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In Istria the Partnership of Hotel and Vintner is Vital
by Barry Napier

March 2007 - Building a hotel in a foreign country is only part of the deal. Once built, it has to be populated by furniture, fittings and things that add that touch of luxury pertinent to your star rating. But, no matter how fine the interior and exterior, one thing alone can pull you down and possibly destroy your standing as a place to stay – food and drink. A bad chef can drive your own clients out the door, and deter local patronage, and bad wine can do the same.

Probably, like you, when I visit a country I like to try the local wines. Sometimes I am disappointed, but maybe I am served up with poor quality wines (because they are cheaper to buy-in)! In certain parts of Spain, for example, the local wine is thick and heavy, much like sherry, and is not really suitable for a lunch or dinner. Even so, I keep on trying.

In Istria, all hotels tend to serve local wines, so there must be a reason, apart from the added cost of imports. Partly, this is because hotels find local wines much cheaper to buy, and. partly, it is because Istrian wines are superb! It is not for nothing that Rome in its glory days treated Istria with respect, as the leading wine and olive producing country in the known world.

The link between local wines and olives has a direct effect on the services offered by hotels. If an hotel sells poor wine, it reflects on its status. Therefore it makes good sense for Istrian hotels to sell only good stuff. And good stuff is available in plentiful supplies.

For example, there are two Arman brothers in northern Istria. I have only tasted wine from one of them, Frank Arman, even though bis brother’s cellar is literally around the corner. Frank is a larger than life character as well as a big man, who loves his vineyard, which covers an area 1000 feet up, sloping gently down into the Mirna valley. 

Presently he produces about 50,000 bottles a year. His son, who attends agricultural college, hopes to join the family business when he has completed his studies, and is equally proud of the vineyard. Counting themselves to be a medium-sized business, their wines and grappa are top quality. 

Not far away is the award-winning Rossi vineyard, whose claim to fame is just as superior and well-earned. I have travelled to a number of vineyards and many of them deserve accolades. Many people grow vines in Istria, from one or two rows to multiple hectares, and the quality can range from poor to excellent, but even the poor wines can be good enough to drink. But hotels tend towards the top quality, so personal visits to vintners is essential. 

When you consider that an individual can buy half a dozen bottles of best quality wine personally from the grower at prices averaging about $8 a bottle, you can see how this places hotels at an advantage. By placing regular large orders the price they pay must be reduced even from the already modest individual bottle prices. How can they do it? That is simple – average Croatian level of income is presently fairly low, and everything in that country is geared towards this. What seems ‘poor’ to us is relative wealth somewhere else. Also, the Istrian mind-set is far different from ours; earning money is second to enjoying life! 

Therefore the partnership of hotel and vintner is vital. The good stuff is right on their doorstep, so they would be fools not to buy! Even foreign-owned hotels should consider this beneficial partnership, because the wines really are superb. It is funny to see that alcohol content can vary enormously, with very odd figures printed on labels! But, quality remains.

Mr. & Mrs. Rossi

Frank Arman with wine buyer
Wine is grown throughout Croatia, but Istria is considered to be the prime wine area. Even ancient Greece praised Istria’s prowess in wines and olives. Present-day terrano wine is thought to be the mysterious wine mentioned by Pliny the Younger as an healing elixir. And Casanova wrote: “Istria has an excellent Refosco wine.”  The Venetians have many records concerning Istrian wine, and introduced Malvasia to the country… it is now the most widespread variety of the region.

Later, Austrian demand encouraged wine growing on a larger scale and in 1875 some 33,000 hectares of land was devoted to vines, producing about 15,000 tonnes for Hapsburg alone. Since then wine growing has diminished, but the quality remains.

70% of grapes are white (mainly Malvasia, then Chardonnay, White Pinot and Grey Pinot). 30% are red grapes (mainly terrano, followed by Gamay, Croatina, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir). Really, the soil determines which type grows best in any one area. Generally the coastal areas grow reds, whilst the hinterland mainly grow the whites. 

With all the wines the taste ranges from very soft (similar to the Gallo’s of California) to something more feisty. Today’s elegant flavours are due to the introduction of mild pressing systems and vinification plants with temperature controls. And, in the 1980’s growers decided to alter the image and style of Istrian wines by bringing in constant refinements and quality control. And all of this benefits hotels and individuals who bother to find the wine roads for themselves. 

When next in Istria ask for Istrian local wines; they will not disappoint. And, if the restaurant owner offers you local grappa at the end of your meal, be prepared for a definite taste sensation! Every other back-street home-owner sells their home-made grappa of varying quality, so it is best to buy only from established vintners. And if you want to open an hotel of your own, take to the wine roads and find the genuine article. But beware, because the wine makers will give you generous amounts to try!

If you want a more on the wine roads, go to

© Barry Napier, 2007


Barry Napier


Also See: 5 Star in Istria - Two Different Luxury Hotels / Barry Napier / March 2007
Rustic Cuisine of Istria, Croatia; Family Owned Restaurant Hotel Provides Immense Pleasure / May 2006


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