Slovenia – a big little place with lots of style & great wines

Dobrovo perched on top of a terraced vineyard slope in Brda, Slovenia.

Dobrovo perched on top of a terraced vineyard slope in Brda, Slovenia.

I really like going to Slovenia, it’s a beautiful country with lots of different of landscapes and influences. The people are charming and the food and wine are terrific. I wrote about a recent trip here.

Firstly let’s clear up a couple of misconceptions about Slovenia. It is not the same place as Slovakia, formerly part of Czechoslovakia. No that, much larger country is to the north and east of Austria, whereas Slovenia is to Austria’s south. Also Slovenia is not part of the Balkans and they will not thank you for thinking that it is. To the Slovenians the Balkans start further south and east.

Slovenia is a tiny country, at 8,000 square miles it is slightly smaller than Wales and New Jersey, but with only just over 2 million inhabitants it is less populous than either of those. Indeed as the capital city, Ljubljana, only has around 280,000 inhabitants, it cannot even claim to be the largest Slovenian city in the world – strangely it seems that honour is held by Cleveland, Ohio – depending on your definition of a Slovenian of course.

Slovenia enjoys a continental climate, 46˚ north runs through the country, just to the south of Ljubljana, and if you look around the world at all the wine regions that are situated at between 45˚ and 46˚ north, it will certainly make you salivate. As you might imagine, the coastal zone also has a Mediterranean influence to its climate.

Historically Slovenia was past of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when it was part of Austria, and then Yugoslavia. Before that it was the border area between the Western and Eastern Roman Empires and even today it is a link between the East and the West, Germanic cultures to the north, Romanesque cultures to the west and Slavic to the east and south.

All of which helps to explain the wonderful variety you find in the country. Germanic, Hungarian, Italian and Slavic influences can be found in the in different parts of the country, making touring it an exciting experience – like travelling around Europe in miniature.

All of this effects the wines too, as you might expect. Those from the Istrian coastline often have an Italian and Mediterranean feel to them, while the wines of North Eastern Slovenia have a feel of Austrian purity about them.

Recently I have put on some very well received Slovenian tastings, so I thought that I would tell you about them as I really want more people to discover the delights of Slovenian wine.

Wine map of Slovenia - click for a larger view.

Wine map of Slovenia – click for a larger view.

Slovenia has three main wine regions, Primorska, Posavje, and Podravje, which are then divided into districts.

Podravje is in the north east of the country, it borders Austria and Hungary and includes the important districts of Jeruzalem-Ormož and Ptuj.

Posavje is in the south east and borders Croatia – I have not shown any wines from there.

Primorje means coastal or littoral and incorporates all the districts near the sea and the Italian border in the west of Slovenia. This region includes the districts of Goriška Brda / Brda, Vipavska Dolina / Vipava Valley and Kras.

Podravje Region Wines

My first two wines come from Puklavec & Friends. The Puklavec family had been growing grapes and making wine since at least the 1930s and Martin Puklavec ran the cooperative in Jeruzalem-Ormož from the 1930s to the 1950s. The family had lost their vineyards over the years and in 2008 decided to buy back the old family estates and to get back into the wine business. They have done so in a very clever and focussed way. They make clean, well made, international wines that have wide appeal and so are readily available, even in the unadventurous UK, they also make Tesco Finest Slovenian Sauvignon Blanc-Furmint, which is also very drinkable.

Puklavec-Freinds-Sauvignon-Blanc-Pinot-Grigio-2011-e13334456961882013 Puklavec & Friends Sauvignon Blanc-Pinot Grigio
Puklavec & Friends
Z.G.P. / P. D.O. Jeruzalem-Ormož

Jeruzalem-Ormož is a beautiful place of rolling hills between the Drava and Mura rivers. The rivers temper the heat, as do cool winds from the north, which makes it perfect for fresh, ripe and balanced white wines.

A light fresh, easy drinking white with just 10.5% alcohol. It’s bright, grassy, floral and fruity with a light touch of the tropical about it and it gives plenty of uncomplicated pleasure – 84/100 points.

Available in the UK for £7.99 a bottle from Waitrose Cellar.

411628_a_puklavec---friends-furmint-4116282013 Puklavec & Friends Furmint
Puklavec & Friends
Z.G.P. / P. D.O. Jeruzalem-Ormož

I love Furmint, it’s a classic Hungarian grape where it famously makes the sweet wines of Tokaji as well as some very exciting dry whites. The grape is widely grown in eastern Slovenia, where it is used to make dry white wines and is traditionally called Šipon.

This wine is a little more complex and has a lovely bright, floral aroma with fresh citrus and some richer herbal notes as well. The palate is a little broader with some apple as well as lemon, lime and a dash of orange and those herbs again. Lees ageing has given some body to the palate and there is a little touch of spice too. All in all an attractive and refreshing wine – 85/100 points.

Available in the UK for £9.99 a bottle from Waitrose Cellar.

Bojan Kobal, a photograph I took when we were both judging in Dubrovnik.

Bojan Kobal, a photograph I took when we were both judging in Dubrovnik.

The next two wines are made by Bojan Kobal, a friend of mine who is a very talented winemaker – not that I would say that to his face, obviously. He is a very nice fellow whose family have been involved in winemaking since 1931. In fact Bojan grew up surrounded by vineyards and wine and went on to study oenology, which led on to a series of senior winemaking jobs to hone his craft before he returned to run the family estates.They are based in the Haloze district of Lower Styria / Štajerska, which is a stretch of hills along the banks of the Drava River near the charming city of Ptuj. The vineyards in this part of the world look gorgeous, as they grow grass between the rows to prevent soil erosion on the steep slopes.

For some reason Bojan’s wines are not yet available in the UK, which is strange, because they are really very, very good. If any importers are reading this, do yourselves a favour and bring in Bojan’s wines.

