A Taste of Culture: Exploring Slovenia’s Native Wine Varietals in the Vipava Valley – a Road Trip Notebook

There are lots of ways to celebrate a nation’s culture. Exploring its local wine grapes was among the better ways I’ve come across lately. How could I possibly say no?

Guerila winery cellar

The idea was simple: spend February 8, Slovenia’s Day of Culture and a national holiday, getting acquainted with three of the country’s autochthonous grape varietals. I had just spent nearly three weeks bouncing between four hotels in three cities in three countries, my head buried deep inside a computer. Answering the ad was easy. And necessary.

For those of you who need a refresher (or are just eager to learn!), in Slovenian č, š and ž are pronounced “ch”, “sh”, and “zh”. ‘J’ is soft, as in the ‘y’ in you. So Petrič is pronounced PetReech, and Primož, PreeMosh. (As for the tongue-twisting ‘lj’: whenever you see those two letters together in that order as in the capital city’s name Ljubljana, it’s easier to just pretend that the ‘j’ isn’t there. So here, Zdravljica is pronounced ZdrauLeetsa.)
According to Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, one of the planet’s foremost wine authorities, there are six varieties that can call Slovenia home. The Vipava Valley and its eponymous district, in the western reaches of the country, is home to three of those: Zelen, Pinela and Klarnica. It was an obvious destination, underscored by some strong historical connections as well.

In 1844 a local priest and polymath Matija Vertovec wrote Vinoreja, the first expert text on wine and wine-growing written in the Slovenian language. The focus was heavy on the Vipava valley, cataloging and describing the varieties grown in the area at that time. It’s said that later that same year he inspired France Prešeren, Slovenia’s greatest Romantic poet, to write Zdravljica, or ‘A Toast’ (as in raising a glass and saying ‘Cheers!’), a poem calling for a national political awakening which became Slovenia’s national anthem upon independence in 1992. In 1905, composer Stanko Premrl put it to music. He was from the village of Podnanos, in the eastern edge of the Vipava Valley.

At 3,005 hectares (7,425 acres), Vipava is the largest of the Primorje region’s four districts, and the second largest of Slovenia’s nine districts. Taking its name from the 49-kilometer long river that snakes east to west through the valley and empties into the Isonzo/Soča in Italy, the district stretches about 35 kilometers southeast to northwest from the towering Mt. Nanos to the divided city of Nova Gorica on the border with Italy.

It’s a relatively narrow, picturesque valley, resting between the rolling hills of the Kras/Karst plateau to the south and the dramatic ridges of the Trnovska plateau to the north. You feel and breathe the effects of both, a unique meld of wind and air that is both Adriatic and Alpine and at the same time neither.

Of the grapes we were out to explore, most synonymous with the Vipava Valley are Zelen and Pinela, dry, floral, fragrant and fruity whites. According to Jože Rozman, a sommelier and wine publicist who was one of our two guides, there are just 37 hectares (91 acres) of Zelen planted in Vipava. We’d learn later that the district produces just 20,000 bottles of Pinela each year. The latter is at its best in the village of Planina, our first stop of the day’s planned four.

Guerila – What’s in a name?

Zmago Petrič - Guerila Winery
Zmago Petrič and his Castra Rosé Brut

Roughly at the Vipava Valley’s midway point, opposite the town of Ajdovsčina, we turned south off the highway through the overcast morning onto a straight road that crossed the bottom of the valley. About a hundred meters after crossing the Vipava River, the road narrowed and began its snaky ascent towards Planina nad Ajdovsčino, a village that lies at nearly 400 meters above sea level, about 250 meters above the valley floor. That’s high enough for a few traces of the previous week’s snow to still linger in small piles along the road. Snow is rare here, so it was an unusual site.

But wind isn’t. That’s evident by the stones and bricks that rest on the rooftops of every house in the village, defense against the burja, or bora wind, when the valley becomes its punching bag. The winds, which can reach upwards of 200 kilometers per hour, have shaped and defined the area.

