An Introduction to Slovenian Winemaking
Slovenia is a small, green country with a lot of beautiful mountains. Its land is rich, yields incredible food, and remains affordable when compared to neighbouring countries. Our wines are a great reflection of all these things. Slovenia may still be a small wine producing country, but it has an extremely rich winemaking culture that gets passed on from generation to generation. These wines are truly the wines of the soil they come from. People in Slovenia may not have customarily drank clean wines. To them a sauvignon must taste like a sauvignon. Going with skin contact or opting out of conventional yeast and sulphur to control fermentation were not always standard choices. But the philosophy of the Slovenian winemaking regions has been steadily moving towards going natural, especially on estates taken over by the next generation in the family. The younger generation travels to explore what’s out there, but they also grew up around winemaking and know the lands that their forefathers cultivated over the years. They know how nature shifts, acknowledge changes in climate and know how important it is to act accordingly. More and more, they believe that nature gives you the freedom to do whatever you want with it. It’s up to you to choose whether to respect it or not and to understand the outcome of your choices.
My Wine Philosophy
Before we dig deep into the natural side of winemaking in Slovenia, I want to clear the air about the fact that a wine always comes back to each winemaker’s style, philosophy and the harvest at hand. There’s no right or wrong and I am not blindly against adding sulphur to a wine if it’s in minimal amounts and only when necessary. If you had a perfect harvest where your wine ended up with high acidity, healthy tannins and perfect structure, your grapes pretty much did the job on their own.
The Best Time to Visit
Slovenia has three winemaking regions – Primorska, Posavje and Podravje – and each region has different subregions. I recommend visiting between May and the end of June: that’s when the winemakers have the least work to do in the vineyards and you get to spend more time with them. They can often host you in their homes around the vineyards or direct you to where to stay. The harvest generally starts in August but most grapes are harvested in September. The bottles are usually ready to sell in February or March and that’s when the families are busy putting labels on and dealing with logistics.
Welcome to Primorska, Slovenia’s Largest Winemaking Region
The Primorska region is Slovenia’s biggest and most famous winemaking region. It has an ideal climate and conditions for wines to succeed and produces fresh whites and fresh reds as well as some powerful, full-bodied red wines. Primorska has many subregions, from the Goriška Brda to Karst to the Vipava Valley: all of them have good winemakers who have been working in synchrony with the environment to produce wonderful wines that have found their ways to top cellars around Europe. There are a lot of hotels and apartments in Primorska that cater to wine travellers. Farm Butul is a really nice place to stay. Everything it does is incredible. It’s got a beautiful small restaurant on the farm and serves really local food, most of which is from a zero-kilometre radius. It also produces its own wines mostly for consumption at the farm. While in Primorska, you should also eat at restaurant Rizibizi, which has an elegant fresh fish offering and a really good choice of local wines. It also has a beautiful view of the Slovenian coast.
One of My Favourite Subregions in Primorska
You cannot possibly explore all of these subregions in one trip, so I will focus on the ones that I have been looking forward to the most, starting with Slovenska Istra. It overlooks the coast on the border shared with Croatia. It may come as a surprise that we have a small Adriatic coastline of about 45 kilometres on the south-western side of the country near the Gulf of Trieste. Around that coast, high up the hills are some of the best vineyards, where the grapes enjoy high sun exposure: summers are hot and winters are not too cold. Slovenska Istra is famous for its excellent refosco. White malvazija is also planted there, as well as muskato plus a little bit of French grapes such as merlot. Due to the higher temperatures up there, the muskato is harvested late, usually in November when it’s a little colder and the sugar content is high, producing a wine that is either sweet or demi-sec.
A Patient Winemaker That Listens to Nature
There are two winemakers I’d like to mention in Slovenska Istra, both of whom focus a lot on the territory they’re in and produce the same grape varieties. Uroš Klabjan is a very patient winemaker. His approach is that of a simple farmer who listens to and studies the environment that is given to him every year. Based on that, he decides what to do with the wine. He’s probably the only winemaker I know who never experiments with new processes, but still produces outstanding organic wines with relatively short skin maceration, spontaneous fermentation, and ageing in Slovenian oak barrels only when necessary.
