Slovenia boasts everything that’s beautiful in the world, just in a smaller size. Slovenians even promote their country’s qualities on this basis. With wine however, it’s possible to think on a larger scale. This is especially true for the small but standout region of Brda.
A customs officer’s shack sits in the middle of the Via San Gabriele. Its old concrete roof is falling to pieces. When you pass, the rickety building looks rather comic. But here the city of Gorizia was once partitioned into Slovenian and Italian zones. Behind it, on Erjerceva Street, the tree-lined streets of a pleasant provincial town unfold as if nothing had ever happened.
“The Cold War is long gone,” says Aleš Kristancic dismissively. History has hit Nova Gorica harder than its Italian twin on the other side of the railroad tracks. But Aleš doesn’t want to dwell on that. He prefers to be enthusiastic about every aspect of winemaking. As he speaks, he gesticulates, pauses and varies the pitch to dramatic effect. Only one thing annoys him. “Why call us Balkan?”, he asks impatiently when pinpointing his native Slovenia as a wine country. Most interviewers would shrug and respond: “What else?” Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia, after all.
Brda, his home region, is located in the eastern foothills of the Alps. It borders directly on Friauli, the most famous Italian white wine region. “And who would say that Friuli lies in the Balkans?” The rhetorical question reveals a sore point for his nation.
Slovenia’s climate and location actually have little in common with Balkan regions such as the Bulgarian black sea coast or the Peloponnese. The conditions are central European. In the foothills of the Alps, the nights are cold and the soil is poor. Ponca, the lean sediment layer of marl and sandstone, is the bottom of a 35-million-year-old sea. “You can smell the chalk,” says winemaker Marjan Simcic, handing over a palm-sized piece of ponca. The intense chalky tone is often detectable in the wines. “When spring comes, you even smell it in the water,” he adds. All in all, these are ideal conditions for serious white wines.
Vineyards, ricotta and the ex-Austro-Hungarian empire
Brda boasts a green hilly landscape with oak forests, orchards, many vineyards and occasional castles. Dishes like apple strudel and gulasch on the menus of the village restaurants sound as if they had lost their way in Austria, which borders Slovenia to the north. But ricotta and stuffed zucchini flowers leave no doubt as to the nearest neighbour. The vineyards of the Collio dovetail seamlessly with the Brda winemakers’ parcels. “Here,” says Kristian Keber , "is the border between northern Europe and the Mediterranean”, between the Alps and the Adriatic. The former are responsible for the cold air, the latter for the mild-humid breeze. There’s lots of sun and a lot of rain.
The valleys run mainly from south-west to north-east and form varying terroirs. Calcium, silica, aluminium, magnesium and sodium oxide are just a few of the soil components, making it a playground for chemists. “South-western locations are difficult here," explains Kristian Keber, “because the dew doesn’t dry properly.” In addition, the hillsides are steep, and “the Ponca slips away," says his colleague Matjaž Šcurek. In a study of global climate risks for wine-growing, Brda came in fourth place. This is why many slopes are terraced.
Traditional pergola training has also largely given way to modern methods such as the Guyot system to keep yields in check. Brda’s 1,800 hectares of vineyards are mostly hand harvested.
Roughly three out of four bottles are white, and most are drunk up in the region. According to a 2014 Wine Institute of California study, Slovenia has the world's sixth highest per capita wine consumption. Excluding small-scale shopping paradises such as Luxembourg, Andorra and the Vatican, Slovenia’s 45 litres per capita is second only to world champion France. For every citizen, Slovenia has around 250 vines. Jasmina Cetric, from Ferdinand winery, adds happily “And the Slovenians love it dry.”
This is all good news, only the world takes too little notice of it. After the US, the neighbouring countries are the main export customers. Internationally, Slovenia is little known as a wine country. Similarities to names such as Slovakia, the Croatian region of Slavonia and many other personal and place-names including the syllable “slaw” or “slav” make it confusing for consumers. And then there's Slibowitz, the much loved plum brandy found everywhere from Southern Poland to the Balkans.
A top wine revived after death-by-communism
Rebula is identical to the Italian ribolla gialla. The name ‘rabola’ was mentioned in 1296 in a document by Pope Boniface VIII and many times since. Although the term may have described a style more than a grape variety in that period, the evidence all points to its origins in the region.
There are a number of genetic variations. In Brda, the largest growing area, small-berry, green, yellow and crazy rebula (which produces markedly different sized berries) can be identified. Most high-quality rebulas are produced from around one fifth of the total growing areas. They can age for a good ten years, but Jasmina Cetric notes that “you can drink them after two”.
Even a small tasting shows the enormous variety on offer. “Brutus" by Ferdinand tastes earthy, with notes of wormwood and lemon balm. The grapes for Marjan Šimcic's "Opoka" 2015, from over 60-year-old vines, were aged in egg-shaped wooden vats and have notes of meadow herbs, pineapple and light caramel. Joško Gravner, the legendary renegade of Collio, has always had a part of his vineyards in Brda. His dark amber-coloured 2010 Ribolla (fermented in Georgian qvevris) has balsamic aromas redolent of menthol, then almonds and undergrowth. All these wines share a dense mineral character.
“Tito loved rebula,” says Matjaž Šcurek, “but then came the mass-production era.” The headache-wine image was not long in coming. Lone fighters eventually rescued rebula’s reputation. Currently, Matjaž Šcurek and a few others are successfully attempting to vinify rebula as a sparkling wine, full of fruit and minerality.
