Andrew Jefford reports from the first International Rebula Masterclass.
One of the wine dreams of our age is the white which behaves like a red. Which would have, in other words, a structural presence, a texture, a depth and a frame of reference altogether different, and perhaps altogether grander, than the conventional whites we know.
Orange wines are an enquiry into this possibility, but not the only one; it is also possible to make white wines of conventional hue which move away, in terms of their allusions, from fresh fruits, flowers and green leaves towards that which is deeper, earthier, mealier, more savoury.
You could say that the new dream overlaps at that point with a more familiar one: the search for the ‘new Chardonnay’. Not the quest to find a new quasi-universal white varietal of almost limitless adaptability, but the quest to find a variety capable, in favoured zones, of surrendering white wines which can attain (over an ageing trajectory) the kind of sumptuous, banquet-like complexity of white burgundy.
Are these just dreams?
Well, that would be enough: we need dreams to carry us forward. But a handful of truly interesting indigenous varieties perfectly adapted to their sites can indeed suggest such a possibility. Somewhere near the top of that short list, for me, comes Rebula (its Slovenian name) or Ribolla Gialla (as it’s called in Italy). I had the chance to fall in love with it all over again at the end of August this year — when the inaugural International Rebula Masterclass took place in Brda.
It’s an ancient variety, first mentioned in the twelfth century in an ecclesiastical squabble. Ever since then, everyone who has made wine in the seamless scallop-shell of hills known in Italy as Collio and in Slovenia as Brda has understood, through all the vicissitudes of fashion, that this was the great variety of the place. Tax records show that it has always made the region’s priciest wines. Another clue to the respect with which it was regarded in the past is the recent discovery of a historic vineyard classification which separates local sites into no fewer than nine different quality categories.
“In the mid-1970s,” remembered Saša Radikon, “my grandfather wanted to retire. He said to my father, ‘You can have everything: the farm, the land, the equipment. There’s only one condition: you have to keep planting Ribolla’”. “There have been tough years,” recalls Aleks Simčič of Edi Simčič, “when Rebula was very hard to sell. So we drank most of it ourselves.”
It’s now principally a dry wine, but throughout most of the last eight centuries it has been sweet, a Habsburg treat. It still occupies around a quarter of the best vineyards of this intensely planted area, and is locally considered the perfect variety to act as a vehicle for the kind of scents and flavours which can evoke the flysch soils in which it grows (called ponca in Italian and opoka in Slovenian: layered sedimentary deposits of sandstone and marl). Like many ancient varieties, it has a lot of clonal diversity.
There are two astonishments about it. The first is that it produces truly high-quality white wines, though sometimes in so disconcerting and original a manner that its qualities have yet to be universally recognised by the wine world at large. If you’re already a fan of Rebula or Ribolla, you’re ahead of the curve.
The second astonishment is that it can be treated in a wide variety of different ways in vinification – successfully. Some producers (like Medot and Erzetič) use it for sparkling wines, and others to make conventional whites of nuanced fruit character, while the avant-garde drive the variety forwards towards horizon-altering essays in the Three Ts: terroir, texture and time. This spectrum of expressive potential is very rewarding for growers and winemakers to work with.
I should also add that it is a fine food white, and that good examples are exceptionally satisfying to drink. I chatted with one of the Masterclass moderators after the event – Gašper Čarman of Slovenian online retailer eVino, who works both as a sommelier and a wine importer. “I had some very wealthy Germans in the restaurant last week and they wanted to drink fantastic wines – Latour, Masseto and so on. They also ordered some top white burgundies, so I insisted they also tried Marjan Simčič’s Ribolla Opoka, and then I just watched the glasses afterwards. I don’t know if they were paying a lot of attention — but the Ribolla Opoka glasses emptied more quickly than the white burgundy ones.” Serve Rebula/Ribolla, by the way at between 12˚C and 14˚C, exactly like fine white burgundy.
The Masterclass offered some outstanding tasting opportunities both of young wines and of some historic vintages, too. Here are notes for fifteen of the best wines shown on the day.
