Message from Slovenia: Don't rely on assumptions
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.
Today, from my hotel room in Ljubljana, I offer you this short report on Slovenia and its wines. If you would like to read more about my quick visit to Slovenia and nearby Northeastern Italy, I am filing reports at http://www.wineloverspage.com/wines/italslo.shtml.
SLOVENIA: THE COUNTRY
I'm embarrassed to admit that when I received the invitation to be a 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 region that may be of the greatest immediate interest to wine lovers is 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 grapes here go by Slovenian names for familiar Italian and Western European varieties - Pinot Grigio ("Sivi Pinot" in Slovene), Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and a few more obscure (but interesting) local grapes like Tocai Friulano ("Frilanski Tokaj"), Ribolla ("Rebula") and Refosco ("Refosk"). Other Slovenian wine regions in the eastern end of the little country offer other varieties, including sweet dessert wines that are reportedly highly competitive for quality and value.
Slovenian wines won't seem unfamiliar to anyone accustomed to the wines of Italy or France - they're dry, fruity and well balanced, with the modestly priced wines from the grower cooperatives in Dobrovo and Vipava now coming out in the straightforward international style of many other world wines, and the higher-end wines from private makers like Movia, Simcic and Dolfo in Goriska Brda being fully competitive with artisanal wine makers around the world.
These wines remain very hard to find in the rest of the world; only tiny quantities make it to the U.S. through a handful of importers in New York, Ohio and the Pacific Northwest.
But Slovenia is seeking a wider international audience, and it offers wine that deserves wider attention. If it appears in your market, I urge you to remember the broader lesson of today's report: Don't take your wine for granted. Give it an open-minded try, and I think you'll be pleased.
Finally, if you would like to learn more about Slovenian wine from the source, here's a link to a privately run site (with many articles in English) about the country's wine and tourism: http://www.matkurja.com/projects/wine/index.html
Have you tried Slovenian wine? Or have you ever been pleasantly surprised by any wine that performed better than the conventional wisdom led you to expect? Join an online discussion on this topic in our Wine Lovers' Discussion Group, http://www.wineloverspage.com/cgi-bin/sb/index.cgi?fn=1. Or, if you prefer, send me E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. I regret that the growing circulation of the "Wine Advisor" makes it difficult for me to reply individually to every note, particularly this week when I'm traveling. But I'll answer as many as I can; and please be assured that all your input helps me do a better job of writing about wine.
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Vol. 3, No. 10, March 26, 2001