Kobal SB2015 Kobal Sauvignon Blanc
Kobal Wines
Ptuj
Z.G.P. / P. D.O. Štajerska (this translates as Lower Styria, Upper Styria is a region of Austria)

If you think you know Sauvignon Blanc, think again. This is an amazingly good take on the grape. Yes it is fresh, yes it is bright and has plenty of zing, but it isn’t a caricature of a wine as so many commercial Sauvignons can be. This is serious stuff with depth, concentration and richness as well as that lovely refreshing zing of acidity that Sauvignon does so well. There is grapefruit, mandarin, passionfruit and lime on the nose and palate, while the palate also has a lovely creamy texture from ageing on the lees. This is amazingly long and fine and carries its 14% alcohol effortlessly. If more Sauvignon tasted like this, I’d drink it! A great wine that really excited everyone at my tastings – 93/100 points.

b400000489962012 Kobal Blaufränkisch
Kobal Family Estates
Ptuj
ZGP / PDO Štajerska

I like Blaufränkisch, it’s known as Lemberger in Germany and Kékfrankos in Hungary and in Slovenia it is more properly called Modra Frankinja, but I guess Blaufränkisch might be an easier sell. The grape is known sometimes as the Pinot Noir of the East, because it produces wines with similar weight to Pinot and that often have a similarly fragile quality. Despite being associated with Austria and Hungary more than anywhere else, the grape goes back to the time of Charlemagne, hence the Frankish part of the name. There is actually a small town called Lemberg – Lemberg pri Šmarju – in Lower Styria and some sources say it was from there that the grape was exported to Germany and hence the reason for the Lemberg name there and in the USA – although of course the area was part of Austria at that time.

The nose is rich and enticing with ripe plum and earthy notes with a touch of spice and some leather showing development. The palate is soft and round with juicy fruit and smooth tannins giving a velvety texture. There are rich plum, prune and dark chocolate flavours going through to the incredibly long finish. This is a fine wine, beautifully made and very polished, everybody was impressed and I didn’t want the bottle to finish – 93/100 points.

Available in the US, click here for stockist information.

Primorska Region Wines – the Vipava Valley

The beautiful Vipava Valley.

The beautiful Vipava Valley.

I was very taken with the Vipava Valley. It is a beautiful rural landscape and is home to a bunch of dedicated winemakers who use the sub-Mediterranean climate together with the cooling winds that rip through the valley, to craft some stunning wines. Like most of the country, the wines are mainly white, but there is a little bit of red too. Excitingly the valley is home to two indigenous white grape varieties not found anywhere else, Pinela and Zelen.

Zmago Petrič, on the right, explaining his wines.

Zmago Petrič of the Guerrilla Estate, on the right, explaining his wines.

CP2014 Guerila Pinela
Guerila Estate
ZGP / PDO Vipavska Dolina / Vipava Valley

This is a new estate, created by Zmago Petrič in 2006, but they are really going places. Zmago farms their 7 hectares bio-dynamically and use spontaneous fermentations with the wild yeast. This Pinela is fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged on the lees for 9 months.

This lovely wine manages to straddle being both rich and fresh. It has mouthwatering acidity with fresh apple, rich citrus and some creaminess on the palate. This has lovely concentration and focus and it is a lovely, delicious and appetising style of wine that would go with just about anything. I have a hunch it would be great with pesto – 91/100 points.

CC2012 Guerila Cuba
Guerila Estate
ZGP / PDO Vipavska Dolina / Vipava Valley

Zmago produces this unusual, to me anyway, blend of 50/50 Merlot and Barbera – Barbera is of course from Piemonte in Italy, but is quite widely used in the Vipava Valley. This wine is fermented in stainless steel to accentuate the fruit and then aged 2 years in 225 litre oak casks.

There are savoury aromas here, together with some black fruit and coffee notes. It is a medium bodied wine with soft tannins and lots of red and black fruit, with touches of espresso and cocoa from the oak ageing. There are dried fruit characters too and a distinct note of blackberry. A lovely wine – 89/100 points.

Primož Lavrenčič

Primož Lavrenčič of the Burja Estate.

Burja_Petite-Burja-Zelen_0.75L2014 Petite Burja Zelen
Burja Estate
Podnanos
ZGP / PDO Vipavska Dolina / Vipava Valley

Another small, 6 hectare, estate that is farmed bio-dynamically. Primoz’s family own the well known Sutor Esate , but in 2009 he decided to set out on his own and so created Burja, which is named for the Bora wind that roars down the valley. I was thrilled to try the other local grape, Zelen means green in Slovene.

The wine is aromatic and fresh smelling with some light creamy notes. There is plenty of apple and grass and fresh blossom too. The palate has a nice creamy touch, but apart fro m that it’s a zesty wine and has citrus flavours, green apple and something saline and mineral about it. A delicious and easy to drink wine that would be perfect as a classy aperitif or with shellfish – 91/100 points

Burja_Burja-Bela_0.75L2013 Burja Bella
Burja Estate
Podnanos
ZGP / PDO Vipavska Dolina / Vipava Valley

The main white wine of the estate is this blend, which is a very different style. It is a blend of 30% Laski Rizling / Welschriesling, 30% Rebula and ‘other varieties’, I assume some Malvasia, Pinela and Zelen. Fermented in upright wooden casks with 8 days maceration on the skin. Spontaneous fermentation with the wild yeast, 18 months ageing in oak barrels and no filtration.

The nose is attractively waxy and smoky with some sweet spices and nuts. The palate is smooth and soft, but mouth filling, with nuts, cream and rich peach together with a seam of fresh grapefruit acidity keeping it all balanced and thrilling. This is very fine, with a long satisfying finish – 93/100 points.

Primorska Region Wines – the Kras & Istria

These two districts are a little more demanding I find. The wines are very specific to their place and style and they use grape varieties that are often very difficult to tame. In fact the main black grape in these areas is Refošk, which is also widely used over the border in the nearby regions of Italy. Over there it is called Refosco. In the Kras / Karst district Refošk is often called Teran. The main white grape around here, and also very often over the border, is Malvazija, Malvasia in Italy.

Branko & Vasja Čotar - photo courtesy of the winery.

Branko & Vasja Čotar – photo courtesy of the winery.

Cottar fizz2009 Čotar Črna
Branko & Vasja Čotar
ZGP / PDO Kras / Karst / Carso

I have long admired the wines of Čotar – pronounced Cho’tar – it is a father and son run winery in the Carst, or Kras in Slovenian, district that is just inland from Trieste. That city, now so obviously Italian was once a principally Slovene city and the principal port of Austria. The Italian Carso district has the same limestone soil riddled with cave systems and underwater rivers and produces similarly fascinating and unruly wines. They are thoroughly European wines with astringent characters and often more minerality than fruit.

