In October 2011, Brava Wine Company took the first group of travelers through Istria to experience the beautiful wines and the culinary riches. It’s also truffle season and time for the olive harvest, so we had a very full weekend of amazing food and wine! A similar trip will be repeated again several times in October.
Wines made in the ancient style using terra cotta Amphora buried in the ground are as unique as they are hard to find. In fact, they were merely more than legend before I moved to Croatia in 2010, having tried only one that I could find available on the market in the U.S. at that time. So when a friend introduced me to Mr. Jean Michel Morel of Slovenia’s Goriška Brda region at a wine trade show in Zagreb, I was more than elated to meet him and try his wines. I was completely blown away by their beauty. The article that follows is my account of this past weekend’s visit to his winery and family residence, where his family’s hospitality is as astounding as the wines they produce.
Amphora Magic in Slovenia
September 27, 2011
“Put down your notebook,” Jean Michel instructs me as we began our tasting tour of his family’s winery, letting me know there would be no rigorous note-taking or fastidious documentation as we walked through the cool, dark cellar tasting wine from the barrels. On the way down we had passed the quiet, private room which hosts the Amforae, which has just one small cut-out window to peer into from the staircase. In here the Amforae are completely buried, with only the mouth of the vessels actually exposed above ground. He explains to me that 20% of the wine that is put into the vessels is lost due to evaporation each year, but this aids in the microoxidation process which contributes to the unique character of the wine.
We make our way through the cellar, without taking any notes, simply sharing thoughts on the wines that we taste from their barrels. There is true magic in this winery, in this space. It’s not fancy by any stretch, but the common thread running through all of the wines is that they’re all really amazing, each in their own right. The white wines here are some of the most magnificent expressions that I have ever tasted of their varietals; the Beli Pinot (Pinot Blanc), for example, bears remarkable brightness along with the lovely characteristics of white peach and baked apple. And indeed all of them are incredibly intriguing, richly complex and beautifully integrated. Most of the wine, in fact all but for one single barrel, is aged in old oak barrels, and Morel jokingly makes the comment that, “One new barrel is enough. I’m selling wine, not oak.”
The wines that we sampled from the barrels would all make perfect young wines, but producing young wine is not the goal of this family winery. They are making serious, finely woven wines which will stand the test of time and even improve in the bottle for a decade or more to come, as was easily proven during later tastings of 1994 Tocai and 1996 Chardonnay.
The reds are no different, vibrant and complex with just enough rusticity to make them really intriguing as well. Merlot will be bottled on its own, but the gorgeous Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, along with Petit Verdot will be blended into the Morel Cuvée. Floral aromatics dominate on these stunning reds, with crushed rose petal and violet aromas coming forward and wild bramble fruit in the background, mingled with leather, tar and baking spices. These are gorgeous wines, buzzing with a life of their own.
The real star of the show in the Kabaj winery is the Amfora. This complete and utter labor of love began in 2006. Jean Michel explains that he learned about this style of wine on a vacation to the Republic of Georgia. “I was visiting in 2004, and tasting a lot of mediocre wine. Then I went to a monastery of the Orthodox Church. At this time I tasted the craziest, best wine of my life. I’m talking with these guys from the monastery, and they gave me one opportunity, they asked if I wanted to make this kind of wine. So they gave me the chance to train with them and learn these techniques (using Amphora). The monastery is very serious- they are not selling wine. They produce these wines to give as gifts to the royal families. I am returning to Georgia every year to learn more.”
The Amfora wines are beautiful beyond explanation. They, like the other wines produced here, win you over with their pervasive aromas and flavors, always subtle but incredibly complex and definitive, even unusual in some ways that we traditionally think about wine. Tastings from the not-yet-released 2008 vintage poured forth black pepper, tangled with traditional stone fruit flavors and aromas. Not exactly what you expect from a white wine. Maybe my favorite characteristic of these wines though is the mouthfeel. It’s waxy and oily both, coating your mouth and pervading your senses. It’s absolutely unforgettable wine, which for me is the marker of a classic.
Back upstairs in the winery, rock music blares from the radio and Jean Michel explains to me that some producers play only opera music in their wineries, but that doesn’t suit him. “In my winery it’s rock and roll.” And while in fact his manner is very relaxed and jovial, Mr. Morel seems the kind of guy who’s more rock and roll than opera, blaring his rock music and sporting a 5 o’clock shadow, with a perpetual Marlboro Red dangling from his lip. His casual style and the well-worn winery are completely in contrast with the family’s bright, tidy agritourismo and restaurant upstairs.
He himself grew up in France, having lived in several areas including Perpignan, where his mother still resides. As a young man he moved to Italy, for a job at a winery in the Collio region of Italy’s Northeast, which borders the Slovenian region of Goriška Brda. It was there that he met his wife, Katja Kabaj, and her family, with whom he joined forces in 1993 to work in the family’s winery in Slovenia. At that time the family was producing just 3 barrels of wine, enough for themselves. When Jean Michel came on they began more serious production, and the winery is now up to 70,000 bottles under the Kabaj label.
Jean Michel now runs the winery while Katja thoughtfully and attentively tends to the guests. In 2006 they expanded their family property to include 6 lovely double rooms which are available for guests to rent. The rooms, joined with the restaurant, make a perfect horseshoe around the restaurant’s terrace, which is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The cuisine here is based on the freshest regional ingredients and culinary tradition, with an inspired and creative twist. Instead of the expected risottos and tiramisus that dominate many of the region’s menus, they are featuring exciting riffs on the local cuisine. They brought on a bright, young chef with fresh ideas so that their restaurant isn’t run of the mill by any stretch, which of course matches the philosophy of the winery. And beginning in October of this year, they will bring on another highly acclaimed chef, who formerly worked as Sous Chef at Le Mandrac Restaurant in Opatija, Croatia. This will serve to shake things up even more and further develop their restaurant concept. As it is, the community has definitely taken notice of this sweet spot. The restaurant was consistently filled with happy customers during my visit, sipping their favorite Kabaj wines and enjoying their delicious multi-course meals in this bright, sunny setting which overlooks miles of vineyards. Here it’s truly great hospitality combined with amazing wines in a spot that’s as close to heaven on earth as any I’ve ever experienced. And if the 2011 vintage here in Goriška Brda is as good as Jean Michel’s smile and nod indicates, I think we’re in for a treat.
I’ve got nothing but good to say about Clai.
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.