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

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - FOOD DRINK -

VIC­TO­RIA MOORE

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

2013.

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.

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