Branko & Vasja Čotar began making wine for their restaurants in 1974 and slowly winemaking took over. They bottled their first vintage in 1990 and today they farm 7 hectares in this harsh limestone landscape that has an iron-rich topsoil. They grow Refosco, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malvasia, Sauvignon Blanc, Vitovska, or Vitovska Grganja or Garganja which is a local white grape. All the farming is organic, the fermentations spontaneous and they use as little sulphur as possible. In my experience they make a stunning Cabernet Sauvignon.

This wine is a sparkling red Refošk, which is not to everyone’s taste, but i love red sparklers. Rich and refreshing, as you drink them cold and serve them with fatty meat dishes. The base wine spent 3 years in big wooden vats and the finished wine spent 12 months on the lees, but was never disgorged. The lees remain in the bottle.

The froth is lovely, a bright deep blackberry crush and raspberry colour. The nose is forest floor and smoke from the oak, as well as dried fruits of the forest. The palate is rich and fresh with lots of blackberry and spice. An acquired taste, but a good one I think – 89/100 points.

Cottar red2006 Čotar TerraRosa
Branko & Vasja Čotar
ZGP / PDO Kras / Karst / Carso

This is an amazing wine. I do have to admit that there was some bottle variation, but the best ones were wonderful. It is a blend of 40% Teran, 40% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. A wild yeast fermentation in open wooden vats, no added sulphur and long maturation in 6 year old barrels. It is unfixed and unfiltered.

There was plenty of funk on the nose as you might imagine, but loads of freshness and fruit too, plums, blueberries and blackberries, as well as a little dusting of peppery, coffee oak. The palate offers loads of fruit all mixed up, plums, raspberries and blackberries, as well as spice, herbs and espresso tones. The finish is long and satisfying, but the wine cries out for slow roast lamb or suckling pig – 92/100 points.

The 2005 is available in the UK for #22.50 from VinCognito.

The view from the estate towards the sea. Photo courtesy of the winery.

The view from the Polič Estate towards the sea. Photo courtesy of the winery.

_U9A5689

Polič Estate terrace by night. Photo courtesy of the winery.

Polic2013 Polič Organic Refošk
Polič Estate
Truške
PGO / PGI Slovenska Istra

This is yet another new winery and once again everything is organic and biodynamic. This is only the second vintage and Neja and Peter Polič could not have chosen a more wonderful spot to build his winery. It is in the hills looking down at Slovenia’s short stretch of coast with the city port  of Koper and the beautiful seaside town of Piran in the distance. Strictly speaking this wine would be a ZGP / PDO Koper, but Peter keeps to the looser rules of the PGI Slovenska Istra, which is the same as Vin de Pays. He only grows 3 things, Refošk, Malvazija and olives.

I have only tasted the red and I was very impressed. Refošk is a difficult grape to tame. It can appear rustic, old fashioned and lacking in charm to someone not used to it. Not this one. Everyone loved its stylish character. It’s unusual too, but in a good way. The wine was aged in french barriques for 7 months.

The nose gives rich blackcurrant fruit together with prunes, malty loaf, chocolate and raisins. The tannins are smooth and velvety while it gives flavours of rich bitter cherry and cherry stones, more chocolate and kirsch. There is plenty of acidity, earthy, herbal Mediterranean flavours and a long, fresh finish. A wonderful take on a grape that I often find hard to love, I did love this. Drink it with Mediterranean food, even a little bit chilled – 91/100 points.

Primorska Region Wines – Goriška Brda

Traditionaly this region is known as Goriška Brda after the local capital of Gorizia, which was awarded to Italy in 1947, so Tito’s regime built the replacement town of Nova Gorica right on the border. Strictly speaking Brda is a sub-region, or district, of the Primorje wine region. This means by the sea and the whole place enjoys a broadly Mediterranean climate. The sheer range of wines produced in Brda is quite bewildering, especially when you realise that the estates are all pretty small, normally between 4 and 20 hectares in size, many with vineyards on both sides of the border.

Looking north in Brda.

Looking north in Brda.

Aleš Kristančič on the terrace at Movia.

Aleš Kristančič in full flow on the terrace at Movia.

Ambra-1500-sq2012 Movia Sivi Pinot Ambra
Movia Estate
Ceglo
Dobrovo
ZGP / PDO Goriška Brda / Brda

Movia was the first estate that I visited in Slovenia, back in 2002 and it was a total revelation – I wrote about the visit here. I thought the wines were amazingly good then and I do now as well, but they have got a lot more quirky in recent years. Movia has belonged to the same family since 1820, eight generations of winemakers so far, and has long been the most famous producer in Slovenia. Since Aleš Kristančič took over from his father – also Aleš – a few years ago he has taken the estate in a new direction, towards natural wines. It isn’t a big estate, just 15 hectares – 7 of which are actually over the border in Italy – you can spit over the frontier from the winery terrace, but it is now farmed organically and bio-dynamically. The passion, some might say manic exuberance with which Aleš assaults everything, really shines through in his wines. Like him they have something to say and have a vital energy about them. He is a dedicated winemaker with great attention to detail and all his wines are good, many are astonishing.

There are three things that I generally don’t like, Pinot Grigio, Natural Wine and Orange Wine – these are white wines fermented on their skins like a red wine – and this is all three in one! And what do you know, I loved it. It was fermented in barrels on the skins, with no added sulphur or yeast and then aged for 18 months in oak – they like oak at Movia, but the wines hardly ever seem oaky as they leave it in the wood for so long that the flavours seem to fall away again, or so they tell me.

The colour is a rich apricot, while the nose has aromas of peach skin, red apple and dried apricots, there’s some orange peel notes together with ripe melon and something salty and gently smoky like ham. The palate is a beguiling mix of fresh, rich and salty / savoury with a deep core of sweet ripe, dried fruit and lots of minerality too. The finish is long and the wine is rather moreish, which is a shame as I have none left. A great wine, that shows what you can do with Pinot Grigio, but it isn’t for everyone – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 a bottle from Meadowvale Wines.
Available in the US, click here for stockist information.

