VIPOLŽE, SLOVENIA — I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect once I got to this small village, just a stone’s throw from the Italian border, to join in last Saturday’s St. Martin’s Day festivities. One thing I did not expect was a throng of more than 2,000 crammed into this village of perhaps 200, with techno, house and trance music emanating from a cavernous room –a former stable, actually– in the 400-year-old Vipolže castle. No sign of the old Martinovo celebrations I remembered from the immigrant halls and auditoriums in Cleveland, where plenty of wine did flow, albeit to the clapping and stomping of polka bands. Apparently, that more traditional gathering did take place earlier in the day, before the night crowd, stylish and smart and beautiful in their swanky designer duds, took over to slowly drown in the 106 different wines being poured by 53 wine producers from both sides of the border.
St. Martin –specifically, St. Martin of Tours– is the Catholic Church’s patron Saint of wine. Besides wine-growers, he is also said to look after beggars, soldiers and tailors. Quite a quartet to have under your wings. November 11 is an obligatory memorial in the Church, and, just a few months after the traditional grape harvest, a date that nicely correspondes with the year’s first wine releases. What is nouveau in Beaujolais, is simply mlado vino (young wine) here. And this day is set aside specifically with the Pope’s blessing.
When I was invited by my friends Ksenija and Mojca to join them for the day, it required little coaxing. I hadn’t been to Slovenia’s Goriška Brda wine-growing region in more than five years. Geographically, with its serpentine rolling hills, hairpin narrow roads, and occasional views of both the snow-capped Italian and Slovenian Alps to the north and the northern Adriatic Sea to the south, the area is a stunning visual feast. For wine lovers, it’s home to arguably the finest world class wines produced in Slovenia. It’s home to some of the most gracious hosts you’ll encounter anywhere. An invitation into a winemaker’s home is ample reason for celebration. (And you will.) Just remember the primary rule to take to heart when visiting these parts: don’t make any appointments for later in the day. Because you won’t keep them.
Goriška Brda is the extension of northeast Italy’s Collio district, or vice versa, as Slovenians like to believe. It’s the same hills, with relatively similar soils, producing the same varietals that all benefit from the same moderate autumn created by the same nearby Adriatic Sea. The two districts just happen to fall on opposite sides of a political border that these days, for the most part, exists only as a thick line on a map. Both languages are spoken interchangeably. Polenta, Prosciutto (pršut) gnocchi, radicchio, and risotto are staples to everyone in this area, Slovenian and Italian alike.
Our first stop was the Blaževi Estate in the village of Gornje Cerovo, a small family winery run by Roman and Danjel Prinčič. Besides the evening bash in the castle, it would be our only stop of the weekend. When we arrived, Danjel was wrapping up a tasting event for a busload of visitors who took up most of their two large reception rooms. When part of the group burst into song, Danjel began pouring us some wines. We soon began singing as well. The music, both literally and figuratively, went on for the rest of the evening. During the hors d’oeuvres course, and again through dinner. With more for dessert.
When casual cellar tours and tastings begin, it becomes more and more difficult to leave. It was just after midnight when we did finally make our way to the main fest, and it was hardly too late. The castle was packed to the gills, from the fest’s first room –a large tent, actually– to the stable cum dance floor, to the second tasting area, to the VIP room. The first downside was that some of the specific wines I wanted to try were already gone; the second was that after several relaxing hours at Danjel’s cellar, underneath a starry night in unseasonably warm weather, I was hardly in the mood for a crowd of nearly 2,000. We did stick around for a few more bottles –a local cab sav and a merlot– by a producer whose name unfortunately excapes me. The merlot was quite nice.
We finally got to bed around 3:30, but Mojca was already up and about by 7:30, with Ksenija following soon thereafter. I rolled out of bed a few ticks before 9:30, where yet another beautiful, unseasonably warm and sunny day –and a delightful breakfast lay-out– quickly cleared my head. As we sipped our third cups of coffee, we began talking about the need to get ready to leave. But then Danjel made his appearance, who decided we needed to try a few more wines. Before we knew it, lunch was being served. And more desserts.