Giorgio Clai in Istria, Croatia

I’ve got nothing but good to say about Clai.

Photo taken at VinIstra 2012 with the dear Giorgio Clai and winemaker Moreno Coronica on the left. Fishbowl photo effect is just a bonus.

They arranged for me a visit to their cellar at 10:30 on a Sunday morning, per my unusual request. I had been eager to try these wines and learn about them for some time, as they had been recommended to me as another of these “natural” wine producers that I’m so fond of, even having been called biodynamic, maybe accurately or not. So, on that Sunday morning my wish was granted and I parked my car across the family residence and winery.

I was met by Martina, daughter of Giorgio and Vesna Clai, who led me into the bottling room to meet her father. He took us on a tour and spoke to me about his philosophy. They have 10 hectares under vine and olive trees, all grown and cared for biologically, which is the word he prefers over biodynamic. This speaks to his care of the land, and includes such things as using compost teas for fertilizer and harvesting according to the calendar. He is a firm believer that all wines are made in the vineyard, and are to be completely and utterly representative of the land from which they came. It is most important to him to represent the terroir, climate and finally the serious, respectful winemaker. He believes the winemaker’s duty is to carry on with what nature has given him and complete the task of making grapes into wine. He says that you simply have to represent these variables, and don’t penalize or change the wines in the cellars. In his native Italian he tells me about his process for cultivating and harvesting his own yeasts, that which is growing on the grapes in the vineyard. Of these grapes, he harvests a small bunch or piede di partenza, the yeast starter. Using these wild, indigenous yeasts completes the expression of terroir even more completely, creating what he lovingly refers to as sincere wines.

His soil is unlike the dark red soil I’ve seen elsewhere in Istria. His is white, and very mineral rich. He later let me take a bit for my little terroir collection.

In the cellar we tasted:

Malvazija 2010– Macerated on the skins for 2 months. The color was cloudy, naturally as a barrel sample, but also because he is doing no filtering or fining. The aromas and flavors carried an intense aroma of apricot, golden raisin and pineapple. Acidity was soft and round, really nice mouthfeel to this wine.

Ottocento– This is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon, harvested together and fermented together. Malvasia was added to the blend after it was harvested a bit later. The color is again cloudy and almost an amber-gold color. Everything this wine is intense, from the color to the nose to the palate and beyond. To me it was reminiscent of grapefruit and candied orange, with pervasive brown spice notes. It was incredibly long and lush with velvety acidity. Delicious.

Ottocento Red– This was a blend of Merlot, Teran, and Cabernet Sauvignon, with Merlot carrying the majority of this year’s blend. The color was some kind of electric magenta! It was gorgeous in the glass. The palate was all floral, rose petals and violet with some crushed berries in the background. Absolutely gorgeous.

Refosco 2008 was a favorite. It had gorgeous blueberry, crushed raspberry aromas and flavors that evolved every time I came near my glass. At times I smelled and tasted cotton candy, anise, candied raspberries and blackberries. For Giorgio this wine evokes chocolate and fresh mint, and I believe it, as this is a highly complex wine.

Back in the tasting room we tasted some of his bottled wines.

Malvazija Sv. Jakov 2009 – dark gold in color. Baked apricot, fig and notes of white peach and pear. Super lush and round on the palate, this is a stunning wine that would be great with fish.

Ottocento Bijeli 2009– Topaz in color. Aromas and flavors of lemon curd, acacia blossoms, caramel and Clementine. Gorgeous.

We went on to taste the Ottocento Red, the Refosco “Brombonero” which were both fantastic. And finally…

Moscato “Tasel” 2009 . Tasel represents the name of the local soil. The grapes are made here in passimento style, late harvest and dried 1-2 months. They are macerated with the skins and the wine matures for 1-2 years. He is only making this wine in very good vintages. There were huge aromas of orange rind, marmalade, and honey on this dark orange wine. On the palate I was blown away by the freshness of the wine, and further flavors of white pepper and fresh herbs. There is even a slightly spicy component to this wine that makes it really interesting. I thought it was quite amazing. And apparently I’m not the only one, because when I asked to buy some I found it was sold out.

Martina is queen of the distillery here, making artisanal grappas and rakijas. The grappas were each really beautiful, her Komovica which is a blend of all the grape varieties, the komovica s medom which has honey distilled with the grapes, and the travarica, which is her grappa distilled along with herbs. She is also making beautiful rakijas, like the typical sliva (plum), and jabuka (apple). She will make an exciting new grappa in oak from 2009 and a reserve with the Ottocento grapes.

All in all, what they’re doing here is really cutting edge and at the same time really humble, honest and ancient. They’re acting as a true steward of the land, sharing her truest expression and the rest of us lucky enough to simply reap the rewards. Get your hands on a bottle.

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