Curious & Thirsty: Slovenian Wine Goggles
by Stetson Robbins, Sales Manager for Blue Danube Wine Co.
Slovenia was made for those who like to Travel Curious Often. It is small, accessible and dense. Were Europe an hourglass, Slovenia would be the narrowest point. Pinched between the Alps and the Adriatic Sea, nowhere else in Europe do Alpine and Mediterranean conditions border. For millennia humans traveling West and East have passed through this stunning corridor. Hardly larger than New Jersey, Slovenia, from sea to snowy cliffs, is so hilly that could it be flattened out, it would be twice the size.
The countless picturesque castles topping these hills are a historical reminder of the area’s strategic importance. Long the prize of nomads and Emperors they have seen more than their share of conflict. Post WWII, a state of Yugoslavia, Slovenia has only been a country for about 25 years. Its inhabitants are understood to be the descendants of Slavic tribes who settled in the area in the 6th century, but Slovenian culture is not defined by its political borders, and bares influence by those in neighboring Italy, Austria, Hungary, Croatia and a whole lot of long forgotten people.
Historically vineyards have covered much of Slovenia’s countryside. In them you find grapes brought over the thousands of years of human movement. Coupled with the diversity of climate, topography, wine production methods, and localized taste, Slovenian wines are extremely different region to region. In the US we are largely unaware of this. Blue Danube Wine Co. – the company I am a part of – has been working for close to ten years to change this. For me wine is more than beverage, it is the ultimate lens to view Slovenia through. It is made in some of the country’s most beautiful locations, accompanies the best food, and attracts interesting people. Both those who make it and drink it. I return repeatedly to enjoy of course the wine but also the atmosphere, the cuisine and my friends there. It has taught me the value of returning to a destination. Slovenia is a place I would like to one day call a second home.
My first visit to Slovenia was by way of car coming from Vienna, Austria to the North. I was with my then girlfriend now wife, Kristyn. It was our first trip together in Europe. It was summer. When we arrived at Silvo Črnko’s farm we were awed. The hills were electric green. They smelled of fruit and flowers and the weather was perfect. If you want to impress someone take them to Napa; if you want to marry them take them to Slovenia. Silvo and his family farm grapes along with a variety of other crops and livestock, wine is the commercial enterprise of the property. When you visit all the food and wine they offer is produced on site. Their garlicky charcuterie is the perfect adjunct to the fragrant delicate wines. The farm is in the village is outside the village of Jarenina between the Austrian border and Maribor, Slovenia’s second largest city and the home of what is possibly Europe’s oldest grape vine. In Slovenia the wine region is called Štajerska the Austrian’s call it Styria. This is an example of new borders overlapping old. Things look and feel the same on both sides and the wines are largely similar though you can for now get a bit of extra value out of the Slovenian wines. Since Austrian’s consume most of what is in Styria their prices tend to be elevated. A charming affordable and representative example of the regional wines is the Črnko “everything but the kitchen sink” blend “Jareninčan”. They only grow white grapes and the wines are pure, aromatic, refreshing, mineral and especially drinkable. Jareninčan most of all. In Winter it is as white with snow as it is green with leaves in the Summer.
From Maribor to Ljubljana, the country’s capital and biggest city is an hour and a half drive. The restaurants recommended elsewhere in this article are great places to eat local cuisine and explore the wines without a lot of travel. It was the Ljubljana restaurants where we fell in love with “orange wine”. Orange wine is not made from oranges; it is white wine made like red wine. Meaning it is fermented with the grape skins which extracts color. Because the grapes are white not red the resultant wine is deeper in color ranging from: just off white to pulpy orange instead of pink to dark purple as with red. A little misleading, “macerated white wine” or “skin contact white wine” are more accurate terms because some are not orange at all, but for obvious reasons the name “orange wine” just sticks. Whatever you call it not long ago this style was considered primitive and was largely dismissed, today forward thinking producers across the globe are experimenting. Abe Schoner of Scholium Project in CA., and The Red Hook Winery in Brooklyn even makes a skin fermented Sauvignon Blanc/ Chardonnay blend from New York’s North Fork region called Vipolže, a small village in Goriška Brda, Slovenia where this style of wine has long been made. Abe is paying homage.
