If I were the going-on-a-pilgrimage type, paying my respects to the Stara Trta, or, Old Vine, that snakes its way across a large trellis facing the Drava River in Maribor, Slovenia, would be near the top of the list. Fortunately it’s nearby, getting there requires little planning and even involves a glass or two of wine. Yup, my kind of pilgrimage.
It’s not just any plant. Pushing 450 years of age, Stara trta is the oldest continually producing grape vine on the planet, the crown jewel of Maribor, Slovenia’s second city.
It’s survived phylloxera, two world wars, countless occupations and invasions, Napoleon, the Ottomans and allied bombing raids. Forty popes have come and gone since it first sprouted.
Vines, as any winemaker will tell you, need to struggle to produce good grapes; the life of this one, that produces between 35 and 55 kilograms of fat red bunches of the autochthonous Modra Kavčina, or Žametovka grapes annually, has bled struggle.
That’s not to say the wine it produces is the world’s finest. Or even on a short list. Most people will never know, not even the select few fortunate enough to lay claim to one of the 100 or so 250ml bottles that are added to the city cellars each year. It’s too rare and collectible to ever be tasted.
It’s not for sale, but rather dispersed at the pleasure of the town council. That means it’s visiting dignitaries like Bill Clinton, Pope Benedict XVI, Japan’s Emperor Akihito, Vladimir Putin, the Dalai Lama, Brad Pitt, Kim Jong-Un and Arnold Schwarzenegger who get to add them to their collection. (Is there anything else that group could possibly have in common?) Each bottle comes with a certificate of origin and number, with the recipients’ names added to a registry kept in the city’s archives. Provenance is important.
Its age was first determined from a pair of old paintings and then later by a variation of the tried and true ‘counting the rings’ method.
The paintings, kept in the Štajerska Provincial Museum in Graz, date from 1657 and 1681, and depict the vine on a trellis growing prominently on the same house it rests on now. Records indicate that the building, once part of the city’s wall, has existed since the 16th century and that its southern, riverfront side hasn’t undergone any major architectural modifications since. It’s generally accepted the vine was already at least 100 years old by 1657.
Further tests conducted in 1972 by professors at the University of Ljubljana and vine geneticists from France supported those estimates, establishing that the vine was then at least 400 years old. Decay at its center renders it impossible to read all of its annual rings, preventing scientists from coming up with a more accurate figure. Thus the inscription on a plaque next to the vine that notes its entry into the Guiness Book of World Records characterizing it as “more than 400 years old”.
The building is now known as The Old Vine House, which houses a small museum dedicated to the Stara Trta. There’s a great selection of old photos showing how the vine was incorporated into the every day life of several generations of residents. In one, an old car tire rests against it; in another laundry hangs drying. I was especially taken by another that dated to the early 1980s which showed how run down the building and immediate area still were just three decades ago. It appeared as though the only thing keeping the building from caving in on itself was the vine, holding firm.
There’s also a generous selection of locals wines available for tasting at very reasonable prices — old vine wine not included.
The Old Vine House
Vojašniška 8, 2000 Maribor
Hours: open daily; October – April 9am-6pm; May-September 9am-8pm.
Admission is free.
Best time to visit? There’s never a bad time when wine’s involved but note that there’s an annual Old Vine Festival each October.