Wines of Istria
"Istrian Wines" by Gianluigi Brozzoni
Istria is the largest peninsula on the Adriatic sea and the wine-growing area in Croatia with the longest traditions. Numerous historic chronicles suggest rather ancient wine-growing origins in this area. The ancient historians of classical Greece themselves praised the quality of Istrian wines and oils and even place-names appear to retain the memory of such past fame, if it is true that Kalavojna Bay takes its name from the Greek word for "good wine". A few centuries later, in Imperial Roman times, Vinum Pucinatum was particularly well-known - a mysterious red wine from Istria mentioned by Pliny the Younger in his work: probably a fore-runner of present-day Terrano, this wine was sought after by Roman nobles as a precious and healing elixir.
Subsequently, a great deal of information about commerce involving Istrian wines can be found in the archives of the Serene Republic of ["la Serenissima"], which ruled over these areas for much of the modern age. Famous cavalier Giacomo Casanova himself recalled in his Memoirs nearby Istria and its fragrant red wines ("Istria has an excellent Refosco wine"). It also seems that the Venetians introduced Malvasia to the vineyards of Istria, thus initiating cultivation of the vine that was to become the most important and widespread variety in the region.
However, it was in more recent times that wine-growing in Istria took on its characteristic and definitive physiognomy (19th-20th centuries), especially thanks to the beneficial public impulse brought about by Hapsburg domination. On the one hand, strong demand for wine in the rich, neighbouring territories of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy encouraged the resumption and expansion of local wine-growing production, while, on the other hand, the foundation of the first Agricultural School in 1875 and the first Cooperative Cellars in 1882 ensured greater rationalisation and modernisation of the agricultural and oenological traditions in Istria. The archives of these institutes provide useful documentation in tracing the recent history of Istrian wine-growing: it emerges that in 1875 vineyards occupied as much as 33,000 hectares of land (seven times the present-day area), and that in the early 1900s about 15,000 tonnes of Istrian wine were exported to the centre of the Hapsburg Empire on the Trieste-Parenzano railway (by no coincidence known as the "wine way" [wine roads]).
As for many wine-growing areas in Europe, phyloxera represented for Istria a crucial turning-point in the redefinition of the dimensions of vineyards and the varieties grown. Throughout the first decades of the 1900s, vineyard areas shrank considerably, culminating towards the mid-1900s in the current, definitive structure and regional wine-growing parameters. Istria today has about 5,100 hectares of vineyards, of which as much as 4,800 in mountain areas (western Istria), 200 on hillsides (Pinguente and Pisino regions) and 100 in the plains and on the coastline (Albona). So, in the three main wine-growing areas - Western Istria, Central Istria and Eastern Istria - most vineyards (almost 90%) are located in the mountainous hinterland (Western area). In recent years, there has been a slight increase in vineyard area, totalling around 400 hectares, and current wine production in Istria stands at an annual figure of 250,000-300,000 hl. Six wine roads cross the territory of the peninsula (Parenzo, Buie, Pinguente, Pisino, Rovigno and Dignano regions) and visitors can select among seventy or so private wine-making companies.
As regards the varieties grown, 70% are white grapes (with Istrian Malvasia [malvazija / malmsey] leading the field, followed by Chardonnay, White Pinot and Grey Pinot); the remaining 30% is made up of red grapes (with the native Terrano in the forefront, followed by Gamay, Croatina, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir). The geography of white and red grapes is determined with some precision by soil composition: the red soils along the coast - fertile and rich in clay - have encouraged planting of Terrano and other red grapes, while the marne soils of the hinterland - less fertile and based on flysch - are mostly dedicated to white grapes, which take softness and aromatic freshness from these soils. Small-scale production that deserves mention, lastly, concerns Moscato [muskat / muscatel] wines, located in the municipalities of Momiano (yellow Moscato) and Parenzo (pink Moscato).
Perhaps a few words should also be dedicated to the variety which best represents wine-growing in Istria: Malvasia. Grown on a widespread basis throughout the area since the 1930s, this variety today involves as much as 60% of regional vineyards, so much so that there are no less than twenty different dialect names. Despite ampelographic research still underway, the sub-variety of Malvasia to which the Istrian strain belongs has not been identified with precision. An important study carried out recently by the Parenzano Institute for Agriculture and Tourism highlights the comparison between the quality parameters of Malvasia and Chardonnay - total acidity, sugar content, alcohol content, dry extract - and clearly indicates the full potential of the traditional Istrian vine which, to a large extent, has still to be completely exploited.
Wine-growers in Istria have produced over time from these grapes wines having very different characters and structures. In the past, the technique of leaving the must to macerate for a long time in contact with the skins resulted in Malvasia wines with an intense golden or even amber colour, with somewhat rough and oxidised flavours set off by a robust and resistant structure. In the 1970s, on the other hand, thanks to the introduction of mild pressing systems and vinification plant with temperature control, the character of Istrian Malvasia was softened and is now capable of expressing fresher and more elegant sensations of white flowers and ripe fruit. Lastly, during the 1980s, a small group of wine-growers dedicated to high quality produce decided to create a new image and style for Istrian Malvasia, and even began to adopt refinement in barrique. This process of innovation and improvement has been rewarded progressively higher recognition for Istrian Malvasia in international wine competitions and - by no means least - among consumers.
The Istrian malvazija of a century-old tradition varies in color from hay-yellow to golden, while its odor is similar to the locust blossom. Due to its refreshing aroma it is best served with sea food.
Teran, praised by Casanova, differs from malvazija in color. Ruby-red, of a full, fruity scent and flavor, it is best served with meat stews and venison. Muskat or moskat [a.k.a. muscatel] is according to many the best of the Istrian wines. It has a golden color, flowery scent and extraordinary dry-sweet aroma - perfect for gourmands! In addition to all of this, some say that it is considered to be an aphrodisiac.
Buje and its surroundings (Brtonigla, Umag, Novigrad, Dajla, Nova Vas, Groznjan, Buje, Savudrija)
Porec and its surroundings (Visnjan, Tar, Baderna, Funtana, Lovrec)
Pazin and its surroundings (Buzet, Tinjan, Pazin)
Rovinj (Rovinj, Vodnjan, Valbandon)