Getting to know Slovenian Wine
by Graeme Chuter / 20th November 2020 / reading time 10 minutes
Hands up if you are aware that Slovenia is a wine-producing nation? Hands up again if you have ever tried Slovenian wine? Either way, let’s get better acquainted with Slovenia’s wine regions, the impressive selection of wines produced, and how these can be best discovered and enjoyed?
A matter of quality over quantity.
Slovenia is one of the smallest countries in Europe, located at a central point where west meets east, and where the Alps meet the Adriatic. Numerous sub-climates across the country are influenced by cool alpine breezes from the north, and the southerly winds from the Mediterranean, creating perfect conditions for cultivating vines and making fabulous wine.
As might be expected, in terms of total output Slovenia is a relatively small producer, certainly compared with its mighty neighbour Italy.
Therefore, wine export volumes are also relatively modest and you would do well to find a bottle of Slovenian wine on a supermarket shelf outside of its own borders, and especially further afield in countries such as the UK or the US. But look more closely and you could find a couple of white varieties available in the UK at Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, supplied by two of Slovenia’s largest wine co-operatives. Typically though, you would need to go to a specialist wine outlet to pick up a bottle or two.
There are several decent-size co-operatives in the country, where each one typically has a hundred or more member farms contributing to the production. The grape quality across the different vineyards is stringently monitored by the co-operative oenologists, and this enables them to produce distinctly different lines. From mediocre so-called “open wines”, to medium quality fresh wines, through to the highest quality premium wines – aged barriques, produced from the best-rated fruit and requiring optimum weather conditions.
The vast majority of Slovenia’s 28,000 wine producers tend to be small and family-run, where the emphasis is on quality rather than quantity, and where long-standing family values and traditions have been meticulously followed and passed down through several generations.
The usage of supplementary chemicals and pesticides is typically kept to a minimum, and most of the grapes are picked by hand, even by the largest producers. For many boutique wineries, gaining official recognition as an “organic” producer has been relatively easy since only minor tweaking of their methods has been required.
The wine regions and grape varieties in Slovenia are surprisingly diverse.
Slovenia has three primary wine regions which are located in the south-west of the country (Primorje), the south-east (Posavje), and the north-east (Podravje). These three regions are divided into sub-regions as illustrated in the table below. The overall wine production of around 80 million litres per year comes from approximately 70% white and 30% red grapes, using many international and indigenous grape varieties, and resulting in a mouth-watering selection of white, red, rose and sparkling wines.
|Primary regions||Sub-regions||Most popular grape varieties|
|red: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, syrah (shiraz), pinot noir, barbera, teran, refošk.
white: rebula, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot blanc, pinot grigot, zelen, pinela, malvasija, rumeni (yellow) mušcat.
|red: modra frankinja (blaufränkisch).
white: laški riesling, traminec, pinot grigot, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, rumeni mušcat.
red & white blend: Cviček – typically a blend of žametna črnina and modra frankinja (reds), and krajevina and laški Riesling (whites).
|red: modra frankinja, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and merlot.
white: laški riesling, renski riesling, rumeni mušcat, mušcat blanc, pinot blanc, pinot grigot, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, traminec, šipon (furmint) and kerner.
Primorje is located in the extreme west of Slovenia, adjacent to the Italian border. The corresponding administrative region of Primorska (meaning “by the sea”) is split into two, north and south. South Primorska is located on the Adriatic coast and also includes an inland area known as the Slovenian Karst. Here the climate is classically Mediterranean, with reasonably mild winters and hot and dry summers. The deep reddish-brown soil is particularly rich in minerals, which makes it ideal for producing Refošk, Teran, and Malvasija. North Primorska includes the sub-regions of Goriška Brda and the Vipava Valley. As well as being vineyard country, the region is also known for growing many other different fruits in abundance, such as cherries, peaches, nectarines, figs, and olives.
The climate is also very hot and dry during the summer months, but the land is cooled by fresh winds coming down from the nearby mountains during the nights, and occasional downpours of rain provide a sufficient supply of water. The landscape here is stunningly beautiful – with lush green rolling hills carpeted by vineyards and cypress trees, peppered with “Italian style” medieval hilltop villages, ornate bell towers, and stylish castles. Goriška Brda and the nearby Vipava Valley offer the widest range of grape varieties, compared with Slovenia’s other wine regions.
