On a wine holiday…in Croatia
Croatia’s pretty north-western peninsula on the Italian and Slovenian borders, Istria is a pastoral expanse of ancient forests, traditional villages and gently rolling farmland on the Adriatic. Famously fertile, over 110 small-scale wineries and 145 olive oil producers have sprung up across the region over the last 20 years.
On hearing there’s a comprehensive network of hiking trails too, I can’t help feeling it’s a good excuse for a wander with wine. Not surprisingly, my husband Nick, agrees.
Our first taste of Istria is at the elegant Hotel Monte Mulini. Set in the Golden Cape National Park just outside the picturesque fishing town of Rovinj, this award-winning 5-star luxury property acts as an excellent introduction to the region’s wine and cuisine.
Their Wine Vault restaurant serves imaginative Istrian dishes by revered chef (and Croatian MasterChef judge) Tom Gretić. It’s a gorgeous night, and outside on the Wine Vault terrace surrounded by ancient oak and pine, we eat slender green fingers of wild asparagus, fragrantly truffled soup and some of the freshest seabass I’ve ever tasted, all locally sourced. Our waiter talks us through a selection of startlingly good Istrian wines, and as we savour flavours from local wineries such as Matošević, Dobravac and Vivoda, a plan for our week of hiking takes shape.
The next morning we set off for Matošević: an award-winning winery, a moderate and madly picturesque hike 18km inland to the tiny village of Kruncići. Grabbing our day packs, bottles of water and sun hats, we head out past Rovinj’s ancient port via the main road, before slipping on to a concealed trail into the heart of the countryside.
This is Basìlica valley, a fertile agricultural belt where lovely medieval churches sit alongside orchards of delicious peaches, almonds and, of course, grapes. Colours are primal: bright blue sky, vivid green trees, as we walk by field upon field of ironred soil in which rows of olive trees and grapevines stand sentry over tomatoes, courgettes and feathery sweetcorn. As we stop to glug water in some welcome forest shade, we spot wild asparagus growing among the riot of roadside foliage. Come autumn there will be prized truffles and mushrooms too.
Istria … it’s like a finishing school for foragers.
The walk is uplifting: the hot air is steeped in the heady scent of rosemary and birdsong as we crunch over the rockpacked trail. It’s madly hot though, over 30C by the time we start the climb up the Lim valley. The Matošević winery is at the top, and we collapse under the shade of the large cherry tree outside the small tasting room, more interested in water than wine.
Istria has a long tradition of wine making, but with the emphasis on quantity rather than quality (particularly when the region was part of communist Yugoslavia). But in the late 1990s, a new wave of young Croatian wine-makers started working with malvasia, a traditional but unfashionable Istrian white grape, and the dark-skinned varietal teran. Applying the latest in wine science, new technology and stringent quality control, Istria’s small-scale but highly professional wine producers started winning awards. Tonnes of them: from cleaning up at the 2012 Decanter Awards to near perfect scores from Robert Parker.
Typical of Istria’s ‘garage wineries’, Matošević is small – really just a farmhouse – but from crushing to aging and bottling, everything is done here. And the wine is very good. Nick and I appreciatively sip our way through the Matošević family tree: 10 lines from the light and fruity Alba white to the dark, chocolate-spiced Grimalda red. Flavours are exquisite: delicate, robust, each dances across our tongues.
Instead of walking back to Rovinj, we plan a more leisurely return. A gentle 15-minute walk downhill brings us to Lim fjord: a beautiful 12km sea channel cutting through a 150-metre high limestone canyon.
The conditions produce exceptional fish, as well as high quality oysters and mussels. In a waterfront cafe set in an idyllic cove where pine needles form a path down to the tree-shaded beach, Nick and I sample local scallops and oysters. It’s almost with regret that we watch the Lim fjord ferry dock, though we subsequently enjoy the sail back through impossibly turquoise waters, accompanied by an enthusiastically drunken choir of Croatian passengers singing local folk songs.
An hour later, Rovinj rises up on the horizon. Its cobbled streets of handsome baroque buildings coiling upwards, topped by the stately St Euphemia church (1736), harking back to when Rovinj was the Venetian empire’s prized ‘Blue Pearl’.
These days Rovinj’s pretty harbourside and twisty cobbled streets feature the usual touristy pizza joints, but mixed in with some seriously good Istrian restaurants and bars: Kantinon features traditional Istrian seafood dishes, presided over by Emile Perdec, Croatia’s foremost sommelier; Grota is Igor Žužić’s basic market-side bar, serving his hugely popular wine, cheese and cured meat (we browse the adjacent market stalls of truffles and olive oils, glass in hand).
Over the next few days we learn a great deal about Istrian wine, as Hotel Monte Mulini offers daily tastings from its cellar of more than 600 wines. Their sommeliers describe the character and provenance of each wine (as well as their 15 different olive oils) with the passion and affection most men reserve for their football team.
Wineries Vina Vivoda and San Tommaso are a short hike from Rovinj, as is the award-winning Dobravac winery and olive oil farm where, over a glass of their berrypacked Fuga, Natalie Dobravac describes the intense satisfaction of farming “a small piece of land that produces everything.” It’s hard not to feel this is something special.
On the last of our hikes we meet a local farmer who observes: “These farms, this red soil, the wild asparagus, onions, cherries … they create the taste of the grape. It is the taste of who we are and how we live.”
It’s a taste I will never forget.
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Cox & Kings can tailor-make a food and wine holiday to Croatia. Please call 020 7873 5000 to make an enquiry, or send a tailor-made request.