A Wine Road Less Travelled Around North West Istria

Tourists to Croatia for the first time often ask us if they can just turn up at a winery without an appointment, or if we can recommend certain wineries in certain towns or regions.

We can recommend anything depending on your budget, taste and time, but almost all wineries in Istria have a fairly open door policy of welcoming guests between certain hours.  Some are grumpier than others, most are incredibly welcoming even when they’re obviously extremely busy at work.

On a very recent trip, we visited several of the wineries that have grown up in the past 10 years, created a new cellar for themselves, started a more commercial production, who are trying to attract new tourist audience, or who have upped their game from making wines in the garage for you to buy and take home in a plastic bottle, to now bottling it and having designed a label.

Many of these wines are sold purely in the local region, to restaurants and bars, campers and tourists, and to locals of course. Rarely is there a truly bad one.  It’s all just a matter of taste.  So all we can do is offer guidance, give you some addresses from our little white and red book, and encourage you to drive, cycle or walk round the region and find wineries for yourselves.

So, in no particular order, we turned up at the cellar door of the following wineries to taste and buy a bottle.  None of these wineries had brown signs in the past; Istrian wine routes have moved on considerably in the past 10 years or more, and the producers have realised the need for advertising, and even a little bit of marketing, some more than others.

These days most producers put their wines forward for the local annual wine event, Vinistra, and although they may not sell in the UK (yet) a number have even entered Decanter World Wine Awards and have won, bronze, silver and gold medals, of which they’re immensely proud.  These help them to sell very well on their domestic market, as the walls displaying awards attest, and the number of visitors in the car parks.

Coccolo, Tar

Located on the south side of the little village of Tar, down a small street away from the main road, but easy to walk to from the centre, Coccolo were in the middle of their harvest when we arrived;  it was extraordinarily hot and the workers were sitting in the shade outside the cellar trying to keep cool and having lunch, and a well deserved rest.  The blackboard notice outside displayed clearly what they sold, which was a huge help.  There was a small parking spot and we stopped in the shade of a lovely olive tree.

The mother spotted us and immediately stopped what she was doing, to take us through the wines in the cellar, some from tanks and some from bottles; a deliciously saline Malvazija, a Teran and a Merlot.  They also have a refošk, some cabernet sauvignon and a white muscat.

A couple of 2 year old air dried hams were hanging from the cellar roof – “Almost ready,” said Mum.  She was knowledgeable and spoke excellent English. We bought a bottle of her Istrian Malvazija, and we used it subsequently to teach wine lovers about this fabulous grape at a wine fair in the UK 2 days later.

Fiore, Umag

This winery is just on the outskirts of our home town, on one of the main routes out of the centre that goes towards the border with Slovenia, and we watched them building the cellar just a few years ago. We’ve turned up before to find them closed, so we were pleased to see a couple of cars outside this time and that the harvest had kept them open.  We spent around 20 minutes waiting for someone to come to see us in their impressive wine bar, and only then did we spot a little bell on the table to ring for ‘service’.  Our fault! The time was well spent though, as we were able to have a good look at all the shelves; prices were well displayed, and the bar is set up for large tours.

After the young producer came out of the cellar to talk to us, again it was Mum who arrived to talk us through the family’s wines.  She told us the vineyards are on the sea, around 22 hectares, beside the 2 big supermarkets Plodine and the newer Kaufland, going out of Umag on the Novigrad road.  Labels were soft, feminine and pretty, again that minerality and salinity was predominant from the red clay soil vineyards, in such close proximity to the sea.  Mum was most proud of a clump of Vinistra medals for their Merlot; we liked their Nero cuvée. Bottles were between 45 HRK to 75 HRK, and they do magnums too (although it is not cheaper to buy a magnum than it is 2 separate bottles, unlike in the UK). Their charmat method sparkling Malvazija has a pretty, floral nose, fine bubbles, and is soft and delicate.

We decided to go back on our next visit and try their tasting menu, and we were in a hurry to get to a meeting, so we promised to go back and buy a few bottles for our next stay!

Ivančić, Novigrad

We had driven past billboards advertising Ivančić’s winery all round Novigrad and on the road from Nova Vas too, and the power of advertising reached us. We thought we should take a look.  An old tavern has been widened out and converted to include an updated wine bar, tavern, shop and cellar; this is a clean and slick operation with a lovely outdoor space.

This seemed the largest of the operations that we visited, certainly the most money had been spent on the winery and it was obvious that the tourist industry was being targeted; Novigrad is full of campsites, hotels and apartments, so they’re wise to have tried to tap into this market.

Girls serve a taste at the bar, talking about the wines as they pour; medals from Vinistra are displayed all over the walls, and another is stacked with racks of bottles including magnums.  The boss, who had been dealing with a German family talking about importing, left the cellar and we were talked through the wines, in English, by the girls, who were adept and cheerful.

We bought a malvazija and a red cuvée for our stay.

There was only one winery on the wine route that we chose that was closed;  there was simply nobody about to serve us.  But it was the beginning of the harvest, and they were likely all hands on deck in the vineyards. We’ll try it again another time and report back.

In the meantime, our top 5 tips for you are:-

  • Be polite
  • Be patient – some may be busy, they’re small and very hands-on
  • If they’re harvesting (as they were last week when we visited a few) try not to get in their way
  • Try not to taste through a huge range of wines and just walk away.  If you buy even just 1 bottle, usually around 40 – 50 kuna, or 15 – 20 kuna in a plastic bottle, it should more than cover their costs and you’ll be welcomed again.
  • Although most speak good English, try a little Croatian, even just to say “good morning”, “thank you” and “goodbye”. A polite “Hvala” (thank you) speaks volumes in all languages!

On the plus side, good signage is bringing long awaited wine tourism to the lesser known wineries.  It’s not just about who you know anymore, anyone can visit and there are more than enough tourists to go around. This makes a few days’ break to eat and drink much easier than when we started nearly 15 years ago! On the down side, the producers may be out in the fields so if you haven’t phoned ahead you may have a wasted journey. Still, there’s always another one 5 minutes down the road and you can always find a nearby beach or restaurant terrace from which to watch a spectacular sunset.

Note: None of these wineries knew who we are, or that we were coming. We were merely tourists. We didn’t phone ahead, we just turned up. We have not been paid to write these notes, they are our personal view. The 3 wineries are within a 20 km and 30 minute drive of each other.

© Pacta Connect (UK) Ltd