Croatia wine guide: Istria and its key grape varieties

Istria vineyards and landscape
A traditional terraced vineyard on the white soils of northern Istria near Butoniga lake, east of Motovun.

This article is part of a Decanter guide produced in cooperation with Vinistra, association of winegrowers and winemakers of Istria, and the Croatian National Tourist Board.

Surrounded by sea on three sides, with the Julian Alps to the north, Istria is the largest peninsula in the Adriatic. 

Today 90% of the zone falls in Croatia, with a small part in Slovenia and an even tinier area in Italy close to Trieste. 

The landscape is dramatic, with its hilltop medieval villages, olive groves producing award-winning olive oil, woods full of wildlife (and truffles – one of the largest ever white truffles was found here; it even has its own statue) and, of course, vineyards everywhere. 

Istria facts and figures 

Kabola winery in istria

Organics pioneer Kabola winery, in Momjan, northwest Istria. Photo credit: Neven Jurjak.

The neighbouring regions of Istria and Kvarner are one wine region – Istria is the peninsula while Kvarner covers the islands and coastline of the bay to the east.

Croatia today has 17,700 hectares (ha) of vineyards. Istria and Kvarner is the smallest of its four wine regions with 3,010ha under vine in 2022, 190ha of which are in Kvarner. This is less than 10% of the area under vine in 19th-century Istria, when plantings reached about 44,000ha, mostly red grapes at that time. 

Istria is today dominated by white grapes with Malvazija Istarska the most important, accounting for 55% of all grapevines in the region. In Kvarner, the lightly floral, mineral white Žlahtina is the most important, while there also is a small movement to revive the rare local light red Sansigot. 

Istria has about 250, mainly family- owned wineries, more than 120 of which are members of Vinistra, the regional association of winegrowers and winemakers. There is one large, but also very good, producer called Agrolaguna that produces about half of all Istria’s wine.

Pioneers of quality in the region include:

  • Arman Marijan
  • Benvenuti
  • Cattunar
  • Damjanic?
  • Degrassi
  • Deklic?
  • Dobravac
  • Fakin
  • Kabola
  • Kozlovic?
  • Matoševic?
  • Medea
  • Meneghetti
  • Pilato
  • Rossi
  • Tomaz
  • Veralda.

New names and younger winemakers are increasingly joining the scene. 

Independent spirit 

harvest at Vina Fakin, Croatia

Harvest in Vina Fakin’s vineyards at Brkac?, west of the medieval hilltown of Motovun. Credit: Dejan Hren.

The region’s historic name, Histria, may derive from the fierce Histri, an Illyrian tribe known for piracy along the rugged rocky coastline and finally subdued by the Romans in 177 BC.

It is believed that winemaking may date back to this era. Istria has often been tied up in a political tug-of-war, having been governed variously by the Venetian Republic, Napoleon, the Habsburg monarchy, Italy, Yugoslavia and, since 1991, Croatia.

It was winemaker Ivica Matoševic? who first highlighted this complex identity to me – his family has lived in the same house for 200 years, but the last four generations have been born into different nationalities (Austro-Hungarian, Italian, Yugoslavian, then Croatian). 

This may help to explain why there is better cooperation between winemakers here than is otherwise common in this part of Europe – including among neighbours in Slovenian Istria.

And in that communal spirit, representing many of the most significant wineries, Vinistra – the regional association of winegrowers and winemakers  – was founded in 1994 with the aim of improving viticulture and winemaking, as well as being a voice for the region.

It is determined to raise awareness of Istrian wine, and to that end, in early May 2023, the 29th edition of the Vinistra wine fair – Croatia’s best-loved wine exhibition – was held in Porec?.

More than 10,000 visitors, including a large number of international guests, were able to enjoy the wines and meet the winemakers of more than 80 producers, who shared stands to present a united front.

In early April, Vinistra had also held…

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Croatia wine guide: Istria and its key grape varieties Croatia wine guide: Istria and its key grape varieties *Croatia wine guide: Istria and its key grape varieties