listed at Green and Blue, and The Aumbry, supplied by Pacta Connect)
From one of Istria’s most classical (and organic) winemakers, this is the best Teran in Croatia according to Time Out magazine in 2011. It’s rustic but elegant, with typical peppery/herby/dried red fruits, fabulous acidity, and supple tannins. A beautiful match with cured meats or wild boar.
Wines mentioned in the article:
Pilato Malvazija (stocked at Marks and Spencer, supplied by Croatian Fine Wines)
Roxanich Malvazija ‘Antica’ (listed at Green and Blue and Hakkasan, Clai Malvazija ‘Sveti Jakov’ (listed at Hibiscus), Piquentum Malvazija, Refošk, and Teran (listed at the Tate Modern, The Aumbry, and Hotel du Vin Brighton) All supplied by Pacta Connect.
From the Sommeliers:
‘[Istria] is making a name for itself as a source of rather leftfield but delicious wines, so it’s worth the effort to highlight them.’ –Christine Parkinson, Hakkasan Group buyer
‘It’s nice for the customers to have access to something different…they’re not cheap but for someone looking to spend £40-50 on a bottle, they’re going to get something lovely. It was difficult to just take eight, we could’ve taken many more.’ -Mary-Ellen McTagueex, head chef/wine buyer at Aumbry
‘There is a huge degree of interest [in the UK] in natural wines and wines with more individuality, so for me the long maceration and more natural wines of Istria fit neatly into this movement. –Donald Edwards, ex-Les Bouchon Breton sommelier