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Slovenian eXtremes

text and photographs © 2007 Tom cannavan

This is Part I, including profiles of three estates. In Part II there are profiles of six more top estates and there are tasting notes on over 100 wines.

Part I

Slovenia is a republic country, formerly part of Yugoslavia, that gained independence in 1991 after a short conflict. In truth, Slovenia had always been the most prosperous and western-facing of the former Yugoslav states.

Slovenia's cultural and social attitudes have been influenced by its neighbours Italy to the west, Austria to the north and Hungary to the east. Croatia to the south is an important trading partner, but Slovenia has fully embraced Europe, being part of the EU since 2004, and adopting the Euro as its currency. Indeed in January 2008 Slovenia takes over the EU presidency, just as the Schengen Agreement removes all border controls with Italy and Austria.

Slovenia today is a confident democracy that engages with the rest of the world both politically and economically. Its naturally western-facing tendencies have flourished, and there has been a growing buzz about Slovenia over the past year or so. With its unspoiled and beautiful countryside, from the Adriatic coast to Alpine slopes, the country has become something of a tourism hot-spot, especially for activity holidays with cycling, walking and rafting, and skiing in the winter months.

The Slovenian wine industry has also gone through massive changes. Under communism, grape growers were required to sell their production to the cooperatives. But since 1991 a new generation of independent wine estates has emerged from the country's more ambitious farmers. As young winemaker Primoz Lavrenčič told me, "The whole population has been energised."

wine regions

   To the north-east, the region of Podravje is the largest vineyard area. It has a continental climate, and is known for its sparkling and dessert wines. Just to the south is Posavje, where some very good quality wines are made, but also a deal of Cviček, a light, pink wine made by blending red and white wine grapes. But this feature concentrates solely on the most westerly of Slovenia's three wine regions, Primorska.

Primorska enjoys a more Mediterranean climate, with some diverse micro-climates. Its land is largely a continuation of Italy's Friuli region, and soils range from flysch - a friable mix of sandstone, marl and sandy shale - to the rich terra rossa of the Kras plateau.


Slovenia grows a fascinating mix of indigenous, Italian, and international grapes. Slovene varieties like Pinela and Zelen are bottled as varietal wines, as are many grapes familiar to fans of Friulian wine - like Rebula (Ribolla), Pikolit (Picolit) and Refošk (Refosco). In terms of French varieties, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinots Gris and Blanc are common for whites, whilst Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are being joined by Pinot Noir for reds.

Primorska, Western Slovenia

Standing on the balcony of the Movia estate in the Brda region, a timeless landscape of rolling vineyards and pan-tiled farm buildings stretches as far as the eye can see. A bell begins to toll in a hilltop church across the valley, as clear as birdsong, evoking a sense of harmony and tranquility. Impossible to imagine though it is, that church is in another country, for just a few dozen metres from where I stand, Slovenia becomes Italy. The political boundary - nothing more than a line on a map - seems absurd.

Once over that invisible boundary - not marked by any sign or fence - Brda becomes Friuli. Aleš Kristančič, Movia's owner and winemaker, points out his vineyards, scattered across both appellations, showing me the source of the fruit for the various wines we are tasting. Should he care to move his winery a hundred metres or so west, his wines would carry the D.O.C stamp of Friuili.

Indeed, the best-known name of this region is Josko Gravner, who enjoys a cult following for his extraordinary wines, where very long skin macerations mean fruit is submerged beneath all sorts of waxy and mineral tones. Like Kristančič and many others, Gravner farms both in Slovenian Brda and Italian Friuli. But because Gravner's winery lies in Italy, his wines are Italian and Slovenia's wine reputation does not benefit from the 'Gravner effect'.

His success, however, has had a powerful impact on a small group of winemakers. They are acutely aware of Gravner's philosophy and have embraced the same natural farming and winemaking techniques, using minimal chemicals, minimal or no sulphur, and only ambient yeasts to manage implausibly long skin macerations. This extreme winemaking teeters on the edge, where results can be thrilling, but disaster awaits those who do not harvest perfect grapes or practice perfect hygiene.

