Portions of this article were originally published in The 30 Second Wine Advisor in March 2001. It was updated and expanded after a second visit to Slovenia in 2002.
For links to more Slovenian wine information, see below.
Don't rely on assumptions
This gnarled vine at Lent in the city of Maribor is more than 400 years old.|
Last year, when I told friends I was looking forward to visiting this pretty little capital city to be an international wine judge at its 47th annual Wine Fair in 2001, they looked at me funny. Loved ones, thinking about some of the hotter spots in the former Yugoslavia, worried: "Isn't it dangerous?"
My wine pals had a different concern: "They don't make WINE there, do they?"
As it turns out, they were all wrong. This is a fine place to visit, and Slovenian wine, I am delighted to report, is very good indeed.
And that reinforces a simple but important lesson: When it comes to wine, don't take anything for granted, particularly not the conventional wisdom about what's worth your attention.
A return visit a year later reinforces my opinion: This little country is making excellent wines, with many of its best producers fully competitive on an international market. Only a drop of its wines is now available in the rest of the world, but that's bound to change. Andmeanwhile, Slovenia is no distant, exotic destination: Centrally located in Europe and only a short trip from other major capitals, it's easy and rewarding to visit here.
SLOVENIA: THE COUNTRY
I'm embarrassed to admit that when I received my first invitation to serve as a wine judge here, I had to look up Slovenia on a map. It's actually only a two-hour drive on major highways east from Venice to Ljubljana, and less than a four-hour drive south from Vienna. Citizens of the U.S. and most European countries need no visa for a short visit, and visitors are normally waved straight through the border crossings with no paperwork.
Slovenia is a remarkably scenic little country (only about 300 kilometers across) that, the locals like to say, offers all of Europe in a small package, from the sunny Adriatic through rich farmland and quaint villages to snow-capped Alps along the Austrian border. Ljubljana, a city of 300,000, is a pleasant blend of old and new, with modern hotels, a historic center city on a walkable scale, and a brooding medieval castle on a hill.
As the first of the Yugoslav republics to declare independence after the fall of the Eastern Bloc, Slovenia escaped serious fighting after only a few days of skirmishing in 1991. Since then, the country's 2 million people have been working hard to rebuild their economy, make a living, welcome a small but growing crowd of tourists, and make and sell some wine. Visitors are very welcome, prices are low and values high; the people are friendly, and just about everyone speaks at least a little English, German or French.
If you're looking for something a little different, a trip to Slovenia - even just a quick overnight hop across the border from Italy or Austria - wouldn't be amiss.
SLOVENIA: THE WINES
Much of the rest of the world, unfortunately, remembers Yugoslavian wine mostly on the basis of Avia, an inexpensive and forgettable brand that was turned out in substantial quantities and marketed around the world under the old regime.
Actually, each of the former Yugoslav republics, including Slovenia, has its own historic wine heritage, wine-making traditions that weren't lost or forgotten under Communism. A few private wineries survived the Tito years, and more have sprung up since 1991. The cooperative wineries have been privatized, and a visitor can easily see a commitment to quality not only in the attitudes of the wine makers but the shiny new equipment, stainless steel fermenters and new oak barrels turning up in all the country's wine-producing regions.
The wine regions most accessible to wine lovers further west in Europe are perhaps those along Slovenia's border with Italy and its short Adriatic coast, including the hilly region called Goriska Brda (which is contiguous with the Italian Collio and shares much of its wine tradition - not to mention family ties); the beatiful green Vipava river valley; and the coastal region named Kras (translated "karst," a reference to its geological quality) near the seaport city called Koper.
But that's not all. Larger, extensive wine regions cover the country's eastern hills with vineyards, and these regions - Podravski or the valley of the Drava river along the Austrian border, and Posavski or the valley of the Sava River closer to the border with Croatia. Given Slovenia's small scale (it's about the same size as New Jersey in the U.S.) and its excellent roads including an Interstate-quality route that covers most of the width of the country from Nova Gorica on the Italian border to Ljubljana to Maribor, it's possible to drive from one wine region to another in two to three hours ... although better still to slow down and enjoy the scenery, the food and wine and the nation's noteworthy hospitality.
The grapes here go by Slovenian names for familiar Western European varieties - Pinot Grigio ("Sivi Pinot" in Slovene), Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and a few more obscure (but interesting) local grapes shared with Italy, such as Tocai Friulano ("Frilanski Tokaj"), Ribolla ("Rebula") and Refosco ("Refosk").
Slovenian wines won't seem unfamiliar to anyone accustomed to the wines of Italy or France - whether dry or sweet, they're fruity and well balanced, with the modestly priced wines from the grower cooperatives in Dobrovo, Vipava, Koper and other quarters now produced in the straightforward international style of many other world wines. The more artisanal wines from dozens of private producers, as noted above, are fully competitive with top wines from around the world.
These wines remain very hard to find outside Slovenia, though, with only tiny quantities exported and many producers hardly making enough wine to satisfy an international market.
But Slovenia is seeking a wider audience, and it offers wine that deserves attention. If it appears in your area, I urge you to remember the broader lesson of today's report: Don't take your wine for granted. If you find something new, give it an open-minded try, and I think you'll be pleased.Slovene wine links on WineLoversPage.com:
Slovenia quick reference:
Our guide to Slovene wine terms, grapes and places.
Report from Slovenia:
International Wine Competition in Ljubljana celebrates 50th anniversary (May 2004)
Vina Ljubljana report:
International Wine Competition 2002 (March 23, 2002)
A Slovenia wine-and-food report:
Dinner at Gostilna AS in Ljubljana (March 23, 2001)
Return to Gostilna AS (March 23, 2002)
Finally, this privately run Slovene Website (with many articles in English) offers much information about the country's wine and tourism: