While Croatia’s viticultural scene may be less known than those of neighboring European countries, its indigenous varieties are quickly garnering it global recognition. From the widely planted Graševina to the robust, dark-hued Plavac Mali—better known as the progeny of Zinfandel—many of the country’s native grapes are gaining ground in the U.S. market.
However, few varieties have created a collective, regional rallying like that of Malvazija Istarska. Native to the coastal region of Istria and now accounting for 60 percent of its plantings, this disease-resistant grape is genetically distinct from other Malvasia varieties, and its stylistic versatility is inspiring local winemakers to craft not just one, but four or five expressions of it.
“All 130 winemakers [in Istria’s Vinistra association] have Malvazija in their assortment,” says Alen Britvarević, the director of sales and marketing for Meneghetti. “We do not see ourselves as competitors; rather, we act together on the market with the aim of promoting and developing the variety on a global level.”
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The Stylistic Diversity of Malvazija
Malvazija Istarska is one of the oldest native grapes in Croatia and has been cultivated regionally for centuries. Also referred to as Malvasia Istriana, this autochthonous grape is best known for producing refreshing, floral, and easy-drinking white wines, though its stylistic potential goes far beyond this quaffable version.
Karin Rupena Perdec, an Istria-based sommelier at Dobravac, finds Malvazija similar to Sauvignon Blanc, particularly with regards to the variety’s aromatic compounds and ability to produce several soil-specific styles. “We could also compare it to Grüner Veltliner [when crafted] in the style of a fresh, young wine,” she says, which is the most popular variation on the market today. Similarly, winemaker Ivica Matošević of Matošević describes Malvazija as somewhere between Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc, highlighting that these refreshing iterations, which are generally made in stainless-steel tanks, over-deliver on price point and performance.
However, a number of regional winemakers are experimenting with diverse styles and aging vessels to showcase the variety’s versatility. “Many styles can be obtained from Malvazija,” says Gianna Kozlović, who represents the current generation at her family’s eponymous winery. Her family produces five varietal expressions of the grape. Kozlović says that their steel-aged Santa Lucia is generally the crowd-pleaser of the lineup, whereas the more powerful, macerated, and acacia-aged expressions are the “most appreciated by established wine drinkers.”
At Meneghetti, the winery offers three different expressions of Malvazija: a youthful, steel-aged bottling, an extensively steel-aged iteration, and a steel-and-oak-aged cuvée. “We make three different styles of Malvazija because we want to show the full potential of the variety,” says Britvarević. Similarly, Matošević crafts four varietal Malvazijas, though their vibrant, youthful cuvée, called Alba, is responsible for 65 percent of total production.
Ana Markežić, the current generation at Kabola, one of the only certified-organic producers of Malvazija in the region, says that 20 years ago, her father was the first regional winemaker to experiment with qvevri-aged Malvazija. In addition to the qvevri-aged iteration, the winery also produces three other varietal Malvazijas, including an oak-aged expression, a macerated cuvée, and a sparkling wine. “When my father built the winery 20 years ago, he wanted to study and research all of the possibilities and potential for this unique, indigenous variety,” she says, adding that her father always believed in the “exceptional potential” of Malvazija to make serious wines capable of long-term aging.
Perdec applauds the experimental efforts of regional winemakers. “Today, we can proudly say that we have sparkling wines, macerated wines, and dessert wines all made from Istrian Malvazija,” she says.
Malvazija’s Growth at Home and Abroad
While regional wine associations are nothing new, few boast as much pride and collectivity as Istria’s Vinistra association. Founded in 1994, the organization comprises 130 members, all of whom work together to collectively promote Malvazija worldwide. At the time, Matošević recalls that Croatia was experiencing many post-war hardships, and lack of tourism had left the country in a dire state. “Getting medals for the best Malvazija or [the local red variety] Teran in Vinistra’s competitions was very important to all producers,” he recalls, citing that Malvazija became somewhat of a symbol of Istrian particularity, diversity, and above all, regional identity.
“We made a quality standard for fresh Malvazija, then established a scientific symposium on Mediterranean Malvazija,” he says, referring to the World of Malvazija competition, which began in 2009. In 2013, Vinistra worked with Riedel to make a glass specifically designated for Malvazija from Istria. “Today, Malvazija is without a doubt synonymous with Istria, which was not the case when we started,” he says.
Anna Viducic, a U.S.-based Croatian wine expert and the founder of Aroma Wine Co. and National Croatian Wine Day, shares that interest in the country’s indigenous varieties has drastically increased over the past two decades. “When I started promoting Croatian wines in New York 19 years ago, people didn’t know where Croatia was on the map,” she says. “Twenty years later, there is a significant interest in off-the-beaten-path varieties such Malvazija.” Currently, Malvazija expressions from Kozlović, Matošević, and Kabola—among many others—are all available in the U.S. market.
Around the world, winemakers are embracing this heat- and drought-tolerant variety—most commonly associated with sherry—to craft fresh, energetic wines, sans fortification
Christopher Barnes, the owner of Grape Collective in New York City and Montclair, New Jersey, says that he sells quite a lot of Croatian wine, including Malvazija, despite the fact that it’s generally a handsell. “[We have] Croatian display material and also educate [our] staff. Plus, we attract customers who are interested in and more likely to try unique wines,” he says.
Like the region’s winemakers, Viducic affirms that lighter, easier-drinking styles of Malvazija are what’s most popular—and available—in the United States, thanks to its price point and drinkability. However, the demand is changing. “Fresh Malvazija is always the first to open the doors, but aged expressions are [becoming] more requested,” says Matošević.
Despite its relatively low popularity compared to other varieties, Malvazija’s future looks bright, and more is coming to the U.S. market. “The feedback has been nothing but positive,” says Viducic. “Production is small, therefore creating a demand; I wish we could bring in more!”
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Vicki Denig is a wine, spirits, and travel journalist based between New York and Paris. Her work regularly appears in Decanter, WineSearcher, Food & Wine, and more. She also works as a content creator / social media manager for a list of prestigious clients, including Beaupierre Wine & Spirits, Corkbuzz, Veritas Imports, and Crurated.