Slightly Eccentric Beginners’ Guide to Slovenian Wine
When in Slovenia…. drink as the Slovenians do… because they have a range of excellent wines.
I’d never tried any Slovenian wines, I needed to learn and so, while in Ljubljana, I enrolled on a wine tour.
What a piece of luck! It turned out that I was the only one on the course so I had the ‘tutor’ all to myself. Andrej Mežnarčič arrived, sweating slightly and still in his bike gear as he’d just come from running the bike tour, but he turned out to be very knowledgeable on wine, despite, he told me with what I came to recognise as his delightfully dry sense of humour, four years at agricultural college.
Of greater use, he commented more seriously were several subsequent years spent working at Grad Otočec – a luxury castle hotel on a small island in the middle of the Krka River. Andrej had a wicked sense of humour, explaining to me that his big career break (‘moving into Dante’s inner circle’ as he liked to put it) came when they made him dress up as a medieval knight in a costume made for a man twice his size. No one else would do it he told me – it made his name…and got him noticed.
But what of the wine? He explained that we would go to three different places, each offering samples of each of the three main wine growing regions in Slovenia.
The Podravska wine region (named after the Drava river which runs through it)
This region is composed of Prekmurje and Štajerska Slovenija.
This area in the north-east produces sweet white wines.
To introduce me to some wines from this region Andrej took pity on my torn and blistered feet and ushered me into the funicular to take me up to Ljubljana’s famous castle. There’s a famous restaurant there – Strelec – situated in the archers’ tower of the castle. The restaurant, unsurprisingly considering its location, is in the super-luxury bracket, so we didn’t actually go in. Instead a smart waiter was waiting for us in an arched anti-chamber flanked by statues of St Urban (patron saint of wine growers) and St Martin whose feast day is on 11 November. According to tradition, this is the day when must turns into wine, and it’s a day celebrated enthusiastically throughout Slovenia.
There were a couple of bar snacks and three different wines.
This was a sparkling wine which I rather liked. I was told that it tasted a bit like a caramelised baked apple, and I thought that wasn’t a bad description. However, I think I mostly liked it was because it was boiling hot and this champenoise was refreshingly cold!
Steyer DT Traminer
I have to admit that I am not a fan of white wine, particularly not the sweeter types. Steyer Traminer is really a kind of Gewürztraminer made by the Steyer family. In Slovenia Gewürztraminer is known as Dišeči traminec – hence the ‘DT’ on the bottle. The label was white – which meant it was an ‘every day’ wine. Black-labelled wine is kept longer, in oak barrels. This one was medium sweet…soft. It would pair well is some Oxford Isis cheese.
This wine is made from Šipon grapes – the name originating from Napoleonic soldiers who commented “c’est si bon” while they were drinking it, although the grapes themselves have been cultivated in Slovenia since the Romans. It is also sometimes known as ‘furmint’. Thiswas a pretty lively wine, I thought, fresh…a bit fruity…quince and lemon I was advised. It’s made by Verus, relatively new vine producers in Slovenia.
The Primorska wine region
This region is composed of Slovenska Istra, Kras, Vipavska Dolina, and Goriška Brda (often known as a little Tuscany).
It’s a Mediterranean region, producing earthy reds. It borders Italy, and Italian influence in terms of architecture, food, language….and viticulture is strong. It’s the best known and most developed of Slovenia’s wine regions.
The second place Andrej took me to, Movia, was a characterful old, wood-panelled wine bar blessed with a notably grumpy waitress. Movia, and the Movia winery is owned by the family of Dušan Kristančič, a man who one local described to me as “a slightly controversial person, extremely popular with girls and a very successful business man from the Goriška Brda region”.
The Movia estate, which dates back to 1700, straddles the Slovenian-Italian border with land in the Goriška Brda region in both nations. The vineyards are in low-lying, gentle slopes, where the soil is mostly flysch. We had one white and two red wines here, one of the reds was a bit thin, the other not bad. Most of wines from the Goriška Brda region are made from merlot, chardonnay, cabernet, and pinot grigio; as well as ribula – the principal local grape (ribolla gialla in Italian), which is also used to make sparkling wine, known as penina.
Orange wine – Movia Ambra Sivi Pinot Grigio
Then Andrej started talking to me about orange wine. I know it’s been all the rage, and now a bit old hat, but the whole thing has somehow passed me by. I’d never tried any so, although it wasn’t part of the tour we had some of that too (I had to pay extra). I found it, rather to my surprise very pleasant, and Andrej explained it was quite mild and soft (it’s the acidity of white wine that I find hard to take).
“Just like great Barolo, truly great orange wines, like the ones recommended here, have tension, lift and power. In a world full of blandness and uniformity, they are less the emperor’s new clothes, more the adventurer’s new playground.”
Simon Woolfe, Decanter
Orange wine is also known as amber wine, or ‘skin-contact’ wine because it’s made from white wine grapes – AND their skins (as opposed to the normal method of white wine production which just uses the grape juice). The skin may be left in the juice for months. It’s the opposite to what happens with red wine (where contact with the grape skin is essential) – if you try to make wine with red wine grapes with only the juice, you will end up with rosé.
