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Slovenian eXtremes

text and photographs © 2007 Tom cannavan

This is part II of this feature, profiling six of Slovenia's most interesting estates. Part I has an overview of the Slovenian wine scene, and profiles of three producers. There are also tasting notes on over 100 Slovenian wines.

Part II

Edi Simčič, Brda

Aleks Simčič has now taken over the running of this estate from his father Edi. Having supplied the local co-op for many years, they have been a winemaking estate since 1990, farming 10 hectares. In some ways this is the most "international" of the estates I visited on this trip, with all wines, white and red, fermented in barrels, mostly barriques and 100% French oak. 70% of Edi Simčič's production is exported.

There is minimal spraying in the vineyards, with no herbicides, and grass cover used between rows. The farm is "More or less organic," according to Aleks, "though I don't push that too much." Only 15 miles from the sea, there is a clear maritime influence on climate, with cooling breezes. Mandarins and kiwis are grown, and the area hasn't seen a frost since 1997.

Aleks says that cellar door sales are growing since Slovenia joined the EU - before that there was a limit on what Italian or Austrian visitors could take home. One of the wines on our tasting - the Wine with no Name is a project that will produce a super-premium red blend. "The first icon wine of Slovenia?" I ask Aleks, who laughs: "The story starts in 1997, when we made fairly rough reds so we radically changed yields, vinification, and tannin management.

We started a totally new oak regime, and a careful selection, with some wine not being used, but sold off. Now we are homing in on vineyard and barrel selections for this wine. It has great potential." Astrum cellars also imports Edi Simčič into the UK.

Marjan Simčič, Brda

The estate of Marjan Simčič is also in Brda, though Marjan and Aleks Simčič above are only very distantly related. Marjan Simčič is represented in the UK by H&H Bancroft, and his wines have appeared on these pages before with very positive comments. Like Gravner, Marjan (left) farms both sides of the border: Italy is literally a stone's throw from his winery. The international appeal of Simčič's wines is enhanced by ageing in French and Slovenian barrels. But he strikes a middle ground between an international style and something more iconoclastic: he is a passionate advocate of skin macerations of up to one year and says "The first place great wine is made is here," tapping his temple. "If the grapes are fully mature, then skin contact gives only good things. What is more interesting, eating whole, ripe grapes or sipping just the juice?"

To allow these long macerations for white wines it is essential to have perfect grapes and perfect hygiene in the winery. Marjan stresses that phenolic ripeness of skins and pips is essential: "when you vinify like this you are 'walking on the edge' and if a mistake is made, it is very easy to fall down. I have sent whole vats of wine to make grappa before now..."

Farming 16 hectares only 10 kilometres from the coast, some new planting is as dense as 10,000 vines per hectare. The soil here is flysch, and new land is relatively inexpensive at around 6,000 Euros per hectare, but it is very difficult to find it. Maceration for most wines is followed by one year in big wooden casks, then the wine is transferred to 500-litre barrels of both Slovenian and French oak. Marjan selects Slovenian oak and cures it for 10 years in the open air before having it coopered, to eliminate hard tannins and greenness.

čurek, Brda

Stojan čurek farms 17 hectares of vines and produce up to 60,000 bottles in a year, making this estate one of the region's larger independent estates. Tomaz čurek (left) has now joined his father in winemaking and running the business, although all of Stojan's five sons are involved. The majority of their vineyards are on the Italian side of the border, and čurek exports around 45% of its production, mostly to the ex-Yugoslavian states, but also across northern Europe. These are very solid, fruity, good quality commercial wines with minimal skin maceration: just six to eight hours in the press for whites, before chilling and to stainless steel for fermentation. Reds are macerated for 10 days or so for. In the cellars, classical music is played to the slumbering wines.

One interesting wine in the čurek portfolio is called 'UP'. The word up means 'hope' in Slovenia, but U.P. also represents the Slovenian words for 'enjoy slow' - in fact this wine was originally created for the Slow Food movement, and has now become a regular part of their production.

Movia, Brda

In Brda, the human dynamo that is Aleš Kristančič oversees one of Slovenia's most confident and ambitious estates. Movia (represented in the UK by Lea & Sandeman) is fully biodynamic, and a member of Nicolas Joly's Renaissance group. In fact, Aleš says he is the eighth generation to farm these vineyards organically, though under his direction the biodynamic approach has been embraced passionately.

Kristančič talks with infectious, sometime overwhelming enthusiasm about the quality of Slovenia's terroirs. He rejects the modern enthusiasm for clonal selection of planting material: "I may have a thousand different results in one vineyard, but that means life!" He also produces an extraordinary sparkling wine called 'Puro'. After three years in vats, the base wine is bottled with the must from the new vintage, but no sugar or yeast. The bottles are then buried in the earth for three more years, to be subjected to the earth's magnetic forces. Finally, the wine is dug-up, cleaned and labelled without being disgorged. BR>
Instead, it is sold with instructions on how to disgorge it at home (or more commonly, in a restaurant), in a tank full of water, where the yeast shoots out under pressure. The wine sounds a little crazy, but each step is designed to make the wine as natural as possible, introducing nothing that did not originate in the same vineyard.

Kristančič uses almost no sulphur in his winemaking, and utilises a lot of small barriques of French oak for varietal white wines, but larger Slovenian oak for reds. He describes his approach as a pragmatic one that tries to be as natural as possible, but not obsessively so - "foot treading of grapes may be 'natural', but its not the best. Where possible we work naturally, trying to interfere as little as possible." He takes every aspect of the operation very seriously: "It is vital that we have intellectual people involved in Movia. That includes my friends who pick the vineyards at harvest time; they must be sympathetic to the vines and understand that my courage and my vision is in the hands of their labour."

Rojac, Istria

"I want to crush the grape straight into your glass" says Primoz Rojac, explaining that capturing the essence of the fruit and his terroir is at the heart of his vision for Rojac. Here on the Istrian peninsula, the maritime influence on the climate is obvious as we stand looking over the vineyards (left).

Primoz explains that this region has grown wine for centuries, but in the 1950s under Tito, much of the skill and the knowledge moved away and was lost. Istria was earmarked to produce red wine for all of Yugoslavia, and so the object was quantity, not quality, with new plantings in widely spaced rows giving very high yields.

Primoz is a great believer in the quality of Refošk (The Italian Refosco) here, and 50% of his vineyards are planted to the variety, along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. The majority of wines in the region are red. There are signs of confidence and investment here, with brand new cellars faced with local stone in a very traditional style. Primoz uses older barrels for most wines, and only his top reds get new oak. All oak is Slovenian, coopered in Slovenia. "French oak means wines are becoming all the same, giving wines all over the world the same aromas and flavours."

Cotar , Kras Region

Father and son team Branko and Vasja Cotar (left) farm their vineyards in the Kras Valley, an area that enjoys a benign climate of low humidity and rainfall thanks to the rain shadow caused by surrounding mountains. This is a unique Slovenian terroir of terra rossa soils over pure limestone, just like Australia's Coonawarra. Their seven-hectare farm is two years into a three-year programme to gain organic certification, and only natural ambient yeasts are used in vinification, with a minimal of sulphur.

Cotar 's white wines are macerated for one to two weeks, and reds for at least 15 days. All are matured in older oak for two to three years. A few wines, or proportions of them, see much longer macerations. There is drip irrigation in place, but it is used only in exceptional circumstances. The photo above shows a 50-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard and the iron-rich terra rossa.

The wines of Cotar are not currently imported into the UK.

go to part I of this feature.