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.
This month, wine writer Chris Boiling visits Maribor, a charming city sandwiched between wine hills and snowy mountains.
Snow, skiing, and wine. For me, that’s the ultimate winter pairing.
One of the reasons for buying my winehouse and small vineyard in northeast Slovenia was that it was only 50 minutes away from the ski slopes of Maribor.
The Mariborsko Pohorje ski area, just south of Slovenia’s second city, is the largest ski resort in the country. It covers the mountain ranges of Mariborsko and Areško Pohorje which, in geological terms, are part of the Central Eastern Alps.
If you are still finding it difficult to picture Melania Trump’s home country as a skiing destination, think of Austria (which is only 20 minutes north of Maribor) but with cheaper ski passes, tuition and equipment hire, quieter slopes and nightlife, and gentler runs.
Plus, Maribor is an important wine city. It’s home to the world’s oldest living vine, the northern hills produce some excellent aromatic white wines, and it has some of the most picturesque vineyards. One looks as if it’s heart-shaped.
On the other side of the Drava River, which splits the city, are the mountains. These are densely wooded and have 26 miles of ski trails threading through the trees. The ski runs, which are at altitudes ranging from 1,066 to 4,353 feet high, are serviced by a cable-car, 16 ski lifts, three double chair lifts, one four-seat chairlift and one six-seat chairlift. The only place I’ve ever had to wait in line is on the nursery slope nearest to the cable car, when schoolchildren were having lessons.
Prices for adult ski lift passes start at €31`for a day and go up to €178 for a week. I usually go for three days (about €150 for lift passes, ski and boot hire).
Thirteen of the runs are classed as easy, nine are for intermediate level skiers and snowboarders, and three are for experts. One of these is used for the Golden Fox slalom and giant slalom races, part of the women’s World Cup circuit. In 2017, the event will take place on January 7 and 8 (2018 – January 6-7; 2019 – February 1-2). Some of the best and prettiest runs are on neighboring Areh. A free bus at the top of the mountain links the two ski centres. It’s about a 20-minute ride and I take it when I need to warm up.
One thing that makes Pohorje slightly different is that the 6 mile run from the top to the bottom is floodlit, so you can ski in the evenings. The views of the city from the slopes at night are spectacular.
Being able to ski in the evenings means there is time in the day to explore the city’s wine culture. The star attraction is the Old Vine (Stara trta). This has been certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest living vine. It’s about 450 years old and it’s growing on the front of the Old Vine House in the historic Lent area, the oldest part of the city. The 16th-century house offers tastings of local wines and artefacts showing the history of the old vine and winemaking in the Štajerska wine region. The building, which was bombed during the German occupation during World War Two, also has a tourist information centre (TIC) so it’s a good place to get information, pick up maps and perhaps book an appointment at one of the local wineries.
One thing you won’t be able to do at the Old Vine House is taste wine made from the rare red grape variety growing on the building. The vine produces about 25 liters of Žametna Crnina (or Modra Kavcina) grapes a year and the highly acidic wine is put in fancy 250 milliliter bottles and presented to VIP visitors, such as Bill Clinton and Pope John Paul. If you wish to discover how mouth-puckering and tart the wine might be, buy a bottle of Cviček from a supermarket. This is a specialty from the neighboring wine region of Dolenjska and Žametna Crnina is one of the key varieties in this popular (in Slovenia) red-white blend.
The Old Vine House is the site for several festivals throughout the year. The next one is the pruning ceremony on March 3, 2017. Scions from the old vine are presented to cities around the world.
The Old Vine House is on the north bank of the fast-flowing Drava River, and has views of the mountains on the south side. Along the riverbank are plenty of good places to eat and drink. One of the more unusual places is the restaurant and wine bar in the medieval water tower overlooking the river (one of the four defence towers still standing in the city). The Vinoteka Maribor Vodni stolp offers local wines and simple meat or cheese platters with home-baked bread.
One of the region’s top producers, Dveri-Pax, has a wine bar and wine shop in the city center (on the ground floor of the Slavija building). As well as serving its own wines, it also offers wines from nine other local producers and food. Dveri-Pax’s modern winery, north of Maribor and close to the border with Austria, is also worth a visit. It is owned by Benedictine monks from Austria who have invested heavily in renovating the winery and vineyards. At this time of year you will see some grapes in crates drying under the rafters. These Šipon/Furmint grapes, grown on its vineyards near Jeruzalem, are used to make the company’s award-winning ‘straw wine’ – one of the world’s top dessert wines.