Marjan Simčič, the quiet winemaker of Brda.

Marjan Simčič, the quiet winemaker of Brda.

Just a stroll away from Movia, you come to Marjan Simčič’s winery and Marian could not be more different from his neighbour. Where Aleš Kristančič is loud and gregarious and turns every tasting into a karaoke party, Marjan is quiet and unassuming. And yet he is equally passionate about his wines and it shows too. Again this is not a big estate, just 18 hectares that the family have tended since around 1860 and again half of them are in Italy. Until 1947 Brda and Collio were the same region, the words both mean hill in their respective languages. Marian farms organically and bio-dynamically and does not fine or filter his wines and only uses the natural yeasts.

Sim Sauv2012 Simčič Sauvignon Blanc Selekcija
Marjan Simčič
Ceglo
Dobrovo
ZGP / PDO Goriška Brda / Brda

Barrel fermented Sauvignon aged in cask for 24 months, so again not to everyone’s taste, but this is a great wine none the less. There is a real polish to this wine, you can tell that it’s good as you drink it. The oak and the lees ageing and the spontaneous fermentation have all worked together to make this a richly textured wine. There is fresh acidity there, but it still feels fat, there is varietal character too with that rich blackcurrant leaf note. The palate feels pristine and beautifully balanced and it is very rich with a silky texture. If you like good white Bordeaux, then this is for you. I would love to try it with a sole – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK from Bancroft Wines.

Sim PN2012 Simčič Pinot Noir Selekcija
Marjan Simčič
Ceglo
Dobrovo
ZGP / PDO Goriška Brda / Brda

This Pinot was fermented in stainless steel tanks with a long skin maceration and then aged for 28 months in French oak vats. The nose is wild and intoxicating, possibly from the wild yeast, light smoke and coffee and cedar as well as a touch of kirsch and even a twist of orange peel. It is wonderfully concentrated with rich, ripe cherry fruit, smooth, velvety tannins and a plump, sumptuous feel to the palate. Nothing like a Burgundy, but a magnificent wine – 94/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £30 a bottle from Bancroft Wines, Hedonism Wines, Red Squirrel and Slurp.
Available in the US, click here for stockist information.

The reason for writing this was to pass on the fact that lots of people really enjoyed these wines when I showed them in recent tastings. In fact they found them exciting. There was such variety, everything in fact from brisk, pure white varietals, to fine white blends, natural wines and complex long aged reds. There was winemaking and grape growing of the highest order – most of these wines were made in the vineyard and not the winery – there was passion, there was ambition and above all there was joy.

These were wines that could really be enjoyed and isn’t that what it’s all about?

So the next time you are feeling adventurous, try some Slovenian wine. I can guarantee that you will enjoy it.

Happy Christmas and a great 2016 to all plus a review of my year

Wow another Christmas is upon us and I have barely achieved a fraction of the things that I wanted to this year.

However, it was a great year for me for learning about amazing wines and visiting beautiful wine regions, so I can’t really complain. Here a few of my highlights of the year, I hope you enjoy them.

Naples fishing harbour with Capri in the background.

Naples fishing harbour with Capri in the background.

Back in March I visited Campania for the first time, seeing Naples and Pompeii as well as the wine regions of Taurasi, Greco di Tufo, Sannio and many more. It was a great experience full of wonderful wines and interesting stories. You can read all about it by clicking here.

Dobrovo perched on top of a terraced vineyard slope in Brda, Slovenia.

One of my favourite photographs of Slovenian vineyards.

Italy was very much the theme of the year for me as I visited four times in all. The first one was actually an amazing trip to study the wines produced in the north east edge of Italy and over the frontier in neighbouring Slovenia – the tour was called Wine Without Borders. That whole part of the world is very beautiful and produces some stunning wines too and you can read all about it by clicking here.

Typical transport in the countryside.

Typical transport in the Romanian countryside.

One of my most exciting trips of 2015 was to Romania. I had never been to the country at all before and had no idea what to expect from the wines. It turned out to be a beautiful country full of lovely people and some astonishing wines. I did not taste a single terrible wines and was very excited about the quality of most of them. You can read all about it by clicking here.

I toured the vineyards of Chablis by 2CV!

I toured the vineyards of Chablis by 2CV!

In June I was thrilled to go on my first dedicated trip to Chablis and I learned ever such a lot about what makes these wines quite so important. Ever since I have enjoyed talking about Chablis to all my students, but have yet to write about the visit – watch this space.

The beautiful vineyards of Lavaux.

The beautiful vineyards of Lavaux on Lake Geneva’s north shore.

In the same month I was honoured to be invited to be a judge at the Mondial du Chasselas wine competition in Switzerland. Chasselas is a real speciality grape in Switzerland, but comes close to being unloved almost anywhere else. Well I think the breadth of wines that I tasted and the sheer quality of most them proves the Swiss are right to love the grape and I loved the trip, as well as the big trip I made to Switzerland’s wine regions in late 2014. You can read all about my Swiss adventures by clicking here.

The beautiful Neckar Valley is like a mini-Mosel.

The beautiful Neckar Valley is like a mini-Mosel.

New discoveries and experiences continued with a terrific trip to Germany in September. Excitingly I visited Württemberg and the Neckar Valley as well as the amazing Stuttgart Wine Festival. This part of Germany is slightly off the beaten track wine-wise, certainly when compared to the Mosel or Rheingau, but it is well worth seeing as the landscape is very beautiful and some of the wines are stunning. Weingut Wöhrwag‘s 2013 Pinot Noir Untertürkheimer Herzogenberg Großes Gewächs was certainly the best Pinot I tasted in 2015 and one of the very best red wines that I drank all year. I aim to write all about it soon.

Piazza Duomo, Trento

Piazza Duomo in Trento, the beautiful capital of Trentino.

My Italian adventures continued in October with an enjoyable trip to Trentino in the north of the country. It is a fascinating and beautiful region that has only been part of Italy since 199, so is steeped in history. The wines were pretty good too, but then so was the beer – you can real all about it by clicking here.

Verona's amazing Roman Arena.

Verona’s amazing Roman Arena.