But it was calm the morning when Zmago Petrič, who operates the Guerila Winery, met our bus and led us into his tasting room which takes up the better part of a full floor of the house he grew up in. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, he extended his welcome.

Guerila Estate Cellar
Guerila Estate Cellar

“You’d like something to drink, no?” he said. “I don’t want this to be like some tastings in Italy where you’re forced to listen to a two-hour monologue before they finally give you something to drink.”

It wasn’t quite 10am and I was already staring at a glass of Castra, a rose sparkling wine made of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It was a light cherry red in color, a couple shades lighter than the prsut on the platter that his wife Zorka had just dropped off. It and the cheese that accompanied it was made by a neighbor a few houses away.

Guerila is a fairly new winery, established in May 2005 but one which has used that time wisely. In 2011 it obtained both its organic and biodynamic certification. The name?

“It’s a provocation,” Petrič said. “It’s hard to give a name (to a product) in these times.

“But it’s also symbolic as a method of fighting. In this area you really do have to fight to get a hectare of vineyards in one piece. Then you have to fight to put in the vineyards, and then keep on fighting until the end, until you have a final product. Then selling it is a battle.”

His wife came up it; to make it stand out, they decided on one ‘l’ instead of two. The rebrand coincided with the certifications in 2011.

Winter at Guerila - Slovenia's Vipava Valley
Winter at Guerila – Slovenia’s Vipava Valley

At the moment Petrič is farming on 10 hectares and produces about 40,000 bottles a year. Their vineyards are all southern-facing, sitting at 300 to 400 meters above sea level, at times soaking up the sun –the Vipava Valley is the sunniest area in Slovenia– and at other being battered by the wind. Petrič is especially proud of Guerila’s Pinela, which most agree does best in and around the village of Planina.

“The grape likes lean marl soils, and does best at higher altitude sunny areas. If you plant it in loamy soils, it will bear a lot of grapes, in thick clusters, which leads to rot.” What you want from Pinela, he points out, are berries that are light brownish when ripe. Only lean soils and lots of sun will do that. Petrič said that about 20,000 bottles of Pinela are produced in the Vipava district annually.

The wines:

Barrels, Guerila Estate
Barrels, Guerila Estate

Guerila Castra Rosé Brut 2014
A Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon blend; tiny intense bubbles. You can smell dry fig and and butter, but also taste the Cab Sav and its blackcurrant and cherry. Very dry. Pleasant, invigorating, a little short on the finish.
12%
€17

Guerila Pinela 2016
In general, this grape is the pride of Planina. Macerated for six hours, spontaneous fermentation. Aged in stainless steel for nine months and (at least) another three in bottle. Citrusy and charming; straw yellow in color, a little cloudy. Grapefruit on the nose, with more tropical layers on the palate. Very nice. 4200 bottles produced. (2017 is also released).
€9-11

Guerila Zelen 2016
Straw yellow with light greenish edges; citrusy, mostly lemon, and floral on the nose, rather full, intense. A little nutty on the palate, with cinnamon and nutmeg notes; the latter seem to be quite typical to this local grape. Spontaneous fermentation with natural yeasts, aged sur lies until May, then aged another three months in bottle. Again, well-made and nicely structured.
11%.
€10

Guerila Rosé 2016
Like its sparkling Castra cousin, a Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon blend. This one seemed fun most of all, probably because it reminded me of the cherry popsicle and pink bubblegum of my youth, the former on the nose and latter on the palate. An enjoyable grapefruity finish. 6000 bottles produced.
%13.50
€10

Guerila Malvazija 2016
A knockout at this price. Slightly buttery and fruity on the nose, apricot with a sensational citrus core. Fuller in body than I expected with a nice lingering finish. About 2000 bottles produced.
13%
€10

Guerila Retro 2016
Delicious. A white blend, equal parts Rebula, Zelen, Malvazija and Pinela; a ‘genuine’ Vipava Valley cuvee. Macerated five days –the length of maceration, Petric said, is simply based on “feeling”– then aged in Acacia and oak. Orange citrus, peach, hint of apricot on the palate. Full. An excellent forward-thinking homage to the area’s past.
13%
€15

Guerila Rebula Extrem 2016
Why extreme? 42 days maceration. A very raisiny quality. Delicious now but based on several other extended skin-contact Rebulas I’ve tried, this still needs another year or two to develop. Buy it if you see it – only about 500 liters were produced.

