“But here, enough talking, let’s taste,” Ivica Matosevic smiles as he pours his Malvasia.
We’re sitting at a picnic table on the veranda of Ivica’s wine cellar in Kruncici, the middle of Istria. It’s the beginning of my love affair with Malvasia.
To hear him tell the story, Ivica Matosevic (pronounced ee-VEET-sa ma-TOE-sheh-vitch) is an unlikely vintner. While at the University of Udeme in Italy, he was more about rock’n’roll, admittedly clueless about wines. But the Italians around him knew theirs. Ivica’s curiosity was piqued, along with an optimistic and rather romantic entrepreneurial vision. Finished with his doctorate in the mid-1990s, and having completed several sommelier courses, he went back home to Istria, where he co-founded an association of wine enthusiasts, “Kalavonja.” Kalavonja get-togethers were held in various Istrian restaurants with food-wine pairings, promoting the “new Istria’s” creative blend of traditional ingredients with innovative culinary techniques.
Malvasia was part of that scene. One of the signature wines of Istria, malvazija istarska (in Croatian) is part of a larger family of grapes also grown in Italy, Slovenia and Portugal. Cuttings are thought to have been brought from Crete (now part of Greece) to Istria by its Venetian conquerors. Mentioned by Shakespeare in Richard III (as “malmsey”), it was one of three major wine exports from the region in the Middle Ages. In Italy and Portugal, grapes in the Malvasia family are still grown to make sweet dessert wines, blends, and madeiras. Croatian Malvasia is described as “medium to strong, rounded and harmonic,” with dominating fruit aromas of apple, plum or apricot. When mature, there may be a certain bitter almond taste. Malvasia cultivars can be grouped by age and provenance with pinot and gamay varieties.
In 1996, Matosevic’s Malvasia 1995 won the silver medal at Vinistra, a fledgling local wine festival which would grow into a highly respected regional showcase years later under Ivica’s direction. The following year, he took gold. “It was then that I became no longer a hobbyist.” In Kruncici where we are sipping on his Malvasia, Matosevic established his cellar, which had a very good first year in 1997, winning five medals. Ivica was crowned in a triumvirate of top young Istrian producers along with Franko Kozlovic and Moreno Digrassi. This proved to be portentous.
On a very hot morning in the middle of Istria, you might think the last thing you’d want to be drinking is wine. If so, you’d be wrong. Matosevic’s Malvasia Alba 2011 is the golden color of sun on ripened wheat; the taste is fresh and lightly fruitful, as perfect for summer as your favorite pinot grigio might be. Ivica shows us how to confidently twirl the glass and release its layered aromas: notes of acacia, apple and almond. Described on the website with classic understatement as “a typical Istrian wine,” the Alba 2011 is from another portentous year.
In October, 2011, the James Beard Foundation honored Ivica as the first Croatian winemaker to present at a dinner called “Mystical Malvasia.” Cliff Rames, Sommelier for the Caudal Vinotherapie Spa at the Plaza Hotel and founder of Wines of Croatia, described the event as paying homage to Ivica and his wines. It was also an opportunity to introduce Croatian wines to a diverse variety of guests. That same month, Oz Clarke dedicated his editorial in Decanter Magazine to Istrian Malvasia, suggesting Malvasia is to Croatia what Sauvignon Blanc is to New Zealand.
Suddenly Malvasia, and Croatian wines in general, were on global radar. Food Republic, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast all sang praise. In the beginning of 2012, Shermans Travel, Fodor’s, Reader’s Digest, USA Today and CNN proclaimed Istria on their “best” lists. Throughout 2013 and 2014 the kudos and awards stacked up from publications and juried panels alike. Austrian crystal manufacturer Georg Riedel gave Malvasia its glass, perhaps the greatest honor a wine could boast.
Nowadays, you can find Ivica’s wine on the menu at such storied establishments as The Fat Duck (3 Michelin stars) and the Mandarin Hotel in London, Australian venues such St. Crispin and Brooks in Melbourne, Monopole in Sydney, restaurants in New York and Chicago. . . and at his cellar’s picnic table in Kruncici, where we sit.
The insects sing and Maks the Rottweiler barks from the side of his house under a big tree in the yard, happy as we are to sit in the shade. “Let’s try the 2014,” says Ivica, and no one demurs. It’s paler than the 2011, reminding me of bleached days in the sun on the shores of the North American Great Lakes. My tablemates and the grapes in this wine have been raised on the 45th parallel, as was I. We’ve looked at the same stars and kept the same daylight hours across the world from each other.
This latest Malvasia is lighter, with only the merest hint of an almond aftertaste. It’s even more refreshing than its older sibling to me. Ivica tells us Malvasia is a wine meant to be enjoyed in the relative now as far as wines go, quickly processed in stainless steel, the grapes not macerated, its flavor kept softened and non-acidic. Cliff Rames calls it “straightforward, early-drinking, food-friendly, ‘naked’ and zesty.” The older Malvasia gets, the darker its color and the more intense its flavor.
“Which one do you prefer?” I ask young Anastasia, seated next to me. Shyly, she answers: the older 2011. “The important thing is to be honest with yourself,” says Ivica, mostly meaning with your opinion of the wine. “Don’t worry about what other people say. Know what you like and keep tasting.” It’s good advice at any age.
The time draws near for us to be on our way. Barely noon, and we’ve tasted three glasses. Ivica’s website opens with “winemaking is a dream with a deadline” and we have ours to make. Later, back in Rovinj, and then in Split, Korcula and Dubrovnik, I am happy to find Malvasia made by each of the three Vinistra award-winners from almost twenty years ago – Matosevic, Kozlovic, Digrassi. I think of Ivica Matosevic, the winemaker who just wanted to drink and make music with his friends and am very glad that he did.
Disclosure: We were the guests of Matosevic Cellars for this tasting through the arrangements of Natalia Marcelja of Solen Travel Agency. All opinions are our own.
Tips and Practicalities:
Istria can be reached via RyanAir (Pula Airport) and bus from Rijeka. Renting a car might be best if you’re coming from other parts of Croatia. Croatian highways are modern and easy to navigate. Vintage city centers can be tight with limited parking options. We had good luck with ORYX Rent A Car. Note that there is an upcharge for one-way returns.
Your personal wine-tasting and other Istria experiences can be arranged by Natalia or one of her colleagues at Solen Travel Agency, Strossmayerova ul. 2, 51000 Rijeka Croatia. Tel. +385 51 371 587. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
We stayed in Natalya’s lovely rental apartment in Rovinj: Apartment Crveni Mak, conveniently located just outside of old town proper in a vintage neighborhood, this charming house has a rare large garden. The apartment includes a small kitchen, dining area, and private bath with free Wi-Fi. Please note there is no vehicular traffic allowed in this part of Rovinj. The walk from the bus station with luggage is about 10 minutes, and the apartment is located up two flights of stairs.
Vina Matoševic d.o.o.— wine cellar Kruncici, Kruncici 2, 52448 Sv. Lovre?. Tel. +385 52 448 558 The wine cellar is located about 20 minutes by car from Rovinj.