Originally from the Croatian portion of Istria -a region defined as much by the Alpine foothills as the Adriatic Sea- Giorgio Clai moved to Trieste at a very young age, where he later found success managing one of the city's most reputable restaurants.
In the 80's, Giorgio inherited a small amount of vines and olive trees from his mother. This marked the beginning of what would soon become an annual tradition: returning to Krasica, the small village where he grew up, to harvest and make celebratory wine for his friends, family and the restaurant. This newfound connection to his family's land sparked a passion in Giorgio, one that would fully come to fruition in 2001, when he decided to dedicate himself to viticulture and winemaking fulltime.
Today, the estate spans 7 h of vines and 3 h of olive trees spread out over 3 sites. Plavina, Moscato, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc are planted for whites, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Refosco for red. Two of the sites are walking distance from the Clai household; here, the heavy clay soils are surrounded by foothills and mountains, and produce the Ottocento bijeli (white) and Ottocento Crna (red). Vines are 10 to 16 years old, all planted/replanted by Giorgio himself.
4 km from Krasica, the lieu-dit Sveti Jakov is home to Giorgio's oldest vines and most unique terroir. Here, the site's proximity to the Adriatic heavily influences the vines, resulting in a much more mineral, saline style of wine. Both a Sveti Jakov bijeli and crna are produced.
Chemicals have never been introduced to the family vines or the winery; Giorgio's goal has always been to produce a celebratory beverage to share with those around him, "the way my grandparents made it". The Sveti Jakov vineyards were purchased in 2003, and converted to organic viticulture from day one. All of the wines ferment off their native yeasts and minimal doses of sulfur are added only at bottling.
This visit at Clai Bijele Zemlje took place in April, 2013.
Words by Jules Dressner, photos by Maya Pedersen.
Giorgio Clai's enthusiastic: "Welcome to Paradise!" set the tone for a breathtakingly beautiful and informative visit. Nestled in the Alpine foothills of Croatian Istria, The Clai household is completely surrounded by nature.
The first vines we visited just a few feet from the house.
These 90 year old vines are a historical vineyard in the area. Giorgio acquired them when previous owner died 3 years ago. The North-East exposition is great for keeping alcohol down.
The parcel is co-planted with many olive trees.
"It was traditional to plant rows this way: three vines, an olive tree, three vines, an olive tree..."
Nearby willow tree branches are used to tie down the vines.
The Plavina grape is grown here, which Giorgio uses for his sparkling. It is co-planted with Moscato.
From these old vines, we walked for about 10 minutes to the next site. On the way over, I was able to ask Giorgio some Clai factoids. The estate consists of 7 hectares of vines and 3h of olives spread over three different sites. The first two are walking distance from the house, and the third -the lieu-dit Sveti Jakov- is a 4 km drive. His first labeled vintage was 2001.
The second plot we visited is home to 16 year old vines of Pinot Grigio and Refosco. It is exposed full South.
There is a lot of late budding this year, partly due to a lot of rain. Lasted year, Giorgio added organic minerals and ground-up stone from the Dolomites in hope of lowering PH levels a bit.
"There is so much limestone here it really raises acidity levels."
For many years, Giorgio felt it was necessary to get organic certification, but he's recently had a change of heart. He feels that it's the work that matters, not the perception. Just for everyone's organic peace of mind, here is a picture of Giorgio's vines:
And these are his next door neighbor's:
Oh, the magic of Round-Up...
The soils here are mainly composed of clay, but Giorgio adamantly pointed out that in just 20m the compositions vary from sand, sand and clay and richer clay. Here is a picture of the latter.
Also within walking distance (this time a bit further), the second major site is host to Merlot, as well as some Moscato reserved for a sweet wine.
Everything here is exposed West. The climate is very different from the first site, with a constant wind that keeps it cooler. The soil is dark, rich clay. After noticing that the sites we'd visited so far were fairly isolated, Giorgio confirmed that most of his vines have no neighbors.
After a good 45 minutes of hiking around, we drove 4 km to Sveti Jakov.
Sveti Jakov is one of the most beautiful vineyards I've ever seen. Unlike the other sites we'd visited, Giorgio does not have a monopole here, and shares the vineyard with an unspecified amount of neighbors. His vines are 34 years old, and they are the only one that he didn't plant himself. When he took over, everything was in Pergola, which he chopped down to re-train in the more quality-oriented guillot.
They vines were also "chemically dead", and had to be converted back to organics.
The two sites we'd visited earlier see their microclimates influenced by the mountains, but Sveti Jakov is much more affected by the winds of the sea, resulting in a constant wind that is essential at combating oidium and mildew. On a normal year, Giorgio only applies 3 copper treatments to Sveti Jakov (5 in the others).
"It would be impossible to work organically here without these winds."
The soils are much rockier here.
There are also many olive trees planted throughout the vineyard.
After visiting the vines, Giorgio was excited to show us the new cellar he is working on.
The current cellar is microscopic, and this will permit him to separate vinification, aging and storage into different rooms. He's also very excited to start working with gravity.
By having this system put in place, it will avoid extra rackings and transportations, all while keeping the grapes optimally fresh.
In the cellar, we got to taste through a variety of whites and red from barrel.
In 2012, the Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Sauvignon for the Ottocento white were co-fermented. The wine macerates 8-12 days on its skin, depending on the vintage. Only half of the malo was done, but the results are very promising.
Giorgio explained that despite the over-abundance of sun and drought in 2012 (not a drop of rain all summer!!!), acidities are still really good.
"If the vines are not confused by chemicals, they know when to grow or not. They shut themselves down when necessary. This is how we retained our acidity in 2012."
We then tasted some 2012 Malvasia that had fermented and macerated on the skins for 25 days. It will be used to balance out either Sveti Jakov or the Ottocento. The 2012 Refosco will be blended, but the 2011 is so good it might become it's own wine. The Sveti Jakov 2012 white sees 4 months of skin maceration, and it's delicious.
Here is an adorable picture of the Clai dog that has absolutely no context in this recap whatsoever.
After tasting in the cellar, we had an incredible home-cooked meal and tasted the 2011's, which are top-notch. The wines are so elegant and balanced that I always forget how high in alcohol they are. I gotta admit I was a little tipsy by the end of the meal...
Soil: Sandy clay, heavy clay
Grapes: Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc
Vinification: Grapes are co-fermented with 8 to 12 days of skin maceration. Vinified and aged in oak casks. Small amounts of sulfur added at bottling.
Soil: Dark, heavy clay
Grapes: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Refosco
Vinification: Grapes are vinified separately and blended before bottling. Vinified and aged in oak casks. Small amounts of sulfur added at bottling.
Soil: Rocky clay
Vinification: Vinified in oak casks with 4 months skin contact. Small amounts of sulfur added at bottling.