Istria: The wine world’s best kept secret. (A whirlwind tour of Croatia’s hidden gem of a wine reg
Giorgio, Vesna, and Martina Clai
The time had come to meet the Godfather…of Istrian wine that is. A man so revered within the Istrian wine community that he does not need to be included in the guide books or even to have a single sign up to indicate the location of his winery (you should simply know where it is). A man who, while my distributor hosts Judith and Trevor (of Pacta Connect) were visiting him one day, had two men appear at his door after having tried a bottle of his wine in an Italian restaurant. They’d driven from Italy to Croatia just to shake the winemaker’s hand for a job well done. I was about to meet a man who makes so little and drinks so much of his own wine (and ONLY his own wine) that he doesn’t save even one bottle to archive. Friends give him his own wine back for his birthday (the best gift you could give him apparently). The man I am speaking of is Giorgio Clai, a successful restaurant owner who decided after retirement to start making wine solely to his own taste, without a care in the world for whether others liked it or not. This philosophy has led him to make some pretty spectacular wines—the most frustrating bit is how hard they are to get a hold of (luckily Judith and Trevor have got their hands on some for the UK to try).
Giorgio is a pioneer of Biodynamic winemaking in Istria (although he would never bother to get certified). He is deeply connected to his land and believes that the magic happens in the vineyards and not by being tampered with in the cellar. Giorgio has returned to a traditional method of making wine, when farmers would throw some crushed grapes, skins and all, into a barrel and hope for the best (they were only drinking it themselves anyway so the outcome wasn’t so important). Of course much more is known about winemaking techniques nowadays, and Giorgio obviously has a great talent, but he lets the wine ‘make itself’ as much as possible, with naturally occurring yeasts, and tiny amounts of sulfur dioxide (sulphites).
Fermenting Refosco grapes
After checking out his freshly picked Pinot Grigio which was about to be made into Clai’s first traditional method sparkling wine, Giorgio led me to his cellar which only consisted of about six barrels. Disturbed from their slumber, we tasted a bit of the ageing 2010s to get an idea of what they would become, then sat down for one of the most amazing lunches I’ve ever had.
Giorgio and his wines and olive oil
I’m sorry to launch into a lengthy description of the meal course by course to make you drool with envy, but it was so wonderful that it would be a crime not to give the chef and winemaker due credit. Giorgio’s wife Vesna cooked us up a five course meal that could easily have graced the menu of a Michelin starred restaurant. Food that was rustic yet sophisticated, that took advantage of the local produce, and that was perfectly matched with Giorgio’s wines.
Clai's Malvazija, a wine that made even me go quiet.
The first course was a breaded Triglia (a small local fish) with bay leaves, caramelised onions, and peppercorns, followed by a selection of fresh grilled seafood. The fish dishes were matched with Clai’s Sv. Jakov (St. Jacob) 2009 Malvazija (Malvasia). Unlike most Istrian winemakers who make clean, crisp Malvazija by avoiding skin contact with the fermenting juice, Giorgio is a throw back to more traditional times, and he leaves the skins in. The skin contact not only gave the wine a beautiful golden colour, but made it rich and complex. Subtle aromas of wet wool, hay, figs, and salt sung together in perfect harmony. What was incredible was the alcohol level– about 15% for a white wine which is almost fortified level!–and yet the high alcohol was masked beneath refreshing acidity and minerals. It was dangerous (for tasting so good and being so alcoholic) but glorious. And it was only about to get better.
Clai's Ottocento with risotto and bread with homemade olive oil
Next on the menu was possibly the best risotto I’ve ever had. It was matched with Giorgio’s Ottocento 2009, a copper coloured blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Malvazija, and Pinot Grigio which Giorgio thought could age for another five years but I thought was perfect now. It was like the Malvazija but on herbal infused steroids. It seemed to live and breathe the vineyards on the hills outside. I was in heaven.
Sure enough yet another course was presented in front of me, this time a thinly filleted steak covered in a beautiful red wine sauce (the same wine we were about to drink). It was matched with another of Clai’s Ottocento range–this time his Crni (red) 2009–a blend of Refosco, Cabernet, and Merlot, that created such a harmony in my mouth when drunk with the steak, I never wanted to finish it. But finish it I did, and had to hold myself back from licking the plate clean.
By the time the last course came I was salivating with anticipation for the goodness I knew would grace my palate. Out came a ricotta and apple strudel (the mix of German and Italian cuisine was fantastic!) matched with Clai’s Tasel 2009 Moscato. It was quickly followed by two of Giorgio’s daughter Martina’s homemade Grappa, Rakija od Jabuka (apple) and Sljivovica (prune), both a massive step up from the disinfectant-flavoured Grappa I’d previously tasted.
Throughout the lunch I would repeatedly tell Giorgio, ‘these wines are so interesting!’, to which he replied, ‘I don’t care if they’re interesting, I care if they’re good!’. I tried to explain (in my mistake-riddled Italian) that to me, interesting was better than good—there is nothing worse than boring wines. But Giorgio didn’t want me to analyse his wines down to a science, he just wanted me to enjoy them. Well don’t worry Giorgio, mission accomplished!
Giorgio had such confidence in his wines that with each course he would announce, ‘This is one of the top five best wines in the world’. By the end of the afternoon, when he declared, ‘This is one of the top five best Grappa in the world’, it had become the running joke of the afternoon, although there is not a doubt in my mind that Giorgio truly believes it. And after an afternoon spent tasting Clai’s unique and wonderful wines, I can’t say I totally disagree with him.
Note: Pacta Connect have bottles of Clai’s wines available in the UK and I highly recommended getting your hands on some. Contact Judith or Trevor (email/mobile on site) for more info.