- Tuesday 1 January 2002
You're going where?' she asked. 'To Slovenia,' I repeated. 'You're kidding?' she snickered. 'Where's that? Near Poland?' Actually, Slovenia is near Italy, Austria and Hungary. It is the northernmost part of what used to be Yugoslavia. Ravaged by war and poverty? Not at all. And that's not the half of it.
Slovenia has been an independent republic for just nine years. It is a prosperous sub-Alpine country of two million people, with the highest per capita Internet access in Europe. The country has been, over the past 1,000 years or so, occupied by Austrians, Italians and Yugoslavs. After so many centuries of subjugation, the electricity of freedom in the air is palpable.
Slovenia is 54% covered by forests, but much of the arable land is vineyard and wine is an important part of Slovenian culture. In fact, Slovenia is fourth among the countries of the world in per capita wine consumption. Slovenians consume 60 litres of wine each, not far behind the 66 litres slurped down by their Italian neighbours.
Wine has been made in this corner of Europe since Roman times and the country is presently home to more than 300 wineries. All but five percent of Slovenian wine is consumed domestically, but the fact that this energetic little country is set to join the EU in the next year or two has local winemakers getting ready for external markets. Yes, most Slovenian wine is relatively inexpensive, but what is interesting about it is its uniqueness and its quality. This isn't just another country making Chardonnay and Cabernet – Slovenia, like Austria to the north, has some unusual indigenous wines that set it apart. And there's more to it than Laski Rizling. Although a small country, Slovenia has three distinct wine regions: the coastal region, Primorska, adjacent to Italy and along the Adriatic coast; Posavje, in the south-central part of the country, near the Croatian border; and the largest area, the Podravje region, in the western part of the country, closer to Austria and Hungary.
Almost every place in Slovenia is within an hour or two of the charming capital city Ljubljana, which is in the centre of the country. To the west of Ljubljana is the Primorska region. Here the vineyards overlook the Adriatic and stream across the Italian border into Friuli. Grape varieties planted are similar to those found on the Italian side – Tocai Friulano, Pinot Gris (Grigio), Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Refosco. One of the best wineries in the area, Movia, run by brothers Ales and Mirko Kristacic, has vineyards on both sides of the border. Movia wines are exported and available in London and New York. Look for their aromatic Tocai, luscious Chardonnay, surprisingly lovely Pinot Noir and smooth, rich Merlots. The wines are all complex and beautifully made.
I visited Boris Lisjak in Dutovlje, a small vineyard town overlooking Trieste. Lisjak, a third-generation winemaker, specialises in Refosco, known locally as Teran. Although Lisjak is one of the best producers of this variety, I don't see Refosco becoming hot property on the international wine market. The problem is that no matter how ripe they get, the grapes pack an intense blast of astringent acidity.
Lisjak's other wines are of much more interest. His Cabernet Sauvignon 1995 is exceptionally fresh and loaded with intense plum fruit. Another excellent wine is Sara, a proprietary blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Teran. Ivan Batic's wine estate dates back to 1592. Seated in the courtyard of his handsome farmhouse I tasted six vintages of Chardonnay – 1993 to 1998. The wines are impressive with modern style and lovely balance. Batic also produces lush Pinot Gris, rich Sauvignon Blanc and a stunning red blend that is mostly Merlot, with Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon completing the blend.
One of the biggest wineries in the region is Vinakoper in Koper, right on the Adriatic. Slovenia has only 42kms of coastline, but the area is thick with vineyards. Most impressive among Vinakoper's fresh and well-made wines are the Pinot Gris, dry Malvasia, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon – especially a dazzling reserve by the name of Capo d'Istria which spends a year in new French oak. Vinakoper exports 10% of its production, much of it to Germany. The Vipava Valley is part of the coastal wine region, but produces wines that are less Mediterranean in style. Located between two mountain ranges, there are 1,943 hectates of vineyard, a quarter of the total Slovenian production.
The cooler upper valley grows Malvasia, Welschriesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinela and Ribola; the lower valley specialises in Chardonnay, Barbera, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. There are 17 village appellations in all in Vipava and most of the fruit grown there ends up at the large Vipava Valley cooperative. One Vipava winery in particular that impressed me is Tilia.
The Sava basin southeast of Ljubljana is very different from the coastal region. The topography is more hilly and it is much more heavily wooded. The wines produced here have more affinity with central Europe than they do for the Mediterranean. Varieties include Modra Frankija (Blaufränkish), Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Traminer, Neuburger and Yellow Muscatel. I spent several hours watching a sunny afternoon turn to evening and tasting wines with Janez Sekoranja, whose Graben vineyard is legendary in the region. Deep in a wooded eyrie, his vineyards dip and tumble down steep hillsides. We tasted 18 wines, most of them white. They are extraordinary.
Sekoranja grows 20 different varieties and makes small lots of more than 50 wines. Many are dramatic late-harvest wines with high residual sugars, but the most amazing wine I tasted was a 1995 Traminer that had no sugar and yet bursts with fruit sweetness. Nearby, Istenic makes remarkably refined sparkling wines. A former football goalie, Istenic named his top wine 'No 1' after his jersey number. His wines, made mostly with Chardonnay, are smooth, creamy and elegant.
A popular wine in this area is Cvicek, a light red wine with low alcohol and dry, crisp flavours. Although not exportable, this charming, fresh wine is consumed in large quantities in this region.
Moving north from Posavje, I entered the Drava basin. This prolific region is just south of the great Styrian area of Austria, and the wines here are aromatic and spicy. I visited Haloze, a large winery located in the city of Ptuj on the banks of the Drava. This winery produces more than 300,000 cases per year and boasts a lengthy list of white wines. I was quite impressed with a demi-sec Sauvignon Blanc and an equally luscious Rhine Riesling. The winery also makes excellent Traminer and Laski Rizling (Riesling Italico).
In Maribor, further up river, I tasted the wines of Vinag, which has a reputation as one of Slovenia's best wineries. After a selection of excellent aromatic white wines, I was shown a tall half-bottle with a handmade ceramic label. Inside was a botrytised 1995 Renski Rizling (Rhein Riesling), a silky, luscious wine with an astonishing 35% residual sugar and a core of firm, crisp acidity. It was one of the greatest dessert wines I have ever tasted and a fitting climax to my week in Slovenia.
On the plane the next day, I looked over my tasting notes. Not only were the scores high, the wines were unusual, well-made and very inexpensive. Does the world need yet another wine region? Need? Maybe not. But what a pity if these great wines didn't get the international audience they deserve. Incidentally, in talking exclusively about the wines of Slovenia, I have neglected some of the other delightful aspects of this newly minted country. Slovenia is beautiful and unspoiled, without being backward or uncomfortable. And the scenery in all parts of the country is glorious.
Although the Slovenian language is essentially impenetrable, virtually everyone speaks English. And the Slovenians love wine and good food. Indeed, the restaurants are a pleasant surprise. From the Italian style seafood of the Adriatic coast to the hearty and delicious food in the countryside, I ate exceptionally well at very moderate cost. In fact, Slovenia is one of the world's true travel bargains, and one of its most interesting new wine regions. Watch this space.