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Jutting out from the Gulf of Trieste on the shores of Italy to the north and the Croatian Bay of Kvarner to the south, Istria is the largest peninsula in the Adriatic Sea. As a broader region, it spreads from Croatia into both Slovenia and Italy; and these influences, particularly the Italian ones and a politically tumultuous history, make most Istrians feel perhaps more Istrian than Croatian.
Early-morning sunshine chases the shadows into the forest as I follow Bella and Lilla, along with my gregarious new friend Miro, through a meadow and into a stand of oak trees. The Quercus robur has many common names, including the pedunculate or European oak. And when the trees are fortuitously infected with a particular kind of fungus, among their roots grow truffles, black and white. Our hope this morning is that while it’s unlikely that the puppy Lilla will have much success, the more experienced Bella will find a couple of truffles for lunch.
Miro and I crunch along in the remnants of last autumn’s foliage on a brisk March morning. Spring is in the air, but the trees new greenery is only just starting to bud, and so we can easily make out the Mirna River in the valley below us and the picturesque hilltop town of Motovun a few kilometers away. “Naći, Bella, naći,” Miro enjoins as his dogs scour the forest floor, with Bella taking a serious approach to her work while fending off Lilla’s playful tackles. After 30-or-so minutes Bella hits pay dirt, scratching at the ground along an embankment, where with a few scrapes of a small spade shovel Miro uncovers a black truffle about the size of two golf balls. He calls Lilla over in an attempt to train her to approach this work with the seriousness of her companion. Truffling is serious here, and the Mirna Valley may very well be the world’s richest truffle treasure trove. White truffles are typically found late summer into autumn, while black truffles come into season in the late winter through spring.
Back at Miro’s place at the foot of Motovun, his wife Mirjana prepares a massive lunch: bruschetta with truffle, soup dressed with truffle oil, scrambled eggs and wild asparagus with shaved truffles. There’s even a truffle-centric dessert, hearty and very rich, all paired with a simple take on the local white wine, Malvazija Istarska.
Istria may not have the tourism cachet of Croatia’s more southern Dalmatian coast—it’s hard to compete with King’s Landing after all—or should I say Dubrovnik? Yet if you’re coming to Croatia for cycling or wine-and-food travel (I say do both) then you’ll want to come to Istria first, and maybe just stay. Istria’s Italian influence somehow even translates to the way it looks, evocative of Tuscany in many ways. Hill towns dot the horizon no matter where you fix your gaze and Istarski pršut, an Istrian take on prosciutto, along with tremendous fresh pasta called tjestenina, await riders with a hearty appetite at any number of local restaurants.
Istria has undoubtedly been discovered by the world’s cyclists; the UCI WorldTour squad Israel-Start Up Nation does its off-season training here and Bahrain-Merida has bounced its camps between Istria and the Croatian island of Hvar to the south. The country also hosts a couple of UCI-sanctioned races centered around Istria. The mild winters and challenging climbs have also attracted recreational cyclists from around the world—spend just a little time exploring and you’ll understand what the fuss is all about.
The winding road up the backside to Motovun offers short punchy climbing with neck-craning views of your surroundings. In any direction your finger can trace small country roads that cut through passes and into villages that top each ridgeline. And to the north, just a few miles away, you can see across the Učka mountain range toward slovenia. The roads offer smooth pavement and in some cases lungsearing climbs; though there are no high mountain passes in the alpine sense there’s plenty of ultra-steep gradients. Just across the Mirna valley from Motovun, follow the road into Livade, take a left at the fork and then prepare to be entertained by sharp and challenging switchbacks up to Oprtalje, a tiny, picturesque town that dates to 1100 and is home to some 50 inhabitants.
