Most girls and women have at least once in their lives wished to be a princess and dreams about having a kingdom, even a small one, are not unknown to most men as well. One such castle, located in the heart of Istria, near Cerovlje and Pazin, was recently visited by members of the WOW Association. At least in the imagination, they turned into princesses for a day, drinking wines which tell stories and tasting the food straight out of a fairy tale.
There is no lack of interesting stories here, and coincidences as well since the castle is now co-owned by the Belay family from Russia, which fell in love with the estate while wandering through Istria and simply had to buy it. The fact that the castle carries the same name – a pure coincidence! The estate has a co-owner as well, the Ivić family from Istria.
The Castle Belaj winery was founded in 2011 and it immediately started working with wine experts and well-known Istrian winemakers Gianfranco Kozlović and Ivica Matošević. In 2016, the production cycle was moved to the Belaj Castle estate. Each year, wines labelled Castle Belaj win gold and silver medals at wine competitions such as Vinistra and Decanter.
The Cellar Belaj winery was founded in 1998 by the Ivić family, whose viticulture tradition dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. Vineyards of Malvasia, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Merlot are located at Boljunsko Polje, and each year the winery produces more than 30,000 litres of top quality wines. Under the Cellar Belaj label, the Ivić family also produces brandies and honey. So, to simplify this rather complicated story – there are two labels coming from this estate and the cellar: Castle Belaj (Dvorac Belaj) and Cellar Belaj (Podrum Belaj).
Nevertheless, for the story to be really understood, it is necessary to go deeper in history, since the estate and the castle date from the 16th century. The Castle Belaj estate includes a castle (16th century) and a farm building with a history as a court, prison and wine cellar (19th century). And there is also another farm building where stables and the estate manager’s flat used to be located, as well as 11 hectares of historic vineyards surrounding the estate.
It all began in 1575 when the Barbo noble family built the Bellai castle, which was the largest fortress at the time behind those in Pasberg (Paz) and Waxenstein (Kožljak). At the end of the 17th century, the castle was sold to Johann Weikhard von Auersperg, the minister of foreign affairs of the Austrian Empire. From 1668 to 1848, Belaj was the judicial administrative centre of a newly-established municipality stretching from Boljun to Plomin and from Kastav to Kršan. Auersperg recognized the benefits of the local soil and the microclimate of the hills and began cultivating olive and grape vines. This is how the vineyard story of Belaj began, which revived the entire region. At that time, the wine production was focused on delivering top quality wines to Vienna and even to Bordeaux. Today, Belaj is the only château in Croatia with such a long history and tradition of wine production, and Castle Belaj is a registered historical heritage of the Republic of Croatia.
Instead of the history and interesting Russian (Belay) and Croatian (Ivić) co-ownership, we are now going to focus on the evening of the 13 September this year, when the estate was visited by members of the WOW Association, organised by the association’s Rijeka branch, with the support of the Zagreb crew. The waiter who served the guests was Saša Habdija, who on this occasion had the job of a sommelier as well and welcomed the party with a drink – Malvasia Castle Belaj 2017. After a tour of the castle and estate, the WOW members came to the table set on a beautiful lawn in front of the castle. It was a real al fresco lunch/dinner.
For appetizer, chef Zoran Gajić selected “makaruni,” hand-made “pljukanci” in a sauce with local Istrian sausages and red wine with freshly sliced cep mushrooms, paired with Chardonnay Castle Belaj 2016, produced by the fermentation method 100% in stainless steel tanks, rested for three months with sur lie yeast, with strong aromatic intensity and 14% alcohol content.
That was followed by a very generous main dish, enough for the princesses, but even for a few princes and kings. The main dish was grilled pork beefsteak with green pepper sauce with young local potatoes and grilled vegetables with generously grated truffles. The same plate included a piece of pork ribs, roasted for five hours, in a yogurt sauce. The dish was paired with the exceptional Merlot Cellar Belaj 2016, which delighted everybody, particularly the WOW winemaker Jacqueline Marovac, who said that these Merlot labels are always great and highly recommendable due to their freshness, elegance and uniqueness.
Luka Ivić said a few words about the wine, explaining that the wine was still young and fresh and needed some rounding, but that it was on the right track. Before the desert, at the request of Association President Sanja, more interesting wines were opened – following the recommendation of the acquaintance and friend Hrvoje Petrić. These were Malvasia Ksenija 2015 and Chardonnay Selection 2014.
The intermezzo ahead of the desert was marked by the wines which oenologist Toni Batel described in the following way. “Istrian Malvasia Ksenija 2015 is an interesting and very harmonious wine produced by short maceration, fermentation in a stainless steel tank, and then resting for eight months in a 2,000-litre oak barrel. It has been aromatically enriched with vanilla scent (from wood), the scent of an acacia flower, the scent of apple, and the scent of roasted bread crust. In the mouth, it has a very delicious and refined freshness with an emphasis on fruity flavours.”
Chardonnay from "heavy" and rainy 2014 is a special story. It was made with a short, one-day maceration and fermented in small 225-litre barrique barrels where it spent ten months until it was filled in bottles. It has a very complex fruity scent similar to tropical fruit, with a good balance of acids and aromas from the wood. It is a wine that can give better results by resting in bottles.
In the end, the dessert arrived, a chocolate truffle and the Castle Belaj Blend from 2017, a Cuvee made with 30% Chardonnay and 70% Malvasia.
We will not mention any names, but one of the WOW members lost a shoe in front of the castle that was later found, so the whole story really resembled a fairytale. This is a temple to the beauty of nature and the enjoyment of life. The WOW members certainly intend to come back there, and they recommend the same to others as well.
More info can be found at http://dvoracbelaj.com/
Photos by Vladimir Mudrovčić, Mateo Gobo, Vladimir Besedin, and the WOW archive