Malvasia and more from a leader in Istrian wine making

Malvasia and more from a leader in Istrian wine making
Line-up of the bottles at the Kozlovic tasting.

We drive through Slovenia toward Istria, the area just below Trieste, Italy, that was part of Italy for twenty-five years until the end of World War II. As we approach Croatia, the Germanic-looking houses and barns and the typical hay drying racks–a ladderlike wooden rack open to the air but protected beneath a roof–disappear, and we no longer see maypoles in the little towns we pass. Our destination is Porec, about a third of the way down the western coast of Istria. It’s a pretty resort town with bars and restaurants lining the waterfront street on the land side, and luxury power yachts lining it on the water side. We’re here to join a group from Vinistra, the Istrian wine trade show that is going on this weekend, on a pleasure tour by boat. Our hosts are three prominent producers, Kozlovic, Degrassi, and Matosevic, who have been working together to build an Istrian wine brand closely linked to tourism in the area. As the boat makes its way south along the coast to Rovinj, a beautiful medieval fortified town crowned by a church, we sit on the top deck in the frigid night air sipping the wines of our hosts and talking with Marko and his winemaker, Jurij Brumec, who has come with us, as well as writer Sam Gugino and his wife, Mary Lee, from Philadelphia, who are on their way to Slovenia to visit Movia for Wine Spectator. By the end of the night there is singing and dancing down below, and someone has brought a marvelous pastry typical of the town of Rab: a spiral tasting of almond paste and orange rind that is a marvel with Kozlovic sweet muscat. We make our way to Hotel San Rocco, in Umag, back north toward Momjan, where Gianfranco Kozlovic joins us in the morning to take us to his cellars.

At the Kozlovic Cellars

Momjan is a small town located on the hilltop above Valle–the valley where Gianfranco, his business-manager wife, Antonella, his family, and perhaps five other people reside. On our way there, we turn off the road and drive through vineyards up the side of a hill, getting out to examine the old-vine malvasia that goes into Kozlovic’s Santa Lucia bottling. It’s about ten in the morning when we settle in Gianfranco’s tasting room next to the winery.

For clean, well made wines, Kozlovic is one of the leaders in Istria. About 60% of Gianfranco’s production is from malvasia, the typical white grape here. Like most Croatian producers, he can easily sell each year’s small production within his own country, with the influx of European and other tourists during the summers. A few producers choose to build an international reputation by exporting a small amount of wine; Kozlovic sends 15-20% of his production into the surrounding European countries and the U.S. (Usually we have his Malvasia available in our wine shop, sometimes the Othello as well).

Gnarly 40 year old Malvasia vine.

Kozlovic Malvasia 2006, which is about to be bottled at the time of our tasting–has medium hay and white fruit on the nose, an unusually high acidity for malvasia, which is prone to the opposite problem, a medium body and a palate of white fruit with a slight mineral note and an herbal finish.

Kozlovic “Santa Lucia” 2004 malvasia is made from the forty-year-old vines we walked through in the morning. Ten percent of this production is matured in the acacia barrels often used in Istria, with another 10% in French barriques, and the balance in stainless steel tanks. The wine is a medium straw gold with a beautiful pronounced nose of honey, apricot, and pie crust. A lovely minerality comes out on the palate and carries through on a long finish. This wine is a brilliant pairing with the heady animal flavor of two-year-old thick-cut prosciutto cured by Gianfranco’s father. Later we taste the Santa Lucia 2005, not yet bottled, which has an earthier nose than the ’04 and a more forward minerality, and shows green pear and honeysuckle on the palate–this will be beautiful.

Kozlovic “Othello” 2003. This red wine of 70% teran, 15% merlot, and 15% cabernet is not produced every year. It is an unfiltered deep purple, with aromas of plums, blueberries, and deep-black ripe cherries. An inky, high-extract wine, with black fruit carrying over to the palate, slight beef-broth and herbal notes, soft oak, and a long finish.

The Kozlovic 2006 Muscat has just been bottled, and I remember it fondly from the previous evening, when it so pleased me with the almond pastry from Rab. Its sweetness is not cloying–in fact, the wine has a slight spritz–and the expected orange-blossom aroma of muscat has more of honeysuckle in it, with orange and slight licorice notes on the nose, joined by ripe pear on the palate. Fresh and light.

Kozlovic “Dulcinea” 2004, a late-harvest muscat made with 20% raisined grapes, is less sweet than the muscat, earthy, with a light floral quality and fresh apricot on the palate.

Gianfranco Kozlovic is not only ambitious for the wines of brand-Istria, he’s also clearly driven to constantly improve his own wines. “Every day the consumer asks for more, and we must give more. The same quality is not enough.” Later, at the Vinistra trade fair, we see just how many other producers are striving for a high-quality image for Istrian wines.