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Inspired by Istria: Visiting Croatian Wine Country

After a few glasses of his delicious aged Malvasia Istriana, (known locally as Malvazija Istarska) winemaker Ivica Matosevic told us, “My grandfather lived in Austria, my father was born in Italy, I was raised in Yugoslavia, and my daughter was born in Croatia, yet nobody ever moved.”

Matosevic, one of the superstars of the Croatian wine world, was not exaggerating or oversimplifying the 20th to 21st century history of Istria, a wedge-shaped peninsula in the northeastern Adriatic Sea.

About 90 percent of the area known as Istria is in Croatia, with the remainder in neighboring Slovenia and nearby Italy. Driving distances from Venice to most towns in Istria are about the same as or even shorter than from the nation’s capital, Zagreb. Remnants of a distant Roman past, such as the fully intact Roman Arena in Pula as well as architecture belying Istria’s importance to the Venetian Empire tie it much more to Italy than to Eastern Europe. Olive trees and vineyards dot the green landscape, and stone hilltop villages and panoramic sea views are found just around nearly every curve in the road.

Istria is surrounded by water, so it is no wonder that seafood features so prominently in its cuisine, but more surprising to visitors are the many sizes and shapes of homemade pasta available in its many wonderful restaurants. Possibly even more astonishing to many first-timers in Istria is the high quality of the local wine, particularly Malvasia Istriana, a white wine made in both a fresh, fruity version and an aged style, and Teran, a rich, earthy red.

The best time to visit is April through October, with festivals held throughout the tourist season that draw a stylish crowd from across the country and all of Europe. The Motuvun Film Festival, held in late July or early August, is known for its dedication to independent film from around the world. It comes hot on the heels of the Pula Film Festival, which takes place in mid to late July. More than 50,000 film lovers attend this celebration of international cinema, where a ticket to a screening in the ancient Pula Arena is a highly sought after commodity.

Late July also brings the ATP Croatia Open Umag, which draws a worldwide cadre of top tennis players and their fans to the seaside village of Umag for a week of tennis matches, nightly concerts and parties, and a series of wine dinners in popup restaurants on the tournament grounds. In the first week of August Istria also plays host to the Last Minute Open Jazz Festival in the town of Bale. Many concerts and performances are held in the Kamene Price Restaurant and Jazz Club, an ancient stone building with an interior courtyard just steps from the village’s Venetian palace. Our favorite time to visit is in October, as harvest is wrapping up and wine is actively being made.

Although winemaking is an important part of Istria’s agricultural and culinary heritage, political events of the 20th century forced many winemakers to keep their light under a bushel. In the last few years, a new breed of young winemakers who are active on social media and in the global market have made great strides in bringing international attention to their excellent wines, especially Malvasia Istriana, Teran and international varieties.