One added bonus of this trip was that I managed to stay an extra night in Verona and so saw that wonderful little city and was able to experience the delights of Lugana, a white wine from the southern shore of Lake Garda – it might well be my favourite Italian white right now and this delicious example is my Christmas white wine.

As well as overseas visits I have tasted some amazing wines over here too. I was particularly thrilled to meet the charming David Mazza who farms a tiny estate in Western Australia, but makes an amazing range of wines from Spanish and Portuguese grape varieties – you can read about him by clicking here.

The new discoveries kept coming too, new grapes like Tibouren from Provence and Cserszegi Fűszeres from Hungary, exciting old vine blends from Chile, a light red or a deep rosé from Tuscany, made from Tempranillo at that! Try as I might I simply could not leave Spain alone, I kept finding amazing Spanish wines that moved and excited me and that offered great value for money too – have a look here, here, here and here.

Along the way too I tasted a superb Albariño from California and another from New Zealand – Albariño is on the march it seems and you can read about them by clicking here.

Just the other day I presented my favourite sparkling wine of the year and I would urge you to try it if you can. It’s rather modestly called Apogee Deluxe Brut and is handmade by the great Andrew Pirie from fruit grown on a  2 hectare vineyard in northern Tasmania. I have long admired what Andrew does and if there is a better Australian fizz than this – indeed any non-Champagne fizz, although it had stiff opposition from Gramona’s amazing 2006 111 Lustros Gran Reserva Brut Nature Cava – then I have yet to try it. It is certainly a rich style of sparkling wine, but it never gets too serious, the fruit, freshness and frivolity dominate the palate and made me just want to drink more.

Vineyards in Stellenbosch.

Vineyards in Stellenbosch.

I nearly forgot, all right I did forget and had to come back and add this, the most exciting wine that I drank all year. There was lots of competition from the delicious 2011 Chêne Bleu Aliot, the sublime 1978 Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon from California and the downright amazing 2001 Château La Tour Blanche Sauternes, but my stand out wine was from my own collection and it was a beautifully mature Merlot-Cabernet blend from Stellenbosch.

Stellenbosch 19891989 Rozendal
Rozendal Farm
Stellenbosch
South Africa
I was very nervous about opening this. For South Africa it is very old, Nelson Mandela was still in prison when this was made and I know nothing about it. The estate seems to have disappeared. Frankly the wine seemed older and looked older than it was – even the label seems ancient. the nose was classic mature wine, smoky, cedar, earthy and overwhelmingly savoury with some balsamic notes and a touch of dried fruit too. The palate was extraordinary, still all there with that hallmark savoury fragility of very mature wine. Good acidity kept it fresh and provided the secret of its longevity. the tannins were almost totally faded, but for me the big revelation was a solid core of ripe sweet fruit that made it a joy to drink despite its venerable age.

Tasting this was a great moment and one worth recording as mature wine from anywhere other than the classic regions – I include California here – is pretty rare, especially of this quality. If anyone knows anything about Rozendal please let me know, I tried to contact them, but to no avail.

All in all 2015 went too fast, but it was good fun – despite me turning 50 in January – so let’s hope for even more excitement in 2016.

Have a great Christmas and a wonderful New Year and thank you so much for reading my wine page.

 

Wine Without Borders – travels in Slovenia & Friuli

Dobrovo perched on top of a terraced vineyard slope in Brda, Slovenia.

Dobrovo perched on top of a terraced vineyard slope in Brda, Slovenia.

Recently I was invited on a trip called Wines Without Borders. It was organised by my friend Paul Balke and we visited the wine regions of Colli Orientali, Collio and Friuli Isonzo in north eastern Italy and Brda, Vipava Valley and Koper in Slovenia.

Sketch map of the wine regions of Friuli and Western Slovenia. Border changes are also shown.

Sketch map of the wine regions of Friuli and Western Slovenia. Border changes are also shown.

The whole focus was that the modern borders of the area bear no relation to reality and are merely lines on a map that ignore the peoples and cultures that straddle them. I was aware that the Slovenian people are to be found on both sides of the frontier, although the ones in Italy are often outwardly Italian and speak Italian, at least to foreigners.

Vineyards in Colli Orientali.

Vineyards in Colli Orientali.

Most of what we now call Slovenia was for centuries part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and much of Slovenia remains very Austro-Germanic. Ljubljana, the delightful capital city – called Laibach in imperial times – was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1895 and was rebuilt in an Austrian style, so resembles parts of Vienna, Budapest and Prague. Most menus offer dumplings, schnitzel and cream cakes, while the inns and coffee houses often resemble those of Vienna. What’s more that great Austrian icon, the Lipizzaner Horse – of Vienna’s Spanish Riding School fame – has been bred at the Lipica Stud Farm in western Slovenia for over 400 years.

Piran looking out to sea.

Piran looking out to sea.

Piran main Square.

Piran Tartini Square was originally an inner harbour, boat trips leave from Piran for Venice every day.

Some of the western parts of Slovenia also have Italian influence, the coastal towns were all originally Venetian and rather charmingly still look it – Piran is one of the loveliest and most elegant seaside towns that I have ever visited. Even today people in these coastal zones often speak Italian, pasta is on every menu and the ice cream is as splendid as that in Italy itself.

As for Friuli in that north eastern corner of Italy, all of it together with Veneto had been in the old Austrian Empire until 1866. Right up until 1914 the border was a little further west than it is now. Trieste was Austria’s principal port – it still has an Austrian / Mitteleuropean feel – and further to the west Trentino-Atlo Adige (Südtirol) was still Austrian, infact the border cut through Lake Garda.

The First World War changed everything here. The Isonzo Front went right through the frontier zone between Italy and Austria, basically following the line of the river and the mountains, and the brutal fighting in these mountains was as hard as anything seen in Flanders. At the end of the war the Italians had seized Trentino-Alto Adige and the mixed Slovene / Italian city of Trieste. Both are still part of Italy today, while the western regions of what is now Slovenia – including the Istrian Peninsula – only remained Italian from 1919 before being handing over to Yugoslavia in 1947 before being inherited by Slovenia and Croatia in 1991.

After the Second World War Slovenia was a Republic within Tito’s Yugoslavia, and although the country was relatively liberal and outward looking by Eastern European standards – Yugoslavia was never part of the Warsaw Pact – the border was still strongly guarded.

