Slovenia, in Midstride

Slovenia, in Midstride

If there is one exceedingly worn-out trope in food and wine writing, it’s describing a location as being at a crossroads. And yet, the central European country of Slovenia is indeed crisscrossed by a number of roads. The neighboring Croatians, Italians, Austrians, and Hungarians pass through the country as much today as the Romans did some 2,000 years ago.

Looking at a map, one might notice that Slovenia is shaped like a running chicken. Much like people from the “mitten” of Michigan might use their hands as a map to their home state, Slovenes often mention various parts of a chicken’s anatomy to refer to where they’re from. But at 20,000 square kilometers (7,700 square miles), Slovenia is one-fifth the size of Michigan, and Slovenes take pride in the country’s small size. It is possible to travel everywhere relatively quickly, which leads to a strong sense of unity; Slovenes don’t seem to suffer from the rivalry typical among inhabitants of various regions in nearby Croatia and Italy. Among the individual wine regions, there is a harmony, as modern winemaking began at about the same time across the country. Wine quality continues to improve with each passing year, and Slovenia’s wine industry shows great promise.

A Pre-Roman Wine

A unique feature of Slovenia’s wine history is that it wasn’t the Romans who brought the grape to the region. The original Celtic and Illyrian tribes started growing wine grapes around the fifth century BCE. The Romans arrived shortly thereafter and were responsible for establishing the main settlements that still exist today, including Iulia Aemona, now the capital city of Ljubljana; Poetovium, now Ptuj; and Capris, now Koper.

Romans expanded winemaking significantly, but the Middle Ages and the growth of monastic life brought the industry nearer to the form it takes today. The Žička kartuzija, for example, was a monastery of the French Chartreuse order. It was crucial to the growth of winemaking when it was established in the 12th century and still stands. The winemaking tradition at the monastery continues, with Zlati Grič producing a portion of its wines on the premises. It’s believed that the monks originally brought both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to the region, which has few native grape varieties of its own.

Like most of Europe, Slovenia suffered a drop in its wine production near the end of the 19th century when phylloxera arrived. The country struggled to recover, as phylloxera was followed by World War I; Slovenia’s entry into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes; World War II; and, finally, the formation of Yugoslavia and a collectivization of winemaking. (In the 1970s, a reform allowed a small amount of wine to be produced privately.)

For Slovenia, like the other countries in the former Yugoslavia, it was independence, in 1991, that brought about the full revolution of winemaking—albeit with many historical aspects persisting to modern times. Today, for example, there are larger producers, including Vinakoper, Klet Brda, and Ptujska Klet, that, though privatized, are a holdover from the co-operative wineries of the Yugoslav period. Additionally, winemaking has historically been more prescriptive than reactive, as enology education was focused on raw data rather than the distinctive aspects of a vintage.

Yet it is also because of this history that Slovenes are self-sustaining, as it was initially difficult to obtain equipment for private wine production. Winemaking equipment is now typically produced by Škrlj, a homegrown enterprise in the heart of Vipava Valley.

The Modern Industry

A true total of functioning wineries in Slovenia is hard to identify. A number of 25,000 or more is often mentioned—far above the total number of wineries in Spain, the world’s third-largest producer, which has 4,300. This is probably a mistranslation of the number of registered agriculturists with vineyards, as many Slovenes have a small number of vines and produce a few hundred liters for family consumption. There are about 2,500 registered winemaking entities, and fewer than a thousand of those are serious commercial endeavors.

Among the typically small holdings of vineyards, there are many varieties, as Slovenia can be quite rainy, with high disease pressure. There are 60 different varieties grown, and hybrids, such as the red variety Regent, have become popular for ease of cultivation. Commercial producers use a much more honed set of grapes, including Laški Rizling (Graševina/Welschriesling), Šipon (Furmint), Sauvignon Blanc, Renski Rizling (Riesling), Chardonnay, Modra Frankinja (Blaufränkisch), Modri/Sivi Pinot (Pinot Noir/Gris), and Zweigelt. These grapes are most favored toward the east. In the west, some of these are grown, but the most popular grapes are Pinela (Pinello), Merlot, Rebula (Ribolla Gialla), Friulano (previously known as Tokai but better known as Sauvignonasse), Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zelen. Pinela and Zelen are thought to be two of Slovenia’s few native grapes.