The Cowboy Winemaker of Slovenska Istra
Uroš Rojac is the total opposite of Uroš Klabjan. He’s extremely open to new things and does whatever he thinks it will make his wine taste better. You could call him the cowboy of Slovenian winemaking. His nonconformist approach is pushing Slovenian winemaking. He plays a lot with his grapes. He produces a large quantity of a young malvazija, but also produces a malvazija from his oldest vineyards which he puts in amphoras for five years after one month of skin contact. He specialises in refosco and earned a diploma in this grape in 2005. Refosco was once that cheap wine you found in every store in Slovenia. Rojac wanted to make a different kind of refosco and started to harvest the grapes in late November when they were dehydrated and covered in botrytis (noble rot). He picked what was left, aged the wine for four years in barriques and produced what he now calls Renoro, the king of red wines. He was not allowed to call it refosco since it did not meet the regulations for that variety. This Renero is a demi-sec, with nearly 15 percent alcohol and very high acidity. It really caused a commotion up there. Nonetheless it had a stunning energy, stunning acidity and a beautiful expression of red fruit, chocolate and leather. It’s such a powerful wine that I can only handle one glass of it.
The Most Delicate Wines in Karst
The same grapes that flourish in Slovenska Istra flourish in the Kras (Karst), another exciting subregion of Primorska. The difference in Karst is that the alcohol levels are much lower and you will never see a wine with an alcohol content above 14 percent. In Karst, Marko Fon only produces 8000 bottles of wine a year and sells it all to those he trusts are buying it for the right reasons. You need to have visited him numerous times to understand his world and for this trust to be built. Marko is a very humble, very discreet and very sensitive guy, and his wines are exactly the same. Marko is very emotional about the ecosystem he’s in and describes his vines as he would a woman. He refers to his malvazija as his lover who survives in the rocks, not requiring much soil. His vitovska is his anti-lover: always fighting for a balance of rock and soil. Then there’s teran, which thrives exclusively in soil and reflects the minerality of his land. His malvazija wines expose the structure of the limestone distinctive to Karst. This is why it is mostly suitable for the production of white wines. The malvazija vineyards that Marko owns are 30 to 60 years old and he rents a few more from families with a lot of land but no time to care for them. He truly believes that wine is a reflection of how well you’ve taken care of the vineyard it came from. Any intervention past that point is only when necessary. He makes wines that have elegance written all over them.
The Cool Climate Wines of Posavje
Posavje is another big winemaking region known for its cooler climate. This region is close to the Croatian border and mostly produces sparkling and sweet wines. Its climate allows for grapes like pinot noir to prosper, but it is particularly famous for traminec, muskato, pinot grigio and some merlot. Bizeljsko the subregion of Posavje I want to focus on because Keltis, one of my favourite wineries, is there. Miha Kelhar runs it today and took it over from his father Marijan about 10 years ago. The father had dedicated his life to caring for the vines and his philosophy was always to listen to the grapes. He left the son with exceptional vineyards to work with. Miha discovered natural wines by coincidence and describes that discovery as a one-way highway that, once you’ve crossed, you can’t turn around from. Miha’s curiosity about the process of making these types of wines led him to initially dedicate one of the five hectares of land to low-intervention experimentation since the family’s livelihood depended on this trade. He has been making wines this way for the last five years and is one of the youngest Slovenian winemakers taking this approach today.
A Hobbyist Winemaker Doing Great Things in Bizeljsko
Roland Lipej was a totally unknown guy and a nice discovery I made a couple of years ago. He lives in Germany but spends dreamy weekends on his one-hectare vineyard in Bizeljsko. Lipej doesn’t have any animals on the land – a rule of thumb for most local winemakers because animals work and fertilise the land – but he experiments with spontaneous fermentation. He bought some barrels and started to produce wines just for him and his friends. The wine got better and better and he decided to make it official three years ago under the label Lipej. He only produces 600 bottles: pinot noir and chardonnay, mostly, as well as a pétillant naturel.
The Best Place to Eat and Stay in Bizeljsko
Repovž is my favourite place to eat local food in a casual setting in the entire country and it happens to be in the Bizeljsko subregion of Posavje. It’s a family-run business and everyone is there to serve you, from the parents to their three sons and daughter. Their hospitality is warm, they are really good at listening to you and know what they’re doing. The restaurant was beautifully refurbished recently and has 10 rooms for guests. This place gives me everything I could possibly want from the moment I enter to the moment I exit. They’re located in a cosy farm village which is part of the whole experience. Their vegetables, meat and animal products are from farmers within a 20-kilometre radius. The food is simple, but they try to give it modern flair. The cellar focuses on local flavours and the wines are great. If Repovž is one face of phenomenal dining in Slovenia, Hiša Franko would be the other. If you have to eat in only two restaurants in Slovenia it would be those two. If I say that Hiša Franko is the best restaurant in the world, I wholeheartedly mean it and I believe that it will be known as that one day.
