Mladen Rozanic of Roxanich on natural winemaking in Istria, Croatia

Roxanich is located on the Istrain peninsula about four miles from the Mediterranean sea. Mladen Rozanic is the owner and winemaker at Roxanich which he founded in 2005. His previous career was in mechanical engineering. Roxanich has 26 hectares of land (primarily istrian red clay soil which is rich in iron ore) and grow indigenous grapes such as Malvasia Istriana  Borgonja and Teran as well as some international varieties. 

RoxanichRoxanich is employs natural winemaking techniques including biodynamic farming techniques, using indigenous yeasts in large open vats and extended maceration of the skins.

Grape Collective talks to Mladen Rozanic about his unique wine journey and the story of Istrain wine.

Christopher Barnes: Talk a little bit about the terroir in Istria. You have a very, very distinctive red soil in your vineyard.

Mladen RozanicYes, basically, you have various terroirs in Istria, but we are now in the red clay area, the red clay is rich in iron ore, and actually that's only the top layer on the surface. Basically, here in our vineyards, you would have the thickness from half a meter to three and half meter, and beneath that you have this beauty. This calcareous stone that gives a beautiful minerality to the wine, and it adds more character to the wine, which we like to age and keep nicely developing with time.

RoxanichAnd do the roots go all the way into this rock? It appears to be a pretty hard soil. 

Yes, yes. Although it's a massive calcareous stone, the roots will always find their way. They will follow the water and they will simply go down in the ground as deep as they can. In the beginning, they grow very fast. So in the first four, five years you can get three, four meters already penetrating into the rock, going around finding their way through.  And they will continue to grow up to the length of maybe 23 to 24 meters.

And there is a strong maritime influence here?

Yes.  We have what is called a nice thermal exchange both day and night. During the day the breeze comes from the sea, and in the evening, from the mountains back to the sea. So here, to the sea coast, we have probably some six kilometers. No more than that.

Talk a little bit about the grape varieties that you are currently growing. 

Here in West Istrian vineyards, we grow local varietals,  Malvasia Istriana in white and Teran and Borgonja in the red. But obviously we are allowed within the rules to have other international varietals that have been grown here for centuries. And they are considered and allowed  to make top wines like Merlot,  Cabernet Sauvignon,  Cabernet Franc,  Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc. So, you have all these varietals that we actually are allowed to use and we love to use them, because I think it's also nice to show your handicraft with some internationally-known varietals.

RoxanichYou're quite a young winery. How long have you been making wine and what got you into this business? There are a lot of challenges in starting a winery.

Definitely it's not easy. But, I would say two main challenges. One main challenge was to see if, here in Istria, we are able to make really great reds that will be able to age, to really age. And by that I mean 20, 25, 30 years. That was my personal challenge as a winemaker ... As a pure, initial idea of making wine. 

The second thing was purely human and environmental. The sustainablity of winemaking today and to be able to guarantee people what they drink. Actually it’s about how the grapes are cultivated and how the wine is made, what is in them. If it's natural then it's natural. If it's biodynamic it's biodynamic. And it should be like that. I think that it is a very important moment today in modern consumption, and I think there are more and more conscious consumers that like that care about what they drink, what they enjoy. 

Talk a little bit about your philosophy of viticulture. You farm biodynamically, or at least you use biodynamic principles.


RoxanichWhy did you do that?

I think if you want to do honest work, and if you are not aiming for an industrial product that is actually guided by some principles of profit and the other things, I think this is the least you can do to keep up with what we call "sustainability" today and use that word so much. I think biodynamic agriculture and viticulture is actually the only way to go if you want to make  honest wines. We always like to say "natural wine". We sometimes use the term, "honest wines.”

And in terms of the biodynamic principles, can you describe what you are doing in the vineyard?

We are using some basic natural elements. We still use sulfur in the vineyard, but in the most minimized quantity. We don't use any chemical treatment or fertilizers or anything similar to that. And in the cellar we still, sometimes, use a little bit of sulfur. All the wines are vinified spontaneously with indigenous yeasts. So no enzymes, no selected yeast, no synthetic material that will cause, or improve fermentation. It all goes a natural way.

So let me ask you, when you started the winery, what was the date that you started it?

Actually I started to vinify in '98. But it was not on a commercial basis. I was doing some smaller quantities for friends and for pleasure—for fun.  

And then you grew it into a bigger winery. How have your processes changed over time? Are there things that you've learned along the way that you've changed from the beginning?

