Slovenia is a republic country, formerly part of Yugoslavia, that gained independence in 1991 after a short conflict. In truth, Slovenia had always been the most prosperous and western-facing of the former Yugoslav states.The wines of Slovenia – as well as its cultural and social attitudes – have been influenced by its neighbours Italy to the west, Austria to the north and Hungary to the east. Croatia to the south is an important trading partner, but Slovenia has fully embraced Europe, being part of the EU since 2004.
Slovenia today is a confident democracy that engages with the rest of the world both politically and economically. Its naturally western-facing tendencies have flourished.
The Slovenian wine industry has also gone through massive changes. Under communism, grape growers were required to sell their production to the cooperatives. But since 1991 a new generation of independent wine estates has emerged from the country’s younger and more ambitious farmers.
To the north-east, the region of Podravje is the largest vineyard area. It has a continental climate, and is known for its sparkling and dessert wines. Just to the south is Posavje, where some very good quality wines are made, but also a deal of Cviček, a light, pink wine made by blending red and white wine grapes.But this feature concentrates solely on the most westerly of Slovenia’s three wine regions, Primorska.Primorska enjoys a more Mediterranean climate, with some diverse micro-climates. Its land is largely a continuation of Italy’s Friuli region, and soils range from flysch – a friable mix of sandstone, marl and sandy shale – to the rich terra rossa of the Kras plateau.
Slovenia grows a fascinating mix of indigenous, Italian, and international grapes. Slovene varieties like Pinela and Zelen are bottled as varietal wines, as are many grapes familiar to fans of Friulian wine – like Rebula (Ribolla), Pikolit (Picolit) and Refošk (Refosco). In terms of French varieties, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinots Gris and Blanc are common for whites, whilst Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are being joined by Pinot Noir for reds. Eastern Slovenia has definite Austrian influences, with Laški Rizling, Riesling itself, Traminer, Muscat and Šipon (Slovenia’s name for Hungary’s Furmint).
The political boundary between The Italian hills of Collio and Slovenian hills of Brda seems absurd when viewed from the ground: the vineyards spread seamlessly across the landscape, not marked by any sign or fence. Many Slovenian estates have vineyards scattered across both appellations. Indeed, the best known name of this region is probably Josko Gravner, the iconoclastic winemaker who farms in both Slovenia and Italy, but who makes his wines on the Italian side. His success has had a powerful impact on a small group of winemakers who have embraced the same natural farming and winemaking techniques, using minimal chemicals, minimal or no sulphur, and only ambient yeasts to manage implausibly long skin macerations.
Producers like Batič, whose 50,000 bottle production ranges from some easier going, off dry styles, to the full “Gravneresque” treatment. Sutor makes almost exclusively white wines, but they have begun a Pinot Noir project with exciting potential. Edi Simčič is one of the more “international” estates, with all wines fermented in barrels, mostly barriques of French oak. Marjan Simčič strikes a middle ground with an international style, but some wines macerated for one year. Movia is one of the most fascinating estates, where owner and winemaker Aleš Kristančič farms biodynamically and makes some extraordinary wines.
The climate is much more continental than the Mediterranean west. It can reach 40°C in summer but winter temperatures are regularly as low as -20°C. This gives a clue as to the wines the region is most proud of – its intensely sweet and luscious ice-wines and “Trockenbeeranauslese” (look for Ledeno vino and Jagodni Izbor on the label). The country’s best producer of these wines is the family business of PraVino, where three generations are still involved.
A couple of young producers doing promising things with Šipon include Miro Munda whose wines are zesty and fresh, with a Chablis-like mineral quality. Verus has British MW Angela Muir as director, and their 2007s have lovely aromatics and fresh, crisp structure. Bostjan Protner of Joannes makes good Riesling, Pinot Gris, decent Chardonnay and a pleasant Pinot Noir rosé. Literally within a few metres of the border with Austria’s Styria, Sauvignon Blanc does well, with Valdhuber making one of the best. There’s Austrian involvement at the brand new Dveri-Pax winery, owned by Benedictine monks.
Slovenia is a thrilling country to visit, with it stunning scenery and warm welcome. Its leading producers are undoubtedly punching well above their weight in making some of the most exciting wines in central Europe.