Batič Estate, Vipava Valley

   First stop on my trip was to Batič, in the sub-region of Vipava, whose 50,000 bottle production is not currently imported into the UK.

Miha Batič (left) explained the region's unique climate: the world hang gliding championships were held here, because the warm wind blows almost constantly off the Adriatic sea and is buffeted back by surrounding mountains. Hail can be a problem. In 2006 the entire vineyard where this photograph was taken was destroyed by August hail - "It didn't produce one litre," says Miha. Very precise and localised micro climates mean harvesting small parcels separately is necessary. He explains his philosophy as "Trying to do as little as possible in winery - just striving to harvest perfect grapes in natural conditions." The vineyards are farmed organically, though not certified as such.

Miha is philosophical about Slovenia's place in the world of wine production: "Slovenia is a very small country, and we are limited in what we can do with our land. There are particular places to grow excellent vines, but we still need a good vintage - we have no flexibility if things go wrong."

In the vineyard Miha does green harvest, but doesn't follow a practice common amongst some winemakers, of snipping the bottom off of individual bunches: "The top of the bunch has the sugar, the bottom has acidity. Some people cut off the bottoms to lower acidity, but that's like cutting off someone's legs: they may be the ugliest part, but we need them for balance."

Batič's wines range from some easier going, off dry styles, to their premium range which has the full "Gravneresque" treatment, and is more challenging, but of terrific, complex quality.

Tilia Estate, Vipava Valley

   Matjaž Lemut runs this estate, whose wines are not currently in the UK, with a commercial, modern outlook. He is happy to use selected yeasts to enhance the aromatic profile of his wines and has two brands, 'Sunshine' and the "reserve" label known as 'Golden'.

Matjaž explains that in Slovenia there are still 10 big cellars/ cooperatives that account for half of all production. The other half is composed of thousands of small producers, farming between two and 15 hectares, whilst a big coop might farm 1,200. There are still many 'hobby' producers ("afternoon farmers", says Matjaž) farming up to 2ha. This is a problem, because that equates to around 1,000 bottles of wine, which makes its way onto the market, sold very cheaply without taxes being paid or bottling costs.

To protect and separate the small, quality estates, the 'Family Estates of Slovenia' has been formed, with 90 members each holding a minimum of 3ha. They are lobbying the Slovene government to gain a special status. "But," says Matjaž, "there are lots of votes in those thousands of small farmers..."

All of Tilia's newer plantings are at high density, and all training has been converted to single guyot, in moves to increase quality. Already 20% of the production of modern, good quality wines is exported to the USA.

Sutor, Vipava Region

   The third Vipava winery is Sutor. Their wines are imported into the UK by Astrum Cellars, who supply the top-end restaurant trade. Primoz Lavrenčič (left) and his brother Mitja have replanted many vineyards from an old terraced arrangement to rows up and down the slopes for better sun exposure and to establish densities that he thinks are optimal. Though Sutor makes almost exclusively white wines, they have begun a Pinot Noir project with exciting potential.

Primoz explains that Sauvignon and Chardonnay have been planted here since before the second world war, by the 'noble people', mostly German and Italians, whilst the local Slovenes grew Rebula and other indigenous grapes. The soil is decomposed slate and marl, and the vineyard in the photograph is 65-year-old Malvasia.

Primoz says he hasn't green harvested his Chardonnay for 12 years, because the wines are in perfect natural balance. He believes Merlot is well-suited to the region's soil and climate, though is still challenging to grow:

"Merlot grows beautifully - the perfect grape - though still the wines are a little green in many years." A family estate since 1922, Primoz is winemaker, whilst his brother Mitja works mostly in the vineyards. But with only four hectares (yielding about 1,500 bottles), both have other jobs - Primoz is a researcher at the local University, and Mitja is director of the local Post Office.

go to part II: profiles and tasting notes for six top estates