From Istria with Love: Malvazija

By Cliff Rames © 2013

One of the many things that delight me on warm sunny days is the moment I crack open a cold, thirst quenching bottle of white wine, preferably out on a veranda or beach. The way it refreshes and revives my spirit is like daybreak itself. Or a walk in a spring flower garden. Or a tantalizing dip in the cool waters of a favorite lake or sea.

Simple pleasures, for sure. If anyone ever asks you about the meaning of life, you tell them that. It’s all about simple pleasures. And being kind to each other….

Back to wine. There are of course so many delicious bottles from which to choose. Such multitudes in fact that I can never adequately answer that oft-asked (and maddening) question: What is your favorite? Preferences abound for sure, from earthy reds to cheeky rosés to funky orange wines. But when the sultry days of summer strike, white cold n’ crispy is how I like them. Albariño, Chablis, chenin blanc, dry riesling, Sancerre, Santorini, and Vinho Verde are all companions who chill with me on boozy flip-flop days.

(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)

Yet in life there are casual friends who pop in and out of your life, perhaps bringing zippy moments of pleasure, fun and good times. More often than not they are unremarkable encounters that leave no lasting mark. For instance that certain $9 bottle I consumed a few evenings ago. What was it again?

Then there are dear old friends. The proverbial best buds and soul mates. Stalwart bonds that endure through thick and thin in the intimate places of your heart and mind, even when communication and visitations are missed for long periods of time.

Among these old friends I count many Croatian wines. Together we share a sweet history, know each others’ secrets, our moments of silliness and celebration, sadness and humiliation. Side-by-side we’ve experienced triumph and failure, been inspired to laughter and dance, been comforted in tears and heartbreak. And we go on loving each other even when times are tough and bottles get broken.

One of these darlings is malvazija istarska – or malvasia istriana.

Like albariño is to the seaside shores of Galicia in Spain, malvazija is the signature white wine of Istria, an axe-shaped peninsula that slices into the Adriatic Sea along Croatia’s northern coast. Here malvazija vineyards stand like sentinels not far from the rugged, salty shore and then majestically rise up the pastoral highlands of the interior, where they thrive alongside acacia trees, olive groves, and truffle oak forests in the region’s patchwork of red, white, brown and grey soils – each to subtly different effect.

(Map courtesy of istra-zivot.com)
(Map courtesy of istra-zivot.com)

Despite the name that would place the variety among the branches of the very large malvasia bianca family tree, malvazija istarska is specific to Istria, although the variety can also be found in the neighboring Koper appellation in Slovenia, as well as in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia area of Italy.

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Malvazija Istarska

Malvazija ranks as Croatia’s second most planted wine grape variety. Because it has a tendency to over crop, malvazija can yield insipid, uninteresting wines (as was the case for many years during the era of Socialsim). Drought or extreme heat can quickly cause the delicate fruit flavors to mute, sugars to spike and acids to drop, leading to one-dimensional swill best suited for bulk sale or distillation.

But when the weather is right, vineyard management techniques hit the mark, and the terroir tenders its sweet spot, something magical and mystical happens (see Matošević ‘s Magical Mystical Tour of the James Beard House), and malvazija reveals its many charms and depths.

(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)

Often referred to as liquid gold (although some would rightfully argue that the excellent local olive oils share that distinction), malvazija is Istria’s pride and joy, its medal champion, and best hope for international recognition from global wine lovers and foodies. No surprise then that a single vineyard malvazija from Kozlović won Gold and Trophy awards at the 2013 International Wine Challenge, and eight single-varietal malvazija istarska wines from Croatia won medals at the 2013  Decanter World Wine Awards.

decanter 2013-b

In a recent article for the Croatian press, the American food and wine writing duo Jeff Jenssen and Mike DiSimone (aka the World Wine Guys) asserted that the world is ready for malvazija; that the time has come for Istria’s flagship wine to join the ranks of the fabulous and the famous.

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That the Istrians are ready for the world is undisputed. With their own successful technical assistance and marketing association established in 1995, Vinistra, an annual World of Malvazija competition and wine expo, an “Istrian Quality” label designation program for top wines, and a legion of young, talented, innovative and enthusiastic winemakers, it seems inevitable that Istria and malvazija will soon take their rightful places among the stars.

However, Dimitri Brečević, a 34-year old French-Croatian who studied winemaking in Bordeaux before moving to Istria in 2004 to start his own winery and successful Piquentum label, feels that malvazija – as good as it is now – still hides its full potential.

“I would say that we still have a lot of work to do,” he says. “We have to work a lot on vinification to adapt more to this variety, but also we have to learn more about our terroir – particularly the red soils”.