In its vineyards near Maribor it grows the area’s key grape varieties – Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Yellow Muscat, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. Elsewhere in the region it grows Laški Rizling, Pinot Gris, Traminer, Zweigelt, and Blaufränkisch.
Another of the area’s top producers, Ptujska, is currently running the historic cellars under one of the main squares in Maribor on a temporary basis after the previous owners ran into trouble. The massive cellar, Vinagova klet (Vinag), covers 215,278 square feet and the tunnels measure 1.55 miles in length. It once housed 250,000 bottles of wine from the best vintages, but this valuable archive is currently being sold off. Still, it’s an impressive underground world in which to taste wine (if it’s open). At the time of going to press, there were €5 tours and tastings Monday-Thursday at 3 p.m. and Friday-Saturday at 3 p. m. and 6 p.m.
Ptujska also has an impressive 12th-century cellar in the nearby town of Ptuj, Slovenia’s oldest town, and makes wines under the Pullus brand.
Two beautiful modern wineries worth visiting are:
• The mostly underground Zlati Grič near Slovenske Konjice, which offers very clean, pure expressions of the region’s major white varieties, including Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, Traminer, and Pinot Gris, a top-quality Pinot Noir, and a range of sparkling wines that are aged in a 12th-century former monastery;
•The hilltop winery of the Doppler family. This offers a spectacular 360-degree view of the adjacent hills and mountains (including the Alps). The granddaughter of the founder, Mihaela Krsnik Kopše, even makes a wine called 360° – a lovely Sauvignon Blanc at the moment but the varietal does change from year to year according to what is the best wine. Its other top wines include a Muscat Ottonel, a Traminer and a sparkling wine made from pure Chardonnay called Diona. Doppler can be found near Zgornja Kungota, only a few minutes from the heart-shaped vineyard that is something of a poster vineyard for Slovenian wine.
For something more rustic, visit the Protner family farm in Pernica. As well as making some of the country’s best Rieslings, the family also has an inn serving traditional home-made dishes.
A few other boutique wines that are worth seeking out: Sanctum’s Chardonnay, Traminer and Pinot Noir, and M- vina’s Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Yellow Muskat. M-vina’s vineyards are on Pohorje, and the winemaker, Gregory Mikuž, is one of the rising stars of Slovenian wine.
One other must-try wine is the regional blend, Mariborcan, which comprises Riesling, Laški Rizling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Traminer. This is the official wine used to celebrate successes at the Golden Fox event.
If the weather and time permits, it’s worth walking through Mestni Park (City Park) – admiring the 150 species of trees, three ponds, and aquarium along the way – and climbing up Piramida Hill to get lovely views over the city and of some of the country’s best vineyards for Maribor’s specialty, Riesling. The best dry versions often have aromas of peach, citrus and herbs and are marked by their mineral flavors. The late harvest Rieslings from Piramida are particularly prized for their complexity and long life.
One of the best places to try them, or buy them, is Vinoteka Rožmarin, part of a popular shop with restaurant and café.
Other places to visit in the city:
- Maribor Castle (Mariborski grad) – from the 15th century and in the center of the city;
- The cathedral (with parts going back to the 12th, 14th and 15th centuries) and its charming square, Slomškov trg;
- The cafes and little shops around the main square, Glavni trg; and
- Maribor Synagogue (Sinagoga Maribor) – which dates back to the 14th century and is the second oldest in Europe.
Maribor may not be that well-known in either wine or skiing circles but a new brand, Visit Pohorje, was launched last year (2016) to change that, and an updated website (www.visitpohorje.si) is due to go live this month (January 2017).
Another useful website for information is www.maribor-pohorje.si
From Europe I fly to either Ljubljana (93 miles away) or Zagreb (80 miles away) and rent a car. From further afield I would fly to Vienna and spend a day or two in the Austrian capital before catching the bus or train to Maribor. The 158 mile bus journey takes about three hours and costs €20; the train takes longer, is slightly more expensive and involves changes.
Where to stay
The best hotels for skiers are the Habakuk at the foot of the mountain and Bellevue on top of the mountain. Both have wellness centers to relax aching limbs. A cheaper alternative near the ski resort is the B&B at the Pohorska Kavarna café. Another alternative is to stay in the city center and take the number 6 bus to the cable car station for skiing.
Where to eat
My favorite restaurants include Restavracija Mak, Gostilna Pri Treh Ribnikih, La Cantina, Gostilna Pec, Gril Ranca, and Sedem, which is part of the catering college but looks like a fine-dining restaurant.