Master of wine and expert on Eastern European wine Caroline Gilby gives us the low-down on this little-known wine-producing region which has so much more to offer than its undeniably beautiful coastline.
More than 10 million tourists a year now head to Croatia for its sun, sea and shoreline, dotted with fascinating medieval towns. Croatia's Adriatic coastline stretches 1,880km while its 1,244 islands add a further 4,398km giving 6,278km in total, so combined with the warm Mediterranean climate you can see why it attracts the sun seekers.
Beautiful old town of Porec Istria home of Vina Laguna
But Croatia has so much more to offer. 'Vina Mosaica' is the slogan chosen by her wine producers to highlight the huge variety of grapes and wines styles produced. As many as 200 varieties are being grown across the four main wine regions and 39 of these are indigenous - making the wine scene here endlessly fascinating.
The region of Istria is the largest peninsula in the Adriatic and while it is mostly in Croatia, parts of it lie in Slovenia and a tiny part in Italy. Residents here clearly see themselves as Istrian first and then Croatian. This may be to do with the fact that while geography remains fixed, national identities have changed many times in this part of Europe - Istria has been ruled by the Venetian Republic, Napolean, the Habsburg monarchy, Italy, Yugoslavia and today most of the zone falls into Croatia (which itself joined the EU in 2013).
'Istria's most important grape … is malvazija Istarska … which isn't related to other malvasias around the world but is properly indigenous and probably quite ancient.'
Istria's most important grape, and its flagship, is malvazija Istarska (sometimes anglicised to malvasia Istriana) which isn't related to other malvasias around the world but is properly indigenous and probably quite ancient. There are around 1,800ha, making it the second most important white grape of Croatia as a whole (after graševina).
At its simplest, it is vinified cool in stainless steel to protect all its fresh apple-blossom fragrance and flavours of cut pear, supported by an appetising and distinctly salty tang on the finish. It has proved popular with thirsty tourists drinking by the seaside but also makes a perfect aperitif or summer white at home in the UK too.
It also has another guise which involves picking later, then vinifying it with anything from a few hours to several days of skin contact, followed by ageing in barrels of oak or sometimes acacia. These wines may not be to everyone's taste but these can be seriously impressive and long-lived, complex wines.
The world's best olive oil region & Istria's famous white truffles
Istria's landscape is stunning, edged by turquoise sea and dotted with wild flowers, wooded hillsides and olive groves, and of course vineyards too. Earlier this year, it was proclaimed as the world's best olive oil region by the Flos Olei olive oil guide.
Istria's scented white truffles are another highlight - perfect shaved finely over pasta or added to olive oil and drizzled over salads and meat dishes.
The rich, rust-red 'Terra Rossa' soils are a notable feature, overlying deep limestone bedrock and many of the best vineyards are planted on these soils which provide a perfect mixture of mineral nutrients and good drainage. Sea breezes and long hours of sunshine also keep grapes healthy, so there's very little need to spray.
Typical red soils in Istria
Introducing Vina Laguna
Vina Laguna is the region's most important producer and was founded in 1950s as a co-operative and eventually privatised in 2004, when it started to invest in vineyards. Today the company owns 600ha of vines including one plot of 180ha on red soil close to the sea.
Malvazija is the most important grape here, grown as sustainably as possible. 'It's an easy place to grow grapes,' according to winemaker Milan Budinski. He's typical of the new breed of winemaker in this region, normally more open-minded than other parts of the country.
Milan Budinski, Vina Laguna Winemaker
Milan studied oenology in Croatia and then made wine all over the world for several years before returning to his home country to put down roots. He joined Vina Laguna in 2010 in time to coincide with the winery undertaking a major investment in modern equipment.'"Less is more" is my winemaking philosophy,' he says. 'I'm looking for natural balance and complexity coming from different vineyard plots.'
Vina Laguna also has a dairy, making great cheeses from local sheep and cows' milk, and even flavours some with Istria's wonderful white truffles. Olives are another important crop for the company with 220 ha of olive groves overlooking the sea - where they are focussing on reviving the local olive variety, Istarska Bjelica. And, not surprisingly, they own a restaurant where you can sample all these products.
> Chef Robert Golic shares some of his recipes with us here
For an introduction in a glass to what Istria has to offer Vina Laguna's Malvazija, is now listed at The Wine Society.
Caroline Gilby MW