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Dimitri Brečević (right)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)

Brečević also wonders about the potential benefits of blending malvazija with other varieties. “But which one?” he muses. “I am not so sure about chardonnay. I would prefer an old local variety. But we are still working on that. All this research is the price to pay if we want to improve quality and reach world class status”.

When seeking out a malvazija wine a buyer should be aware that styles range from young and fresh to French or Slavonian oak or acacia wood-aged versions, to high alcohol extended skin maceration “orange” wines from producers such as Clai, Kabola, and Roxanich that are cult favorites among some consumers (reportedly these wines pair wonderfully with cigars, a subject advocated each year during a special “Habanos Moments” session at Vinistra).

Cigars and Malvazija (Photo: Cliff Rames)
Cigars and Malvazija
(Photo: Cliff Rames)

Sparkling malvazija wines are also bottled by a handful of producers, most notably one of Croatia’s leading female winemakers, Ana Peršurić.

However, most malvazija produced in Istria is the straight-forward, early-drinking, food-friendly “naked” style that is zesty, moderately alcoholic, sometimes effervescent, and slightly bitter with subdued fruit (apple, apricot), raw almond and acacia flower floral notes, and – in good vintages – distinctly saline and mineral-driven. In other words, perfect alongside summery seafood fare.

Acacia flowers, Istria, Croatia (Photo: Cliff Rames)
Acacia flowers, Istria, Croatia
(Photo: Cliff Rames)

If all of this makes you curious and thirsty, let’s get to the whole point of this article:  Ready or not, Istrian malvazija is already available in many markets around the world.

In the U.S. consumers have access to nearly 10 different labels, including Bastianich Adriatico, Cattunar, Clai, Coronica, Kozlović, Matosević, Piquentum, Saints Hills (blended with Chardonnay), Terzolo, and Trapan.

In the U.K., Pacta Connect offers a number of delicious malvazija wines in its portfolio, including Cattunar, Clai, Gerzinić, Piquentum, and Peršurić.

With the waning days of summer in mind, recently I gathered a few old friends (of the human kind and the malvazija kind) for a soirée of sipping, swirling and pontificating. The bottles were chosen at random based on what I could get my hands on; some are imported to the U.S., others extracted from my private cellar. Below are some notes that I managed to remember.

When drinking malvazija – or any wine – please don’t get bogged down by lofty descriptors and 100-point assessments. Wine deserves better than that. But do sit back, kick up your bare feet, raise your glass and take a sip, and enjoy what the wine has to offer, the stories it has to tell, the memories or images it evokes, and the songs it may sing for you.

In the end, perhaps a few of these beauties will become your friends too. And friends of your friends. And friends of their friends. Before you know it, it’s a party.

So let us go forth as denizens and disciples of the finer things in life, singing and shouting out proclamations of love with mouthfuls of malvazija. Because it’s delicious. And because it’s the next Big Thing – or should be.

***

Benvenuti 2010 Malvazija Istarska

Creamy and viscous with a soft yet zesty attack and talcum powder mineral presence, all rounded out with essence of apricot, golden apple, and citrus blossom. Simple style yet pleasant example of white soil malvazija.

Coronica 2011 Istrain Malvasia

Tight, steely and chock full of minerals, this is not malvazija for the masses. Elusive citrus notes wrap around a structured mineral core, surrounded by an aura of blazing acidity. Not for the feint of heart or sufferers of acid reflux. But if you love this style, pair it with grilled sardines, linguini with clam sauce, or raw oysters and you will be very happy indeed.

Degrassi “Bomarchese” 2009 Malazija Istarska

The most aromatic and tropical of the lot. Loads of stone fruit with a hint of gooseberry and orange blossom. Nicely structured with a long finish.

Gerzinić 2010 Malvazija

Leesy and elegant, with notes of Bosc pear, Golden Delicious apple, and honeysuckle. Smooth and refined on the palate, with soft acids, a chalky mineral presence, and a satisfying finish.

Kozlović Malvazija 2012

Clean, crisp and taught with pear fruit and dusty straw followed by a bitter almond finish. A benchmark malvazija – and a great value.

Saints Hills 2010 Nevina

Fermented in small oak barrels and blended with a small amount of Chardonnay. Creamy yet vibrant on the palate with rich notes of ripe Bartlett pear, banana, and butter toasted hazelnuts, all supported on a frame of saline minerality. Elegant and sophisticated yet approachable now.

