WINE TRAVEL IN CROATIA AND SLOVENIA
[originally published in Decanter Aug 2010]
For both Slovenia and Croatia, 2009 was a year to remember. Tiny Slovenia graduated for the first time in Decanter’s annual Wine Awards to own-panel status, a development amply vindicated by their medal scores, while neighbouring Croatia distinguished itself from its fellow Central and Eastern Europeans with an impressive lineup of golds and a creditable clutch of silvers.
People have long found good reasons to travel to both countries – think unspoiled Adriatic coastlines, well-preserved Roman sites, medieval hilltop villages, rugged alpine scenery and wild mountain walks. A handful more are now realising that both countries have something special to offer in vinous terms, thanks to their deeply rooted winemaking culture and distinctive indigenous grape varieties. Of course Croats and Slovenes need no convincing of the merits of their wines, of which they are enthusiastic imbibers: they rank fourth and fifth (hot on the heels of Luxembourg, France and Italy) in per capita world wine consumption.
After both countries’ independence in 1991, followed by the implosion of Yugoslavia and the tragic aftermath of the war of independence, tourism slowly re-established itself, vineyards returned to private ownership and wineries embarked on a huge programme of investment. Twenty years on, there’s never been a better time to take a wine tour in the region. The best times to visit, say the locals, are spring (for gentle warmth and wild asparagus) or autumn (ditto, plus truffles).
For an introductory taste, consider combining Istria, Croatia’s heart-shaped peninsula on the Adriatic, with Slovenia’s Primorska (‘coastal’) region just to the north. Distances are small and the roads good. You could settle down in one place and radiate out on wine tasting forays, or move between two or three different hotels or stancijas (see Where to Stay/Eat).
Stancija Meneghetti near Bale in southern Istria would make a superior base for a week’s R & R and selected tastings. A traditional stone-built farmhouse on a large, secluded wine- and olive-growing estate, it’s available for rent by the week, complete with chef, butler and maid. To help combat the ravages of the chef’s cuisine (“minimum 3 kilo-gain in the week” guarantees smiling host Miroslav Pliso), there are indoor and outdoor pools, sauna, fitness room and bikes available for pounding around the estate’s extensive network of tracks, or to take you to the beach 5 kilometres distant.
Not far away is Rovinj, a sort of pre-1960s Portofino deliciously washed in faded pastel shades. After a mid-morning glass of Malvasia on the quayside, you may want to deepen acquaintance with this fragrant local Istrian variety with a tasting chez Matosevic near Kruncici.
A young winemaker (first harvest 2006), Matosevic is fascinated by Malvasia, Istria’s principal grape – his PhD from Italy’s Udine University studied the influence of terroir on this distinctive local variety. Most Istrian Malvasia is designed for early bottling and prompt, joyous quaffing; Matosevic has other ideas too, including a blend (with Sauvignon and Chardonnay) or – his real passion – vinified alone and aged several months in small acacia barrels. Intuitively it’s an association that makes perfect sense: get your nose into a glass of Malvasia and you’ll be knocked back by wafts of acacia blossom.
Over a superb seafood feast at Restaurant Viking on the Limsky Kanal, a long fjord-like inlet reminiscent of Galicia’s Rias Baixas and famed for its oyster beds, Matosevic reminded us of Istria’s frequently shifting borders and the diverse influences that have shaped it over centuries. ‘My grandfather was born in Austria’, he explained, ‘and my father in Italy. I was born in Yugoslavia and my son in Croatia – and we never moved!’
Further inland is Motovun, a medieval hilltop village whose fountains and town gates are graced with elegantly sculpted bas-reliefs of Venetian lions – Venice ruled Istria and parts of Slovenia for the best part of two centuries from 1205. The famed truffle oak forests down in the valley are visible from the ramparts – October and November are best for the fresh tubers, shaved over gnocchi or fuzi (typically Istrian bow-shaped pasta).