This gave winemakers all sorts of problems as the border was drawn in such a way that it often cuts through vineyards, so many growers found themselves growing grapes in both Italy and Yugoslavia.

Nowadays of course both Italy and Slovenia are members of the EU, so the border is open and there are umpteen unguarded crossing points. Back then there were many fewer frontier posts and it was all more rigorously controlled, with growers having to drive hours out of their way in order to be able to tend grapes that grew only yards from their home. Anti Europeans often forget many of the good things that have come about because of the EU.

The border situation is most dramatic in Brda, which is arguably the most important wine region in Western Slovenia, it is certainly the most famous. Brda means hills in Slovenian and is simply a part of Italy’s Collio region that was detached when the border was fixed in 1947 – Collio means hills in Italian.

As you might expect they grow much the same grapes at the Italians grow in Collio and nearby Colli Orientali, although the names are not always the same:

Italian Name Slovenian name
Ribolla / Ribolla Gialla Rebula
Malvasia Malvazija
Refosco Refošk
Pinot Gris / Pinot Grigio Sivi Pinot
Friulano (formerly known as Tokaj) Sauvignonasse / Jakot (Tokaj backwards)
Pinot Noir / Pinot Negro Modri Pinot
Pinot Blanc / Pinot Bianco Beli Pinot

Of course they also use the classic international grapes like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and have done for centuries. Interestingly Cabernet Franc often appears on labels here, and indeed it is grown, but the grape actually used is very often Carmenère. Just as in Collio it is very hard to generalise about the wines as such a wide range of grape varieties and blends is used, but this does for make for very exciting variety.

Brda
Traditionaly this region is known as Goriška Brda after the local capital of Gorizia, which was awarded to Italy in 1947, so Tito’s regime built the replacement town of Nova Gorica right on the border. Strictly speaking Brda is a sub-region, or district, of the Primorje wine region. This means by the sea and the whole place enjoys a broadly Mediterranean climate. The sheer range of wines produced in Brda is quite bewildering, especially when you realise that the estates are all pretty small, normally between 4 and 20 hectares in size, many with vineyards on both sides of the border.

The beautiful vineyards of Brda.

The beautiful vineyards of Brda.

Looking north from Brda.

Looking north from Brda.

The general quality is very high indeed, even from the local cooperative which is the largest producer in Slovenia. Most of the producers though are boutique wineries using organic techniques and low sulphur in their wines. I was very impressed by Mavrič (a superb Jacot and Sivi Pinot), Iaquin (whose production is tiny but who own a couple of very attractive looking guest houses), Čarga (whose Rebula is superb, as is their Cabernet Franc which is actually 75% Carmenère) and Ščurek whose blends – both red and white – were great wines.

The view from the Belica Hotel. The building in the middle distance on the right is Movia. In the middle of the photo is a white building with a small road in front of it. That road marks the frontier.

The view from the Belica Hotel. The building in the middle distance on the right is Movia. In the middle of the photo is a white building with a small road in front of it. That road marks the frontier.

Wonderful home made sausage drying at the Belica Hotel, they make superb ham and cheese too.

Wonderful home made sausage drying at the Belica Hotel, they make superb ham and cheese too.

The lovely and popular terrace of the Belica Hotel in Brda.

The lovely and popular terrace of the Belica Hotel in Brda.

We also visited Movia, which is one of the star wineries of the country. The quality is very high and the wines are very exciting. I have been before, but this was a very different visit, so will write about it separately. We were also treated to a tasting of the wines of Marjan Simčič, who is a great winemaker who made some of the best wines that I tried on the trip. I have met him before and tasted his wines several times and they never cease to thrill me – I will write about him very soon too.

The other sub-regions of Primorje are: Koper, named for the beautiful town of the same name, this covers the coastal area and is the warmest and sunniest part of Slovenia. This coastal region – along with Kras – is where you find most of the Slovenian Refošk or Refosco. Just as with Malvasia, there appear to be several different Refoscos, which may or may not be related to each other – strangely it seems that the grape is also the Mondeuse Noire used in France’s Savoie Region. The low yielding Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso is the variant most commonly used in Friuli and is named for its red stems. Slovenia by and large uses the higher yielding Refosco dal Pedunculo Verde, which has green stems. Either of them might or might not be Teran when grown on Terra Rossa soils, or Teran might be a separate strain, sources disagree and I have not been able to find a definitive answer. Refosco has high acid and high tannins, so can appear somewhat rustic to the unwary palate. Modern winemaking can get around this and I have tasted some delicious examples from both Italy and Slovenia, I would particularly recommend the Refosco from Tenuta di Blasig in Friuli, the Refošk from Santomas in Koper and the Organic Refošk from the Polič Estate between Koper and the Croatian border.

Looking towards the city of Koper and Slovenia's tiny 46.6 kilometres (29 miles) of coastline.

Looking towards the city of Koper and Slovenia’s tiny 46.6 kilometres (29 miles) of coastline.

Sparkling pink Refosk aperitif at Viña Koper with Ann Samuelsen.

Sparkling pink Refošk aperitif at Viña Koper with Ann Samuelsen.

The Kras, or Karst, is a limestone plateau just inland from Trieste, it is riddled with cave systems and underground rivers and gives its name to this sort of landscape worldwide. A visit to the Postojna Caves is an incredible experience and one not to be missed. Henry Moore described them as ‘the best exhibition of nature’s sculpture I have ever seen’. Lipica Stud Farm is another attraction worth visiting in this area.

The soils here are iron rich red terra rossa and that iron minerality often finds its way in to the wines. The climate here is harsh and variable, storms are frequent and winds powerful, but the wines can be very rewarding. The beloved local speciality is Teran, which is a type of Refosco, as far as I can discover it is probably a local variant of the Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso (although it might not be) and as you might expect it is also produced in the neighbouring Italian Carso DOC. We did not visit any wineries in Kras on this trip, but I have been very impressed by the wines from Čotar in the past, especially their Cabernet Sauvignon and their Terra Rossa red blend of Teran, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Vipava Valley is a beautiful place just inland from the Kras and Koper. Strong winds rip through here, tempering the conditions and making a sub-Mediterranean climate and allowing them to make some stunning light and fresh white wines and some very elegant reds, including some made from the Barbera grape more commonly associated with Piemonte in north western Italy.