Yes. I understood some things. For instance, for me it is important to have a kind of a critical volume. One of the reasons why I changed from the small barrels to the larger ones and the vats is because there is certain volume that gets in the process of fermentation. That is a certain volume that gets in the process of aging or micro-oxidizing. And I think there is certain critical mass that you have to get. That was the reason why, basically, with the 2005 vintage I switched to commercial. And I decided to go with the commercialization of my wine and put the wines under the public label to sell. And that's the reason why we are having now Roxanich wines are the way they are. Basically, skin-fermented, long-macerated whites and the reds.

Talk a little bit about your red wines. You make a little bit more red wine than you do white wine which is unusual in Istria.

Yes basically we make more than two thirds in red. The reason was, and is, that I started with idea of red and I focused very much on the quality of the red wine and I dare say we are well known for that as well. As for macerated white wines, that came later on ... Two vintages later on the market. But 2008 was the first year ... Christmas 2008 was the date when we released our first red 2005.

RoxanichCan you describe the aging process with your reds.

The aging process with the reds is basically fermentation done more or less in spontaneous fermentation. Without temperature control it goes, very often,  directly into malolactic fermentation. And after some four to six, seven weeks, we then separate the wine from the skins and the pits. And then we let it age. Or, in the same, within vats as you've seen. Or in other formats basically around 3,500 liters is the smallest barrel because we want to minimize the impact of imported tannins in the wood. That's the only reason, basically, why I'm not using that much barrique, as they would bring you much more tannins than anything else that you know.

And Croatia is one of those wine regions that has a very old history and also a very new history. Talk a little bit about the evolution of wine industry in Croatia.

Perfectly stated. Yes, we have a beautiful history here. A kind of a crest of Mediterranean culture living along the coast of the Mediterranean where wine has always been a part of life and culture. From ancient times, in these areas, they had many vineyards, and people used to cultivate the vineyards and make wine. Then obviously we had our history, which could be roughly divided before second World War and afterwards, up to recent times of the early '90s when we, again, became independent and changed our economical system from state-owned economy to private. Many of the vineyards returned to the private individuals that owned them before. And they have been simply challenged to restart something that we know, very well, in our genes. To confirm our genetic roots, we have it now, maybe some 20 to 25 years now. We have already well-reputated private wineries that are making a name for themselves around the world.

And the impact of Communism, it had a fairly negative impact on the industry.

Yes, I would say, specifically in this type of industry, we lost individualism. So everything was collective, everything was common. So it wouldn't be wrong if I say we had a white wine and a red wine and it was then sold under different labels. But basically, very seldom one special varietal was cultivated on its own, or made on its own, or done on its own. And then the entire process was industrialized. There were big conglomerates in the agriculture industry that took care of the vineyards, and then, basically, the wine that was then done in a certain way, an industrial way, without bringing the character of the winemaker there where it really belongs, into the winemaking.

And then, after Communism there was this terrible war as the Yugoslavia broke up. How did that impact wine and people's lives as it related to wine in Croatia? 

Okay, there have been some areas of Croatia badly hit by the war. I mean they were really on the frontline, some not. Istria was spared from direct fighting although, many Istrians went to fight for an independent Croatia. And then, obviously, if you're on the battlefield you cannot cultivate your wines, so that's one way it was impacted. But in general, that war that lasted always, as wars last, too long. It didn't have that big an impact on our winemaking. And the families that decided to restart the wineries kept their strength together and they went through that period quite fine. 

RoxanichTalk a little bit about your philosophy of winemaking.

It can be described in one word. "Simple." Which is sometimes very difficult. But really, as I told you, I want to bring a very honest product to the lovers of Roxanich wines. And that's the reason why I try to clarify the things that are for me, essential in winemaking. 

First is perfect cleanliness in the cellar. Second, is trying to get the product in the most elegant way from the vineyard to the cellar. De-must as needed. De-stem as needed. And then vinify a grape, not only the juice. I think there is a lot in the skin. I think there is a lot in the pits. That's the way I try to get my tannins out. I try to get phenolic things from the skin and from the pits within a grape grain. And I think that gives a certain stamp to my wines and shows the way I do it, how I present it. 

And then, we should never forget the time. A very essential and uncorruptible component of winemaking. Something you cannot buy, that's time. So let's give enough time to the wine to get that homogeneity within the beautiful drink. So between alcohol, acids and it's tannins, you know, the body of the wine itself. Just to get it nicely together in that process that goes every day on and on and on. And that living thing that I call "the wine" ... That living thing lives, actually, all the time and really takes all the love you want to give it in a period. And even when you bottle it, it continues to live in a bottle.

Photography and videography by Piers Parlett

For more on Croatian wine check out Croatia: A Land of Wine Stories by Zeljko Garmaz