Chris Boiling is a winemaker and wine and travel writer. You can find his work at JancisRobinson.com, VinCE magazine and of course WTM, where he wants to share his passion for the wines and wine regions of Central and Eastern Europe.
Wine and travel writer Chris Boiling, a frequent visitor to northeast Slovenia, goes on a pilgrimage to the pretty wine village called Jeruzalem…
The words on the barrel say ‘See you again on the Šipon Wine Route.’ Šipon is not the name of the place but rather the name of the area’s signature grape variety. Wine lovers know the grape better as Furmint, the key component in the great wines of Tokaj.
But if you turn off the main road that runs between Ormož and Ljutomer at the barrel pictured you will discover much more than Šipon. You will discover why Romans, 13th-century crusaders and Napoleon’s soldiers all stopped here for a drink.
The Šipon Wine Route is a paradise for lovers of white wines. Its scenery today includes rolling hills covered in terraced vineyards, roads lined by poplar trees, historic cottages, and quaint churches. The wines feature all the great white grapes, but especially Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Traminer, and Chardonnay, plus Furmint in sparkling, still and sweet forms, and Laški Rizling as a top dessert wine.
The road sign says you are heading to Jeruzalem which is thought to have been named by crusaders whose idea of the Promised Land consisted of verdant hills, fine wines, good food and a friendly welcome. It’s my idea too, and I always find it in the Jeruzalem-Ormož wine hills in northeast Slovenia (about a two-hour drive from the capital, Ljubljana).
Follow the bends in the road, past the Vino Kupljen winery, as there is a better place ahead to try Samo Kupljen’s wines. Your first stop is the tasting cellar in Svetinje, one of the many picturesque hills that make up this part of Podravje, the largest wine-growing region in Slovenia. Here, you can taste fruity, grassy Sauvignon Blancs, fresh and aromatic Pinot Grigios, minerally Rieslings, dry, crisp and delicate Furmints, and luscious icewines.
From the tables outside you can see the last hills before the great Pannonian plain (across the border with Hungary) and the neat terraces that offer the grapes such great growing conditions. The terraces curve gracefully round the contours of the hills, providing optimal sun exposure, protection from any cold weather that escapes the Alps, good drainage and access to the mineral-rich, warm, and nutritious soils that are so specific to this region (they developed primarily from non-carbonate rock).
The hill we’re on, Svetinje, means ‘sacred things.’ The peak to the south is called Vinski vrh, which means ‘the wine peak.’ It’s well-known locally for its late harvest Rieslings. Everywhere you look, it’s wine country. Even the sound in the air – the rhythmic rattle of klopotci (16th-century wooden windmills put up during the ripening period to scare birds away) – comes from the area’s dependence on wine.
These hills have been growing grapes since well before Roman emperor Probus declared the province ‘Vinea nobilis districtis.’ At one point, when Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia, these hills produced 7 million bottles of Laški Rizling for the UK market alone. Now it’s very difficult to find one bottle in any UK supermarket, which is a shame as the quality and dryness have only increased since Slovenia became independent in 1991. The proof is in the glass. I am drinking a Laški Rizling that’s dry and dramatic, with lemons and apples on the nose and a savory flavor in the mouth. It’s the Laški Rizling 2009 from Dveri-Pax, one of 30 local wine producers whose wares are on display in the Svetinje vinoteka, Svetinjska Klet. While I’m getting my head around the transformation from the sweet, heavy, oak-aged Ljutomer Rizling of my youth, Dveri-Pax’s export manager, Samo Simonič, explains why this region has so much potential. “The soil and climate of Jeruzalem are in the area where the Mediterranean and Pannonian climate systems come together. Especially in September and October we have warm, dry, sunny days and cold nights. This oscillation between day and night temperatures is ideal for grapes, allowing them to develop wonderful fruity and fresh acidity.”
I move on to the Verus Late Harvest 2008, made from the same grape variety, the predominant variety in this region (and much of Central Europe where it goes by names such as Grasevina, Welschriesling, Olaszrizling and Italian Riesling, even though it is not related to Riesling). This wine is sweet without being cloying and creates an introduction to the area which couldn’t get much better.