The beautiful Vipava Valley.

The beautiful Vipava Valley.

Vineyards in Vipava.

Vineyards in Vipava.

More beautiful Vipava scenery.

More beautiful Vipava scenery.

One of my very best experiences on this trip was a wonderful tasting and lunch in Vipava with a handful of generous and passionate wine makers who showed us some thrilling wines. The quality impressed me enormously, especially the wines from Sutor, Tilia Estate, Posestvo Burja (an organic producer that still makes the field blends that were the traditional style of the area until WW11), Lepa Vida (whose oOo is one of the most enjoyable Orange wines that I have ever tasted) and Guerrila who produce stunning white wines made from the local Zelen and Pinela grapes, as well as very toothsome red blends.

Looking down on the Isonzo River and across to the north west.

Looking down on the Isonzo River and across to the north west.

In Italy we visited the Isonzo area, which is basically an alluvial plain with the mountains to the north and east, beyond Goriza and Trieste. It is warm and sunny, but tempered by the winds and ocean breezes and the effects of the Isonzo River (Soča in Slovene). I was very impressed by all the wines of Tenuta di Blasig and some of the Pinot Grigios that I tasted. It is very unusual for me to like Pinot Grigio, but they just seem to have so much more character and interest here than the bland examples that most people drink in the UK. I particularly enjoyed the Pinot Grigio from Masùt da Rive.

Vineyards of Collio.

Vineyards of Collio.

Our little group in a vineyard in Collio.

Some of our little group in a vineyard in Collio.

Collio, or Collio Goriziano, is historically the same region as neighbouring Brda before the 1947 border split them up and the words mean the same things – hills. As you might expect both sides of the frontier are very hilly, but in a very attractive, gently rolling kind of way – it really is a delightful landscape. Just as in Brda the range of grape varieties and wines made from them is enormous, from both single varietals and blends, but production favours whites more than reds. Ribolla Gialla and Friulano might well be the signature grapes here, but both Pinot Grigio and Pinot Bianco are produced, as are Malvasia, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

Cooking the polenta in Collio.

Cooking the polenta at the Osteria de la Subida near Cormons in Collio.

The polenta is ready.

The polenta is ready.

I have never really warmed to Friulano, I have always considered it a very odd grape, it is certainly hard to pin down. Long known in Italy as Tocai or Tocai Friulano, it was likewise called Tokaj in Slovenia, but it has nothing to do with the Hungarian Tokaj at all. It is actually Sauvignon Vert or Sauvignonasse, which was widely planted in Chile where it was believed to be Sauvignon Blanc – it isn’t. Well you will be pleased to know that on this trip I did warm to the Friulano grape and had some splendid examples in every region that we visited, but perhaps my favourite was a single vineyard wine made by Raccaro, their Friulano Vigna del Rolat. I also greatly enjoyd the wines of Carlo di Pradis and Borgo del Tiglio.

Amphora like this are increasingly being used as fermentation vessels for orange wines in Collio.

Amphora like this are increasingly being used as fermentation vessels for orange wines in Collio.

We returned to Collio a few days later to stay in a place called San Floriano del Collio, which though in Italy had a view of our first hotel just 3 or 4 kilometres away in Slovenia. Whilst here we visited Oslavia a village a kilometre or 2 further south and it was a fascinating day. Firstly it was a very beautiful place, secondly all the ‘Italians’ that I met spoke Slovenian and thirdly the wines were fascinating. I must admit that I even found the name Oslavia interesting, surely that means place of the west Slavs? If so how amazing that it is about as west as Slavs can be found even today. The focus for this part of the trip was the local speciality of Ribolla Gialla, although we tasted other wines too. Ribolla is said to get its name from the fact that historically the wines were not very stable and would re-ferment, so bubble away and look as though they were reboiling. The grape is not very aromatic and can seem a bit strange when you first taste it, but there are some superb wines made from it.

Most of the wines that we tasted here were Orange wines, white wines made with long skin contact – hence the orange colour – they were also organic and often biodynamic and low sulphur too. I have to be honest, wines like that are not often for me, I usually find them more interesting than drinkable, but I did try a few here that were both. Fiegl’s wines impressed me, but these are the only ones here that were not Orange at all and instead had freshness and purity. The others were about the complexity of long skin contact and barrel ageing on the lees, sometimes for years. I was very impressed by Primosic, whose 2010 Klin was my wine of the day. Radikon also made an excellent Ribolla, which is officially a wine with no sulphur, as the amounts are so low they cannot be measured – I have never seen that before. I also liked their Slatnik blend of Chardonnay and Friulano. Dario Prinčič also makes a fascinatingly complex Orange style Ribolla.

Vineyards in Colli Orientali.

Vineyards in Colli Orientali.

Colli Orientali was an interesting place to visit too, if hard to get a handle on. It is a big place with lots going on. Lots of grape varieties and lots of blends are produced here too. Historically it has been seen as more prestigious than Collio and the wines were certainly more visible in the UK than those of Collio. One reason might be that this is often said to be the birthplace of varietal labelling, soon after World War 11, so the labels were easier to understand, who knows? Again this is mainly a white wine region, or at least the wines that have made it famous and prosperous tend to be white, but plenty of red is made too. Dry white wine production is dominated by Friulano, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and the local Verduzzo, the best of which now has its own DOCg Ramandolo. Picolit, another local grape variety, is used to make light sweetish wines.

Looking north from Colli Orientali.

Looking north from Colli Orientali.

Although plenty of famous black grapes are grown and red wine is made, the speciality red is Schioppettino. This grape variety was rescued from near extinction only in the 1980s and is enjoying something of a modest renaissance, which is good as the wines seem to be very good, with a lovely rich fruity quality, smooth texture and delicate spice characters.

Looking west from Colli Orientali.

Looking west from Colli Orientali.

We visited the rather lovely Azienda Agricola Moschioni where we were able to taste a wide range of local wines produced by them and other local wineries. I was very taken with the wines of Bastianich, particularly their Friulanos, white blend and incredibly concentrated Calabrone red blend. Rodaro‘s Schiopottino Romain made from dried, overripe grapes and aged 18 month in barrel was a delight, as was their intense Refosco dal Peduncolo Rossa Romain. I was also really impressed by the concentrated and spicy Moschioni Shioppettino.

