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.
“I don’t eat my workers, and they know it.” Biodynamic winemaker Radovan Šuman is introducing me to his staff – ducks and sheep. It’s another memorable moment from my short tour of one of the prettiest, most fascinating wine countries in Europe, Slovenia.
In the space of a few days and a few hundred miles, I have seen and tasted a vast spectrum of wine. I have tasted some of the best dry white wines in the world – pure expressions of Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Traminer. I have tasted their funky variations – Sauvignon Blancs that have been made for aging, Pinot Gris that's pinker than most rosés, Traminers kept in oak barrels for 18 months, and white wines where the grapes have been macerated for more than a year.
I have tasted world-class reds made from pinot noir, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and barbera. I have also sipped on expressive examples of lesser-known grapes like Furmint, Rebula, Pinela, Zelen, Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt. I’ve tasted some of the most unusual and complex blends, too. There was a field blend called Zaria that is flaunting several of the country’s oldest white grapes: 55 percent Pinela, 20 percent Zelen, 10 percent Rebula, 8 percent Vitovska, 4 percent Klarnica, 2 percent Chardonnay and 1 percent Rumeni Muškat. And there was a red wine made from 50 percent Pokalca (Schioppettino), 30 percent Modra Frankinja (Blaufränkisch) and 20 percent Refošk (Refosco).
I’ve tasted wine from huge stainless steel tanks, barriques, cement eggs and amphorae. I’ve seen modern wineries built into hills, cellars that date back to 1239 and caves carved out by hand. I’ve seen the world’s oldest grapevine and a grapevine that survived phylloxera because its roots are inside a house. I’ve also seen swaths of new plantings on stunning terraced slopes.
I’ve done all this in one land. One small, little-known country often overshadowed by the countries that surround it. Countries like Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia.
Slovenia is similar in size to New Jersey (20,273 square kilometers, 7,827 square miles), and most stops are a smooth two-hour drive from the capital of Ljubljana. The drives out are a joy. Slovenia is a country of mountains, lakes, forests, quiet roads and 22,300 hectares of vineyards.
The tip for tourists is to head to a town’s tourist information centre (TIC). Very often these offices sell wine, offer tastings and can book appointments at wineries. The wines are generally pleasing, with 77 percent of Slovenian wine of Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) quality, and the welcome will always be genuine and warm.
At the smaller wineries it’s likely to be the winemaker who shows you around and conducts the tastings. They are so passionate about their wines that tastings can last a couple hours, simply because they want you to taste everything that’s in the barrels and tanks, in addition to that which has already been blended. At one winery they dug out a Furmint from 1976. At another, they sought my opinion on a Chardonnay from 1990, which was just before Slovenia broke away from Yugoslavia.
Fortunately, many of the wineries offer accommodations or have friends who run guest houses. Rooms typically run €50-€70 per night. This is a country that offers good value for money. You can buy a good white wine for €6-€12, a good red for €8-€15 and a three-course Sunday lunch for €10-€12.
Slovenia is divided into three wine regions, each of which has its own character and attractions. Here are highlights of each region.
The region in the northeast, Podravje, is best known for its aromatic dry whites, from international grape varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Traminer, and its regional flagship, Furmint (called Sipon locally). It also offers good examples of Pinot Noir and Austrian reds Blaufränkisch (Modra Frankinja locally) and Zweigelt.
The major cities in the region are Maribor, which has the world’s oldest vine (more than 450 years old), and Ptuj, where the Pullus cellar dates back to 1239. In Podravje you will also find the country’s oldest sparkling wine producer, Radgonske Gorice, which has been making classic-method fizz since 1852. Its beautiful cellars include a waterfall and a Roman wheel.
Other wineries worth a visit: Marof, which is built like an upside down ship in honour of the time when this land was covered by the Pannonian Sea; Zlati Grič, which is built into the sloping hill and offers a nine-hole golf course laid out between the vines; and P&F (Puklavec and Friends), the region’s largest wine producer, which has a seven-story cylindrical winery.
The starting point: Either the TIC in Maribor or Jeruzalem.
The must-see place: Jeruzalem, a small village at the heart of one of the best terroirs in the world. You can sample the wines made here at the TIC, or P&F’s 300-year-old Malek cottage, or at a wine shop in Svetinje, Svetinjska Klet. Take lunch at the rustic Taverna en route and try its Pinot Noir-Merlot blend that has matured for 25 months in mulberry barrels.