In total, there are 17,500 hectares (43,200 acres) of vineyards that yield about 80 to 90 million liters of wine annually. The production skews heavily toward white wines, at 75%. In the largest region, Štajerska, white wine composes 90% of production. While much smaller, red wine production here has grown about 300% in the past decade and continues to increase.

Because the total amount of rainfall in some parts of the country can be high, reaching 1,400 millimeters (55 inches) annually, it shouldn’t come as a shock that this, coupled with the industrial history of the Yugoslav period, has made the use of chemicals in the vineyards typical. At the same time, 5% of the vineyards are certified as organic, and, as in most EU countries, there’s momentum to grow this figure—and rapidly.

The Regions of Slovenia

As per the now-standard EU levels of classification, there is a general PGI level in Slovenia, called Zaščitena Geografska Označba (ZGO), for larger regional classifications in the three main regions of Primorska, Posavje, and Podravje. Above this level on the classification pyramid sits the more finite PDO level, Zaščitena Označba Porekla (ZOP). There are currently nine ZOPs; Štajerska was originally several ZOPs that were merged into a single entity a few years ago. There are also several historically recognized styles known as Priznano Tradicionalno Poimenovanje (PTP), with Cviček the most noteworthy.

Additionally, ZGP instead of ZOP often appears on labels. ZGP stands for vrhunsko vino zaščiteno geografsko poreklo, a quality or premium wine classification scheme from the Yugoslav period; it has very little relation to a wine’s actual quality.

Interestingly, despite Slovenia being continental in terms of its overall climate, the country has two distant growing regions, much as its neighbor Croatia does. To make use of the chicken: the west, Primorska, forms the rear quarters; in the east, Posavje and Podravje represent the breast, head, and beak. While varieties and approaches to winemaking are often shared—the country is only 150 kilometers (93 miles) wide—distinct differences between the regions are becoming more apparent.

Primorska PGI

Primorski translates as “coastline.” Though not all its regions have a direct line of sight to the Adriatic, a very strong sea influence sweeps up the valleys and hills that define Primorska PGI. Many producers working in a more natural style have arisen in this area, including Mlečnik, in Vipava; Kabaj, in Goriška Brda; and, on the Italian side of the border, the legendary Joško Gravner, who brought significant early attention to the broader region.

Vipava Valley DO

Vipava Valley, or Vipavska Dolina, is the biggest region in this area and follows the Vipava River in what is a slightly angled yet more or less east-west direction. The valley sits in a crosscurrent of climates, with a cold sweep of wind descending from the alpine areas as well as a Mediterranean influence from the west.

Slovenia’s native grapes Zelen and Pinela, both white, are minority varieties, with just 70 hectares (173 acres) and 66 hectares (163 acres) here, respectively. Merlot is one of the most popular grapes, in part because it is among the least expensive. Vipava Valley is also a top region for Pinot Noir in Slovenia.

The winery Tilia, which is owned by Matjaž Lemut, founded the Modri Les Noirs event in 2018 to celebrate the variety in Slovenia and nearby countries. In a comparison of older and newer vintages, it is clear that the Slovenes, while not yet experts in Pinot Noir, are steadily growing their knowledge of the grape.

Slovenska Istra PDO

Slovenska Istra is a continuation of Croatian Istria, with the red grape Refošk (Refosco or Teran) composing about 45% of the vineyard. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah are also planted here. Malvazija Istarska makes up 30% of the plantings for the whites. Across the border in Croatia, Malvazija Istarska is the majority variety and a serious economic contributor.