It is in the west bordering Italy where this style of wine is traditionally produced in Slovenia. Numerous Italian winemakers, many with Slavic surnames practice the technique in Italy, Slovenian Kabaj is expert at it. Their vineyards are scattered amongst ideal positions in Goriška Brda near their home and winery in the village of Slovrenc not far from Vipolže. They make roughly eight different wines: 70% white, 30% red – all ferment with grape skins for some length of time. Beli Pinot (Pinot Blanc) their most restrained and palest white spends a few days to two weeks with the skins depending on the vintage and a year in used oak. Amfora is a blend of local white varieties Rebula, Savignonasse (formerly Tocai) and Malvasia Istriana that undergoes fermentation and aging with the skins in buried 3000 liter clay pots for 10 to 24 months! By color Beli Pinot is far from an “orange wine”. Color is not the point, it is to extract from the grape what is lost if they are crushed and separated. The short maceration accentuates the gentle pretty nature of Beli Pinot without masking it, adding texture, dimension and longevity to the wine. Amfora is so orange it is amber, and quite different from Beli Pinot, served blind folded even a professional could mistake it’s exotic aroma of tea and musk, and firm tannic structure for a red wine. Though both wines are related by way of their production they are extremely different from each other yet in their own way both reflective of vintage, grape sorts, Kabaj and Goriška Brda. Interestingly Kabaj also make stellar Merlot and Merlot based Bordeaux blends, grapes that have been grown in both centuries. The reds are perfumed savory, high toned and mineral.
Winemaker Jean-Michel Morel is the face of Kabaj, but it is the three-generation family who made the estate what it is. Kabaj is the maiden name of his wife Katja. It is an old name, important in the area. Nestled amongst vineyard hills is the winery and sparklingly clean bed and breakfast and kitchen they maintain. We were sent there by Tamara Glavina winemaker of Santomas winery in Koper along the coast who told us to use a spare day to visit her friend’s bed and breakfast in Brda. She did not mention the wines, Jean-Michel and I finished tasting in the cellar at 6am the following day when the church bells rang. We have been great partners ever since. Kabaj is one of my favorite places on earth to visit. It’s a great for shaking off jet lag or finishing a trip when flying via Venice. Book a room and go.
After visiting Kabaj we often head south towards the coast along this Mediterranean/Alpine convergence, conditions get sunnier and windier, the soils the grapes and the local culture are all different and so are the wines. Vipavaska Dolina or Vipava Valley is another old and famous wine region and a gourmand’s paradise. There are a handful of very high quality places to eat the incredible local grown cuisine. Majerija is famously excellent and serves many of the best local wines. Kristyn and I were originally brought there by a wine maker. We were hooked the moment the owner presented us a selection of single variety olive oils to sample with their house baked breads. After the meal we spent a long windy afternoon touring vineyards with Miha Batič. We hung out all night drinking and listening to Miha’s vast collection of American vinyl. A few years later he came out to California for our wedding.
The Batič family farms and vinify their wine according to Monastic principles established by their ancestors. Utilizing cycles of nature and celestial bodies they seek balance in the vineyard, cellar and life. The cellar is what remains of the monastery but it still bonds those who attend to it to the nature they work in, and the people they work amongst. It is more than farming or winemaking it is their purpose. Father Son duo Ivan and Miha Batič make wines which compared to most Vipava wines are quite uncommon and yet are ironically Vipava. Though Batič makes wonderful Bordeaux variety wines, especially Cabernet Franc which ripens less consistently in cooler Brda, and a hedonistic Rose of Cabernet Sauvignon if you ask Miha, Vipava is synonymous with white wine (for him this includes “orange wine”). Batič does not make every wine every year, they adjust their production to match the harvest. A general harmony permeates all the Batic wines they are individuals very specific to their moment in time, expressing their place and the perspective of those who shaped them in equal measure. It is vineyards Batič holds dearest and consider to be the source of any greatness their wines have. They are observers and experimenters always looking to plant and animal life for new ideas and for indications of vine health. While they don’t offer a traditional tasting room to visitors, serious wine lovers, who contact them ahead of time might be lucky enough to have Miha meet them in the vineyard for a glass of wine.
