By Sue Style
Plenty of people have found good reasons to travel in both Croatia and Slovenia – think unspoiled Adriatic coastlines, well-preserved Roman sites, medieval hilltop villages, rugged alpine scenery and wild mountain walks. Now there’s another reason to add to these: both offer terrific wine travel possibilities. Since Croatian and Slovenian wines seldom stray far beyond their own borders, if you live in Europe, it’s a good idea is to drive down there so you can bring home your vinous discoveries.
We started our wine tour with Istria in Croatia. In a few weeks, we’ll post another covering our discoveries in Slovenia’s Primorska (‘coastal’) region just to the north. Distances are small and the roads good. The best times to visit, says Ingrid Badurina, masterminder of Zagreb’s excellent Wine Gourmet Festival, are spring (for gentle warmth and wild asparagus) or autumn (ditto, plus truffles).
Not far from Rovinj, a deliciously atmospheric port painted in faded pastel shades that evokes a pre-1960s Portofino, is winegrower Ivica Matosevic, near Kruncici (pronounced ‘crunchy-chi’, with a Yorkshire accent). A young winemaker – his first harvest was in 2006 – Matosevic is fascinated by Malvasia, Istria’s principal grape. His PhD from Udine University just across in Italy studied the influence of terroir on this distinctive local variety. Most Istrian Malvasia is designed for early bottling and prompt, joyous quaffing; Matosevic has other ideas too. True to tradition he makes a single varietal Malvasia to be drunk in its infancy, but he also blends it with Sauvignon and Chardonnay or ages it several months in small acacia barrels. Intuitively it’s an association that makes perfect sense: get your nose into a glass of Malvasia and you’ll be knocked back by wafts of acacia blossom.
Over a seafood feast at Restaurant Viking on the Limsky Kanal, a long fjord-like inlet famed for its oyster beds, Matosevic reminded us of Istria’s frequently shifting borders and the diverse influences that have shaped it over centuries. “My grandfather was born in Austria”, he explained, “and my father in Italy. I was born in Yugoslavia and my son in Croatia – and all that without ever moving!”
Further north is Motovun, a medieval hilltop village whose fountains and town gates are graced with elegantly sculpted bas-reliefs of Venetian lions – Venice ruled Istria and parts of Slovenia for the best part of two centuries from 1205. A good place to stay here would be the family-owned Hotel Kastel. Situated on the cool, quiet town square it has its own pool, spa, restaurant and 33 delightful rooms, some of them looking out onto the ramparts and the famed truffle oak forests below. To sample the fresh tubers, shaved over gnocchi or fuzi (typically Istrian bow-shaped pasta), you’ll need to come in October or November when the hotel runs special truffle days.
Continuing in a northerly direction, the San Rocco, a 12-room (+ 2-suite) boutique hotel in Brtonigla, would make another excellent base. Its simple stone farmhouse core has been sympathetically converted and extended over the years and it has all the elements required for a few days’ R&R: indoor and outdoor pools, sauna, spa, olive oil or truffle massages on the lawn, and some deft, stylish cooking from chef Zoran Kobanov, who privileges local ingredients like shellfish, truffles, pork and game. Ask sommelier-owner Tullio Fernetich about a private tasting of local wines in their beautifully appointed tasting room.
Close to San Rocco near Momjan is Marino Markezic’s 20-hectare Kabola vineyard. Over plates of locally cured prsut (prosciutto) and truffle-infused hard cheese, we sampled a classic grapey Malvasia. Then we moved to a firmer, barrique-aged riserva and graduated finally to a deep golden one which had spent half a year on the skins in amphorae (the amphora vogue has trickled down from Italy’s Collio region via Slovenia to Istria), another year in large Slavonian barrels and a final eight months in bottle.
Though Malvasia is Istria’s pride and joy, Markezic is also devoted to Teran (according to the Oxford companion a sub-variety of Refosk/Refosco), the tough local red variety which he likens – with disarming candour – to the Istrian male: “There’s not much good about him – but people love him anyway!” On the evidence of Markezic’s Teran, this awkward, apparently unlovable, highly acidic variety does seem to respond – presumably like the Istrian male – to a firm hand (in the vineyards) and plenty of TLC (in the cellar).
Our final stop in Istria was at Gianfranco Kozlovic’s 25-hectare estate, with distant views of the ruined castle of Momjan. Kozlovic has refreshingly simple views on wine: “I want to produce wines of varietal character, pleasing, with long-lasting flavour – but not a whole philosophy lesson. Wine shouldn’t burden you with expectations.” The star of Kozlovic’s cellar is Santa Lucia, a beautifully structured, fruit-filled Malvasia from a recently acquired but old-established vineyard where some 50 year-old vines survive.
Places to Stay and Eat in Istria
Limski Kanal 1, 52488 Sv. Lovrec, Croatia
Tel. +385 52 448 119, email@example.com
Wine Producers to visit in Istria
Kruncici 2, 52448 Sv. Lovrec, Croatia
Tel. +385 52 448 558, firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information on Croatian wines, follow Wines of Croatia on Facebook.