P1120788

Looking down on the Isonzo from Mount Sabotin / Monte Sabotino. Some of the fiercest fighting of WW1 took place in this terrain.

A Wonderful Corner of Europe
I loved this trip to this wonderful part of the world that is somewhat neglected by tourists, certainly ones from the UK. I loved the countryside, I loved the people, their food, their wines and their spirit of hospitality. I even got the chance to clamber about in some of the First World War trenches high on Mount Sabotin / Monte Sabotino where some of the fiercest fighting took place between the Austro-Hungarians and the Italians. Ethnic Italians and ethnic Slovenes fought on both sides and today share this landscape in a peaceful, productive and creative way. So many things are better today, I just cross my fingers and hope that Europe does not revert back to the destructive ways of nationalism and formal borders. We all suffer if we do that. People suffer, our culture suffers, our pleasures diminish and wine will be the poorer.

I like my Wines Without Borders.

My Visit to the Movia Winery, Brda, Slovenia

Several centuries of history

We were driven over rolling hills to the village of Dobrovo. Down a tiny lane at the end of which was a beautiful stone manor house bearing the name Movia and the date 1820.

Movia Cellars

Movia Cellars

They have 15 hectares in Brda, seven in Italy and can blend these as they like, and sell the wine as produce of either country.

Because of heavy winter rainfall, and this year in summer too, the vineyards need to be terraced to avoid erosion. The soils are a variable mix of gravel, sand, and calcium-rich marl.

Esoteric Grapes

They grow an esoteric range of grapes:

White Grapes: Tokaj (Tocai Fruilani/Sauvignonasse); Sivi Pinot (Pinot Grigio/ Tokay-Pinot Gris); Sipon (Furmint) whose name is said to come from Napoleonic officers saying “C’est ci bon!”; Rebula (Ribolla Gialla/Robola); Beli Pinot (Pinot Bianco/Pinot Blanc); Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

Red grapes: Refosk (Refosco del Peduncolo Verde); Teran (Refosco del Pedun-colo Rosso); Modri Pinot (Pinot Noir); Cabernet Frank and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Winning over the politicians

From the cellars we climbed to a lovely terrace, the sun was now shining and the view of the vineyards superb. Ales told me that Tito had ordered all wineries to be collectivised and only the cooperatives could market wine. Kristancic refused and Tito came to see the place for himself. Being a bon viveur Tito tasted the wines, was convinced and Movia remained privately owned and in-dependent. The current Slovene President is a regular visitor and close friend; a couple of years ago he brought Bill Clinton there too.

On the terrace we were served a pair of sparkling wines. Movia Brut (Pinot Noir) 1998 was magnificent, bright coral pink with clean white persistent bubbles, almost froth. The flavour was a heady mixture of sweet ripe strawberry and dry aromatic spice from three years barrel aging. Wonderful wine, very complex and serious with crisp, clean raspberry-like acidity and a long finish.

Movia Brut (Chardonnay-Pinot Noir) 1998 followed and this was splendid too, beautifully balanced fruit and oak (only 30 months this time, but some barrel fermentation). The mousse was creamier here, very fine and very persistent. Perhaps on balance the pink was the finer, but both were very good.

A tasting banquet

Ales then invited us into his baronial dining room. The table was set as if for a banquet with a sparkling array of Riedel-style glasses and vast platters of prsut (prosciutto), salami and cheese produced on the estate. Not having had lunch I admit I tucked into these, which were delicious, as was the home- baked bread.

In the meantime, the cork man was determined to be a living Italian caricature, so he took it upon himself to do the pouring, dancing and singing his way around the table and thoroughly entertaining my sons. He considered it bad form to move on to the next wine before the last one was finished, so it took one and a half hours to taste three wines!

Back to serious tasting

Movia Veliko Belo 1998 Gorska Brda:

Randall Grahm please note this wine’s long established name translates as “big white”. It is a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, with a deep rich golden colour, flavours of figs, pithy grapefruit and a peachy/fleshy texture. This all contrasted perfectly with the cinnamon toast, vanilla and custard characters from three years in barrel. The Pinot Grigio gave a delicious light lift to the Chardonnay and produced a beautifully balanced wine.

Movia Chardonnay 1999 Gorska Brda:

This was 100% barrel fermented and spent 18 months in cask. Intrigued, I asked him when he had decided to plant Chardonnay, before independence, or had he seen the trend earlier. He laughed, it was well established here by 1820! This was an incredible, complex, rich and toasty wine. Very like old fashioned white Burgundy made by a man who has never tasted a new world Chardonnay. It was dry with lean fruit and an oily, spicy oak character rather than sweet and soft. It was superbly integrated, full and utterly delicious.

Finishing on a stunner

We had time for one more wine and Ales chose a stunner:

Movia Veliko Rdece 1995 Gorska Brda

Veliko Rdece translates as “Big Red” which is what it was! This is their flagship wine and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir. My, the nose was superb, spicy with sweet redcurrants and spice. The taste sensation was great, rich, full yet lean and fresh too. The tannins were firm enough to keep it perfectly balanced, but were soft and ripe too. Joyous red fruit mingled with umami /soy sauce characters; it was complex, fine, elegant and long.

And so, after a group dance enforced by the corkman, with a red rose in his lips, we headed back into Italy after this wonderful winery visit.

The Fascination of Slovenia

Before this visit I had no experience of Slovenia, so the wines had been a revelation. I have now made two visits and found the wines to be generally very good. As well as Movia I have enjoyed wines from the Goriska Brda cooperative (their Quercus range is particularly good, especially impressive as this by far the largest producer in the country), fine red blends from Kmetija Blazic, superb Sauvignon Blancs from Andrej and Mirko Kristancic’s (Movia’s cousins) Nando Estate and stunning passito-style Rebula from Ivan Batic.

Dare I confess to even having enjoyed a delightful Sivi Pinot from Ljutomer? Yes, that Ljutomer. All in all I found Slovenia to be an enjoyable and fascinating place.