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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Wines of Croatia News Round-Up for May 20, 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. Corkbin: A Taste of Croatia

May 09, 2012

Reviews of Cattunar 2010 Malvasia Istraina and Clai 2009 Malvazija Sv. Jakov by Pacta Connect.

 

 

2. Wines of Croatia Blog: Reflections on the 2012 Zagreb Wine Gourmet Weekend – Part I

May 10, 2012

Part I of a two-part report about one of Croatia’s most important wine festivals.

 

 

3. Total-Hvar.com: New for 2013 – Californian Students on Hvar’s Vineyards

May 12, 2012

An exchange program between a university in California and Hvar’s winemakers has been launched, which will offer internships to viticulture students.

 

 

4. Pacta Connect Blog: Wines of Croatia ~ Cliff Rames

May 12, 2012

Trevor and Judith from Pacta Connect (a U.K. importer of Croatian wines) profile Wines of Croatia founder Cliff Rames.

 

 5. The Telegraph UK: A Croatian Wine for M&S – Out on an Istrian Limb

May 14, 2012

The story behind the selection of Pilato Malvasia Istriana for a leading U.K. supermarket. 

 

 

6. Harpers Wine & Spirits Trades Review: Joe Wadsack: My Take on Marks & Spencer’s New Middle East Wine Range

May 14, 2012

More background stories about the recent addition of two wines of Croatia – malvasia istriana from Pilato and Grasevina by Krauthaker – to British supermarket Marks & Spencer “Eastern Mediterranean” portfolio.

 

 

7. Balkan Travellers.com: 10 Reasons to Attend the Balkans Wine Competition 2012

May 14, 2012

The first-ever Balkans International Wine Competition will take place in Sophia, Bulgaria on June 14-17, 2012. Here are 10 reasons why wineries, exhibitors and guests should attend.  

 

 

8. The Globe and Mail: The Next Big Wine Country (Hint – It Starts with C and Ends with A)

May 17, 2012

Canada’s Globe and Mail echo Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations by also asserting that Croatia is the next “big wine country”. 

 

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

 

Wines of Croatia News Round-Up for January 22, 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. Pacta Connect: Remember, Remember the Fifth of November (Part 2)

January 5, 2012

The team from Pacta Connect recalls a delightful day of mushrooms, Morgan Restaurant, & Cattunar winery during a visit to Istria, Croatia.

 

 

2. A Traveler’s Mind: Why Croatia? The Wine of Course

January 5, 2012

Vanessa Day answers the question: Why Croatia? “With its vast expanse of land, wide grape variety and ideal climate, Croatia has more than enough options for you to choose from when it comes to wine.”

 

3. Wines World: Croatia’s Wine Industry

January 11, 2012

 An interesting overview of Croatia’s wine industry by the wine, food & travel blog, Wines World.

 

 

4. By the Tun: BIBICh Winery – The Best Culinary Experience of My 5-Week Culinary Press Trip

January 11, 2012

Mattie John Bamman discovers that “BIBICh wine dances” and few wineries can create an wine & food experience as awesome as Alen and Vesna Bibic can. 


5. Wines of Croatia Blog: Two Croatian Wine Stories Published in New Book

January 12, 2012

A recently published book called “Every Wine Tells a Story” includes two stories about Croatian wines, one by Wines of Croatia founder Cliff Rames, and the second by U.K. wine importer Judith Burns of Pacta Connect.

 

6. Croatian Times: Croatian Wine Manufacturer to Take on China

January 12, 2012

Croatian wine and spirits producer Badel 1862, and Chinese Tadee Holding Group agree to joint venture that will bring Croatian alcoholic beverages to the Chinese market.

 

7. Fodors: 21 Places to Go in 2012

January 14, 2012

Fodor’s names Istria as one of “21 Places to Go in 2012”. “Istria is like a less-touristed, more affordable version of Tuscany. Think medieval hilltop villages, miles of vineyards, and restaurants serving incredible seafood and pizza and pasta dishes…”

 

 8. Taste of Croatia: Kozlovic – Wine Drinker’s Kindergarten and PhD School

January 15, 2012

An inside glimpse of the newly rebuilt and remarkable Kozlović winery in Momjan, Istria. 

 

9. Foodspring: The Future of Wine

January 15, 2012

Britain’s oldest wine and spirit merchants, Berry Brothers & Rudd, predicts that Croatia will be among the wine-producing countries that will feature more prominently in the future and recommends BIBICh as a producer to try. 

 

10. Digital Journal: Hvar Wines – Plavac Mali ‘Could Unite China and Russia’

January 16, 2012

A 1.5 million Euro deal with a Chinese businessman stands to benefit local wine growers on Hvar island in Croatia and could help to elevate the Plavac Mali grape variety further onto the world stage.

 

 11. Vinologue: Crvik Winery in Dalmatia’s Konavle

January 16, 2012

A short profile of the Konavle wine region of south Dalmatia and the wines of Crvik winery.

 

 12. Bravawine: Wine #8. On the 8th Night of Croatian Vino

January 18, 2012

Review of Matošević 2009 Grimalda Red.

 

 

13. The Drinks Business: Croatian Wine Looks to Crack Global Market

January 20, 2012

The rebirth of a country’s wine tradition is underway, led by wineries like Roxanich.

 

 

14. Wines of Croatia Blog: A Time for Pruning & Partying – The Feast of Saint Vincent

January 21, 2012

A short history of he Feast of Saint Vincent of Saragossa.  

 

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