Guerila Tabu Red 2011
100% Merlot. Sophisticated. Deep ruby red, great up front fruit – prunes, forest berries. A little jammy, but balanced too. Underwent a four-week maceration in tanks, then aged another four years in 225 liter barrels, then at least another year in bottle prior to release. The tannins are light but firm. It will develop further for the next two to three years, probably longer. Looking forward to revisiting this. About 1200 bottles produced.
14%
€27

Guerila Castra Sparkling wine 2013
Very local, a blend of roughly equal parts of Pinela, Rebula and Zelen. Golden yellow in color, with tiny intense bubbles like its rosé sister. Citrus and peach on the nose and palate, with a surprisingly long finish. Aged 36 months. A little different (maybe due to the somewhat esoteric blend); delightfully funky. 3000 bottles produced.
11.5%
€17

Guerila Merlot 2017
Barrel sample – rich, deep ruby, fruity.

Guerila Barbera 2016
Another barrel sample – blood red, a little spice. At the moment, used in blends.

The trip ended with a quick stop at their recent expansion, an attractive facility built atop a nearby slope facing south southeast. The cellar is fully functional; the tasting room and guest rooms will open in August. The views, even on a gray mid-winter morning, were sensational. The opening party won’t be one to miss.

 

Guerila
Planina 111, 5270 Ajdovščina, Slovenia
guerila.si

 

Ferjančič Estate – Pinela’s Heartland

Peter Ferjančič - Ferjančič Estate
Peter Ferjančič – Ferjančič Estate

Few of us felt like getting back on the bus. Fortunately our next stop, the Ferjančič Estate, was at the other end of the village, less than 800 meters away. There too, we were warmly greeted by Peter Ferjančič and his wife Anica, who immediately began pouring their 2017 offerings, straight from the barrel. It was about as authentic and warm a hello as you could ask for.

Ferjančič farms about 27,000 vines on six hectares of vineyards, bottling Pinela, Zelen, Rebula (Ribolla), Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Rumeni Muškat, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. He also produces a handful of other varieties primarily for his (largely) limited edition blends.

Like many other winemakers of his generation, Ferjančič began his operation in the early 1990s with their first bottlings in 1995, but as suggested by an overhang in their courtyard that reads 1809, their tradition goes back more than 200 years. They’re just continuing what five generations have done before them.

“We also had livestock, wheat, a little bit of everything,” Ferjančič said. But his heart was with the vines. Before they began in 1990 he said the Yugoslav system was primarily based on quantity, bringing in and loading the wagons and delivering them to the local coop. “Here on the hill we didn’t have wagons, but we had quality.”

So he decided to specialize in wine, with an extra emphasis put on fresh youthful styles made chiefly from local varietals. Like the 2017 Rebula we enjoyed with a toast outside. It was still from the barrel but he’d already begun bottling it about two weeks earlier.

Cabernet Franc - Ferjančič
Cabernet Franc – Ferjančič

“We’d normally wait a bit longer, but we ran out.” Wine producers could have worse problems.

“When I was a kid, half of the vines here were rebula (Ribolla),” he said. “And over the hill there was malvazija. Rebula and Pinela are resistant to drought and the burja and need higher, more airy and marl soils. We have that here.”

It’s evident in the quality and richness of the next glass we’re poured, a 2016 pinela, for several years now regarded as Ferjančič’s best offering.