“One of the Purest Guys in Slovenian Natural Winemaking”
No trip to the Podravje region is complete without a visit to Aci Urbajs in the Štajerska subregion. The name means “organic anarchy” as the maker [Žiga Urbajs] is indeed an anarchist who lives in the small world he’s built for himself high up a hill in the ancient settlement of Rifnik. The man is like a lone wolf in his forest, living almost like a hobbit. He was the first winemaker to not use additional sulphur in his wines and struggled a lot between 2000 and 2010, but has now become quite famous in Slovenian winemaking. He started producing wines in 1997 from the grapes that his father had planted [Urbaj’s father started making wine in 1990 and his grandfather purchased his first vineyard in 1969]. His vineyards are located on a rough, downward-slanting hill that’s difficult to walk let alone use machinery on. All you see there are people and horses, so everything is done by hand. The water up there is some of the purest mineral water you’ll ever taste. In Štajerska, 90 per cent of the grapes are basically the classic, sweet grapes that we know in the world. Žiga intended to mostly bottle cuvées with laški riesling, chardonnay, pinot grigio and kerner for white, and a small production of pinot noir and blaufränkisch for red. He has a rather basic approach of one month of skin contact and one year in oak: that’s it. His wines contain less than five milligrams of sulphur. You have to try them with an open mind as they almost taste like mosto (grape juice). Classic wine drinkers say that the wine is not ready, that it didn’t go through its full fermentation or that it wasn’t properly aged. But that’s the magic. Once you accept the philosophy of the winemaker, you can love it even if it’s not the wine you want to drink every day. A visit to Aci Urbajs was actually my first experience with natural wines in Slovenia and I still consider it one of the cleanest wines we have. It’s the kind of bottle you open that makes you feel wonderful. I’ve never had a bad experience with this guy. He remains one of the purest guys in Slovenian natural winemaking for me, with so much respect for the nature around him.
Making Wine According to Cosmic Cycles
Radovan Šuman is another winery in the Štajerska subregion of Podravje, with vineyards on a sunnier territory. Rado swears by cosmic cycles in winemaking and is extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about them. He literally calculates everything. He has two cuvées called Sun Drops and Moon Drops. He says that making a great wine is merely an act of preserving what nature gives you. He grows a lot of grape varieties: rieslings, chardonnay, traminec, rumeni muscat, pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc and only a bit of pinot noir because it’s really difficult to make it work in such a climate. They remind me of the French grapes that fight to make it naturally into your glass.
The Master of Winemaking in Štajerska
Božidar Zorjan is the zen master of winemaking in Štajerska. He’s a world of knowledge and wisdom. He believes that nature is already perfect and that us humans are responsible for the imperfections. To him, this applies to winemaking as well in that human intervention produces something completely different from what nature intended. In 1987, Božidar became the first Slovenian winemaker to import amphoras from Georgia to Slovenia. He started producing wine this way around 2002 or 2003 with rein riesling, welschriesling, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and a cuvée of rieslings and muskat ottonel that’s always aged for six months in amphorea buried in soil. Before the harvest begins in autumn, he transfers the wine from the amphoras to Slovenian oak barrels to rest for three years. He believes that after three years, the yeast has done its work and has nothing to further develop in the wine and that’s when it’s ready. He applies this to all of his wines. He is one of the important members of the Demeter Biodynamic Federation in Slovenia. If someone wants to join this group, they need to abide by his terms. What goes into the soil is picked up in the roots, and what’s picked up in the roots ends up in your grape and hence in your glass and in your body. Božidar doesn’t speak English or German so if you want to maximise your experience with him, it’s best that you’re accompanied by someone who can translate.
Dining With the Vračko Brothers
For me, the most important things in a dining experience are for the food to be honest; the wine to be spot on; and the service to have a sense of humour. I like to feel at ease but also a little amused. I’m never disappointed when I go to restaurant Mak in Štajerska. You might find that chef-owner David Vračko is an absolute lunatic. He gives you the impression of being an outlaw who you fear may kill you with a chainsaw in his backyard. It’s always fun to see him and to see what he’s done with the menu. His dining experience is like an art show. I’m not going to give away too much, just that you have to listen and watch without any resistance. He also has about five rooms for guests to stay. His brother, Gregor Vračko, runs another restaurant with 10 rooms for guests. He is also a bit funky but less crazy for sure. His restaurant Hiša Denk is more elegant and serves German-Austrian cuisine.
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