Descendant of Famous Russian Family to Put Istrian Castle on Wine and Tourism Map

Lauren Simmonds

One Russian who has fallen in love with Istria and all things wine is set to place one old castle very firmly on Istria’s wine and tourism map.

As Glas Istre writes on the 1st of April, 2018, Zhan Belay, a 25-year-old member of a well-known Russian family who is involved in finance and business, plans to open a aparthotel with thirteen luxury suites in the Belaj Castle in the Cerovlje Municipality, close to Pazin. Belay is already in cooperation with the Ivić family, who own part of the palace, as well as producing wine and leading wine tasting there. Belaj is the best preserved castle in Istria and part of the protected cultural heritage of the Republic of Croatia, and it wasn’t a coincidence that the young Russian ended up ”falling” into the ownership of the stunning old palace…

“I’ve been coming here with my dad to the tennis academy in Umag for several years, and one day, we saw a castle in a brochure which carries our name (Belaj/y). Of course, we went to see it, and we were fascinated by the beauty of the area, and so we decided to buy it,” Belay told Glas Istre. The castle was originally purchased back in 2012, and the creation of luxury apartments was planned for 2022.

It’s interesting to note that this very castle has caught the eye of, and even been bought by Russians in the past, too. According to a report from Jutarnji List, politician and minister Valery Zainulovich Garipov also bought the property back in 2007, for a price of eight million kuna. Otherwise, Zhan’s father, Oleg Belay, is the general manager of the TRINFICO Investment Group from Moscow, one of Russia’s ten largest independent investment companies.

Belaj is a stunning and unusually well-preserved old countryside castle with two floors and a park, surrounded by about 110,000 square metres of agricultural land, on which lie picturesque vineyards.

Zhan Belay stated that the Belaj palace project intends to develop things in two parallel directions. The first direction is the production of top quality wines, given that the young Russian thinks this area is ideal for this because of the specific microclimate. Another is the restoration of the castle and the opening of a luxury apart-hotel.

“We’ve started renovating the castle, and we want to create thirteen luxury suites, with a large spa area that will have views over the vineyards,” Belay told Glas Istre, adding that he has already encountered enormous problems with the whole project at the beginning.

Namely, one of the previous owners removed the wooden floors and replaced them with concrete with a thickness of 40 to 60 centimetres on the third and final floor. The weight has of course disrupted the static of the entire building and now reconstruction will be a very complicated procedure.

“We’ll have to remove the entire roof, then remove the concrete, put the wooden structure back, and then begin with the reconstruction and renovation of the building,” Belay stated, and, in answer to the question about deadlines, he said that if everything goes according to plan, things should be completed by 2022.

“At the beginning, we’ll start with four stars, and after the first season, we’ll raise it to the five-star category. One of the ideas is to open a luxury detox clinic here,” noted Belay, adding that the location is actually ideal because it’s located pretty much in the centre of Istria, just over an hour’s drive from Trieste in Italy, and half an hour from the Croatian coastal town of Opatija.

While the young Russian received the property from his father, he himself fell madly in love with the Istria’s wine production. The east and west annexes of the building are owned by a local family, Ivić, so here, the story (at least so far) is actually a story of successful joint Croatian-Russian partnership, right in the middle of picturesque Istria.

As has already been clarified, the property is divided into several parts. The castle and part of the vineyard are owned by Belay, the commercial buildings belong to the local Ivić family, and several parts of land are owned by the Republic of Croatia. When it comes to the winery development project, Belay and Luka Ivić went together, developing not only a good relationship, but each their wine production lines.

The eastern annex once housed prison cells back in the nineteenth century, whereas today, in big oak barrels, there’s old wine. The western annex, where there were once stables, is the economic heart of the premises in the modern day – meaning the centre of wine production, as well as a restaurant with 35 seats.

With the arrival to a more pleasant time, the restaurant continues onto a beautiful outdoor plateau overlooking the vineyard, where, sitting, you almost forget a little about being in Istria, as the area invariably resembles Tuscan landscapes. In this area, there is also a tasting room, and the kitchen itself is run by Zagreb chef Zoran Gaić, which, at least for now, is open only at weekends.

“Our wines are tasted with food, and as a great lover of Istrian delicacies myself, I insist that all the food we offer is local, from nearby family farms. It’s all homemade, from butter, to meat and cheese, and even the vegetables, we grow them in our garden ourselves,” Zhan Belay added during his conversation with Glas Istre.

He added that while he was studying in London, he actually managed two restaurants, so he himself has some experience in the world of catering, too.

“The history of this castle and wine is inseparable, so, I decided to revive that side of the story first,” Zhan Belay told Glas Istre. The castle is otherwise in possession of the largest barrels of their type in Istria, and Belay explained that such a unique antique basement that has existed so well throughout the centuries, cannot be found anywhere else. As he says, two different production lines of wine are produced here.

“The Belaj castle line (of wine) is in my possession, that is, it’s made from grapes from our vineyards, while the Podrum Belaj line is owned by the Ivić family and is made from grapes from Boljunsko polje,” Belay stated to Glas Istre, adding that at the beginning, they developed wine in collaboration with some well-known winemakers – Gianfranco Kozlović and Ivica Matošević, and now production is taken care of by well-known enologist Toni Batel, who also takes care of the famous wine cellars on Brijuni.

Should the young Russian’s big plans be successfully implemented and go well, the castle should soon become one of the important points in Istria, if not the whole country, bringing the best that Croatia offers together – enogastronomy, historical and cultural heritage, and, of course, tourism.


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