Terzolo Malvazija Istarska 2010

Zippy and refreshing with crackling acidity and delicate fruit aromas (citrus; starfruit), pungent green notes of cut grass, fig leaf and herbs with a hint of white acacia flowers. Nicely structured with a sharp mineral core of crushed sea shells and metal ore, finishing up with that distinctive bitter almond bite.

Trapan Ponete Malvazija Istarska 2012

Crystalline and refined with delicate, tight notes of dusty pear skins, kaffir lime, apricot, marzipan and acacia flowers. Still young and taught, this is the most polished but perhaps most textbook example of the lot – the closest we’ll come (for now) to mainstream malvazija.

[**For current availability, prices and vintages for the wines mentioned in this article, please check with Blue Danube Wine Co. (Coronica, Piquentum, Saints Hills, Terzolo); CroMade (Cattunar; Matosevic); Dark Star Imports (Bastianich); Louis/Dressner (Clai); Pacta Connect (Cattunar, Clai, Gerzinic, Piquentum, Peršurić); Vinum USA (Kozlović); and Winebow (Trapan).]

***

(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Jeff Tureaud)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Cliff Rames)

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Anthony Bourdain in Croatia: “Holy S*** That’s Good!”

By Cliff Rames © 2012

”I can’t believe it took me this long….Season 8. It took me to get here. This is f****** awesome.”

Unless you have been hidden away on one of Croatia’s many uninhabited islands (there are over 1,100 of them), by now you have probably heard that Anthony Bourdain of the widely popular Travel Channel TV show, No Reservations, kicked off Season 8 by visiting Croatia.

(Photo courtesy of the Travel Channel)

The episode he filmed in Croatia, called “Coastal Croatia”, was shot over a week’s time back in October 2011 and made its world premier this week on the Travel Channel (Monday, April 23, 2012, 9pm EST).

Reaction to the episode, based on the early buzz and online chatter, has been ecstatic and overwhelmingly positive. Love him or hate him – Bourdain can be a divisive, acerbic personality with a raw, uncensored sense of humor – the “Coastal Croatia” episode is an extremely entertaining, informative, and well-produced piece of travel journalism. It is also quite infectious viewing; I still find myself watching it over and over again. You can too, thanks to the Travel Channel, which now has the full episode online here.

Certainly Anthony Bourdain’s own reactions to his experiences in Croatia fueled much of the elation mirrored by his viewers as we watched him suck on briny oysters and garlicky mussels; hunt for Istrian truffles with “Shotzy the Wonder Dog”; skewer sashimi tuna; gorge himself on shark liver pate, fish tripe and lobster; drizzle “amazing spicy Croatian olive oil”; carve succulent slivers of Paški cheese; savor slow-simmered Skradin risotto; and swirl and swallow several liters of local wine. Often Bourdain could not contain his amazement and surprise, exclaiming over and over again, ”Holy s*** that’s good”.

(Photo courtesy of the Travel Channel)

And over and over again I found myself cheering Bourdain on, perched on the edge of my seat in anticipation of his next move or discovery, and of course wishing I was there too.  🙂

Bourdain is now famous for his often hilarious, sometimes offensive yet always entertaining one-liners. Rather than repeat them here, many of the Bourdainisms from the Croatia episode have already been documented for your enjoyment in this post by Eater.com.

Bourdain’s “Coastal Croatia” travels began in Istria, where he visits Rovinj and Motovun. Our friends at Taste of Croatia have graciously mapped out Bourdain’s itinerary for you here.

In one scene at a seaside restaurant, Konoba Batelina, the wines of Bruno Trapan are on table, clearly being enjoyed by the group. While Bourdain had planned to visit Trapan winery, in the end he had to bypass it due to time restraints. Which is too bad, because Bruno Trapan is quite a rock star among Croatian winemakers and has many admirers at home and abroad. His boundless energy, wild enthusiasm, intense passion and maturing skill as winemaker would have been quite a match for Bourdain. I’m sure having the two of them in the same room would have resulted in a revolution of some sort.  🙂

The Dynamic Duo: Istrian winemaker Bruno Trapan and Dalmatian winemaker Alen Bibich. (photo by Cliff Rames)

The journey then continued to Dalmatia, where Bourdain visits Boškinac hotel and winery on Pag island in central Dalmatia – “an amazing, crazy-ass spot”. There he is treated to Boris Šuljić’s delectable cooking – a multicourse extravaganza that – I know from my own visit there last year – is one of the finest culinary experiences in Croatia. All dishes were paired with Boškinac’s “awesome” wines, which are produced from Šuljić’s vineyards in the fields across from the hotel. I am especially fond of his Gegić, a fresh, salty white wine from the locally indigenous grape of the same name. The Boškinac red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot is widely considered to be one of the best Bordeaux-style wines in Dalmatia.