Svetinjska Klet is the perfect place to begin a tour of these wine hills, whether you’re in a car, cycling or hiking, as the €8 tasting of six wines demonstrates what the region is capable of producing. I’m on foot as our destination, the hilltop village of Jeruzalem, is only 3000 or 4000 meters from here.
The next major building along the wine road is the rustic, atmospheric Gostisce Taverna. The restaurant opened in 1898 and doesn’t appear to have changed much over the years! It has heavy wooden tables, benches backed by barrel staves, and all sorts of antiques, including a wooden carriage resting on the exposed ceiling beams. The arched cellar below the restaurant and the wine estate date back to 1836 but are now in the hands of the Kupljen family. Their wines, Vino Kupljen, are excellent, the menu is extensive and reasonably priced, and the vistas are superb.
The view out of the front windows is of new Šipon vines and a 300-year-old cottage. The Malek cottage, now a wine shop, tasting room, and viniculture museum, appears to have been built around an older (early 18th century) chapel and a huge wooden press. The cottage and the vineyard belong to the region’s largest wine producer, P&F Wineries. The Puklavec family has two wineries, in the nearby towns of Ormož and Ljutomer, and produces about 6 million liters of wine each year under brand names such as Jeruzalem-Ormož, Ljutomerčan, Puklavec & Friends, and Gomila (their top vineyard site). The grapes behind these labels are produced on about 1600 acres of their own vineyards, and from another 1235 acres owned by local growers. Tastings in the cottage cost €4.
Further along the road, on the highest hill in the area (343 meters above sea level), you will find Jeruzalem. I’ve seen it described as a town but it’s little more than a baroque church, a four-star hotel, a wine shop/tourist information centre and a free car park. The church of Our Lady of Sorrows was built in 1730 and stands on the site of the chapel of All Saints, which was built in 1603. At the impressively rich main altar is a picture of Mary mourning her son, dating from the 17th century.
The adjacent tourist information center sells wine from 32 local producers and offers tastings for €1 per mouthful. You can also pick up maps and brochures here, and discuss your plans for winemaker visits with the multilingual staff.
The manor hotel, Dvorec Jeruzalem, was once part of the Puklavec empire but now is linked to the Svetinjska Klet. It has 10 beautiful bedrooms and a presidential suite which includes a whirlpool bath. The restaurant offers local, seasonal food and wines from the P&F stable.
Over a bottle of Gomila Exclusive Furmint 2011, I discuss the area with P&F’s managing director and winemaker Mitja Herga. He was brought up on a vineyard in nearby Ormož, studied food technology in Ljubljana and won a scholarship to hone his winemaking skills abroad. He was working in a New Zealand winery in 2009 when he got the call to come back home. Engineering entrepreneur Vladimer Puklavec, whose father, Martin, had been a key figure in the local wine scene before World War II, had bought the two troubled former state-owned co-ops in Ormož and Ljutomer and he wanted Mitja to transform them into international success stories. After investing millions in the wineries, vineyards and marketing, they are well on their way. They export to 20 countries and regularly receive awards for their fresh, fruity, accessible wines.
The Furmint/Šipon that I am sharing with Mitja is from 2011, a good year (like 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016). “Šipon needs sun,” he tells me. The wine’s fieriness comes from vines that are more than 30 years old and as Mitja explains, “you cannot expect that from vines that are just five to ten years old.”
It’s important for him to get Šipon right because this variety is seen as the region’s signature grape. It is softer and has less acidity than the Furmint dry wines of the more famous Tokaji region in Hungary. Typically, the Slovenian Furmint has delicate aromas of grapefruit, apple and pear, and tastes minerally and crisp.
Two other producers with vineyards around Jeruzalem that have gained international recognition for their Šipon are Dveri-Pax, which transports its grapes to a former monastery near the Austrian border, and Verus, which was founded in 2007 by three disgruntled young Jeruzalem-Ormož workers who set up on their own in a former bakery in Ormož, near the border of Croatia.