Just south of Trieste and just north of Croatia, Slovenska Istra claims Slovenia’s only stretch of coast, and there is a pronounced sea influence on the vineyards. It still has the Slovenian climate, however, with 900 to 1,300 millimeters (35 to 50 inches) of rainfall per year.

Goriška Brda PDO

While second to Vipava in terms of vineyard plantings, Goriška Brda has a much tighter area of plantings, focused on the hills, which have the same compacted marl soils as those in Gorizia, on the Italian side of the border, and Nova Gorica, on the Slovenian side. Goriška Brda was one of the first regions in Slovenia to attract attention—and not just because of Gravner’s work nearby in Collio, Italy. Many do consider this area as an extension of Italy’s Collio region, as the two use the same grape varieties, and there is significant shared history between the people as well as a local dialect called Friulian that spans the border. This name was also lent to the grape Tocai (Tocai Friulano), which had to be renamed because of the similarity to Hungary’s Tokaji. Despite the official change, locally it seems everyone calls the variety Tocai or uses the original French name, Sauvignonasse.

Goriška Brda has shown significant growth in recent years. The winery Movia is owned by Aleš Kristančič, and his son Lan has been taking a more active role in winemaking since 2018. On a recent visit, as I stood with Aleš on the terrace of their tasting room, he pointed down at the slopes of the hills and said, “Everything down there was fruit trees just 20 years ago. Now it’s vines. It’s just crazy how much we’ve grown.”

Kras PDO

Kras is the smallest Slovenian coastal region, but it’s one of the most important, at least historically. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder praised the wines from Carso, known today in English as Karst. Kras sits on a plateau, essentially between Vipava and the Adriatic. It has a sub-Mediterranean climate, and all the vines are between 200 and 400 meters (650 and 1,300 feet) in altitude on very red terra rossa soils that are rich in iron. This is the land of Refošk, with three-quarters of the vineyards planted to the variety.

Posavje PGI

The Posavje region is the smallest in terms of production. To some extent, it mirrors the Plešivica region on the Croatian side of the border, as both are attracting attention for sparkling wine production. This is also the region known for Cviček, a style of wine that blends red and white grapes, must be below 10% ABV, and is extremely high in acidity. Essentially, it’s one of the original glouglou wines, and, while it once had a poor reputation, it, like much that is old and scorned in the world of wine, is being renewed.

Dolenjska PDO

Dolenjska is Posavje’s largest region and the main area where Cviček is produced, as it is Slovenia’s coolest wine region, encouraging the development of high acidity in the grapes. Blaufränkisch and Sauvignon Blanc are rising in popularity here, as are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The local red variety Žametovka, or Žametna Črnina (meaning “black velvet”), also grows in this area. Often blended into Cviček wines, Žametovka is most famous as the variety of a 400-year-old vine—possibly the oldest in the world—that grows in the town of Maribor, to the north.

Bizeljsko Sremič PDO

In Bizeljsko Sremič’s continental climate, a small number of vineyards sit between 200 and 400 meters (650 and 1,300 feet). The signature marl and limestone of western Slovenia is here, as is some clay.

Sparkling wine production is successful in this area, and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are planted throughout the region, along with the local white variety Rumeni Plavec (Plavec Žuti in Croatia), which was historically considered a table grape before being used to make wine.

Bela Krajina PDO

Bela Krajina, the smallest winegrowing district in Slovenia, is the warmest area in Posavje, allowing Blaufränkisch to ripen well. For Slovenes, however, the area is known for its ice wine. The first ice wine produced in the country, 40 years ago, was made here by the Metlika co-operative.

Podravje PGI

Podravje is the most interior region in Slovenia and the largest in the country. Štajerska alone accounts for 40% of the country’s annual production. Rolling hills and winding rivers pass through the entire region, which is the most Austrian-looking part of Slovenia—unsurprising, as Štajerska is also known as Lower Styria, and Prekmurje is wedged between Austria and Hungary.