Orange or amber wine is so called because the grape skin contains pigments which tinge it a gorgeous blush colour. The name orange wine was originally coined by David Harvey, of UK wine importer Raeburn Fine Wines, as he needed a term to describe wine produced by this methodology…as opposed to other colour-defined wines…red, white, and rosé.
However, the grape skin doesn’t just endow the wine with colour – it also donates tannins…too much of this can make wine taste a bit sour (see the section on tannins in Beginners’ Guide to French Wine at Ô Château) but I have a theory that they may also take away some of the acidity of traditional white wine.
Most orange wine is made (and has been made for centuries) in Slovenia, Italy and Georgia…with some production now beginning in California.
My wine was made out of Pinot Grigio grapes, but Ribula (Ribolla Gialla in Italian) grapes make some of the best orange wine – and these grapes grow particularly well in the microclimate in Goriška Brda.
“Orange wines were my get-out-of-jail-free card. We had a chef who would switch from fish to meat and back again on a tasting menu and orange wines paired effortlessly with every course.”
Former sommelier Levi Dalton, quoted in Decanter
They may go well with most things, but Movia, the producers of Ambra Sivi Pinot Grigio comment that it goes particularly well with oily fish – mackerel or eel for example.
There is an orange wine festival held annually in April – follow this link for more information.
After all this enjoyable discussion we were running a bit late, and our next port of call had rung Andrej’s boss to ask where we’d got to – they were staying open specially for us. So we hurried off to find out more about the Posavska wine region.
Wine from Kras
But earlier I had gone with Staša Krapež to visit the Osmica – an eight-day wine festival which happens in the Kras (aka Karst) area of Primorska. This area is a great limestone plateau which looks down over Trieste.
The limestone is covered by reddish brown soil, buffeted by a fierce wind (we’re talking 200 km +) known as the Burja. This compact area is home to some 170 wineries, producing earthy red wines such as refošk and kraški teran. At the Osmica that I went to I was offered a VERY good 2015 cabernet sauvignon, with loads of tannin and body – 14.5%. Davorin Cejkot, my host, apologised saying that although a good year, it was still a bit young. I thought it excellent, and it went perfectly with the local pršut (a sort of Slovenian version of prosciutto).
You can tell where an Osmica is being held because you see wooden signs, hung with ivy. Drinking is enthusiastic because tax is lifted during this period!
Wine from Slovenska Istra
This is the Mediterranean section of the Primorska area, where wine making goes back to Roman times. The most typical wine produced here is refošk, but other red grape varieties are grown, including the indigenous cipro. The main white wine is malvazija – and a festival of this wine is held annually in March – go here for the link.
The Posavska wine region
This region is composed of Bizeljsko Sremič, Dolenjska, and Bela Krajina.
This area in the south-east produces a range of wines, including the refreshing and unusual cviček.
Andrej and I arrive panting at our last port of call on my wine tour in Ljubljana. This was a sort of showcase for produce from Dolenjska (wine included, of course). We got a warm welcome from Barbara Jerovšek, the manageress, who gave us a short presentation on the area (it’s famous, apparently, for hay racks – they even have a museum of these there).
Barbara was going to let us sample three wines,
Kappelman – Frelih winery
The first was a sparkling wine which was rather nice, with a slightly biscuity flavour. It went very well with the local Dolenjska and some pear jam.
This was a Blue Franconia wine – made from Blaufränkisch grapes – a dark-skinned variety, rich in tannin, a bit spicy, and grown in great swathes across central Europe – Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia and Italy. DNA tests (carried out by Germans) have now proved that this grape originated in Slovenia. I liked this wine – it was a deep purply colour, quite acidic, with a taste of forest fruits…raspberries, blueberries. It’s a good, strong (12%), dry red which paired well with the venison salami which came with it. The shop stocked three types – mine was the 2015 bottle on the left of the image.
Later, I went with Staša to the Šuklje wine bar and sampled a different Modra Frankinja – this one made by Šuklje. This was better I thought – fresh, structured and full-bodied, I would think this would be a wine that would age well. Both the wine bar and the wine, thoroughly recommended. Matija Šuklje opened this wine bar together with his sister, sister Katja, who represent the younger generation of the Šuklje winery in Metlika, and their partners, Katja Geltar and Guillaume Antalick.
The third was a Cviček from the Cistercian monastery at Pleterje. This is a mix of two-thirds mixed reds and one-third white wine. The white wine is composed of Krawevina (‘The Royal’), Laškirizling (Italian reisling), and 15% of the white wine being made up of local wines, often zeleni silvanec.
It’s an acidic wine (the name comes from the Slovenian word, cikniti, meaning “to be/become acidic”), with a very low alcohol content – 8.5 to 10 per cent – which is supposed to be good for the health – indigestion, insomnia, diabetes and so on. I wasn’t personally convinced by this wine – I had hoped it might be a bit like a Provençal rosé but it wasn’t at all like that.
All of these were accompanied by some truly delicious breadsticks made with sour cream and black flax seeds, also made in Dolenjska.
All in all, a fascinating tour – the range of wine produced in Slovenia is extraordinary.