The grape is usually a darker shade of green, but at its best, with full sun, it can become oniony in color. And, perhaps ironically, Ferjančič said that both Pinela and Zelen are doing better in the more extreme weather of recent years.

The wines:

Ferjančič Pinela
Ferjančič Pinela

Ferjančič Pinela 2017
Bottled just three weeks ago (mid-January), it’s obviously young but already delicious. A lively playful citrus medley on the nose and palate, some pineapple and peach notes, too. Full finish. One of the better Pinelas I’ve tasted. If you’re new to Pinela, start here. 5000 bottles produced. A review of the 2016 is here.
12.5%
€8

Zelen — we tasted three, two of the 2017 vintage from different barrels, and the 2016.

Ferjančič Zelen 2017 – barrel samples.
– The first was from vines planted in 2004. Nutmeg and peach notes on the nose. Quite dry, medium-bodied, full finish. Will develop nicely.
– The second was from a different barrel, also 2017 but the first produced from vines planted in 2013. It’s much shorter, obviously youthful, less fruity. A nice way to explore how the grape develops. For next year or two, Ferjančič will use this for blending.

Ferjančič Zelen 2016 – 5000 bottles
Tasting it immediately after the 2017 proved a nice point of comparison. This was slightly more acidic, the nose slightly less pronounced. It’s not old but it seems to have mellowed, with a bit more balance and finesse here. A longer finish, too. But that exuberance that many prefer in a fresher Zelen is already on the wane, underscoring how this really should be enjoyed soon after bottling. 5000 bottles produced.
12%
€8

Ferjančič Fino Belo 2015
A blend of equal parts Chardonnay, Rebula, Zelen and Sauvignon Blanc, macerated for five days and aged in oak for 10 months. Apple, pineapple on the nose, with the Sauvignon Blanc coming out on the rich, full palate. Great finish to a very nice wine, especially at this price. It’ll get better in the next three to four years. About 1400 bottles produced. The name? Suggested by their son Aleks, who told them it was good –“fino” in Slovenian– when he tried it at three. Ferjančič said he’ll be adding Malvazija to the blend in the next bottling. A red blend is also in the works, a cuvee of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
13%
€10

Ferjančič Merlot 2014 – barrel sample
Some upfront fruit and black pepper notes, medium-bodied with a medium finish. Pleasant if not exceptional, but well-made in what was widely regarded as a very difficult year, which makes it especially memorable for Ferjančič. “They say this was a vintage to forget. I’ll never forget how much work it was.” Merlot first appeared in Vipava in the 1960s and is now the most planted varietal in the district. 4000 bottles.
14%
€12

Ferjančič Cabernet Franc 2013 – barrel sample
After spending four years in new Slovenian oak, this will be bottled shortly. Inky, plummy, some refined spice and wild berries on the palate. Pleasant overall, a good example of the potential of the grape here. But don’t blink: only 300 bottles will be made.

Posestvo Ferjančič
Planina 73, 270 Ajdovščina, Slovenia
ferjancic.si

Macerated Malvasia and Dark Hairy Pigs – Lunch at Cigoj

It was time for lunch. That brought us to Črniče, a village of 422 and home to the Arkade Cigoj Tourist Farm whose goal, owner Jordan Cigoj said, is to become Slovenia’s largest self-sustaining agricultural producer.

They’re off to a good start; so were we, welcomed in the cellar for a toast and mangulica pršut (prosciutto) sampling, before a very good four-course / five-wine lunch. The wines were terrific –bargains even, from a price-quality point of view– from the indigenous Zelen and Klarnica white varietals to their oak-aged Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Most memorable moments? Tasting the extended skin contact 2015 Malvazija and hanging out with an extended family of mangalica, the hairiest pigs I’ve ever seen.