Štajerska PDO

It’s difficult to know where the professional vineyards end and the hobbyist vineyards begin in Štajerska, which is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of small producers in addition to the main wineries that are dotted about the hills. There are 6,300 hectares (15,600 acres) of vineyards officially recorded, but countless other plots of just a few hundred vines each are grown for home winemaking.

The stalwart grapes are dominant: Welschriesling, Furmint, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, Blaufränkisch, Pinot Noir/Gris, and Zweigelt. Recent studies have stated that Blaufränkisch is originally from Slovenia, but more research is needed to prove that. Interestingly, Lemberger, a common synonym for Blaufränkisch, derives from the name of the town Lemberg, which is just 20 kilometers (12 miles) across the border in present-day Austria, an area that was once the territory of an old Slavic people.

Climate change is driving a transition in Štajerska, as ripening for red varieties has become far more reliable than it was a decade ago, demonstrated by the finely fruited wines from 2019, which was overall a warm vintage. Whether this help will become a hindrance, however, remains to be seen.

Prekmurje PDO

Bojan Kulčar, the winemaker of Vina Kulčar, once commented to me, “We’re actually from the beak, not the head.” Technically, the estate is just outside the borders of Prekmurje, but it produces the typical wines of this region—full-bodied reds and expressive, aromatic whites. Blaufränkisch and Riesling are both strong here, and the landscape differs from Štajerska’s, with open plains and warm temperatures despite its interior, more northerly location.

Moving Forward

Technically, Slovenia is the most advanced country that emerged from the former Yugoslavia, and its wines are, overall, very well made. Sometimes they verge on being too technical, especially when made from a notoriously finicky grape, such as Pinot Noir. Occasionally, the wines demonstrate too much winemaker influence, and sloppy acidification can be detected. Some winemakers have rebelled to produce wild, sometimes even woolly, natural wines. In particular, Marjan Simčič and Movia Wines, both in Goriška Brda, have received attention for their more reactive, natural style of winemaking.

I’ve always thought of the Slovenes as being more progressive than people in other countries in the region, yet I’ve realized that there are few women in the industry. One of the rare female winemakers is Špela Štokelj, at the Štokelj winery, in Vipava, who is taking her family’s project to the next level. More gender equity would benefit the industry, bringing more perspectives and leading to better wine, as has been seen in France over the past 30 years. Fortunately, as younger generations take over from their fathers, there should be rapid change.

What remains out of the control of Slovenes, however, are the issues around climate change. To date, climate change has benefited the regions of Posavje and Podravje, but in Primorska the hotter summers are already forcing winemakers to rethink their approaches. The Guerila estate, in Vipava, has been sourcing its grapes far up in the hills, but elevations only reach so high. Other weather extremes, such as the massive floods in Štajerska in 2023, might also become more common, but the Slovenes are working to adapt, changing viticulture practices and harvest times.

Another important adjustment that Slovene winemakers, like those in many other European regions, are already making is to embrace traditional and local varieties, which have adapted to the climate far better than transplanted grapes. Today, varieties such as Merlot are inexpensive and abundant in Vipava Valley. Yet, for example, at the winery Ferdinand—which, at 300 meters (980 feet), is the highest facility in Goriška Brda—the Merlot-based wines are good, but the Rebula bottlings are outstanding. These differences may become more pronounced in the future.

Slovenia’s winemakers benefit both from the country’s small size, easily communicating with one another about challenges and advances, and from connections with the neighboring wine-producing nations of Italy and Austria. Slovenia has a tremendous wine history, yet the industry doesn’t appear to be hindered by it, and winemakers are making great improvements.

Production totals are modest, but Slovenian wines are beginning to appear in more markets. For those who have tasted the wines in the past, it is worth revisiting new examples, as the wines have improved significantly in just the past three years. Slovenia is a country to watch, with exciting growth and developments on the horizon.

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Republic of Slovenia (website). Accessed December 19, 2023.

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