I really like going to Slovenia, it’s a beautiful country with lots of different 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
2014 Guerila Pinela
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.
2012 Guerila Cuba
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.
2014 Petite Burja Zelen
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
2013 Burja Bella
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.
2009 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.
2006 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 unfined 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.
2013 Polič Organic Refošk
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, malt 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.