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Istria | A glass apart

In Croatia’s old-fashioned seaside vineyards, an undiscovered wine culture thrives
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First Published: Sat, Apr 27 2013. 12 13 AM IST
An aerial view of Istria. Photographs: Neha Puntambekar
An aerial view of Istria. Photographs: Neha Puntambekar
Bread is for the body; wine is for the soul,” goes a Croatian proverb.
I am a wine novice. I don’t know a Chardonnay from a Sauvignon Blanc. I can’t tell an earthy wine from a fruity one. I have no clue why a decanter is important, or what it means to let a wine “breathe”. But as I’m standing atop the fortified walls of Motovun, a hilltop town in Croatia’s Istrian peninsula, I hold a glass of the local Malvazija and take in the view below—leafy-green vineyards, the truffle-rich Mirna Valley, and somewhere in the distance, the roaring Adriatic Sea. I begin to understand why Croats consider wine food for the soul.
I’m in Istria, a 2-hour drive from my home in the Croatian capital Zagreb. I’m here for a wine-tasting tour. I plan to spend the weekend in local wineries, sipping their offerings and learning about Croatian wines. These are varieties that are largely unknown to wine lovers the world over, but which, on sampling, turn out to be unexpected surprises.
Given that modern winemaking is a relatively young industry in Croatia, I find that most vintners here are generous in sharing their experiences and information, with the result that I am able to brush up on my wine fundamentals and get an insight into the workings of an industry that’s still young.
A view of Mima Valley from Motovun’s fortified wall
Istria is beautiful. Towns andvineyards are set against the backdrop of ancient fortifications and towering churches, often overlooking the Adriatic. Grapevines can be seen everywhere: along roads, over picnic tables and in kitchen gardens. Small signs pointing towards local wineries are propped up along roads, inviting visitors for a tasting.
I drive on one such road from Porečtown to the Istrian countryside. Some of the vineyards I pass are modest, sharing their backyards with swing sets and clotheslines, producing wine for families that tend to them. Others, like the Damijanic Vinoteka (winery), are commercial ventures, and produce wine for wine racks and festivals across the country.
Ivan Damijanic, the proprietor of Damijanic Vinoteka, shows me around. His grandfather first planted vines here over 90 years ago, when these lands were part of erstwhile Yugoslavia. But as the country embraced communism after World War II, only state-run units were allowed to produce wine. The government also nationalized surplus land; the Damijanic family lost its vineyards and had to move to Italy.
In 1995, post the Balkan War and the disintegration of Yugoslavia, a newly independent Croatia returned the land to its rightful owners. The Damijanic family moved back to its ancestral home and got to work, cultivating grapes and producing wine as it had once done.
In the vineyard
As Ivan pours me a red Damijanic Clemente, a silver medallist from a wine festival in Lyon, France, earlier in the week, he tells us about Croatia’s two main indigenous grape varieties: the zesty white Malvazija and the bold, juicy red Teran. Both have bright, unique notes that are a result of the local terrain, local produce like spring berries and orchard fruits, and the oak barrels in which they are aged. What gives wine its distinctive character is the earth below the top soil, the part that can’t be manipulated by a winemaker. “In short”, Damijanic says, “our wines reflect our vineyards.”
At my next stop, the Roxanich Winery, I learn more about what makes Istrian wines special. Our sommelier, Mate Matic, reiterates that it’s all about the terroir—the geography, geology and local weather patterns together define the wine. It is here that Istria scores. It provides three unusual and interesting elements to vintners: a red and white soil, a limestone base, and proximity to the sea. The soil and limestone ensure the vine roots are well irrigated. The minerals in the limestone and the sea air deliver a distinctive flavour to the wine.
Where commercial wineries the world over make use of artificial yeast in the production process, many Croatian producers prefer old-school methods and use natural yeast (found on grape skin) for fermentation. This often means the winemaker is at the mercy of natural elements. But as everyone I meet says—creating good wines is an art, and it should be a challenge.
“A good vintage,” Matic continues, “is a result of terroir, a good harvest, the winemaker’s talent, and most of all, luck. Never underestimate the importance of luck in winemaking.”
The use of old-school methods is possible because of the small scale of operations in Croatia. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization ranked Croatia as a top 30 producer of wine worldwide in 2010, but Croatia still does not churn out the quantities required to make it visible on a global scale (it produces 50,000 tonnes per year compared to Italy’s 4.58 million tonnes). Still, Croatia had a strong medal-winning show at the prestigious Decanter Awards 2012, London, UK, and got a prominent thumbs up from Anthony Bourdain on his show No Reservations—“I want to bathe in this. I would like to frolic in this wine. Where is my toga?”
An Istrian platter of wine, olives and cold cuts
My next stop is a wine bar in Rovinj, one of Istria’s prettiest towns. The setting is perfect: the crowded farmer’s market by the seafront. Wine-barrel tables are joined together for my group. Each table holds platters of “wine food”—fresh bread (domćikruh), air-dried ham (pršut), local cheese and olives, as well as empty glasses just waiting to be filled up and drained.
The wine tasting turns into an impromptu wine-etiquette lesson. As April Torzewski of the Brava Wine Company, our sommelier and guide, instructs us, I realize I’ve been doing everything wrong.
It starts with how I hold the glass—by the bowl. Mistake. Always hold a wine glass by the stem. Why? For white wines, this keeps the wine from warming up, and with red wines, it shows off the colour and clarity. Of course, the more wine I taste, the more wobbly I get, the harder it is to hold the glass by the stem.
Then I learn to pour—with a pour-and-twist action. This, April tells me, keeps the wine from dripping. It makes you a polished host and saves you tons in dry-cleaning bills. A valuable lesson, this.
There’s even a rule for serving measures. “It’s not a glass of cola,” April quips, “you can’t just fill it up. A red should be filled to a third so the wine can breathe. A white should be filled halfway so it stays chilled”.
She urges us to try for ourselves, so I do just that. Sitting by the seafront, with the Adriatic sprawling out in front of me, I fill my glass just right. I hold it by the stem, and take a slow, small sip. Then I let Istria do its thing.
Neha Puntambekar is a freelance writer. She has recently moved back to Mumbai after spending six years in Croatia.
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First Published: Sat, Apr 27 2013. 12 13 AM IST
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