First, the wines:

Cigoj Malvazija 2015
Macerated for 14 days and oak aged for another eight months. A beautiful yellow gold in color, with loads of delicious but understated upfront fruit. Dry, multi-layered, with a long finish. It’s already a classic and will live on nicely. 3000 bottles produced.
12%
€10

Part of the Cigoj collection
Part of the Cigoj collection

Cigoj Klarnica 2016
Fresh and youthful, pleasant citrus and mineral notes on the nose and palate. Lemon and grapefruit seem to dominate on the medium to long finish. Another nice example of this rare local specialty.
13%
€10

Cigoj Merlot 2013
Still a little young, but developing nicely with ripe cherry and strawberry on the palate. Medium-bodied but not light; firm tannins bode well. Made from vines planted in 1971, aged in oak for two years. Give it a couple years for the alcohol to sort itself out.
15%
€10

Cigoj Cabernet Sauvignon 2013
Like the Merlot, the vines date back to 1971. That shows in the wine which is unusually complex for a bottle at this price. There’s nice fruit showing but it’s not out of balance. It’ll give more in a couple years. 2 years barrel. Nice fruit.

Cigoj Rumeni Muškat (N/A)
A dessert Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains; medium dry, packed with dried fruits on the nose, palate and finish. Apricots mostly, and I love apricots.

Oh, the hairy pigs.

A mangalica, or mangulica in these parts, is a Hungarian domestic pig, a crossbreed between breeds from central Hungary and central Serbia, with a dash of wild boar thrown in. Unshorn, it wears a wooly coat similar to that of sheep, one of just two pigs on the planet with that kind of hair style. Some even looked like over-sized poodles.

Cigoj said that pršut (prosciutto) from mangalica are probably the most sought after in Slovenia. He produces about 400 smoked hams a year –they’re cured for two to three years– and has no problem selling it.

Unlike typical pork, Mangalica is marbled, producing a softier, creamier fat, akin to Kobe beef. It’s said to have up to 75% less bad cholesterol than typical white pigs. That creaminess? It helps it literally melt on your tongue.

 

 

Kmetija Jordan Cigoj
Črniče 91, 5262 Črniče
arkade-cigoj.com

 

Burja Estate – of the Wind

Primož Lavrenčič
Primož Lavrenčič of the Burja Estate

Lunch ran late. Because our second stop ran late. Because we overstayed our first. That happens when visiting wineries. They’re difficult places to leave. Even when you have a schedule you’re trying to keep.

That also meant that we’d be reaching our fourth stop, the Burja Estate in the valley’s eastern reaches, late. On trips like this, I always feel bad for the ‘last’ stop. It’s like drawing the short straw. Visitors’ enthusiasm is still there –especially after a good lunch– but the same energy level no longer is. Taste buds have grown weary. Curiosity wanes. A rapidly setting sun doesn’t help. And the winemaker, no matter how welcoming and hospitable, has also already put in a full day’s work.

None of that seemed to matter to Primož Lavrenčič, the force behind Burja –also the name for the Vipava Valley’s infamous north wind, see above– when he greeted us and led us into his new facility (like Guerila’s, functioning but also unfinished). He has a confident presence and energy that’s framed by a laidback sense of urgency, and it’s infectious. It woke most of us from our post-lunch stupor, not so much like the clanging of an alarm clock, though. More like an alarm clock taken over by butterflies, beetles and bees, harmonious.

Lavrenčič, a third generation wine-maker, left Sutor, his family’s estate, in 2009 to forge a different path. Listening to him speak of his respect for the terroir and tradition of the valley, it’s not a stretch to see why he named his winery after the wind that so directly impacts every aspect of life here. Burja is certified biodynamic, and Lavrenčič prefers a minimal approach.

“I try to step back and understand how to encourage nature, especially the soil, to express its own character in my wines,” he wrote on his website, in an introduction that’s part treatise, part manifesto. (It’s a good read, check it out.) Despite learning and observing something new every day, he admits he’ll never fully understand everything his vineyards have to offer, every nuance of the soil, every mineral contribution.

