Regional profile: Istria

This heart-shaped, northwest corner of Croatia has been billed as the ‘New Tuscany’ and is home to a diverse range of exciting wines. But will they find their place on the world stage? Simon Woolf reports

When I ask winemaker Franco Cattunar how it feels now that Croatia is officially part of the EU, he smiles patiently. ‘We always felt like we were part of Europe – nothing’s changed really,’ he says. 1 July 2013 may have been a political milestone, but Croatia’s accession has barely caused a ripple in the region’s fermentation tanks.

Istria is entitled to its European sensibilities. After a 200-year tug-of-war between Austria and Italy, Croatia’s northwesterly peninsula still refuses to be neatly contained, slipping quietly over both Slovenian and Italian borders. The Italian influence is strong – Istria has excellent cuisine and some of the Balkan’s most elegant wines, not to mention olive groves, truffles and idyllic coastal towns. The ‘New Tuscany’ moniker is deserved.

The high quality of the wine is no secret, but Istria’s impressive and increasing international profile is recent. Producers were only freed from the shackles of bulk-producing state cooperatives in 1992. The early 1990s were pivotal, as a new generation of pioneers reinvigorated small family estates, modernised wineries and started focusing on quality. Gianfranco Kozlović, Moreno Coronica, Moreno Degrassi and Elidio Pilato were some of the first to push the boundaries, and even the giant Vina Laguna cooperative (now privatised) began to produce serviceable, if unexciting wines.

The explosion in modern winemaking coincided with Istria’s rise as a boutique tourist destination, something that producer and Vinistra president Ivica Matošević feels is crucial to the region’s success. ‘Connecting wine and tourism is a way to tell our story, to communicate our unique terroir,’ he says. And Istria is blessed, with rolling hills, a temperate climate modulated by sea breezes and at least four soil types (white marl/karst, terra rossa or red clay, and black and grey sandstone). That diversity is reflected in a multitude of wine styles – reds, whites and rosés – from native and international varieties, plus smaller quantities of sparkling and sweet wines. But young, fresh Malvazija Istarka is the benchmark, representing 70% of production. It has become Croatia’s favourite white wine, bar none.

Championing native varieties

Kozlović kick-started the revival of Malvazija as a quality wine. ‘It took years to get people to take it seriously – I spent most of the 1990s opening bottles in restaurants persuading people to try it,’ he says. The indigenous Malvazija Istarka deserves its popularity. Though not hugely aromatic, it has a fuller body and more generous fruit than many comparable Italian whites. Typically, there should be a whiff of honey, zesty citrus and pear fruit, and a nutty, bitter finish.

Despite only moderate acidity, Malvazija can be coaxed into a more full-bodied and ageworthy style. Giorgio Clai, Roxanich and Benvenuti have reinvented traditional skin-contact methods, while others (notably Cosetto and Cattunar) leverage late harvesting or oak ageing. New oak is declining in popularity, as producers aim for more subtlety and less overt wood influence. Some are turning to acacia barrels – a plentiful wood in the region – while Kabola has proved that Malvazija can be outstanding when fermented in Georgian amphorae.

If Kozlović was Malvazija’s saviour, Moreno Coronica is Teran’s high priest. Like Kozlović, Coronica inherited the family vineyards at the start of the 1990s and was determined to concentrate on native varieties. His rich, barrique-aged Gran Teran has set the standard for this difficult red grape.

Teran is hard to ripen, and can suffer from brutal tannins and mean acidity. As Cattunar says, ‘To get good results, you must know Teran better than your wife.’ But its unique selling point is its wildness – herby and highly-strung, never bland or heavy. Oak ageing is popular, but the best results are those that don’t overawe the grape, or dumb down its individuality. Franc Arman, Benvenuti, Cattunar, Geržinić, Kabola and Piquentum all make convincing examples, at their best after a few years of bottle age.

Regional profile- Istria