Rebula, Dolfo 2016
Marko Skočaj’s makes very fresh, dry, pristine and invigorating Rebula wines. This is pungent and sappy in scent, with finely balanced, vivid yet vinous flavours in which you might pick out lemon, liquorice, verbena, and a saline edge. 90
Amfora Belo, Erzetič 2011
An older wine made with 20 per cent Pinot Blanc with six months post-fermentation amphora maceration and a total of 18 months on lees, this is deep gold in colour. The scents suggest forest and library, while the wine is lighter in style than either the colour or the vinificatory approach suggested it would be: long, elegant, finally grippy. 90
Rebula Época, Ferdinand 2007
A mature wine, from two south-facing vineyards planted at over 200m. Rich gold in colour, with nourishing scents of bread, mushrooms, gentle apricot and straw. Soft, comely, harmonious, supple and rounded, just turning a little grippier towards the finish. Perfect maturity now. 93
Rumena Rebula, Brda, Keber 2014
A vineyard field blend containing 50 per cent stems, this is deep gold in colour, with the scents of seashore and woodland. There’s plenty of bite and strike on the palate. 91
Rebula Bagueri, Klet 2013
A softer style than some with a round, succulently fruity style: grass, plant sap, cardamom and exotic fruits (bottled with just under 5 g/l residual sugar). There’s an Alsace-like or Wachau-like feel to this version. 92
Ribolla Gialla, Gravner 2009
Gravner’s extraordinary rigour (everything is fermented in clay amphorae from Georgia, then given six years in large Slavonian oak tuns) is legendary, and tasting this wine, as well as the 2008 and 2007, made me realise that these wines are in a way investigations into time itself, as fine Madeira is. The scents are quiet and harmonious; most of the wine’s aromatic intricacy, in fact, is palpable in the mouth rather than the nose (though this may change with time in the glass). The palate is complex and refined: dark, grippy, with notes of root spice and meat stock (there is often an umami quality to fine Ribolla). The wine has a succulence, but time has engraved a bite into it as well. Searching, long, pure: wine refined and tempered by the passing of the years, and thus much less ‘varietal’ than some of its peers. 94
Ribolla Gialla Riserva, Gravner 2003
Yes, this is the latest vintage of Gravner’s Riserva, a wine produced from old vines planted in 1915 and 1953, and given a further seven years in bottle in addition to the six in cask. Interestingly, the extra time in bottle seems to liberate further aromatic refinements, and this wine also had a subdued fruited wealth which wasn’t been apparent on the later vintages. The root spice and finely buffed tannins were joined, here, by essences of apricot, apple and grape. What are initially low acid wines acquire an acid force by dint of the long ageing process, and the final effect (with those tannins and fruit essences) is almost dervish-like in its energy. Unique and unforgettable. 95
A ultra-rare Gravner dessert Ribolla blended from three separate vintages, each of which naturally produced some botrytised fruits. The russet-walnut colour has the green glints of Madeira, and the scents recall polished furniture and fruit attics. Fruity and rich in that subtle, nourishing style so typical of Ribolla: grape, apple, hazels, and just a tickle of tannin to bring some sobriety. Choicely historical. 93
Rebula, Vecchia Contea — Stara Grofija, Jermann 2016
Collio-based Jermann, a great believer in the cross-border ideal cherished in this Schengen-loving region, produces some of the most luxurious yet subtle of Ribolla wines. They age superbly, as the Vinnae versions from 2011 and 2009 vintages (bottled under screwcap) prove. (Vinnae is a blend of Ribolla Gialla with 5 per cent each of Friulano and Riesling.) This 2016 wine is a pure Rebula from a single vineyard in Višnjevik in Slovenia (from young vines growing at around 150 m) and will probably be released under the Vecchia Contea label in 2018; it gets three days’ cold soak. Subtle, creamy, plant-sap and seaweed notes mark both the aromatic and flavour profiles; there’s a fine honeyed sweetness, too, and a soft textural wealth; plenty of ageing potential ahead. 93
Ribolla Gialla, Radikon 2010
Saša Radikon is surely one of the most accomplished of Europe’s orange wine producers: committed, thoughtful, honest, practical. Not only that, but Ribolla has great potential if vinified in this way. The 2010 is the latest release (4 months on skins, with two years in oak and two in bottle): spiced citrus, a creamy thickness, a savoury tension. Grippy and authoritative on the palate, with a note of balsamic excitement. 92
Rumena Rebula, Medot 2016
Another example of Rebula in a primary, fresh, focussed style: lemon, beech leaf, apple, verbena, and almost an exotic fruit note towards the end. The screwcap closure adds to the primary pungency. 89
Rumena Rebula, Ščurek 2016
From three different vineyards, and given eight hours of skin maceration and five months of lees contact, this is perfumed, creamy and layered: honeysuckle and mango. It’s textured without being notably tannic; both faintly saline and faintly sweet; there’s lots of finesse on the finish. 92
Rebula, Edi Simčič, Goriska Brda 2012
This wine, served from magnum, comes from one of Brda’s most consistent wineries; the grapes are grown at around 150 metres. A rich gold in colour, with sweet, fresh, lively scents. On the palate, it is grippy, invigorating, succulent yet austere: pounded stone and moist earth. Allusions? Maybe a little apricot, apple and walnut – but they are really not the point here. 93
Ribolla Opoka, Marjan Simčič, Goriska Brda 2014
This is the current vintage of Marjan Simčič’s top Ribolla, following on from the DWWA Gold-Medal-winning 2013; we also looked at older vintages back to the outstanding 2009, in fine fettle now. The wine is made from 62-year-old vines growing at between 200 and 250 metres in flysch soils. Marjan Simčič uses a small percentage of stems, and the wines spend 23 months on lees, with ageing for eight months each in both large wooden tuns and then barrels. Full gold in colour, with subtle countryside scents: earth, mushroom, protein. On the palate, the wine is deep, savoury, structured and full. Primeval, elemental and satisfying, suggesting cheese, grain and plant sap, with just a little soft orchard fruit, too. A saline finish. Ample, complex and deep, without any crispness at all; mellow and enfolding on the tongue: magnificent food wine. 94
More Andrew Jefford columns on Decanter.com:
Jefford on Monday: The advent of AdVini
Jefford on Monday: Forward in doubt – An interview with Gaia Gaja
Jefford on Monday: The ethnologist in the cellar
Jefford on Monday: Britain’s Brexit hangover