Another luxurious perch would be the San Rocco, a 12-room (+ 2-suite) hotel in Brtonigla set in an extensive garden, its simple stone farmhouse core sympathetically converted and extended over the years by sommelier-owner Tullio Fernetich. Base yourself here and brace yourself for some serious hardship: there’s an indoor and outdoor pool, sauna, spa, olive oil or truffle massages on the lawn, private tasting room and in-house restaurant where chef Zoran Kobanov’s deft, stylish cooking privileges local shellfish, truffles, pork and game.
San Rocco is perfectly placed for Marino Markezic’s 20-hectare Kabola estate near Momjan. In the beautifully appointed tasting room, over locally cured prsut (prosciutto) and a toothsome, truffle-infused cheese, we sampled a classic, floral Malvasia, moved to a firmer, barrique-aged riserva and graduated finally to a stunning, long-legged, deep golden elixir which had spent half a year on the skins in amphorae (the amphora vogue has trickled down from Italy via Slovenia to Istria), followed by a year in large Slavonian oak barrels and a final 8 months in bottle.
Though Malvasia is Istria’s signature grape, Markezic is also devoted to Teran (aka Refosk), the tough local red which he likens – with disarming candour – to the Istrian male: “There’s not much good about him – but people love him anyway!” This awkward, apparently unlovable, highly acidic variety does seem to respond – presumably like the Istrian male – to a firm hand (in the Kabola vineyards) and plenty of TLC (in the cellar).
Gianfranco Kozlowic’s property, perched on a hillside overlooking neatly planted vineyards, looks across at the ruined castle of Momjan. Surveying his burgeoning winery – currently a building site – with its eye-watering investment in concrete, stainless steel and oak, the winemaker admitted “I enjoy a challenge!” The ambition is evident and the challenge huge, but Kozlovic’s views on wine remain refreshingly simple: “I want to produce wines of varietal character, pleasing, with long-lasting flavour – but not a whole philosophy lesson. Wine shouldn’t burden you with expectations.” The star of Kozlovic’s cellar is Santa Lucia, a beautifully structured, fruit-filled Malvasia from an old-established but recently acquired vineyard where some 50 year-old vines survive.
The Slovenian border is practically visible from Momjan. Once across, and before setting off north, pause for a capuccino on the waterfront in Piran, spread out along a tiny tongue of land tipped with an ancient lighthouse and embracing a graceful bay. After a brief incursion into Italy, skirting round Trieste, you reach the little Slovenian enclave of Goriska Brda (‘the hills of Gorizia’), whose vineyards nuzzle up against those of Italy’s Collio – they’re visible from the tower of Marjan Simcic’s winery. Typically for this small region, Simcic has vines on both sides of the border: of the estate’s eighteen hectares, six are in Italy, the rest in Slovenia.
Primorska’s perfect winegrowing climate – gusts of warm air from the Gulf of Trieste to the south and cool draughts from the Julian Alps to the north – gives concentrated, full-bodied wines capable of great ageing. As in Istria, whites predominate but up here Malvasia cedes ground to Rebula (aka Ribolla Gialla) and Sauvignonasse (the erstwhile Tocai Friuliano). Simcic’s luscious, food-friendly Rebulas – some of them offered glasswise at the Fat Duck in Bray – range from a fine single varietal to the more complex Teodor Belo blend (with Pinot Grigio and Sauvignonasse), to DWWA Gold Award-winner Leonardo, a deep golden passito aged 30 months in tiny barriques. Valerija Simcic is not alone in admiring her husband’s elegant Pinot Noir – she characterises it, with a nod to her former career as fashion designer and model, as ‘a white wine in a red gown’.
Just above Simcic in the hilltop village of Medana, with wraparound views out over the Brda vineyards, is Belica, a haven of peace and warmth built in typically Slovenian style – whitewashed with slender white columns, balustrades and red tile roofs. It’s owned and run by the indefatigable Zlatko and Mary Mavric, who somehow find time along with their duties as attentive hosts to make wine, press olives, cook up home-made jams and preserves, cure some superbly fragrant prsut and salami and distil an impressive range of clear fruit brandies. There’s one for every occasion (or ailment) including a version infused with lovage which – assures Zlatko – is guaranteed to revive flagging libido.