P&F’s seven-story winery in Ormož includes a cellar with 247,000 ‘archive wines’ some examples being a 1959 Pinot Blanc, 1963 Sauvignon Blanc and 1964 Gewürztraminer. The archive proves that the white wines from this region are so special that they can last for decades. “I was completely amazed,” says Mitja, on recalling the day he got to taste some of the oldest bottles. “They are 30 to 50 years old and they are fantastic.”
His favorite is the Sauvignon from 1963. It’s a dry wine that still expresses its varietal aromas and flavors after more than 50 years. “I couldn’t believe it was possible,” Mitja says. What the archive also shows is that, contrary to the way of life here, the buildings and the scenery, the climate has changed a lot. “The grapes then had much lower sugar content, the acids were a bit higher, but not so much, and they had a fantastic pH. And the wines were fantastic. I think it was because they had some fantastic clones.”
Before I leave the Dvorec Jeruzalem hotel, Mitja reveals that P&F has recently released a Šipon-based sparkling wine made by the traditional Champagne method. “We wanted to do something different,” he says.
Outside the hotel, I have a decision to make: Which road to take? As I’ve come from Svetinje in the south-west, the choice is north or south-east. Fortunately, all roads in the region seem to lead to a tourist farm.
P&F, Dveri-Pax and Verus may be raising the international profile of the region, but the heart of it is the artisan winemaker. Many of these have tourist farms that are usually signposted or have a barrel outside. Although they often look closed, beyond the heavy oak doors there’s always a warm welcome waiting – and a glass, jug or bottle of house wine. The quality varies enormously, of course. I’ve had wines that were still fermenting in the glass and one that had been over-sulphated, but I’ve also had some that wouldn’t be out of place in a top restaurant and the price of that one was only €2 for a bottle!
Tourist farms Jureš in Globoka and Tompa in Stara Cesta are my favorites. They offer fantastic views of the undulating hills, good wine and meals at an excellent value. The mixed meat platters are great for sharing. Other local specialties include flat breads, buckwheat flat cake, beef broth, vegetable or mushroom soup, stewed veal, venison, cottage cheese strudel, roast duck, and gibanica (a delicious multi-layered cake).
I decide to turn left and head for Vinski Hram (Brenholc), a 300-year-old wine mansion which offers 16 bedrooms, renovated cellars for functions, a restaurant that always seems to be open, and breath-taking views over some of Verus’ vineyards. Verus, by the way, means ‘truth’ and the winemaker, Danilo Snajder, explains it by saying: “We want to produce wine that shows the truthful character of the special site here in Jeruzalem.”
Continue past Vinski Hram (Brenholc) and you will eventually see signs for Zasavci or Kog. At Zasavci, on another hill 300 meters above sea level, there is the tourist farm Puklavec (not part of the P&F empire) with an ancient cellar and more modern wine shop. Its 46 acres produce great Furmints and Rieslings and good Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Muskat Ottonel. At Kog, near the Croatian border, you will find the Hlebec family farm offering homemade, traditional dishes washed down with wine from Milan Hlebec’s 35,000 vines. On the hill behind is one of the world’s great - and almost unknown - sweet wine producers. At PRA-VinO, Slavko and Borut Čurin-Prapotnik have some amazing ice wines made from Šipon and Laški Rizling.
Beyond Kog is Gomila, the vineyard that produces P&F’s top wines. The Sauvignon Blanc from this dense, partly-sandy, partly-clayey soil is world-class. The Gomila Exclusive Sauvignon Blanc is crisp, fruity, slightly grassy, minerally, and lively. This is not like a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, “this is new Old World,” according to its maker, Mitja. Who would have thought the Šipon Wine Route would lead to a top-class Sauvignon Blanc?
The region’s top restaurant
Zerovinci 25b, 2259 Ivanjkovci
Tel: 00386 2 719 4097
Exquisite dishes from the Prlekija region, wines from 20 local producers, the best service in Slovenia. On the main road that runs between Ormož and Ljutomer.