|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.|
|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.
|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 Refok (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.
|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. Ale 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'.
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."
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..."
|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: