A rich and historic wine culture combines with modern winemaking techniques to create what could be the next big thing in white wine.
Disclaimer: The following is a recap of a media trip to explore the wines of Slovenia paid for by p&f wineries.
Slovenia, part of the former Yugoslavia, represents a fascinating mix of traditional (old) and modern (new) that somehow manages to balance that line extremely well. But before we get to that let's get a little background on the country. Slovenia borders Italy on the west, Croatia on the east, Austria to the north and just a bit of Hungary to the northeast. The entire country is the size of NJ, half of which is forest. 2 million people live here. They speak Slovenian but most also speak English as well Italian, Croatian or German.
Despite the country's small size, it has an almost stunning array of terrains. From the 45km of coastline on the Adriatic Sea right next to Italy it takes less than 3 hours to get to the Austrian Alps.
Grapes have been grown here throughout history and taking a look at it's location next to Italy and under Austria, it's easy to see why. This long history of winemaking hit a bit of a bump in the road after WWII when Yugoslavia came under socialist rule. Vineyards (and other businesses) were nationalized which meant the government decided what grapes could be grown and how much of each wine could be made.
Yet the wine industry endured and produced incredible stories like the Conrad Furst family who first established their vineyard in Slovenia in 1821. In 1945 their vineyard was nationalized and because they were of German descent they were exiled from the country.
This, however, was not the end of the story. When Slovenia gained its independence in 1992 and the country began the process of denationalization the family was able to apply to get their vineyard back. 13 years later, after proving they were not "political" (code word for Nazis), they regained their vineyard. The only problem was that their grandfather was the last one to make wine in the family and he was now in his 90's! The rest of the family had moved on to other successful careers, but they are now re-learning how to manage a vineyard and make wine.
We also heard stories of families (through unnamed methods) growing non-approved grapes, or holding back more wine than they were allowed. In fact, one of the more amazing moments of the trip came in exploring the cellar full of vintage wines at p&f wineries. The winery (more on that in a moment) is situated in what is considered the best wine growing region in the country, Podravje, which is just under Austria and next to Croatia. As you might expect, their specialty is white wine.
It was here that my whole conception of how white wines can age was turned upside down.
In examining the archive cellar, a 1959 Riesling is not unexpected -- after all Riesling is certainly one white grape that can age quite gracefully. But a 1963 Sauvignon Blanc that is the pride of the cellar? We tasted a 1971 Pinot Blanc (late harvest) that was fresher and fruitier than many 2012 wines on the market. This cellar was full of amazing finds, and in fact, they even have a website dedicated to it.
This tiny country is full of treasures like this. The food was absolutely fantastic with one of the most memorable meals happening at Restaurant Bric in Koper:
Here we sampled the local specialty of sea bass baked in a salt crust, which was so good I believe I ate it at least once every day on the trip. An even bigger treat at Restaurant Bric were the truffles. We even met the owner of the restaurant who hunts for the truffles himself, along with several of his truffle dogs. The pictures below attest to their proficiency at finding these treasures!
Our tour of Slovenia began here in the Koper region which is by the Adriatic Sea and is absolutely gorgeous. We visited the Vinakoper winery (which is the second largest in Slovenia) along with several other winemakers from the area.
While white wine is made throughout the country, the Koper region is one of the better areas for red grapes. Refosk, which is made into a full-bodied sparkling red unlike anything I've ever tried, was a special treat. (Refosk is also referred to as Terran locally.) Malvasia is also indigenous to this area. A few of the vineyards in this area even cross over the Italian border with a fence running down the middle.
From there we went to country's oldest city, Ptuj (you pronounce it like ptooey) which is on the other side of the country near Austria (and the Alps) and Croatia. Here we again had the opportunity to taste wine from several producers.
There is a fantastic wine trail, called the Jeruzalem Wine Road, going around the mountains in this area that gives you the opportunity to visit a number of wineries. The name comes from Jews who were reportedly on their way to the Holy Land in Israel but liked the area (and the wine) so much that they stayed!
This area is also where p&f wineries is located, which is itself an amazing juxtaposition of old winemaking techniques and traditions combined with some of the most technologically advanced systems I've ever seen.
There's the original 5 story gravity flow building contrasted with the new inert gas system that takes oxygen down to 2% (from a normal of 21%) after grapes are sorted and de-stemmed. This not only helps to maintain the freshness of the grapes and reduce oxidation but also allows the use of less sulfur because microorganisms can't grow.
Despite this high technology, all grapes are still handpicked, yet grapes only go two hours from picking to press. There are also the fully computerized stainless steel tanks that range in size from 1,500 to 240,000 liters so that any size block of grapes can be fermented together.
The stated goal in all of this is to maintain the fresh and fruity character of the grapes all the way into the bottle. Based on the many wines we tasted from both the puklavec & friends and the Gomila brands, it appears that p&f wineries has succeeded mightily in this regard.
Particular favorites were the Pinot Grigio/Sauvignon Blanc blend which I think is tailor made for the U.S. market, several wines made from the local variety of Furmint (the same variety used to make Hungarian Tokaji wines), and a unique and delicious sparkling Sauvignon Blanc that managed to retain the typical Sauvignon Blanc characteristics in a sparkling wine.
I am extremely excited for these wines to gain distribution here in the U.S., which is just starting now. The best news is that they will be available for well under $20. We'll have individual reviews of many of these wines coming soon.
Our trip ended in the capital and largest city of Slovenia, Ljubljana:
From the incredible open air market, to the famous Ljubljana dragon, the city is full of history. It's also just about the perfect size -- big enough that there is plenty to do and see but not so big that you get lost or overwhelmed. It even reminded me a bit of Copenhagen with the river running right through the middle of the city. If you go be sure to check out the main square in the old town area which has a statue of France Prešeren, a famous 19th century Slovene poet who wrote the country's national anthem.
You know this is a country full of winelovers when the national anthem is literally a toast!
All in all, this was an eye opening experience into this hidden gem of a country. A huge thank you to p&f wineries for bringing me to Slovenia and introducing me to both their amazing country and their remarkable wines!