Bourdain at Boškinac hotel & winery (photo courtesy of Boris Šuljić)

From Pag, Bourdain traveled to BIBICh winery in Skradin, where, simply put, he seemed to have the time of his life, asking, “Why, oh why, is there so much amazing wine in this country?”

(photo by Cliff Rames)

Not surprising at all. I have visited BIBICh many times over the years and despite my futile efforts to remain faithful to a spit bucket, maintain dignified self control, and sustain a guise of “professionalism”, I have never left sober or unfazed by the man’s charm, incredible hospitality, and deliciously fascinating array of family wines.  🙂

I also regularly recommend BIBICh to travelers in the area, and I have never heard a bad report from anyone who has visited him. Alen BIBICh has always been miles ahead of the game in regard to an understanding of wine tourism, wine marketing, and wine exports (he exports the bulk of his production and was one of the first Croatian wine producers to find success in the United States, where his R6 Riserva red is a best seller).

Often the unsung hero behind BIBICh’s success and ability to please any number of visitors or VIP guests is his wife, Vesna. The woman is a culinary genius, and she possesses a superhero’s ability to whip up on short notice a gourmet tasting menu that is not only delicious but perfectly complements the wine that Alen is pouring. It is simply astounding, and anyone who has ever had the privilege to enjoy some time with Alen, his wines and Vesna’s food pairings will never forget it and may also find him/herself exclaiming, “Holy s*** that’s good!”

One of Vesna Bibich's culinary creations (photo by Cliff Rames)

A few viewers have been asking about the food that Bourdain ate on the show. Many of the dishes are local specialties with recipes that vary by region and village-to-village. You can get some ideas from the Taste of Croatia book by Karen Evenden. Esquire also just posted a recipe for the grilled sardines, and you can view that here. Croatian Cuisine also offers a smart phone app that contains many traditional Dalmatian recipes.

Ante Pižić, the gentleman who prepared the Skradin risotto at BIBICh winery, will not reveal the recipe, saying only that it is a family secret dating back over 200 years. He did however tell me that tradition dictates that only male members of the family can prepare it, and the whole process takes four days, 12 hours of which are spent over a fire, cooking and stirring. The Slow Food movement is a traditional way of life in Croatia.

Skradin risotto

No doubt, Anthony Bourdain No Reservations “Coastal Croatia” is by far one of the best promotional pieces for Croatian tourism, food and wine to emerge in a long time. It is also a perfect example of how smartly done, “hip” marketing can resonate across the globe and lead to practical benefits. Word is, since the episode aired the phones of Croatian wine importers in the U.S. have been ringing off the hook.

To commemorate the occasion, Blue Danube Wine Company tapped into its cellar reserves and released two older vintages of BIBICh wines, the 2004 Sangreal Mertlot and the limited release 2006 Sangreal Syrah. Needless to say, BIBICh wines are now hot, and we are happy to report that Blue Danube just received a new shipment and several new vintages are now available in the U.S. (unfortunately Boškinac wines are not exported at the moment).

Perhaps – and hopefully – this is a tipping point for Croatian wines. Certainly Boris Šuljić and Alen Bibich have gained some well-deserved attention and recognition for their talents. As for the many excellent Croatian winemakers not featured in this program: I firmly believe in the old adage: “A rising tide lifts all boats”….

While No Reservations has generated a lot of buzz and attention for Croatia and its food and wine scene, it would be foolish for any of us to rest our laurels. With his show, Anthony Bourdain has blown open the doors of imagination, of possibility, of opportunity. Now comes the hard work of delivering on the promise and sustaining the momentum….

(Photo courtesy of Alen Bibich)

Yet for now we can certainly bask in the glow and smile, knowing that many more people will soon be discovering Croatian wines and enjoying what we have always known: the wines are great, the winemakers all have great stories, and Croatia is an amazingly beautiful country with a rich food and wine heritage.

In the words of Anthony Bourdain,”this is world class food; this is world class wine; this is world class cheese…. If you haven’t been here yet, you are a fucking idiot”.

And even if you are not an “idiot” or have already been to Croatia, then perhaps – like me – you watched Bourdain as he relished in the marvels and beauties of Croatia and knew one thing for sure: that you must go back as soon as possible!

I have a feeling that the Croatian National Tourism Board was just handed a brand new marketing slogan: “Croatia – Holy S*** That’s Good!”  🙂

(Photo courtesy of the Travel Channel)

Wines of Croatia News Round-Up for March 18, 2012

In case you missed anything, here is a round-up of the latest links to the news articles, blog posts and videos that highlighted Croatia, its wine or wine culture.

