A Taste of Istria

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

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.'

Turquoise sea looking towards Porec Istria

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

Istrian White Truffle

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

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 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

May/June 2016

Caroline Gilby: Master of Wine

Caroline Gilby MW Caroline Gilby MW:
Master of Wine

Caroline Gilby is a Master of Wine and a scientist by training. She is a wine writer with a passion for the wines of Central and Eastern Europe and contributes to several wine books, magazines and websites.

> Recipes to go with the wine from Vina Laguna's chef are here

> Read other articles by Caroline Gilby MW

Members' Comments (8)

"Great to have all this enthusiasm - and do come a little further north into the border zone of Slovenia's brda and Friuli's colle orientale and talk about us here too! By the way you mention Porec but your photo is certainly not Porec and I think it is Rovinj - which is also a lovely town...We are about to take a group to visit Porec in a few days time - and I do hope Wine Society members booked to come don't see this picture and expect it to be... Read more > Porec!"

Prof John McKean (06-Jun-2016)

"Many thanks for your comments and for pointing out the error with the photo (which we will change) - it was incorrectly captioned on the photo library from which it came - shame we are not coming on your visit! Our Slovenian wines come from the east near to Austria and are, I'm told by Sebastian Payne MW, particularly good in 2015. 2014 was difficult for all in this area, especially Friuli, where 2015 was a bit too hot.
Joanna Goodman
(News... Read more > & Content Editor)"

Miss Joanna Goodman (08-Jun-2016)

"Wonderful to read that the Wine Society has discovered Croatia. We have long enjoyed visiting various regions and sampling their wines - some more to our taste than others (don't like oaked). Vina Laguna is a good start and we look forward to seeing more on your list, including Zlahtina from Island Krk.

Mr Robert Peden (06-Jun-2016)

"Dear Mr Peden - we are just starting to dip our toe in the water in Croatia. Prices for wines from smaller growers are relatively high due to tourism (as is also the case across the border in Friuli), but we shall continue to look out for good wines at good prices for our members from this beautiful region.
Sebastian Payne MW
Wine Buyer"

Miss Joanna Goodman (08-Jun-2016)

"Thanks for the great intro article. I will be holidaying for a fortnight in Istria later this summer with wine loving friends and would be very keen to hear of any wineries / vineyards or other places that you would suggest that we visit. Kind regards...David Doyle"

Mr David Doyle (06-Jun-2016)

"Dear Mr Doyle
Thanks for your comments and pleased you enjoyed the article. Vina Laguna would be more than happy to welcome you to the winery (find contact details on their website)...Caroline Gilby says that there are lots of vineyards to visit in this beautiful region and suggests...Kozlovic, Kabola, Benvenuti, Matosevic, Damjanic, Franc Arman, Pilato, Tomaz, Fakin, Coronica, Cattunar to name but a few.
Kind regards
Joanna... Read more > Goodman
(News & Content Editor)


Miss Joanna Goodman (08-Jun-2016)

"I was interested to read your article as have just returned from a fishing trip in Montenegro.
There we very much enjoyed drinking their Plantaze Varac (red) wine. Apparently 2011 is the best vintage.
I wonder if this is available in the UK.
Priced at bout £6;it would be extremely good value.
Farmer Charles, Norfolk.

Mr Charles E Carey (09-Jun-2016)

"My son and his Croatian wife made the following comment

"The wines they profile are some of the worst from what is otherwise an amazing region"

Would you like me to get their suggestions to see what you think?

Bing Taylor"

Mr Bing Taylor (09-Jun-2016)

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