Ask a sommelier, a wine store owner or anyone else who is current with today’s wine trends what the hot topic is now and they will probably answer with something like: “today’s wine drinker is looking for a reaction to what their parents drank; they don’t want heavy wines that are found in stuffy old cellars. They want fresh, lively wines that emphasize aromatics and acidity; they want to try new wines made from different grapes and from different regions than what the old guard drank.” As we recently found out, a Malvazija from Istria not just hits the bullseye of this new zeitgeist, but it tastes totally delicious as well!
Our discovery of this new wine region came when were invited to join a group of wine-loving travelers that, for over 15 years, have made annual treks to wine regions all over the world and arranged for them by Brantford, ON based Pauwels Travel. Helping Stephen and Kathy Pauwel lead this tour was the very colourful Tony Aspler, one of Canada’s leading wine writers.
The first part of this incredible trip was to Friuli in Northern Italy which we wrote about here. The Istrian Peninsula (Istria) is about an hour’s drive from Trieste, the beautiful port in Friuli where we were staying.
Istria is the northernmost coastal region of Croatia. Croatia sits right across the Adriatic Sea from Northern Italy and is one of the many countries that resulted from the numerous wars in that area. Formerly a part of Yugoslavia, what is now Croatia has been a part of many different neighbouring countries. As a local winemaker, explaining the last 100 years, said: “My grandfather was born in Austria, my father was born in Italy, I was born in Yugoslavia and my daughter was born in Croatia. We were all born in the same house”. History in this region is deep and rich.
Wine growing is very much a part of that history and Istria is one of the oldest wine growing regions in the world.
The Greeks brought the first vines to the region in the 6th Century BC and began making wine there.
The recent “discovery” of Istria by new Somms and other wine “geeks” is in fact a re-discovery. This is a small region with just 4,000 hectares under vine. At the end of the 19th century there were 44,000 hectares under vine. Phylloxera, a pernicious vine-eating louse destroyed a good part of the region’s wines at the same time it was devastating Bordeaux and many other parts of vinous Europe.
The wine business struggled to recover as war was so much a part of daily life. Further, many years under Communist rule were not kind to the premium wine industry as state cooperatives manufacturing bulk wines were the order of the day. What is truly a discovery is the new band of small artisanal wineries that we visited where the focus is on producing high quality complex wines and employing sustainable agriculture (often organic and sometimes even biodynamic).
Istria’s geography is defined by the natural borders of the Adriatic Sea to the west and the Alps to the North. These two geographical influences maintain a relatively cool growing season, one that allows grapes to fully ripen while maintaining a vibrant acidity that contributes to the wine’s freshness. Over the course of the year, 800mm of rain will fall. Most of this occurs before and after the summer growing season which contributes to an incredibly lush, green environment surrounding the vineyards.
Geologically, Istria has three primary soil types: red Istria, grey Istria and white Istria. The red Istria is iron-rich soil which gives it a tera cotta colour. This soil is found closer to the sea, produces power and structure, and consequently is planted primarily to red varieties. Grey Istria is found in the middle of the peninsula and is a sedimentary rock of grey clay rich in limestone. This is white wine soil and wines grown on it primarily have elevated acidity and are elegant and aromatic. White Istria is like a rocky version of grey Istria and is found inland and further up the slopes. This soil has the highest limestone content that produces racy white wines that show minerality and bright, lifted aromatics.
The primary grape of Istria is their Malvazija Istarka, sometimes referred to as Malvasia or Malvasia. This delicious white makes wines that are complex and show citrus flavours accented by notes of white flowers and a slight saline quality. To give those who have not tired it a bit of a comparison, we think Verdelho probably comes closest and Sauvignon Blanc would be the nearest to it of the international varieties. It makes up 60% of the plantings in Istria and is a really delicious wine.
Teran is local red grape that makes tannic, medium body wines that have a refreshing, albeit slightly rustic, style. Think a lighter version of Bandol. Plavic Mali is another red grown there and is genetically the same grape as Zinfandel. Mike Grgich, of Napa’s Grgich Hills and the Judgement of Paris competition winner, is a native Croatian and has a winery there that makes a delicious Plavic Mali.
Other international varieties that are grown in Istria include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
For our palates wines made from those grapes in Istria were fine, but the indigenous grapes made the best wines and are well worth seeking out.
Finally, Istria is a wine traveller’s paradise. The countryside is beautiful and as of now quite unspoiled by tourists. The culinary scene is top notch with some outstanding restaurants, (several with Michelin stars) and the cuisine shows the diversity of the many countries that Croatia was once a part of. Gems like this do not remain undiscovered for long in the tourism world. Witness Southern Croatia and the City of Dubrovnik which is now seeing a strong uptick in its number of visitors. Istria cannot be too far behind; best see it now while it is still relatively undiscovered!