1. The Image Pantry.com: On Green Lycra, German Riesling and Other Fashion Victims

March 4, 2012

A review of Bolfan Primus Riesling, included in the Image Pantry’s round-up of “some of the best rieslings central Europe has to offer”. 

2. Grape Experiences: Wine Blogs I Actually Read and You Should Too

March 5, 2012

The Wines of Croatia blog makes the Grape Experiences list of five wine blogs that should be followed.

3. Istria Travel.com: Baptising Wine Among Other Things

March 5, 2012

The Clumsy Traveler learns about colorful local traditions in Istrian wine country.  

4. Total Hvar.com: Where is the Largest Island Vineyard in the Mediterranean?

March 6, 2012

A report about the new Plančić vineyard on Hvar that will eventually produce 2 million bottles of Plavac Mali and Bogdanuša.

5. The Croatian Times.com: Croatian Wines Appreciation Growing on German and UK Markets

March 7, 2012

New data about Croatia wine exports to Europe.

6. Gourmand Awards News: World Cookbook Awards Winners

March 7, 2012

Croatia’s premier food & wine magazine, Iće & piće (“Eat & Drink”) wins Third Place in the “Book & Trade Magazine” category (Page 81 on the slide show) at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.

7. Thirst for Wine: Tonight’s Croatian Wine – Thanks to Mountain Valley Wines

March 8, 2012

U.K. wine writer, Robert McIntosh, reviews Pelješac Plavac Mali 2010.

8. The Daily Meal.com: Wine Tasting in Croatia

March 9, 2012

A hop across Croatia to visit some of its wineries on “the road less traveled in Europe”.  

9. IWINETC.com: All Aboard the Orient Express to Zagreb’s Regent-Esplanade for IWINETC 2013

March 10, 2012

Wine Pleasures.com announces that the 5th edition of the International Wine Tourism Conference and Workshop will be held in Zagreb, Croatia in March 2013.

10. Pacta Connect Blog: Tasting Istrian Malvazija

March 12, 2012

As the season of Malvasia Istriana (Malvazija istarska) begins, the team from Pacta Connect provides this primer about Istria’s flagship wine and recommends a few producers for your drinking pleasure.  

11. Total Hvar.com: 21st Century Planting Planting Planting

March 12, 2012

A report about Hvar winemaker Andro Tomić’s Bastijana vineyards expansion project.

12. Istriaficionado.com: Giorgio Clai of Istria Nominated as Wine-Newcomer of the Year by Der Feinschmecker

March 12, 2012

A report about Istrian biodynamic winemaker Giorgio Clai being nominated by German lifestyle magazine Der Feinschmeker as “Newcomer of the Year” in the Wine Awards 2012 competition.

13. Wines of Croatia Blog: Blood from Stone: Stina Wine from Brač – Best New Label Design

March 16, 2012

This new wine label design from JAKO VINO Winery really caught our eye. Find out why.

14. Balkan Travellers.com: Croatian Wine for Beginners

March 18, 2012

A repackaged and republished introduction to Croatian wines by Austrian wine writer, Peter Moser.

P.S. We love to hear from you!

If you have comments or other news to share, please comment on this post or email us at info@winesofcroatia.com

 

Images from the Wine Roads of Croatia #9 – Meneghetti “Stancija”

“Field of Dreams”

Meneghetti estate vineyards, Bale, Western Istria wine-growing hills, Istria sub-region, Coastal Croatia.

Located in the Istrian hinterland, 2 km away from the Adriatic Sea and 20 km from Pula, Meneghetti winery and estate grows the indigenous malvasia istriana grape, as chardonnay, pinot blanc, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and refosco.

Wines produced by Meneghetti include:

~Meneghetti White (blend of chardonnay & pinot blanc)

~Malvazija (malvasia istriana)

~Meneghetti Red (blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon & cabernet franc)

~Merlot

~Meneghetti Sparkling (blend of chardonnay & pinot blanc)

Meneghetti also operates a lovely “stancija” – a beautifully restored country guest house where visitors can enjoy the Good Life – Istria style – while dining on locally-inspired culinary creations skillfully prepared by head chef Jean-Yves Messmere and drizzled with Meneghetti’s own extra virgin olive oil.

Or you can simply loiter on the veranda, listen to the summer cicadas, breathe in the fragrant aromas of Mediterranean herbs, and slowly sip a cool glass of Meneghetti sparkling wine whilst gazing across the vineyards as they peacefully soak up the warm Istrian sun.  🙂

Bonus photo!

“Under the Istrian Sun”

Text & photos © 2012 Cliff Rames