Let’s start from the beginning – what is the opening of your story in the wine business?
I started making wine back as a young man, with my father, just as he had done with his father; it was just in the family. I first had a restaurant for which I would make my own wine from the grapes I would buy. It was “sfuso” wine – wine on tap, unbottled – but even then I was choosing carefully which areas to get my grapes from. In 1996, when I finally decided to dedicate myself completely to wine producing and leave gastronomy behind, I started producing my first series of bottled wines.
What was the reception like for your first wines?
From the very start I regularly received the highest distinctions for my wines, and I was also involved in the creation and growth of Vinistra. These years have been marked by constant triumphs, which give me immense pleasure. But things weren’t always like they are today. The first barrels were stored in a garage, and the winery came together gradually, buying up or leasing the vineyards, planting new crops… I took it one step at a time. But from the very start I knew exactly what I wanted – the best possible wine, made according to my own standards, and from the grapes cultivated in the best locations in Istria.
The locations that you have chosen – how crucial have they been for your success?
Well, I still have my great-grandfather’s land deeds, and these are properties which I later had to acquire again due to the violent history of this region. And these locations were famous even in the far-off Vienna, where there was much demand for the wines from Bujština. Wine has been made here regularly since the times of the Roman Empire. That is why already with our first labels I decided to emphasize the value of our locations, and in addition to the wine variety and the name of the vineyard, add the positions they came from as well. Our Malvazija states its position as Bomarchese, our Chardonnay is right next to the Ferné, and almost all our red wines have the historical appellation of Contarini. The Moscato can be found on the small hill of San Pellegrin as its label will tell you. I think that our location is the prime cause of the quality of our wines, and raw materials are always the most crucial element in this business. I have set myself goals, and I have achieved them… Of course, I keep giving myself new ones, and I don’t think I will ever be completely content, but of course, there is always room for improvement. I think that exactly is the engine that keeps me pushing forward.
Tell us a bit more about the winery itself. What is the extent of your production? How big is the surface area of the vineyards?
Today we produce around 100,000 bottles of wine a year, from 25 hectares of vineyards. But it wasn’t always like that. We started with a few hectares and we grew gradually. I am happy to say that in the last five harvests every bunch of grapes has come from my own vineyards. To be more specific, 23 hectares of vineyards are located on White Lands (Terre Bianche) between Buje and Brtonigla, while only two hectares can be found on Red Lands (Terre Rose), around Petrovija, near Umag.
What are the most planted varieties and how many different wines do you produce?
We are known as the winery with the largest number of grape varieties in Istria – no less than 16! This came about over time; as I fell in love with individual varieties, new wines would appear. I should point out that right now we have 28 different labels! They primarily include our autochthonous Istrian Malvazia, Teran, Refosco and White Moscato. We have also long been known for our exceptional Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. In addition, we are the only ones in the region or even the whole of Croatia to cultivate certain varieties, such as the Vioginier and the Petit Verdot, while others that we have – like the Pinot Noir and the Shiraz are simply uncommon in these parts.
Could you tell us a bit more about one of your features – the coupage of the numerous varieties which result in wines of such distinctive features?
In the last few years, the coupages have become our strongest brands. Although the industry has for a long time written about our red coupages as “Istrian Bordeaux”, now both coupages have found a wider field of application in gastronomy. It was precisely the Terre Bianche Cuvee Blanc and the Terre Bianche Cuvee Rouge that brought us medals in the renowned international competitions such as the Decanter World Wine Awards and the International Wine Challenge.
What are the fundamental values of this business that you live by, and what about it do you see as particularly important for success?
From the very start I have considered the complete dedication to the quality of the work the foundation of my business. This attitude is simply a part of me: it follows me every day in the vineyards and I am certain that it has been the key to my success. Of course, there are also years of hard work and great faith in what I do, but I could not have done it without an uncompromising dedication to quality.
What would you single out as a unique feature of your winery, the thing that makes the Degrassi wines so special in relation to other wines in the region?
Our wines are definitely recognizable in the region, or even wider, due to their freshness, minerality and phenomenal suaveness. They reflect our specific terroirs, our mineral White Lands on the best positions in Bujština. We take great care to preserve what nature gives us for the palates of wine connoisseurs, which makes our wines vibrant, refreshing and exciting, but not imposing. Their filigree structure allows for a harmonious match of elegance, power and clear aromas.
Is there a difference in how your wines are received abroad and in Croatia? Where is there more interest?
We have long been recognized on the Croatian market. With many of our wines, we have managed to create brands that have been popular with wine lovers and experts for decades, and our new creations seem to be achieving the same results. In addition to quality, our key advantage on foreign markets is the uniqueness of our wine varieties and the distinctiveness of our terroirs. Naturally, every market has its own taste, but our various labels and aromas give us an upper hand because they make it easier for us to adapt to specific tastes. Although we export to several countries, we are far from being at the end of the process of getting at those markets – in fact, we are just getting started.
What are your favorite varieties and what kind of food do you most enjoy having them with?
Ugh, that’s a tough question! With this many varieties, it’s hard to choose a favorite just like that. I like drinking all of them, depending on the time, the occasion, the atmosphere… If I have to single out a few, it would definitely be the Sauvignon Blanc in white wines, and the Cabernet Franc in red ones. Both are so special, so expressive, and when treated right, they can also be just as elegant.
For example, I like having my Sauvignon Blanc as an aperitif, and it goes terrifically with seafood and fresh vegetables seasoned with fine herbs. Cabernet Franc goes excellently with game. You see, I am also a hunter, so for me there is nothing better than making myself a grilled beef tagliata with lots of pepper and a bed of arugula, by god!
Lately I have had incredible experiences blending my coupages. Both the white and the red coupages cover an extremely wide range of dishes and they are very suave. These are the Terre Bianche Cuvee Blanc and the Terre Biance Cuvee Rouge.
What would you suggest to those interested in your field, not just in Istria?
Above all, it is not just a business, a trade; it is a calling, a job that is never done. It takes up all of you and all of your time, demanding either complete dedication or resignation: there is no middle ground. I started with nothing once; I grew and developed, and there have been many younger producers that have come since, creating constant waves of growth throughout the whole region. When all is said and done, I am the one responsible for my own story. I wish everyone good luck.
What are your plans?
I definitely want to expand and further strengthen our position on foreign markets. There are still details around the cellars that I want to improve, and I dream of moving the winery to the vineyards around Brtonigla, on the Contarini position, beautifully set on a hill, with a view of my vineyards and the sea in the distance.
Those who would like to personally come and taste your wines – how can they reach you and what can they expect?
Or cellar is usually open to wine lovers from Monday to Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., but other times can be arranged as well. We offer tastings of different wines, a tour of the cellar, and when arranged, we also serve home-made cold cuts. Being a hunter and a gourmet, I regularly make my own meat products and I acquire quality cheeses from regional producers which I like to offer to my visitors in the cellars. We can be reached by car or minibus. In the village of Bašanija there are marks leading to us.
Web: Degrassi Winery