Chardonnay, the second most popular variety, is also a safe bet in Brda. High quality is always possible given the right treatment. Friulano used to be known as Tokai Friulano as it was in Friuli. The Friulians do not like the name Friulano, the Slovenians feel at odds with the expression Sauvignonasse, which sounds more like a corruption of Sauvignon Blanc. At Klet Brda, the (former state cooperative, the wines are therefore labelled "exTo" standing for ex-Tokaj. The variety’s dense fruity notes are prominent, whatever the name on the label.
Sivi Pinot is often labelled with its Italian name Pinot Grigio in Slovenia, with all the inherent advantages and disadvantages that brings. “Many are simply too cheap,” complains Marko Skocaj of Dolfo. The best Pinot Grigios here are little works of art, but “require a lot of work,” says colleague Edi Simcic. In addition to the four big whites, the Slovenian gene pool still has a lot to offer, however a variety with better potential has not so far come to light.
More and more winemakers are realising the benefits of blends. Kristian Keber prioritises high quality vineyard sites, in a similar manner to Gemischter Satz producers in Vienna.
Nature’s bounty and the Habsburgs
DNA profiling in 2016 revealed that Blaufränkisch and Blauer Portugieser probably have their roots here. However, in the red corner it’s Bordeaux varieties that dominate, yielding refined silken results. Merlot particularly shines with its dense finesse. In the last few years, experiments with Pinot Noir have also grabbed attention.
Teran has had publicity for many centuries: Livia, wife of the Roman Emperor Augustus, is said to have strongly favoured the variety. The acid-rich, dense red is a speciality of the iron-rich soils of Istria, hence Croatia wanted to market it internationally. However, Slovenia, the older EU member, insisted on protecting its brand.
Long before Livia became the mother of the nation due to her exemplary way of life, Celtic and Illyrian tribes appreciated Slovenia’s exceptional terroirs. Later, monks developed the wines of Rebula, Malvasia and Teran.
Progress also meant the seizure of power by the Austrian monarchy. The Habsburgs valued the hill country as their fruit cellar, and especially the cherries. Anyone who tastes them freshly picked today will know why. In return, Slovenian winegrowers profited from the well-organized state system with agricultural colleges and a large domestic market. To this day, winemakers are proud that Maria Theresia classified the vineyards in Goriška Brda as early as the 18th century - long before Bordeaux.
During World War one, the peaceful multicultural region paid an incredible toll in the Isonzo battles, whose futile cruelty is described in Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell To Arms”. “It’s not only climate and grape vines that cross paths here, but also politics”, says Matjaž Šcurek with a little shrug.
After the war, Brda fell to Italy and became a victim once more, this time of the Mussolini dictatorship’s cultural genocide. All languages and dialects except Italian were banned, and books were burned. After the Second World War, Slovenia became part of the multinational state of Yugoslavia, which also sought to equalize cultural identities. With the arbitrary demarcation of nations, vineyards and sometimes even wineries were split up.
The socialist economic plan did not bode well for the industry. “There was nothing except cooperatives”, says Matjaž Šcurek, “where all farmers had to surrender their grapes” - together with their dreams of good wine. “It was a lost generation.” Quality did not exist in the lexicon of Socialism. For decades, it was all about quantity, while winemakers mournfully followed the innovations on the Italian side of the border. “They got new oak barrels from Allier, we got a bag of cement and epoxy resin from the cooperative”, recalls Marjan Simcic. A severe earthquake in 1976 further weakened the structurally weak region.
After the collapse of Yugoslavia, Slovenia was the first country to declare its independence in 1991 and managed to largely avoid the Balkan wars. Slovenia has been a member of the EU since 2004, quickly adopted the Euro and is increasingly weakening Friuli’s economic advantage.
Many winegrowers missed the trend towards international grape varieties and new oak barrels, and now follow a contrary direction. Long maceration in the white wines, spontaneous fermentation and ageing in large oak barrels are all a return to traditional techniques.
Aleš Kristancic made such experiments in the late eighties. Instead of intervening extensively in the vinification process, he worked with the phases of the moon and indigenous grape varieties. His ‘Lunar’ wines set standards in terms of complexity. This style has gained the small region much admiration for orange wine production, with the advantage of its considerable experience. The winemakers use long skin contact to create complex flavours and ageing potential. The right amount of extraction creates elegance whilst avoiding bitterness. Large oak barrels provide the perfect amount of micro-oxidation.
Classification without borders
Due to border adjustments, inheritance and acquisitions, some Friulian winemakers also have holdings on the Slovenian side. However, they are allowed to bottle their harvest across the border, but only as a “blend of different countries of the European Community”. Who would actually do that? For this and many other reasons, it would surely be better to offer a common classification where the two regions can be combined.
Of course, the usual misgivings are quickly voiced. The Slovenians are competing with us with lower prices, say the Friulani. The huge new Ribolla Gialla areas in Friuli are spoiling our profits, fear the Brda producers. “Slovenes like to race with their expensive cars” says Kristian Keber, to illustrate the very similar mindset on both sides, “and so do Italians.”
In the long run, what belongs together should be able to develop together. A competitive situation with almost identical products is often unfavourable for everyone. Cross-border masterclasses have increasingly been organised over the last few years. A predictive model for disease and the development of biopesticides is in a trial phase, with stations in both countries. Some winemakers are already producing on both sides of the border. Edi Keber has proposed what he calls the first international appellation, even if it's “just a dream at the moment”. Many of these bold moves once seemed impossible.