A grape dispute

Vinistra, the body representing winegrowers in Istria, turns 20 this year. An unusually effective wine body, it’s come up against an unexpected problem – a name that two sides want to claim as their own. Caroline Gilby MW reports.

Kabola Winery works with amphorae.
Kabola Winery works with amphorae.

All across Central and Eastern Europe, there is a clear, and perhaps understandable, reluctance to work together. Generic bodies and producer organisations are riven by rivalry, differences of opinion and even jealousy. Perhaps memories of enforced collectivisation are still all too recent, but in a competitive global wine world, producers in these tiny countries are simply too small to go it alone. 

One wine region body that seems to be getting it right is Vinistra – the Association of Winegrowers and Winemakers of Istria. It was founded in 1995 by the Istrian regional government, who wanted to support local producers, and began with just 12 winemakers who, “wanted to try and do something,” according to past president and board member Ivica Matošević.  It started with an annual wine fair in Poreč, with the aim of creating a more positive image of Croatian wine, and now has 119 members, covering an estimated 4,000 ha and 90% of the region. 

Matošević took over as president in 2002 and helped to drive significant changes.  He explains, “It was a classical political organisation and we changed it to a bottom-up organisation led by producers.” A strategic vision was developed through workshops with a facilitator (something the organisation continues to do every three years) and he says, “We went in as a bunch of wild, inarticulate wine producers and came out with structured plans.” 

Today, Vinistra also provides technical support, lobbies the government and runs conferences and events like the annual World of Malvasia competition, alongside tasting competitions championing other local grape varieties including Teran and Refošk. In 2005, it launched the IQ (Istrian Quality) scheme, initially for young Malvazija, for which producers have to meet set standards in the vineyard and winemaking, as well as pass a tasting. Categories for aged Malvazija and Teran have recently been added. The decision has proved controversial.

Teran dispute

As with most of this part of Europe, wine production has a long history influenced by both political changes and the arrival of phylloxera. Local grape varieties are particularly significant in viticulture in the Istrian Peninsula, a distinct geographical region with the majority of its land within Croatia, but also zones in Slovenia and Italy. 

Research into the history of the local red variety Teran has assumed great significance, given Croatia’s continuing border dispute with Slovenia, currently awaiting final ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague. A paper published in 2014  (by Maletić et al) reports that the first written records of Teran date back to 1390, and in the late nineteenth century Teran covered about 90% of the Istrian vineyards. It wasn’t until after World War II that white varieties took over and came to dominate. Today Teran covers just 242 ha in Croatian Istria. 

There has been quite a lot of confusion around the true identity of Teran, as it shows a lot of morphological similarities with Refosco, or Refošk, as it is known in Slovenia. However Maletić and his co-authors’ research has investigated SSR markers (or DNA microsatellites) in 42 different vine samples from the region. This has established that, while Teran and Refošk can be difficult to distinguish in the field because of their similar appearance, they are actually two genetically distinct grape varieties. And critically, two samples of Refošk that originated from Slovenian nurseries turned out to show the genotype of Teran. The authors state that, “This confirms that there is a problem in declaring these varieties in Slovenia, and that the variety considered in Slovenia as 'Refošk' to produce ‘Teran of Kras’ wine is actually the 'Teran' variety.”  

But Slovenia, for political reasons, has decided to register ‘Teran’ as a Protected Denomination of Origin for wines made from Refošk in Kraš, instead of registering ‘Kraški Teran’. This has soured relationships.

Until recently, Vinistra had a good track record of working together with its Slovenian counterparts, running inter-regional wine competitions and joint promotional events. Matošević explains that, pre-accession in 2011, the EU wanted to impose the name Hrvatska Istra on the region (alongside Slovenska Istra), but producers on both sides of the border put together a successful joint declaration for the whole region to share Istria as its identity. 

“That’s why the Teran situation is so disappointing after all that has been done together,” says Matošević.  A vocal faction in Slovenia is ensuring that anyone who prints the name Teran in a magazine or even opens a bottle of wine labelled Teran for a tasting in Slovenia is threatened with a €10,000.00 ($11,273.00) fine. Slovenian judges at this year’s Vinistra competition were reportedly pressured to boycott tasting any Teran wines. 

On the other hand, Croatian producers are equally adamant that the grape has a long history in their region and they have no intention of giving the name up. “We don’t want to give up a Croatian name. It is an emotional issue and no one here can accept the attitude of the Slovenians. We would never do this to them,” explained one winemaker. “Our statement is that Teran is a variety and therefore should not be protected as a PDO.” It seems that a meeting recently between ministers came close to a resolution but failed after a threat of legal action. Matošević says, “Teran is a toy in a bigger political game. I believe that Slovenian producers in Istria understand our situation, but national politics are sacrificing good local relationships.”

And this is happening at a time when Nikola Benvenuti, Vinistra president and a wine producer in his own right, reports an increasing demand for Teran: “Good Teran is easy to sell, though we work really hard in the vineyard to get it ripe – we may drop 70% of the crop.”  

Croatian Teran is currently the focus of much effort to improve quality, though according to producer Gianfranco Kozlović, “It is not easy to work with, producing lots of crop and being difficult to get ripe. Originally, it was a terrible wine and we have to work with it to make something that is lovely and drinkable,” he says.

An uncontroversial grape

Teran may be getting the attention right now, but the key grape variety for the region is undoubtedly Malvazija Istarska, which is Croatia’s second-most planted white variety, but almost all confined to Istria.

It seems that this Malvazija is truly a local variety, not related to any other Malvasias, and most producers rely on it for a significant proportion of their business. In its young, fresh guise, it’s usually fermented in stainless steel, bottled early and sold within a year or so of the harvest, ensuring good cash-flow. However, it has another dimension that offers winemakers the chance to experiment and make more serious, aged styles. It can make rich, complex and structured styles which take some skin maceration and use of various woods.  For instance, Kozlović’s benchmark Santa Lucia undergoes five to six days of maceration and then spends 12 months in large oak casks; Kabola does a version in amphorae imported from Georgia, while Matošević uses acacia barrels for his Alba Robinia, as the hint of honeyed sweetness this wood gives seems to flatter the variety.  The markets for these wines are niche ones, but as Benvenuti explains, “Macerated Malvazijas are bought by consumers that only like this style; it’s not a big market but very loyal.”  

Malvazija is the leading wine domestically, ahead of Graševina, even though there is more of this latter variety planted. Matošević believes that Vinistra can take credit for this through its long-standing efforts at promoting the region. He also reckons the secret of success is two-fold: “First, being a tourist area means we have to communicate with our visitors, and second, Istria has changed countries four times in the last 100 years (Italy, Austro-Hungary, Yugoslavia and Croatia) so we had to learn to live with our neighbours – this helps us to listen better and improve quality.” 

Benvenuti points out that the cost of joining Vinistra is small, at just 700 kuna ($103.00). “It’s more about the importance of being together and our plan is that winemakers will do events together as the region of Istria,” he says.  He also sees an important role for Vinistra to focus on legal matters and lobbying, “Laws here are so complex and we may need to employ a lawyer in the future.” Benvenuti goes on, “Exports will be important but we are still not a well-known region so we need increased recognition. The best thing is to bring people to Istria to show its soils, locations and cellars.” 

Istria has around 3.2m tourists a year but the region could handle more, especially outside peak season. “Summer tourists come for the beach but in March to May and September we have visitors who like wine and food, which is an opportunity for us,” says Benvenuti.  

Hopefully the politics of Teran can be left behind, because Vinistra has shown that regional wine promotion in this region can work if producers commit to working together with a united voice. 



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