Today we’ll go deeper into the details of a country with a long history of winemaking in an area custom built for quality grape-growing, and with a modern wine industry that is quite successful, but with very little global reach- I doubt many of my readers would have tasted a Slovenian wine! But why you ask? Well, let’s get into it and find out!
Now first up I’ll just emphasise that we are talking about Slovenia, a former member of Yugoslavia, not Slovakia which is further north and borders Poland. As I just mentioned above, Slovenia has a long history of winemaking- it even pre-dates the Romans! Archaeological evidence shows the Celts and Illyrian tribes, the pre-Roman peoples that inhabited this area made wines, some aged in amphorae and deeply coloured (more on them later). After this the Romans continued with this fruitful (pardon the pun) past-time, and as Catholicism moved through the Holy Roman empire, monks and monasteries carried out God’s work, making wines for the sacrament. This whole region thrived as the empire transformed into the Austrian and then Austro-Hungarian Empires throughout the 18th and 19th centuries until it was annexed upon the fall of the Empire at the end of the First World War. This region then became part of Yugoslavia, which was not exactly conducive to fine wine production. Emphasis was placed on productivity over quality, and the successive skirmishes and then all out wars destroyed vineyards alongside whole cities. After the break-up of Yugoslavia into its modern countries, Slovenia began the slow re-build back to the old days of careful, quality-focussed viticulture.
Now this potential for great winemaking all makes perfect sense when you look at where Slovenia is; the whole country is located between the 47th and 45th latitude, which is where globally respected wine regions such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, Barolo, Barbaresco, Valpolicella and the fine wine regions of Oregon and Washington in the USA are all located. Its western section has a distinctly Mediterranean influence as it borders the Prosecco and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia wine regions of Italy and has a small coastline on the Adriatic Sea. The eastern part of Slovenia is much more alpine, abutting neighbouring wine-producing countries Hungary and Austria. Today there are just over 21,000 hectares of vines throughout Slovenia, coming from one of its 3 distinct wine regions, Podravje, Primorska and Posavje, which I’ll run through showing just how different they all are.
Podravje is located in the very north east of the country, and is the largest and most productive of all 3 regions, producing about half of all Slovenian wine. The majority of this region is located between the rolling foothills of the mountain range that separates Slovenia from Austria and along the Pannonian plains that run towards Hungary, and there is still a huge Austro-Hungarian influence on this region. The vast Vinag wine cellar is noteworthy as one of Europe’s largest traditional wine cellars (featuring 2.5 kms of tunnels!) and is also a major as a tourist attraction within the region. Under the Hapsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the red wine from Podravje was used to complement the whites made in Austria and the sweet wines of Hungary. Today however, white wines dominate the vineyards of Podravje, most of which have an alpine/Germanic origin; Riesling is the most grown, followed by Traminec (Gewürztraminer) and Rizvanec (Müller-Thurgau). Sivi Pinot (Pinot Gris) is also planted quite widely, as is Beli Pinot (Pinot Blanc). Hungary’s Furmint and France’s Sauvignon Blanc are growing in popularity and are finding homes in the export market. Pinot Noir (known as Modri Pinot) is the most common red wine grape variety, followed by Austria’s Blaufränkisch (Modra Frankinja), but today these make up less than 10% of production. Sweet wines from this region, made by either late harvesting or allowing botrytis infection, are locally popular; however this is declining- as it seems to be doing all across the planet!
Primorska is the next largest region, located right on the Mediterranean coast along the border with Italy in the west of the Slovenia. It accounts for around 8,000 hectares of vines which has grown over the past 15 years, steadily approaching Podravje in terms of both production and quality of wines. In fact, this region is home to Slovenia’s highest quality region, Goriška Brda, which established itself as a high quality region back in the 1980’s. This section is literally 2km from the Italian border, and as a result, there are many similarities between Brda and the wines of Friuli, the main one being the varieties used. Brda specialises in what Italians know as Ribolla Gialla, known here as Rebula, which makes fleshy, full-bodied and interesting dry whites that can age for decades. The name ‘Rebula’ apparently comes from the word for re-boil, which harks back to the times before winemakers knew what the process of fermentation actually was- they just thought of it as magic or God’s intervention! The original ferment was where the word ‘fermentation’ comes from- fervere is latin for the verb to boil. The re-boil comes from the Malolactic conversion, where harsh and sharp malic acid are converted into softer lactic acids by naturally occurring bacteria, which creates heat and carbon dioxide- a second boil! Rebula is king in this region, and definitely needs this Malolactic conversion of its high acid to make it into a round, creamy and nutty wine. Scandalously, some Slovenian winemakers believe that Ribolla was actually introduced to Italy by the Slovenes! It made its slow path up from Greece, and some evidence shows it has been grown in this region for at least 750 years.
Some of the most interesting wines in Slovenia come from here in the style similar to those made for many generations in Friuli across the border, and currently undergoing a huge renaissance- orange wine! For centuries, Slovenian winemakers from Primorska have kept their Rebula/Ribolla juice on its skins for weeks or months in oak or sometimes amphorae to build complexity, texture and length, while giving the wines their unique copper/orange colour. This style is now the ultimate hipster wine, and this region within Slovenia is developing into one of the epicentres of the orange and natural wine movement- centuries old cutting edge sounds a bit ironic doesn’t it! Other varieties are Refošk (Italy’s Refosco) and Verduc (Verduzzo). Sparkling wines are gaining popularity here also, made from Prosecco’s Glera grape as well as some made from Pinot Noir.
Posavje is the smallest and lowest quality region within Slovenia, located in the south-east of the country, bordering Croatia. It produces more red than white, but much of this is bulk wine- from over-cropped and fairly flavourless grapes, and made into an often sweet and tart wine which is a blend of varietals, all aged together in ancient Slovenian oak barrels and intended for immediate consumption. The majority of wine made here is consumed locally or sold across the border to Croatia or Bosnia and Herzegovina.
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