Slovenia is my favourite place. A small country with an unlikely vastness in climes and a truly disproportionate variety of wonders: food, wine, language and many others, both wild and cultured.
My geography in general is shaped by wine. Slovenia is nestled in-between some rather distinguished countries, namely Hungary, Croatia, Austria and Italy. Food is favourably formed by this and so are the wines. Slovenia straddles two traditions of winemaking - the Germanic and the Mediterranean. The north is alpine and the south is the beginning of the Med. Quite a substantial contrast. Cool climate and warm.
In the west of its wine country is a beautiful region called Goriška Brda, bordering Italy’s well-loved Friuli, an area compared to the rolling hills of Tuscany. The terroir is shared between the two countries and it is bountiful. The long established Brda wine country and its most notable producers have been quietly, but deftly making amazing wines for centuries. Aleš Kristančič of Movia is the most prominent Slovene winemaker and his wines travel beyond our reach - the fickle London market has yet to receive these exceptional wines. Instead, America, Japan and Scandinavia have all the pleasure. Another bright star, who has found success in London, is the fantastically genius Marjan Simčič. Less esoteric in his winemaking and very charming, he inspires passion and a profound understanding of what his wines are about. Unlike Aleš, who uses a lot of native varietals such as Rebula, Pinela and Zelen – I will follow up on these at a later date – Marjan chose to work with international ones like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc to name a few. His work demonstrates that it is through these grapes that Goriška Brda’s unique terroir is illuminated.
Not so far away on the other side of the brilliantly turquoise river Soča, or the river Isonzo of Hemingway’s ‘A Farewell to Arms’ fame, is the Vipava Valley, where I met Primož Lavrenčič of Burja. I had discovered Burja's wines in Ljubljana’s friendly wine bar Tozd, which I highly recommend should you visit.
Primož is the sole operator behind Burja. Contemporary on the label and the winemaking, but using traditional varietals. Burja, or Bora in Italian, is the roaring wind that courses through the dewy valley, keeping the grapes dry. Conditions are otherwise very humid and the fruit would be prone to grey rot. Having a background in science (a biotech doctorate), his approach is as meticulous as you would imagine. Apart from his viticulturist and the seasonal helping hands and muscles, it’s all him. His dedication to producing elegant and long-lived Pinot Noir is very apparent. In fact, it was a glass of the 2012 vintage that prompted my visit in the first place, as I couldn’t find the bottle anywhere in the country. As soon as a vintage is released, it’s gone in a flash. It may pop up in a Hamptons restaurant list or a Tokyo vinoteca. This elusive and incredible Pinot Noir is the stuff that drives any Pinot fan’s obsession. Elegant, complex and concentrated with a structure suggesting it’s far from its peak. Primož works with 6 hectares of land with plantings of Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Malvasia in small quantities, as well as the local varietals – Pinela, Zelen, Laški Rizling (Italian/Welsh Riesling) and Rebula. He has always farmed and produced organically and is currently awaiting his biodynamic certification. Meanwhile, we are awaiting his wines to make it across to London.
To the east of the capital Ljubljana, heading towards the Austrian border, I visited another winery that was on Tozd’s wine list, my little sign-post of good wines. Established in 2010, Heaps Good Wine company is one of the great things to come out of a Slovene/Kiwi marriage. Marija and Nick Gee met in New Zealand where Nick was making wines, after which Nick came over to Slovenia and has since been contributing his own innovations and style to the Slovenian wine culture.
From Ljubljana, it took around an hour’s drive in torrential rain to reach the town of Slovenska Bistrica where Heaps is farmed and produced.
The village where the vines grow is actually called Ritoznoj, aptly meaning ‘Ass-Sweat’, which presumably is the consequence of working those steep vineyards.
My arrival was just in time to help Nick lift up one of his pumps into the bottling section of his winemaking barn. A derelict old shell of a house with barely anything inside save some fermenting vessels in one corner, a fridge and stacks of ready-packed bottles. In another corner, there’s a crusher and on a high wall, there’s shelving that displays empty bottles enjoyed from all over – a lot of which he's had a hand in making.
Nick is not one for many words, he’s a solitary winemaker and viticulturist, very similar to Primož, so we swiftly got onto the tasting bit. First up was a Pinot Gris without any oak or filtration. Gravity does the job. It’s a copper toned nectar generously displaying tropical fruit. The palate was crisp and crunchy, with stone fruit as a contrast. The acidity was tangy and refreshing, but without the usual ‘slimy peach and nectarines’ you can sometimes expect in a Pinot Gris. Whole bunch fermentation and a ‘dirty ferment’ are generally the methods Nick applies to most of his wines.
We then jumped out of what is one huge window/door/vista down to the cellar that houses around 40-odd 325 litre French oak barrels for the 2015 vintage. We tasted several ferments of his Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and one Blaufrankisch.
