If you’ve landed on this page, chances are that you’ve tasted a Slovenian wine here, or a heard about a Slovenian winemaker there.
Indeed, several winemakers from Slovenia have been making significant inroads internationally in recent years, yet wines from this small central European nation, tucked neatly between Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, remain largely unknown to all but the most astute wine observers or curious sipping travelers. A primary mission of Piran Café is to help shed light on some of what’s veiled in that viticultural mystery, one whose tradition goes back more than 2,500 years.
But before we begin lifting that veil, a little bit more about Piran Café’s new focus and direction…
I’ve been tasting wines from Slovenia for more than 25 years, first as a US-based importer and distributor, but also as a journalist, blogger and unapologetic wine geek. Now, having been based in Slovenia for nearly 15 years and with no financial interests in or commercial ties to the trade, I’m setting out to re-explore the country’s wines, wineries and winemakers and share those discoveries here. You can expect to see reports from winery visits, interviews and features with wine makers and others involved in the industry here, as well as objective tasting notes, reviews and recommendations for paths for visitors to explore. That missions’s working theme? Wine stories from the heart of Europe. And with that theme in mind…
While Piran Café’s wine interests will focus largely on Slovenia’s contribution to the world of wine, I also plan to explore, whenever time allows, the greater region as well: northern Italy, Austria, Hungary, Croatia and elsewhere in the Balkans. Vines after all, don’t really respect political borders.
That said, let’s begin pulling back that veil.
Between 80 and 90 million liters (22-24 million gallons) of wine is produced in Slovenia each year by nearly 30,000 registered grape growers. In this country of 2.2 million, that’s one winemaker for every 79 people. Slovenians drink much of it, too, just under 40 liters per person per year to rank among the top five wine-guzzling nations in the European Union. Only a fraction of those producers bottle what they make, with nearly a third meant for personal consumption.
At the moment, just over 19,000 hectares of vineyards cover Slovenia, 65 percent producing white grapes, 35 percent red. (One of those vines, by the way, is the oldest continually producing grapevines on the planet.) That’s 3.3 percent of the total national territory, among the highest percentiles in Europe. By law, Slovenian winemakers can choose from 52 varietals to make wine, 37 white and 15 red. Not all are allowed to be grown in all regions and districts.
For wine-producing purposes, Slovenia is divided into three regions: Podravje to the northeast, bordering Austria and Hungary; Posavje to the southeast, sharing a border with Croatia; and Primorska to the west, where it borders Italy, the Adriatic Sea and shares a small portion of the Istrian peninsula with Croatia.
The regions are further divided into nine districts which in general terms is how wines are most often described. Podravje, the largest region, has two districts: Štajerska Slovenija (Styrian Slovenia) and Prekmurje. Posavje has three: Bizeljsko-Sremič, Bela Krajina and Dolenjska. And Primorska has four: Goriška Brda, Vipava, Kras and Slovenska Istra (Slovenian Istria).
It’s in the northeast part of the country, today’s Podravje, where Slovenia’s first wines were likely made by winemakers who were fermenting grapes before the arrival of the Romans. Indeed, Slovenians were already producing and enjoying wine well before the Romans introduced it to France, Germany and Spain in the second century BC. It’s been here since the Celts and Illyrian tribes were wreaking havoc in this part of Europe; the former were taught the trade by the Greeks.
But as in most other places in Europe, wine-growing truly began to spread with the Romans. Tacitus mentioned wine in Poetovio, today’s Ptuj, Slovenia’s oldest city, in the 1st century AD. A collection of goblets, amphorae and glasses found by archaeologists in the area are now housed in the city’s regional museum. But as the empire declined, so too did wine production. In his book Wines of Slovenia, Miso Alkalaj notes that viticulture was nearly wiped out in Slovenia with the arrival of the first Slavs from Russia in the sixth century, and again later between the ninth and 11th centuries when Hungarian tribes threatened the territory of present-day Podravje.
Production gradually returned and began to truly develop from the 12th century onward when vineyards, along with most productive lands, were owned by the Catholic Church, the aristocracy and the emerging bourgeoisie.
The Phylloxera plague that affected vineyard throughout Europe reached Slovenia in 1880, first appearing in the Bizeljsko-Sremič village of Pišece, then spreading in each direction. Before Phylloxera, Slovenia had about 51,000 hectares of vineyards; the plague wiped out nearly half of those. Later, much of those lands lied abandoned. According to official records, about 38,000 hectares existed before the outbreak of World War II.
During the post-war rebuilding years and central planning of the Yugoslav federation, quantity was favored over quality. Even then, Slovenian cooperatives were churning out inexpensive export quality wines. If you had a generic Riesling in Great Britain in the 1970s or 1980s, chances are very good that it came from Slovenia. In the US market, the most prevalent brand was Avia, the $3.49 magnum I’d usually bring to parties in college when I was in the mood to splurge.
While family-run private wineries began to appear in the 1980s –a very small handful were allowed to exist during the Yugoslav years– the Slovenian wine boom didn’t really begin until after independence in early years of the 1990s. By the end of the decade, Slovenian wines began taking home awards from international competitions.
In 2007, the Movia Estate, led by the globe-trotting charismatic winemaker Aleš Kristančič, was named among the world’s top 100 wineries by Wine & Spirits Magazine for the first time. That’s company he’s kept almost annually since. In 2013, Movia was joined by Kabaj, another winery from the Goriška Brda district, in the listing for the first time.
Those high profile successes have opened many eyes to the quality that Slovenia has the ability to produce, and many doors, too. That stature has also been reflected in the wines’ steadily increasing prices, especially in the Goriška Brda district. That said, the majority of Slovenian wines remain remarkable affordable given the quality that’s appearing across the three regions. I’ll be pointing out a lot of those here.