Close by in Plesivo is Kabaj Morel, a sunny, sunflower-yellow domacija (literally ‘homestead’) where expatriate Frenchman Jean-Michel Morel and his Slovenian wife Katja run a lively wine and restaurant business (plus six simple, stylish rooms). Jean-Michel is a fan of clay amphorae for his stunning Malvasia/Rebula/Sauvignonasse combination (Gary Rhodes has selected some) and a balanced Merlot-rich Bordeaux blend, both perfect partners for Katja’s updated, upmarket take on traditional Brda dishes – gnocchi with prsut and fennel sauce, home-made sausages with white polenta.
A visit to Primorska would be incomplete without a tasting at Sutor, co-owned by brothers Primoz and Mitja Lavrencic. Their first vintage was 1991 but the vineyards, all prime sites in this southern end of the Vipava valley, were acquired in the 1930s by the Lavrencic great-grandparents. The combination of brilliant subalpine sunshine and violent gusts from the Burja, a northeast wind that rattles down the valley scattering rooftop tiles and shutting down the motorways, gives impressively structured, highly aromatic wines with good acidity.
Sutor wines are mainly white (‘everyone talks about red wine, but they all drink white’, comments Primoz) – an award-winning Chardonnay combining elegance and power with a discreet hint of oak, a blend (named Burja, after the infamous wind) of Ribula, Malvasia and Welschriesling with bright fruit, a smokey whiff and good acidity and an aromatic Sauvignon. We took our leave with a memorable taste of Primoz’s Pinot Noir, cherry red, sweetly fruity, scented and smooth.
ZAGREB WINE GOURMET FESTIVAL, CROATIA
When visiting a region whose wines you barely know, with no time to scour the area, the perfect solution is a wine festival that’s done the footwork for you and assembled key producers under one roof. The Zagreb Wine Gourmet Festival, held annually in February (visit www.zagrebwinegourmet.com for date of the next one) in the city, provides an overview of Croatian and Slovenian wines from selected producers in both countries (plus a handful from neighbouring ex-Yugoslavian countries, and Italy). In the space of a couple of days you can zigzag your way (figuratively speaking) from the depths of Dalmatia (look out for Korta Katarina and Frano) up through the Istrian peninsula (add Coronica and Degrassi Moreno to producers listed below) and on into Slovenia’s Primorska region (producers listed, plus Movia, Edi Simcic and Scurek). Inland Slovenia has the Podravje wine region with DWWA multi-award-winners Dveri-Pax and wines from Curin Prapotnik, while a final sweep down into Slavonia (Croatia again, confusingly) will give you a taste of Krauthaker’s elegant, prize-winning wines.
WHERE TO STAY/EAT
52211 Bale, Croatia
Tel. + 385 91 243 1600
Limski Kanal 1, 52488 Sv. Lovrec, Croatia
Tel. +385 52 448 119
Hotel San Rocco
Via Media 2, 52474 Brtonigla, Croatia
Tel. +385 52 725 000
Medana 32, 5212 Dobrovo, Goriska Brda, Slovenia
Tel. +386 5 304 21 04
WHERE TO TASTE
All wineries listed welcome visitors by appointment
Kruncici 2, 52448 Sv. Lovrec, Croatia
Tel. +385 52 448 558
Kanedolo 90, 52460 Momjan, Croatia
Tel.: +385 52 779 208
Vale 78, 52460 Momjan, Croatia
Tel. +385 52 779 177
Ceglo 3b, 5212 Dobrovo, Slovenia
Tel. +386 (5) 39 59 200
Kabaj (with rooms)
Slovrenc 4, 5212 Dobrovo, Goriska Brda
Tel. +386 5 395 9560
Podraga 30-31, 5272 Podnanos, Slovenia
Tel. + 386 (5) 36 69 367