There’s also the interesting naming. Each of the pre-bottled batches is named after the songs he listened to. ‘Spread for me’, I’m assuming by Outkast, was one of them. The conversation became much more humorous glass after glass and Nick is a very interesting guy with unapologetic views that only the experienced should ever utter.
As we tasted through the Chardonnays, some crisp, some buttery, but all of them precise and with piercing acidity and freshness, I commented on the smokiness of one or two. A sort of ‘struck match’ that wasn't from the seasoned oak. Pleased, Nick started telling me about his flirtation with ‘reduction’. Reduction is a point of contention in the wine world but to Nick, it’s no jargon. In short, it refers to a type of volatile sulphur compounds that come in hundreds of variants. These can either fault wines or can add the same sort of sensory appeal one gets from unpasteurised cheese. Very touch and go, like most delicious things.
I was blown away by all of his five Pinot Noir ferments that we tasted out of the barrels. ( Picture ). I thought of five different places those Pinot Noirs could've come from: two villages in Burgundy, Australia, specifically Yarra Valley where he’s worked, as well as California with all the straight up fruit. True reflections of his worldly experience in making beautiful wines, right there in Eastern Slovenia. When I asked him about soil conditions, his first response was to call me a geek, before adding: ‘You work with what you're given, the climate’.
Nick has made wine in every region of Australia ‘apart from the Clare Valley, Orange and inland Victoria’. And that’s just Australia. He’s also worked in esteemed wineries across New Zealand, Austria, Italy, California (Selyem) and France (Upper Loire and Northern Rhone).
With only 4 hectares, the overall production is tiny. His wines are found only in a couple of restaurants in Slovenia and in Tozd. Besides that, he currently exports to Belgium, Austria and Germany. I’m very hopeful that with him, we can jump the queue and bring his wines straight here to Forest Wines in Walthamstow.
Next was a quick stop in the oldest city in Slovenia, the town-sized Ptuj, which has gorgeous and well preserved baroque architecture to rival that of Ljubljana. It also hosts a wine and poetry festival in the summer, a clear indication this is deep in wine country. After a quick coffee, I set off towards nearby Ormož, where I met Danilo Šnajder, the chief winemaker for Verus.
Verus is internationally recognised and has been well regarded by Jancis Robinson in recent years. We proudly stock their Sauvignon Blanc which is enjoying the wave of this grape’s current revival. Danilo is one of the founding trio of Verus, with Rajko handling the marketing and Božo in charge of the viticulture. Together, they worked for a state winery but broke away to form Verus in ’07 with their family, close and distant, contributing vineyards in the region. Starting with two hectares between them, they’re now working with up to twenty. Besides the main trio, there's a ready team of 25 consisting of students, family and friends who help during harvest and sorting. Together they produce volumes that satisfy 26 countries, covering most big markets in Europe and North America.
On first impression, their facility/warehouse looked like it could've been an abbatoire. Large and square in format with sterile white tiling. Danilo later tells me that it use to be a bakery. ‘We moved in very quickly following expansion and didn't think about all the leftover flour on the floors. We hosed the place down and created a big doughy problem’, he laughed.
Space was aplenty but no corner was spared as they do everything in house, from hand sorting to the labelling. I don't normally get wowed by tech but this was impressive. The crusher, the labeller and bottling machines (churning out 1300 bottles an hour) are no larger than a pony yet can cope with the volume they produce. Relatively small, but sizeable for Slovenia. ‘We produce around 78 thousand bottles per year’, Danilo proudly says. But that's the whole range including Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Furmint, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Muscat. A larger proportion of Sauvignon is produced due to its popularity of course. The Chardonnay, being newly grown, is much smaller. Smokey, lean and full of citrus and minerals, and sadly made in very small quantities. His Pinot Noirs are the most recent addition and haven't made their way over here yet, but it was exquisite to taste directly from the barrel. Slightly herbal and taut but with that ‘will age very well’ feeling.
Aside from Sauvignon Blanc's success, it was the Pinot Gris that captured Jancis' attention, which they’re obviously chuffed about. ‘Let me show you something’, says Danilo, bringing out an ’07 vintage of the Pinot Gris - not usually one for the cellar but he knew he’d surprise me with it. Mind blowing. Immense Pinot Gris with both residual sweetness and razor-sharp acidity in a super concentrated juice. I'd put my money that, in a blind tasting, master sommeliers or any experts of equal calibre would identify it as being a Grosses Gewächs Riesling from the Mosel. I exclaimed that and Danilo chuckled. It was an anomaly for him too. He couldn't explain the development nor why it didn’t have the expected fading of fruit you'd otherwise find. Before we said goodbye, I took as much as I could carry of the bottles that haven't made it across yet and couldn't thank him enough for his hospitality. Watch this space for additional Verus wines.