White wines are produced in the largest volumes, including Rebula, Zelen, and Pinela – indigenous varieties rarely found anywhere else outside of Slovenia – plus Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Grigot, Malvasija, and Rumeni (yellow) Mušcat. In smaller volumes but with good quality, the red varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah (Shiraz), Pinot Noir, Barbera, Teran, and Refošk.
The Posavje and Podravje wine regions are located in the east of Slovenia and take their names from the rivers which flow through each area – the Sava and the Drava. The administrative territories which are covered here, running from north-east to south-east are Prekmurje, Štajerska, Dolenjska, and Bela Krajina – bordering with Austria and Hungary in the north and with Croatia to the east and south. For the most part, the landscape is made up of gentle ranges of hills and wide river valleys, with a temperate climate. The cultural feel here is a mix of Slavic and Germanic, in vivid contrast with the obvious hints of Italy in the west of the country.
The east is best known for its outstanding white wines and sparkling wines including Laški Riesling, Renski Riesling, Rumeni Mušcat, Mušcat Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Grigot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Traminec, Šipon (Furmint), and Kerner. The red varieties include Modra Frankinja (Blaufränkisch), Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It is probably fair to say that producing top-notch reds is more challenging here compared with the south-west of Slovenia because of the cooler climate.
The rise of the cuvées and orange wine.
There have been two particularly noticeable wine trends in Slovenia over recent years, which are the increasing popularity of cuvées and the growing fascination with orange wine – the so-called “amber revolution”.
Let’s start with the cuvees. Even the smaller size producers typically cultivate a good range of grape varieties, with distinctly different characteristics, and this has enabled them to experiment with creating different blends of whites and reds. Overall the results have been pretty impressive because the vintners have been using mostly good quality fruit and aging the wine in oak barriques, to produce premium cuvée wines. Some of my favourite Slovenian “smooth reds” are cuvées, including the Prinčič Mihael Rdeče which combines Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir, the Sveti Martin Tresse Rdeče which uses Barbera, Merlot, and Passito, and the Klet Brda A+ Rdeče which brings together Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc.
For anyone who might be less familiar with the term “orange wine”, it is created from white grapes, where rather than pressing the grapes immediately after harvesting and prior to fermentation, the grapes are allowed to macerate for a period of around one to two weeks. The skins are gently crushed but remain intact before these are pressed. This allows more of the skin matter to pass into the juice, resulting in higher levels of acidity and tannin, and adding a rusty brown-orange tint to the colour of the wine. The grape varieties which work particularly well are Pinot Grigot and Rebula, and the best orange wines tend to be matured in lightly toasted oak or acacia barrels. A couple of my personal favourites include the Emeran Reya Pinot Grigot and the Žorž Pinot Grigot.
Organised wine tasting tours in Slovenia.
It is possible to arrange tastings directly with some wine producers, but you should bear in mind that the vineyard owners are typically farmers first, and hosts second. This means that they are often difficult to get hold of, and moreover even harder to pin down for a scheduled visit. On top of this, who the heck wants to drive anyway?!!
Therefore, you might well be better off arranging cellar tours and tastings with an experienced wine tour provider, who can co-ordinate multiple vineyard visits within a 1-day tour, or over several days as part of a private wine tour package. My own incoming travel agency – Four Seasons Travel, Slovenia – has been arranging custom-made wine tours for individuals and groups for almost twenty years, establishing good relations and personal friendships with some of Slovenia’s top wine producers. Solo travellers and couples are more than welcome, but you should be aware that some wine tasting venues require minimum group sizes of four, six, or eight persons.
Four Seasons Travel wine tours include a good balance of the larger size co-operative producers and the smaller, family-run, boutique wineries. Tastings tend to be informal and relaxed, giving you the opportunity to try an interesting mix of varieties, whilst enjoying the hospitality of the personalities behind the wines. Samples tend to be on the generous side, and your host will no doubt want to twist your arm for an extra glass – or perhaps “just one for the road”, as we might say?
Hands up who knows a lot more about Slovenia wine now? Or should that be bottoms up?!! Thank you for reading and hopefully see you soon.