Motovun is best explored on foot however; the well-preserved medieval town is home to a massive summer film festival that turns its sleepy cobblestone alleys into non-stop parties for a week. In the quiet of spring however Motovun has charm to spare as well as some ankle-twisting cobbles and hairraisingly steep descents (on foot) along the walkways through the residential parts of the old town. There are gravesites from some of the town’s Roman residents that date to the first century. Motovun has a substantial Venetian influence in its architecture; in fact, its parish church of Sveti Stjepan (Saint Stephen) was likely designed by legendary Venetian master Andrea Pallidio; and supposedly half the town’s residents speak Italian over the local language.
A few kilometers from the coastal town of Umag, in a small village called Korenika, Istria’s most talented winemaker looks out on his vineyards with sadness in his eyes. Moreno Coronica recently lost his father and his face is fixed with determination as he talks about the history and the work that he and his father before him have done on the family farm going back four generations. Moreno talks about the weather and the unique components of the soil, but he often comes back to what has become a long presence and legacy of his ancestors in this place. More recently, he has introduced a serious approach to the native wine grapes that date to former Yugoslavian times, when they made simple table wine of little note. Moreno refers to himself as a contadini, which his Italian heritage simplifies from the pretense that is often associated with wine, it translates as “farmer.”
In a fairly short time this farmer, an accomplished trumpet player, has created wines native to Istria that rival fine wine made anywhere. Moreno’s role is simple: to carry on the legacy of his family. The village Korenika bears the old spelling of the family name Coronica, because they’ve called this place home for 600 years. Upon returning from Italy in 1992 (when a ceasefire was declared in the Croatian War for Independence from the former Yugoslavia), he began in earnest to return the region’s native varieties to wines of quality. Combining historical family know-how with modern winemaking and wine growing he has raised the profile of the region. The approach to quality and more natural farming practices has taken hold throughout Istria with a number of producers recommitting their fortunes to their home’s native grapes.
Today’s Istria is a reflection of the history and culture of thousands of years, a place so rich with natural resources and ancient beauty that it can’t help but seem magical at times.
In the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts, upon taking the golden fleece from Colchis in modern day Georgia, they fled upriver from the Adriatic, as locals believe, near modern day Motovun. The classic folk tale Veli Jože, from Croatia’s most important literary figure Vladimir Nazor, paints the hills of Istria around Motovun as a land of gentle giants. Today it’s a land of giant potential. While myths and legends tie the hill towns and river valleys to the past, a sense of pride and purpose drive them toward the future. Spend a few days here with a bicycle and a genuine sense of curiosity and you’ll experience the magic firsthand.
INDIGENOUS TO ISTRIA
Benvenuti Anno Domini Teran 2016. A gorgeous gradual climb out of Motovun heading south—taking the fork to the left at the Malvazija vineyard—leads you up toward Kaldir. On cool mornings, clouds blanket the valley and Motovun seems to rise above them, giving the old hill town a magical appearance. In tiny Kaldir, the Benvenuti family makes this indigenous red wine from their nearby vineyard in španjole. This finicky red wine, when done well and properly aged, can be fantastic with concentrated red currant and herbal aromas and fresh cherry and plum flavors.
Kozlovic Malvazija 2018. The ultra-modern Kozlović winery is positioned at the end of a small valley nearly opposite the ruins of a castle that dates to 1035. The wines are some of the region’s best, and close-neighbor Stari Podrum serves up some of Istria’s best fresh pastas. The Kozlović Malvazija is tremendous; aromas of honey, ripe peach, and cardamom. The palate is rich but fresh, zesty lemon crème notes and ripe stone fruit carry through with great acidity.
Coronica Gran Malvazija 2017. Quite possibly the finest wine in Istria (and I tasted a lot of them) was this indigenous white, three years on. It is a serious wine from the start, with floral aromas of acacia and pollen and beeswax. The palate is structured and loaded with ripe apricot, lemon zest and beautifully balanced with minerality and elegance. I don’t think it’s a stretch for someone to confuse this blind with something from one of the world’s great wine regions like Burgundy. It is a wine that makes an extra case for the region as one worthy of exploration and recognition.