Depending on time spent at each and stamina it is completely possible to visit Goriška Brda, Vipava Valley and Kras in a single day. Kras overlooks the Adriatic Sea separated by only a thin stretch of coastal Italy that includes Trieste, a city which remains largely Slavic despite technically being Italian. Those with a little extra time should not miss the Postojnska caves. Millennial slow dissolution of limestone into elaborate caves, rock formations and sometimes sinkholes that define Karstic soil named after the region. Together the Kras and Italy’s Carso make up Europe’s first cross border appellation. A fascinating model of classification where producers of both countries make wine of the same style protected by the same rules. The chief production in Kras/Carso is Teran (Terrano in Carso), as the grape is locally known. Elsewhere in Slovenia it is called Refošk and related closely to what the Italians call Refosco. It can be called Teran only when the grape is planted to the red iron rich “terra rosa” typical of Kras that gives the them their pronounced iron content and piercing acidity. Teran has traditionally been prized for its medicinal properties especially in treating anemia.
True Teran is something of an acquired taste. Appealing to those who delight in the spicy the sour and the herbal. Easy going, fruity, soft examples exist, but I would argue these are not Teran. If you don’t like high acid, highly mineral reds Teran is not your wine. The Štoka family farms grapes and makes wine. Above the barrels of aging Teran hang legs of aging pršut, what the Italians call prosciutto. Štoka’s is as silky as San Danielle but more farmy in character. Traditionally Teran is enjoyed with pršut. The fat and salt make for an exciting contrast to the bracing red. It is similarly perfect with charred rare beef. In addition to Teran they grow a rare local white variety called Vitovska Grganja, only 150 acres or so of the variety exist globally. Handled carefully it produces lovely wines that capture the scent of the sea and the forest. They macerated part of the grapes making it a “half orange wine” or “partially macerated white wine”. Reaping the benefits of the technique without overwhelming the subtleties of the grape. The surprise specialty of Štoka are the traditional method sparkling wines they age in a natural Karstic cave which provides the perfect conditions for such wines. Made from both white and red grapes they manage to give new expression to the specific sorts and are adding to a modern redefinition of what is possible in Kras. The frothy purple sparkling Teran makes an unexpectedly good introduction to the region and grape variety. It has all the verve of its still equivalent, while the bubbles softening its acids and give further expression to the aromas of raspberries, pepper and iron.
Head slightly east and further south to Koper, the other region where Refošk (the grape known as Teran in the Kras) is grown. This is where Santomas is located. Refošk is so influenced by the conditions it is grown under the wines from Koper are very different from those of the Kras despite their close proximity and shared grape. The Santomas wines are grown in exposed hill top vineyards that are among the sunniest and warmest in the country. They make a broad array of mainly Refošk and Refošk based wines, but it is the single vineyard bottling of the vineyard of Sergaši called Antonius that is most exemplary. Among the most age worthy examples of the grape, even when very ripe the inherently high acid can allow for dynamic balance of fruit and freshness. When we first visited with Tamara she took us to her friends at Fonda an ecological branzino fish farm. An hour after tasting at her winery, we were eating perfect crudo on a boat with people as enthusiastic about raising high quality fish as Tamara is in making high quality wine. Guided not only by quality but the also the idea to do something connected to their homes. The vineyards Santomas tends overlook the sea from a hill just a mile or so away. Slovenia offers more than can be surmised by maps, books or images.
Having been back repeatedly since that first trip with Kristyn, I share this experience because we repeatedly return and these are experiences available to anybody first hand. If you do so, you too will form relationships with these winemakers. Some you may want to follow year in and year out. Doing so will make drinking the wines a substantive experience beyond simply liking. You may find yourself drinking a vintage and in your mind comparing it to those past wondering about the weather that year. Or sharing stories and of favorite visits or wild nights amongst new friends and pouring the very wines you are speaking of. This is what wine and life should be about indulgence and sharing. Something special, but not exclusive, enjoyable, affordable, memorable and real.
Stetson Robbins is the Blue Danube Wine Co. Sales Manager for New York and the East Coast. Stetson and his wife Kristyn relocated to Brooklyn, New York in the Summer of 2012, to further the East Coast efforts of Blue Danube Wine Co. Stetson joined the team in Spring of 2008 as the first dedicated Southern California sales person. His obsession with wine is credited to a life-long interest in the institution of dining and his studies of Greek wine culture while earning a degree in Theater Arts at Long Beach State, where he acted in, directed, wrote and produced plays.
For Stetson, wine is part of an aesthetic total that brings together nature, culture, history and the human desire to share. He posseses vigorous tasting habits and has spent considerable time abroad with wine producers. In addition to sales and distribution, he develops content for the website and regularly hosts tastings for both professionals and consumers, with equal enthusiasm. When not exploring New York’s vast food and wine scene, he can be found in the kitchen with Kristyn or running, playing golf, skating half pipes and trying to find surf in New York.