Fantasy and fluidity in the Kingdom of Illyria
The wines of the Istrian peninsula are hard to find over here – which is a good reason to visit
from Venice, and is attracting an increasing amount of attention from gourmands (it’s sometimes whispered that Istria is one of the best producers of Piemontese truffles), as well as those who come here simply to appreciate the landscapes, and drink Aperol spritz by the sea, which is still warm in October.
Istria’s wines are also becoming better known: you may have spotted some in wine merchants; last year the Swedish wine-tasting association Munskänkarna named Istria their Wine Region of the Year.
“There are around 130 wine producers here,” says Albert Benvenuti of Benvenuti Wines, who deserted his tanks to chat for half an hour as harvest was going on. “Of these, let’s say around 30 are bigger, the rest are smaller, maybe they have an agritourism, grow olives for oil. But in all the cantine the base is always white and always malvazija istarska – the grape is a bestseller in Croatia, and is also the speciality of Istria.”
We are talking in a mixture of Italian, English and Croatian (which I don’t speak, but the friends I’m here with do). Historically, Istria has been a meeting point for Slavic, Germanic and Roman cultures. Relentless border changes mean that nationality is not as clear-cut a concept here as it is in some parts of Europe. The region was long under the rule of the Venetian Republic; in the first half of the 19th century it resumed the ancient name of Illyria, as in Twelfth Night. It was annexed to Italy after the First World War and became part of Tito’s Yugoslavia after the Second.
Now most of the peninsula belongs to Croatia, which declared independence in 1991, and joined the European
DOMAINE LES YEUSES VIOGNIER 2017
LanguedocRoussillon, France (13.5%, Lea & Sandeman, £10.95/£9.95 single bottle/mixed case price) Union in
The development of
Istria’s wine is now at an interesting point. The two traditional varieties – teran for red; malvazija istarska, or malvasia istriana to give it its Italian name, for white – retain a stronghold but producers are branching out in different ways.
For instance, one of the most surprising wines I tasted on my recent trip was a Burgundian chardonnay from Domaine Koquelicot. It was made by a retired French cardiologist, who managed to blag cellar and vintage work with the likes of AnneClaude Leflaive and Domaine Denis Bachelet, before deciding to experiment making wine in his wife’s homeland. Seriously impressive stuff.
At Clai, they make natural wines, with no added yeast, and whites fermented on the skins, that are sufficiently idiosyncratic to delight
any Shoreditch hipster. By contrast, the upswing in tourism is encouraging a very un-garagiste type of investment in tasting facilities and accommodation: in the hilltop town of Motovun, the producer Roxanich is building a wine hotel, partly financed by EU money, while Vina Cattunar recently opened a set of rooms with splendid views across the hillsides.
Much of Istria’s wine is still drunk locally, and the warm climate means that white wine is drunk enthusiastically, which has helped to strengthen the hold of malvazija istarska. Indigenous to Istria, the grape is “ampelographically quite distinct from other malvasias such as malvasia del Lazio and malvasia bianca di Candia” according to Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding & José Vouillamoz. It is often textured, and tastes of yellow flowers, mild citrus, and meadow grass – but it tastes very different depending on where it’s grown.
At Vina Cattunar, you can buy malvazija istarska grown on four different soils – grey (dusty, a quarter lime), black (marl), white (again with a high percentage of lime) and Istria’s famous red terra rossa (which contains iron oxide). We go to taste them, and they do, indeed, taste very different, with the terra rossa producing a richly marine wine, redolent of seaweed.
“Even when I buy potatoes on the market, people will tell you what soil they have grown in,” comments my friend Anna, a cook, academic and writer who moved here last year to run a guesthouse (bolara60.com) and learn about Istrian food culture.
Anna drives me up to the village of Kaldir, not far from Motovun, where Benvenuti is based. “There’s a very particular microclimate just here,” she says. “It is famous for growing peaches, cherries, figs and other fruit.” Just here, in the hilly north of Istria, it looks remarkably like Piemonte. There are narrow valleys that fill with mist, truffles, “and there are hazelnuts here too,” points out Anna.
At Benvenuti they have long grown malvasia, teran, muscat and ulovina. But in 2010 they also planted some more international varieties – merlot, tempranillo and nebbiolo. It’s an odd combination. I think the Benvenuti Caldierosso might be the first blend incorporating both nebbiolo and tempranillo that I have ever tasted (it’s mixed with merlot and tempranillo in equal measures).
“We think the potential of teran is very high, but it can also be quite hard, so it might also be good to blend it, to make something unique, but with our signature,” explains Albert Benvenuti. I like the thinking on nebbiolo but wonder if even more inspiration from Piemonte is needed? In northern Italy, nebbiolo is sometimes blended with a grape called croatina – could that maybe do the trick? Anyway, I thought the Benvenuti straight Teran 2015 was excellent – all white pepper, tannin, cranberry and darkly savage black minerals and fruit, tamed to just the right level for drinking.
It’s still not easy to get hold of Istrian wines beyond Croatia.
Pacta Connect imports some (and is an excellent source of information). croatianfinewines.com sells direct to the public. I recommend going there. The sea is warm. The food is good. There will be wild asparagus in May.