Touring Istria Part 1: A visit to Degrassi

No trip to Istria can be complete without visiting Moreno Degrassi’s beautiful tasting rooms on the sea at Savudrija.  Within a stone’s throw of the sea and the spectacular new Kempinski Hotel and golf course (where Moreno himself is an avid player), from the outside the tasting room is deceptive, rather like Dr Who’s tardis, larger than it actually looks. 

Turn left and drive down the small lane off the main Umag to Savudrija coastal road, where you see the large sign pronouncing ‘Enoteca’ with the familiar Degrassi diamond-shaped logo, and you will see the winery building and Degrassi family home, complete with glass windowed turret, directly in front of you as you round the corner.  Park outside here and wait for the dogs to hear your car stop, and peer and bark over the high fence at you! 

It’s rather comforting for us to see a British dog living on the Adriatic – an energetic liver belton English setter!  For Moreno however this has to be one of the most appropriate dogs he could own, a true hunting dog for a man with a huge passion and spirit for the cuisine of Istria that comes from the land. 

The man himself comes from at least 6 generations of winemakers down the line, all from this region of the Adriatic, commencing historically in a time when every household in the region made wine (and a wine barrel and donkey were the symbol of the local town Buje – so it’s not just Dingač then!), and having studied agriculture and learned winemaking in Udine, he is now one of the largest independent producers in this part of Croatia.

You would be excused for thinking the winery is closed for the day as it is such a quiet peaceful place, usually with no sign of activity from the front.  Wander straight down the unpaved road past the main exterior and you will find yourself by the seaside within a few minutes, a non-tourist part which is worth noting for future picnics and swimming. Walk down the twitten to the right-hand side of the main building, past the pretty exterior terrace filled with flowers and herbs in pots and hanging baskets, large wooden tables and chairs (perfect for a balmy evening’s drinking) and left into the back of the building, and there you will come to the hub of Degrassi activity, the engine room, the winery. 

Through large double doors kept shut against the heat, you will find yourself in the coolness of the cavern-like winery – a wide open counter area in front of you brims with a display of wines in bags and boxes, medals and awards, presentation bottles and magnums.  To your left is the office where the girls work heads down busily at computers, and to your right the long room of stainless steel tanks.

Here is where you are likely to find Moreno with his team, pipes being extended across the floor, cleaning and sweeping endlessly, sleeves rolled up and work being taken care of adeptly. Occasionally when we’ve arrived the workforce has been outside with machinery clinking and chinking away and we’ve stepped over hoses and round crates.  The level of activity seems non-stop at all hours on this side of the premises!

Once in the cool of the back of the building, walk past the display area, past the bottles and turn right over an intriguing little wooden bridge holding on to the hand ropes, on either side of which are displayed more bottles hanging on the walls and embedded in sand at your feet below you, a sort of montage-homage to both wine and sea (which lies just a few metres south of us). 

This theme continues as you step into the magnificent romantically-lit tasting room, complete with Roman amphorae, huge semi-circular table and chaise longue.  A large open fire crackles in the winter on the other side of which is a small bar area complete with bar stools, and in the summer this tasting room is the perfect temperature to sit, relax and enjoy an afternoon’s tasting in the company of Moreno and partner, Alison, and Siniša Škaberna their competent marketing director and sommelier, who talk you through the extensive and mind-blowing wine list.

First to arrive is the fresh Istrian malvazija, a light lemon yellow colour with that lovely freshly mown grass scent that encompasses Istria in a glass.  Next the malvazija selection is up, and so it continues with each wine seemingly topping the next, aged or twisted and turned in one direction or another to create something richer or smoother or slightly more idiosyncratic than the previous.  His wines from indigenous grape varieties are delicate and elegant: his lightly aromatic Muškat San Pellegrin is a particular favourite and is beginning to find recognition in the UK, along with his light sophisticated and totally deceptive Refošk (how can it taste so fresh when the date clearly states it’s from 2005, but it does and it is). 

However, Degrassi does not just produce wines from the indigenous grapes of Istria and Croatia.  He is an experimentalist, a virtual alchemist, and looking up the alchemist’s goal there you find it… “the transmutation of common metals into gold or silver”.  This sums up Degrassi’s approach to winemaking – but instead of metal he uses grapes, and international grape varieties more than any other winemaker in Croatia.  He cultivates over 16 varieties, and has the only viognier in Istria; he also has sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, petit verdot, pinot noir, syrah, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc; the list seems endless – a selection of grapes with which to carry out his research and development like a oenological scientist, blending and trialling different mixes, speculating and innovating with new original, inventive and intricate cuvees. 

There’s an almost mystical melding together of these grapes to create something that you almost feel shouldn’t work but it does. At a tasting of Croatian wines in March 2011 in London the room of experts was divided – on one side those who felt that the winemakers of Croatia should concentrate on their indigenous grape varieties as their strengths to compete in the world market, and those who thought their use of international grape varieties proved how well they could produce wines, as well as any other winegrowing nations within the international market.

Perhaps it’s Moreno’s acute sense of emotion towards the gastronomy of the region that he endlessly toils to find the right blend to match the right food.  His passion for wine equals his passion for food, which was borne out when he ran a local restaurant and decided he should be producing wines that he felt matched the food he was serving to his clientele. 

He is a real hunter gatherer, able to put together a feast of local produce that so perfectly pairs with each wine that after an hour or two spent in his company, eating such delicious meals and drinking these elegant wines you feel as though you’ve understood the why and wherefore of the man’s personality itself, through his wines. 

Quiet and shy but affable and personable Moreno takes time to open up but, like his wines, his character begins to open up too as he gets to know you and feels more comfortable in your presence, and his generous open hearted nature begins to shine through. 

We have been there spring and autumn, summer and winter.  We arrived for a meeting one afternoon in January, with bitterly cold winds outside and hurried in to the warmth of the open fire and some delicious reds.  Once there, the lights started to flicker and within half an hour they went out – a power cut.  We peeped outside to find the snow had started.  The lights came on again briefly, then disappeared again, this time for longer.  We suggested that we should go home – no, came the answer from Moreno, you can’t possibly drive in this snow, it’s coming down too fast, there’s only one thing you can do … stay.  Hmm, what a decision.  And so we stayed, and we were fed alongside the family with a memorable feast of perfect cheeses, meats and then pasta, and then delicious sweets, whilst we chatted and drank and warmed ourselves and stopped worrying about going home, even though it was only a few miles away!  We were even privileged to be allowed to try his extraordinary sparkling wine, that he produces only for the family. 

That is the secret of Moreno Degrassi, and that is why they were the first wines in Croatia that we tried, took home for friends in the UK in our duty free allowance, and the first winery that we sought out to visit, the first winemaker that we approached. 

Degrassi, gastronomy, food & wine matching, all are synonymous with Istria and its land, and there can be no better start to a stay in the north-west of Istria than taking a trip to visit Moreno Degrassi and taste his wines and start to understand that the softly spoken wines of this region can roar with the best of them internationally.

If you are a British journalist and would like to visit Degrassi’s winery in Istria, please email us at info@pactaconnect.co.uk.  We also run private wine & food tours to Istria for members of the public too.  If you are already in Croatia and want to try Degrassi’s wines we suggest you phone ahead first. 

Contact details for Degrassi are:-

Address: Basanija bb, 52475 Savudrija.

Tel: 00 385 (0) 52 759250

http://www.degrassi.hr/ / vino@degrassi.hr

 © Pacta Connect (UK) Ltd, July 2011