Every time I come back to Istria approaching it from the east, that is, through the Učka tunnel, my heart always flutters when I see the sign on the Istrian side of the tunnel: “Welcome to Istria, the land of good wine”. These words always bring to my mind my grandfather’s cellar where he would make home-made wine, and where as a little girl I would be allowed to dip my fingers into the must so that I could try the tasty juice that would soon become wine.
This sign clearly states that you have entered a region famous for excellent wine makers and wineries, where wine grapes represent one of the most important elements of local agriculture. Ancient Romans, who inhabited this region thousands of years ago, highly prized wine and made great efforts to constantly advance wine production, growing grapevines on great parcels of land known as latifundia. Their pantheon also demonstrated their love of wine in the worship of Bacchus, the god of wine, and wine festivities – the bacchanalia.
This region still teems with different wine festivities, my favorite of which are those in Bujština: The Holiday of Grapes in Buje and Martinje in Momjan, especially its central event – Vetrina muškata, dedicated to the famous local muscatel. Historical records tell us that even the Vienna Court enjoyed the charms of this wine, ordering carriages packed with it from time to time.
One interesting feature of these manifestations is the recalling of the traditional “antiquated” ways of grape harvesting and wine production, the way my grandparents used to do it. For example, at the Festival of Grapes in Buje you can still observe the old tradition of grape stomping in a large basin on the town square.
Wooden barrels and brenta containers
Preparations for grape harvesting used to start about twenty days before the harvest itself. This included cleaning the barrels, primarily with sea water in coastal areas. It also required cleaning the brenta containers which were used to carry the grapes from the vineyards to the barrels waiting on carriages, and which were also used later in the wine cellars. The brenta containers came in different sizes in different parts of Istria, but the most common ones contained 14 or 18 liters. Although I myself have never had an opportunity to use such a container, I still remember my grandfather telling me about grapes being picked and stored in these wooden containers rather than in the plastic ones that are used today.
Another task was sharpening the kosirica, the old version of a pocket knife, which was the main tool for grape picking in addition to one’s hands.
Into the vineyards with company and music
And while wine harvesting is today done mechanically in big commercial vineyards, with the thrum of machines passing in between the rows of grapes, it once used to be done all manually, with the help of close friends and neighbors. Instead of machines, you could hear the voices and songs of the peasants. The picked grapes would be transported to the village in carriages, would then be further processed in a special room in the house.
With bare feet to the first must
At home the wine production would continue with grape stomping of the must or with manual crushing of the grapes in a wooden device of a rectangular shape with bars in the bottom which would allow grapes to fall into the must, but would leave the harder stems out. The juice would then be left to boil, while the winer would carefully listen to hear when it would calm down so that he coud pour it into the barrel.
Feast Day of St. Martin
The wine growing and production story would usually end with the Feast Day of St. Martin, the patron saint of wine makers, which would include the “baptizing” of the new wine and wine tasting, and this tradition has been maintained to this very day with merry festivities being organized in numerous parts of Istria on this day.