Burja Zelen 2017

In keeping with the day’s indigenous theme, Zelen was up first. Lavrenčič farms two hectares of the grape, producing about 6,000 bottles per year. “I’m the biggest Zelen producer on the planet,” he said, not as a brag, but as a point of fact, as he poured barrel samples of his 2017 vintage.

“I needed five years to learn it,” he said. “They used to say that you can tire Zelen, that you have to have it only in stainless steel, with no maceration and that you have to add the sulfur immediately. But in the end, that’s not true.”

Now, he ages them only in concrete egg-shaped tanks.

He began using concrete tanks in 2014 and has been expanding since. He said that concrete better preserves a wine’s earthiness since it’s better isolated from outside influences. It’s also a natural fit for the Vipava Valley’s marl soil, from which cement and then concrete are made.

Concrete tanks - Burja Estate, Slovenia
Concrete tanks – Burja Estate, Slovenia

He’s using concrete almost exclusively for white wines, but he does age his signature white blend in large oak barrels, same as his red blends.

Burja produces about 30,000 bottles annually; their new facility’s capacity is twice that. But he’s in no rush. There’s a lot to learn in his vineyards.

The wines

Burja Belo (White)
Burja Belo (White)

Burja White 2016

30% Laški Rizling (Welschriesling), 30% Rebula (Ribolla), 30% Malvazija (Malvasia Istrska), and 10% other varieties. The latter is a true mix from a field blend where varieties simply grow together. That’s how it was done in many places in Europe pre-Phylloxera. Another nicely balanced effort; apricot and honey notes and a long well-structured finish.
13.5%
€18

Burja Stranice 2016
Blend of Malvazija (Malvasia Istrska)Laški Rizling (Welschriesling) and Rebula (Ribolla). Parts unknown; it’s a single vineyard (Stranice) field blend, 0.9 hectares in size. The low-yielding vines are 60 years old, the grapes hand-picked. The wine undergoes spontaneous fermentation, and skin contact for 10-12 days. Unfiltered, light yellow-gold in color. Delicious upfront fruit, apricots and peach, but great balance, too. My notes ended with ‘sublime’. Can’t wait to have this again. I took home two bottles. So far, the best Slovenian white blend I’ve had in 2018.
13.5%
€36

Lavrenčič said he’ll likely add Renski Riesling to both white blends next year to make up for the higher acidity that Vipava wines lack in warmer years.

Burja Zelen 2017 (barrel sample)
A little tight at first, but then expresses nicely the typical peach and almond notes that are clear characteristics of this varietal. Nice finish. Look for it soon.

Burja Noir 2016
100% Pinot Noir, the only non-local variety that Lavrenčič produces. Still a little young but impressive; made from vines that are 10-20 years old and aged for two years in oak. Light-bodied, with red berries and some smoke on the nose and palate.   Firm tannins. Will develop nicely for the next five years. Having tasted Pinot Noir from Vipava when it first began to appear in the early 1990s, it’s amazing to see how far it’s come in the right hands.
13%
€25

Burja Reddo 2015
Perhaps the most interesting of the blends. 40% Pokalca (Schioppettino), 30% Refosk (Refosco), 30% Modra Frankinja (Blaufrankisch). “It’s an idea I just came up with,” Lavrenčič said. He’s on to something, and again very local. The first two varieties are well known here, but Blaufrankisch is almost entirely limited to eastern Slovenia. But Lavrenčič points out that the dark-skinned tannic red was once common in the Vipava area as well. So he decided to play. The vines average just five to eight years of age, so there’s a youthful quality. But it’s elegant. Dashes of pepper and earthiness, blueberries and raspberry. On the heavier side of medium-bodied with subtle tannins. Aged two years in small oak barrels. About 3000 bottles produced.
13.5%
€40 (magnum)

I’ll be visiting the Vipava Valley often.

Posestvo Burja
Podgrič 12, 5272 Podnanos
burjaestate.com

 

A Vipava Valley Road Trip from Piran Cafe
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