Places to stay: The Zlati Grič winery has four apartments in a former mansion on top of the hill overlooking the winery; Hlebec has seven cozy rooms and offers fantastic home cooking to accompany the wines made by father and son, both named Milan Hlebec.
Do not visit the aforementioned Radovan Šuman’s little winery in Zavrh unless you appreciate biodynamic wines. I was there when he turned away a coach party. “They will not understand my wines,” he said.
Posavje in the southeast is a hotspot for modra Frankinja (Blaufränkish) and a strange, light red, low-alcohol, high-acid blend called Cviček. This is a blend of 70 percent reds (such as Modra Frankinja and the grape grown on Maribor’s old vine, Zametna Crnina) and 30 percent whites (Kraljevina, Laški Rizling, Rumeni Plavec, Zeleni Silvanec, Ranfol, Lipna). Basically, it’s a mixture of the old varieties that survived phylloxera!
My favourite producers from this region include the eccentric Janez Šekoranja, whose Graben wines include a bronze-coloured Pinot Gris started with 45 days of skin contact and a sweet Traminer that has spent 18 years in oak. This region has its own world-class sparkling wine producer, Istenič, owned by former Yuoglsavian goalkeeper Janez Istenič. Some of his wines feature a variety peculiar to the Bizeljsko area, Rumeni Plavec.
The region’s other world-class producer is the sweet wine supremo Jožef Prus. This is the only place I know where you can taste Rumeni Muškat (yellow muscat) in all its guises: dry, sparkling and three types of sweet (late harvest, ice wine and dry berry selection).
The place to start: TIC in Krško or Čatež ob Savi.
The must-see place: A Repnice wine cellar. The locals dug these caves to store produce such as turnips (repa). Now they are used to store wine and provide a great atmosphere for trying the local fare. I visited Repnica Najgar.
Places to stay: I stayed at one of the country’s many natural spas, Čatež, which has indoor and outdoor pools, a sauna and a casino. An alternative is the same company’s Sevnica Castle. Additionally, the Istenič winery in Bizeljsko has eight double rooms.
Places to eat: My favourite fish restaurant in the country is Ana Kranjčič, which has its own organic fish farm. You can visit the farm before the meal to learn how the trout and carp are bred. I also ate at Sevnica Castle, which has an impressive circular cellar at the foot of one of its towers.
Primorje, to the west of Ljubljana, is Slovenia’s most productive wine region, producing about 25 million litres of wine a year. This is where Slovenia’s most famous sub-region, Goriška Brda, is located. This region shares the same hills and avant-garde attitudes as winemakers in Collio, Italy. The best-known wines are whites made from the regional flagship variety Rebula (Ribolla Gialla), but there are also many well-made Merlot-Cabernet blends.
The star winemaker in these parts is Aleš Kristančič of Movia. Movia has been biodynamic for 20 years and Aleš says he is the eighth generation to farm organically on the estate. Aleš’s wines include a Sauvignon Blanc that is aged for two years in French oak barrels, a red blend featuring Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir, and two sparkling wines that come with instructions on how to disgorge them underwater yourself (Puro and Puro Rosé).
Down the road is organic producer Marjan Simčič, whose wines are slightly more conventional but just as intense, complex and powerful. Marjan told me he makes wine for drinking after 10 to 20 years, and uses the lees to protect them rather than sulfites. His most famous wine, Leonardo, is made from dried Rebula grapes and will convert anyone to dessert wines.
Up the road is a small sparkling wine specialist, Bjana. Winemaker Miran Sirk uses Rebula alongside Chardonnay or Pinot Noir in his classic-method bubbly. Miran says it contributes “elegance and freshness” to the blend. He and his wife, Petra, have two luxury rooms for guests.
For me, it’s the high quality and stark diversity in five minutes’ road time that makes this area a gem. The neighboring sub-region, the Vipava Valley, also has plenty to offer. There are several top biodynamic and organic growers there -- Batič, Guerila and Burja -- taking advantage of the strong winds that blow down the valley. There are also three grape varieties indigenous to the area: Pinela, Zelen and Klarnica. On top of that, the Vipava Valley has two of the country’s top restaurants, Zemono Manor and Majerija.
The place to start: The TICs in Dobrovo, Vipava or Ajdovščina, or the Faladur wine shop in Ajdovščina.
The must-see place: The Postojna Caves.
Places to stay: House Iaquin in Goriška Brda, run by brothers who make their own wines, and Majerija in Vipava Valley, which has a fantastic restaurant and 10 underground rooms next to the old farmhouse.