June 19 2011
So I went to Croatia the other week, to Istria – Rovinj, to be specific. If you are in a hurry, then the highlights can be summarised thus: great seafood, a well-established wine fair (Vinistra) nearby, acclaimed olive oil from hilltop groves, and, an hour inland, truffles to rival Alba and Périgord and at better prices. Go now, or otherwise read on.
I’m rarely comfortable staying anywhere with more than six rooms, or that isn’t in Mr & Mrs Smith or Sawday or owned by a hospitable and dissolute aristocrat; but Monte Mulini (pictured), the region’s first five-star hotel, is unusually charming and relaxed for such a grand residence. Furthermore, its Wine Vault restaurant hosts the best wine cellar in the region, with an unrivalled selection of Croatian vintages. Here it’s essential to get stuck into the various permutations of malvasia – their signature white, a single varietal or blended with chardonnay, unoaked, oaked or aged in acacia barrels. After a short drive from Pula airport, we were greeted with an impressive sea view from the lobby and glasses of producer Misal’s prestigious sparkling malvasia, our introduction to what would become an extended romance with this otherwise under-rated grape (NB – a Misal mimosa at breakfast, my creation, really takes the edge off the previous evening’s grappa session).
Croatia, like anywhere with a small production, relatively slight demand and high costs, cannot afford to make bad wine. This is worth remembering when sampling extensively Istria’s slightly more experimental reds (everything from pinot noir to cabernet franc with some local grapes featuring too). Although Istria is still to find its definitive red varietal expression, one contender is the impressively-named hectorovitch, a distant relative of Puglia’s primitivo and thus, for those partial to obscurantism at dinner parties, the granddaddy of California’s zinfandel. However, for the more conservative, a cursory inspection of The Wine Vault’s racks also yielded an impressively varied international selection that would not look out of place in one of London’s better restaurants.
Rovinj retains a pleasingly Italian influence; it’s like the scrubbier, less affected conurbation you’d expect round the corner from Cinque Terre. That’s not to say the town doesn’t show self-assurance, with one locally-renowned restaurant snootily listing on its menu board “No pizza, no calimari, no cevapici [regional cooked mince sausage]”. Food in the area is indeed commendable and with a beautiful, clean coastline, the seafood is particularly excellent, the prevalence of raw crustacea a good indication of the purity of the waters. I could have gone out fishing in the tranquil bay at dawn’s atmospheric light in one of the traditional flat-bottomed Batana boats and then learned how to prepare my catch with the hotel’s celebrated chef, Tomislav Gretic, but as a quondam journalist this would have intruded on pool-time. If you absolutely feel the need (and given its proximity and the ease with which you can then escape, you just might), then Venice is a two-hours-plus boat journey across the sea – worth a day trip, so long as you pack lunch, rather than fighting for a table in one of the handful of worthwhile or sensibly-priced restaurants.
Tipping up to Vinistra – now in its 18th year – I didn’t know quite what to expect, but once word got round that an English wine-writer was in attendance I received the kind of treatment that would make any of these fairs bearable. Usually one wanders listlessly around a vast conference centre, trying to discover something expensive you haven’t tried before while avoiding the eager eyes of Brazilian winery marketing directors and those people who make custom drip-stop pourers. But here I sat centrally and enjoyed a series of pleasant introductions to the best wines from the top estates. With the help of Twitter and Monte Mulini’s head sommelier, I’d compiled a shortlist of producers and was pleased that young Bruno Trappan, who took me under his wing, was one of them. With vineyards in the hot southern part of Istria, his malvasia/chardonnay blend Uroboros and ground-breaking syrah (available in Brighton’s Hotel du Vin) were particularly appealing.
Next up, Ivica Matesovic, one of the region’s pioneers, took me through a fascinating comparison of his malvasia cuvées – proving the age-ability of the varietal and also its wonderful affinity with acacia, which really lifts the grape’s perfume. Finally I enjoyed an entertainingly laddish chat with Degrassi’s Sinisa Skaberna, who suggested that the best whites hail from the higher Terre Bianchi (chalky limestone) soils – the breasts; while reds particularly flourished on the iron bauxite-enriched Terre Rossi areas – the thighs. Certainly the contarini single varietals cabernet franc and merlot showed very well here but then I’ve always been a leg man. Other producers of note but sadly not in my notes are Radovan, Benvenuti and Agrolaguna.
However, Istria’s most compelling wines are from Roxanich. I didn’t get round to trying them until 2am, and admittedly the circumstances were not textbook for critical appreciation: I hadn’t slept for 48 hours, c/o The Clove Club, Dalston’s popular pop-up, and a 7am flight; I’d been at Vinistra all afternoon; and then I’d enjoyed an excellent wine-matching dinner at Monte Mulini. After this followed the usual irresponsible variety of mildly offensive local digestifs (including mistletoe grappa – called “medicine” or something phonetically similar) and a slightly surreal wine and cigar pairing with Hunters & Frankau’s Simon Chase, who happened to be staying in the hotel. It was Simon in fact who introduced me to Mladen Rozanic, whose antica malvasia (with its 170-day skins contact) was perfectly matched to a Romeo y Julieta Exhibition #4. Such a counter-intuitive pairing must have sobered me up, as only unexpected brilliance can, as across the range his wines resonate, with whites and reds achieving a textured opulence and intensity that, combined with my fatigue and reaching saturation point, left me nearly speechless. Wherever you see you these truly revelatory wines, purchase with abandon.
Continuing in the vein of exuberant extravagance, lunch to Zigante, the world’s most famous truffle restaurant, is a must for gastrophiles. All year round they offer a specialist menu of these divine tubers and Giancarlo Zigante still holds the Guinness world record for the largest white truffle, an astonishing 1.31kg, unearthed in 1999. In fact Istria is Europe’s secret tartufo heartland, and many specimens that are sold in northern Italy’s seasonal truffle fairs, purportedly dug up in the surrounding Piemontese hills, actually have more than a whiff of the forests of Oprtalj, Livade and Buzet. Even the summer truffles in season during my visit were worth the trip, showing impressive freshness and fragrance and liberally covering every dish.
Back at the hotel spa I opted for a vinotherapy facial – which I assumed was an opportunity to drink wine sloppily in a Jacuzzi, alongside an attractive masseuse, swigging from jeroboams, oblivious to spillage. Apparently not, and sadly with my beard-obscured face I was advised to go with the more traditional hot stones massage instead. This was acutely necessary after borrowing one of the hotel’s bikes and rediscovering the purpose of thigh muscles, having gone for a long pedal through the forested paths and around the splendid rocky coast. In fact it was upon returning from this ride and a plunge in the sea, with the prospect of more great seafood, olive oil, truffles and exotic wines, clear waters, proper sunsets, and a tolerable tourist presence that I decided I would like to get married here, quite possibly even to my fiancée.