By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 1 October 2016
I am standing in a vineyard with a beautiful view of mediaeval hilltop villages and densely wooded hillsides. It could be picture-postcard Tuscany, but it’s not. I am in the centre of Istria, the largest peninsula in the Adriatic, in northern Croatia.
There is a definite Italian influence here – so close to the Slovenian and Italian borders – not just in the landscape, but in the dialect, food and wine. Like all villages here, my local Motovun village [pictured above] has an Italian name too: Montona. One quarter of the population here have Italian as their mother language. Today this pretty hilltop Croatian hamlet is a haven of wine, olive oil and truffle shops in its narrow winding cobbled streets – they found the world’s largest truffle near here.
This area was once Italian, as recently as the 1920’s. During its chequered history, it has been controlled by many including the Venetian Republic in the 9th century – and more recently Austria-Hungary and Italy – and Istria was then made a sovereign constituent part of Yugoslavia after World War II. They say that you can still find households with a family born in four different countries living in the same house.
The dry white wines might have an Italian influence here, but they are a long way stylistically from Italy’s neutral Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc. I have been more impressed with the dry white wines here in Istria – all deliciously floral, rich and textured whites – than their Teran-based reds. I prefer Croatia’s Plavac Mali red grape from further south on the Peljesac peninsula (the second largest peninsula in the Adriatic) between Split and Dubrovnik.
The main local white grape in Istria is Malvazija Istarska, which hails from a family of grapes known elsewhere in the world as ‘Malvasia’. Originally of Cretean origin, the vine was brought to Istria from Greece by Venetian merchants – we are not far from Venice here – you can see the famous Italian lagoon across the Adriatic on a very clear day from Istria’s seaside towns of Rovinj and Porec. Today, Malvasia is also grown in central Italy, Slovenia, Portugal, the Balearic and Canary Islands and Madeira.
Istria produces some of the most interesting Malvasia I have tasted. Styles differ from lighter crisper floral dry whites (Gerzinic, Tomaz and Fazin wineries produce the best of these styles) to richer creamier lees-aged oaked Malvazija (Kozlovic winery) suitable for serving with the local rich pasta and truffle dishes. Some producers (like Kabola winery) even experiment with ‘natural’ winemaking and ageing in terracotta amphorae.
Tastewise, the dry whites of Istria are similar to those of north east Italy – perhaps Friuli’s Collio whites are closest in style. Istria also shares many similarities with western Slovenia, just to the north, where styles are full-bodied, minerally and herby. Istria actually shares a small coastal border with Slovenia near the idyllically beautiful mediaeval seaside town and saltflats of Piran.
If you want to discover more about Istrian wine in the UK – the two main importers are www.croatianfinewines.com run by Mark Roberts and www.pactaconnect.co.uk run by the energetic couple Judith Burns and Trevor Long, who have done so much to promote Istrian wine in the UK and have just opened the UK’s first shop and delicatessan dedicated to Croatian wine and food in Brighton Open Market, Marshall’s Row, Brighton (01273 607711). Pacta Connect also have managed to persuade the enterprising team at Marks & Spencer to sell one of their imported Istrian Malvazijas, a crisp unoaked blend [pictured above right] currently made by brothers Marko and Marino Gerzinic.
MALVAZIJA ISTARSKA TASTE TEST
VINA LAGUNA MALVAZIJA 2015 ***BEST VALUE***
(£7.25 The Wine Society www.thewinesociety.com)
Astonishingly good price for this lightly aromatic, apple flavoured vibrant Malvazija; with a hint of minerality and sea breezes reminding you of the Agrolaguna’s vineyards proximity to the Adriatic coast. Serve as an unusual crisp dry aperitif or with a dish of prawns or mussels.
GERZINIC MALVAZIJA 2015
(£10 Marks & Spencer)
Brothers Marko and Marino Gerzinic have made a name for themselves recently with their small family winery in Vizinada (they own just 5 hectares) now that they are successfully selling to a UK supermarket. Very lively acidity, minerally, fresh vibrant with grapefruit and citric notes. A good introduction to Istria’s Malvazija grape.
GERZINIC MALVAZIJA 2012
(£17.50 Harvey Nichols, Edinburgh)
If you like your whites with more bottle age, Gerzinic’s Malvazija has developed passionfruit and lemony notes with a rich textured honeyed palate. Serve this richer fuller bodied style with pasta and truffle sauce.
KOZLOVIC MALVAZIJA 2015
(£10.45-£11.40 www.strictlywine.co.uk; www.croatianfinewines.com; www.haywines.co.uk)
Gianfranco and Antonella Kozlovic run this impressive 17 hectare vineyard near Momjan, producing a wide range of unoaked and oaked Malvazijas. This is their crisp minerally youthful unoaked example with enticing white pepper, grassy notes and hints of apricot and almond.
Taste wines from Croatia, Hungary, Austria, Romania, Bulgaria and Moldova in Rose’s Down the Danube wine tasting in Edinburgh on 19 October £42 www.rosemurraybrown.com