Clai Sv. Jacov and Trapan Ponente bottles
One grape, two very different approaches to label design

I’ve had some wonderful encounters with Croatian wines over the years – the muscular reds from Dalmatia, on a visit to Dubrovnik back in 2003, and more recently an excellent Istrian expression of Malvasia. In a few weeks time I’ll be visiting classic Dalmatian wine country again. Staying on that theme, here is a review of three varied and frequently splendid offerings from Istria (Central/Northern Croatia), all of which are available from specialist UK importer Pacta Connect.

Trapan Ponente 2010

Ponente is a fresh, young Malvasia Istriana from fresh, young producer Bruno Trapan. There’s generous acacia blossom, pineapple and melon on the nose, heralding a medium bodied, slightly nervy palate with more or less the same flavours. I detected just a tiny smidgen of Malvasia’s trademark bitterness on the finish. When it’s not overdone this can be rather nice – as here – since it refreshes in much the same way that tannins do in a red wine.

Overall, the Ponente is flawlessly made, organically produced and slips down beautifully, however it reminded me of any number of Italian varietals made in the same modern and slightly amorphous style. That’s not a big criticism, but does perhaps point to a slight lack of defining character.

Clai Sveti Jacov 2009

The Sveti Jacov is, like the previous wine, 100% Malvasia Istriana. That just goes to show what a versatile grape it can be, as the two wines couldn’t be more different. As soon as we saw the vibrant orange-tinted hue of this wine, it had our attention. Giorgio Clai is fanatical about minimal intervention in the winery, and the Sveti Jacov is a natural “skin contact” white wine where the grape skins are allowed to macerate in the juice for a short period, contributing flavour and colour to the final product. The nose presents a huge array of fascinating and almost baffling aromas – at first rather resinous and waxy, with a subtle oxidative or sherry-like note. As the wine opened up in the glass, there were more exotic whiffs of honey, baked apple and even frankincense.

After such a fascinating nose, the first sip was always going to be fun – I’d kept my “Tasting panel” (alright, that’s three wine enthusiast friends, plus the redoubtable Mrs. Claret) in the dark, so they weren’t sure if this was going to be dry, sweet, mature or even downright oxidised! The first sensation was the almost oily, viscous texture of the wine. That texture supported a dry, big-boned but elegant wine, with a savoury, mineral finish that reminded us faintly of a good malt whisky. And at 14.5% alcohol, perhaps that’s not so surprising.

This wine was a real grower, and just kept developing in the glass and throwing up new and exciting flavours. An utterly unique style, perhaps this isn’t for everyone but we all wanted more after the bottle was drained – a big thumbs up.

Piquentum Refošk Terre 9 (2009)

Piquentum Refosk Terre 9
Piquentum’s modernist label

I’m familiar with Refošk in its North-eastern Italian heartland, where it becomes Refosco. In Friuli and the Alto Adige, you’ll find tannic, sometimes slightly stalky and angular wines, often with charming youthful fruit. Piquentum’s Terre 9 doesn’t just push that envelope – it rips it to shreds and starts again. At barely two years old, there are already rich and complex cocoa bean aromas appearing on the nose, together with ripe blackberry and redcurrant fruit. This is another natural wine and yet again I had that feeling that someone had turned the colour and the contrast controls up – the fruit is explosively pure, a wonderful panoply of red and black berries.

According to the notes, the Piquentum spent 13 months in oak – you’d barely know it, although a hint of mocha after the berries have subsided is perhaps the only clue. Refošk definitely doesn’t need any help from oak barrels in the tannins department, but this wine was as balanced as a Russian gymnast and as refreshing as sucking on a blackcurrant. That’s a longwinded way of saying it was outstanding!

It’s worth remembering how close Istria and Northern Italy are geographically, to get some perspective on where these wines take their place on the world stage. The Terre 9 is built like a premium quality Brunello – high-toned fruit, underpinned by refined tannins and pronounced acidity. The Trapan Ponente is also very reminiscent of its Italian cousins – think not just Malvasia, but also Fiano or Vermentino. Clai’s Sveti Jacov, on the other hand, is simply incomparable.

With thanks to Pacta Connect for supplying the wines, and Graeme, Killian, Pete and Mrs. Claret for discerningly slurping them.