James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Croatia’s Comeback Wine

Croatia’s Comeback Wine

Malvazija wine in Istria

Just north of Dubrovnik, east of Malta, the Croatian peninsula of Istria juts into the Adriatic Sea. Istria is a peaceful place, with medieval hill towns tumbling into valleys blanketed with vineyards. It’s also where Malvazija grapes grow.

Malvazija is a comeback wine. An ancient grape indigenous to Istria, the vineyards were neglected during the Communist era and brought back to life in the 1990s. The grape grows everywhere in Istria. It makes a crisp and thirst-quenching wine, but not in a mommy-bland Pinot Grigio way. It’s a respectably strong 13.5 percent ABV.

Malvazija is hard to get in the U.S., though I recently saw it on Upland’s wine list. “Malvazija wine!” I exclaimed as if I were calling out to a long-lost friend. “What are YOU doing here?!’ The sommelier, though, felt the need to be serious and explain the region, the appellation. But I cut him off. “I know it well, say no more, bring me a bottle.”

But sipping an expensive glass of Malvazija in a New York restaurant is very different from drinking it on the Istrian coast—-though that is true of many wines—which makes it a perfect destination wine.

The first time I tried Malvazija was in Rovinj, Istria, three hours by ferry from Venice.

Arriving in Rovinj is like stepping into a historical novel. Steep cobblestone narrow streets, a laughing and boisterous crowd, shadowy corners, the sea lapping the sides of buildings that somehow extend down below sea level.

Boris, a worker at the inn we stayed at, Casa Alice, met us at the harbor. It was nearly 11 p.m., and when we asked how could we get dinner at this hour, he said, “Not a problem, we will fix you something.”

Christian, the owner of the inn, greeted us with a hearty, “Welcome, welcome, come, come, sit, sit, we will get you some dinner.” People are friendly in Istria. We sat outside by the pool. Boris disappeared into the kitchen and came back with a platter of Istrian prosciutto, cheese, olives, and bread. Christian brought out a bottle of Malvazija wine. “This is our family wine, we make it here,” he said, lifting his hand to the night sky, beyond which was a grove of olive trees and beyond that, the hillside vineyards, and beyond that, the sea.

The first splash of Malvazija on my tongue was like Istria itself, in wine form: close to a Hungarian Tokay, with the lightness of an Italian Friulano, and a hint of minerality, fitting for Istria’s rocky shoreline.

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