In-Depth: Eastern Europe - Slovenian Wine

Oct 5, 2009

Wine-dark grapes smell sweet here...
-Anna Akhmatova

France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Portugal all have fascinating histories. France was once divided between the Franks and the Normans. Italy, long after the fall of Rome fell under the political sway of  both Spain and Austria. The lands of present day Portugal and Spain were once ruled by the Moors and latter-day Germany was divided into tiny territories (Bavaria, Prussia, Swabia etc.) before unification under Bismark.

Over time, these western countries took shape and acquired their present character. As for Eastern Europe, many nations such as Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and even Greece had been conquered and torn by western powers (notably Austria) and the east (Russia and Turkey), leaving little time for them to establish their mark in the world.
Tucked in between Italy and Croatia, Slovenia’s share of the Adriatic shoreline is consequently minimal. Though small,  it is nonetheless a beautiful country with a diverse background.

This country had partaken in the livelihood of greater powers for over two millennia. The land once belonged to the Roman Empire (27 BC – 476 AD), to the Principality of Carantania (7th century), the Holy Roman Empire (10th century), the Habsburg Monarchy (14th century – 18th century), the Austrian Empire (19th century), and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (20th century). Between the two world wars, it struggled under the political yoke of the Germans, the Italians and Hungarians before becoming part of Croatia.

In 1991, after centuries of foreign rule, the country finally gained independence. However, it has a long winemaking history despite the decrees of differing empires, monarchies and kingdoms. In Ancient times, the Celts and Illyrians tribes made wine here before the Romans. During the Middle Ages, the monks and monasteries took over before the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Following World War II, production fell into the hands of co-operatives and quality became an issue. In 1967, the PSVVS was founded, a business association devoted to improving the identity of Slovenian wine. Over a decade after independence, Slovenia joined the European Union in 2004.

The country produces approximately 1 million hectoliters of wine per year, three quarters of which is white. Of this, 5% (or about 50,000 hectoliters) is exported to other Eastern European countries, North America, Italy and Germany. There are over 40,000 registered wine growers covering 24,600 hectares of land, making for a fragmented world of vineyard quality.

It is my belief that without a strong government identity, it is difficult to be recognized in the international wine market (Canada is experiencing this now as many grape growers are being undermined by the government).

Slowly but surely, Slovenia is emerging from the shadow of its dark and strife-ridden past as her wines are finally gaining the recognition the country deserves.
 Slovenian vineyards
As I mentioned, white grapes make up the majority of the Slovenian vineyard, many of which are of eastern European origin. These include: Šipon (also known as Furmint in Hungary), Ranina (Bouvier in Austria – a cross between Zöldsilváni and Chardonnay), Kraljevina, Pinela, Zelen, and Rebula (in Italy: Ribolla).

In terms of International varieties, they are planted here in abundance but grown under their Slavic names: Sauvignon Blanc becomes Muškatni Silvanec (inspired by the German  name for Sauv Blanc - Muskat Silvaner); Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris in Slovenia are Beli, Modri and Sivi Pinot, respectively. Traminer is Traminec, Riesling is Renski Rizling (not to be confused with Welschriesling which is Laški Rizling), Müller-Thurgau is Rizvanec and Blaufränkisch is Modra Franinja.

The Italian varieties Refosco and Picolit simply become Refošk and Pikolit. (The Refošk red I tried from Vinakoper - see 'Deciphering Slovenian Wine Labels' below - was exceptional: chocolate and cedar, tobacco and mulch held together by deep blackberry fruit... lush and delicious.)

Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay thankfully keep their names for easy recognition.

There are three wine regions which are further divided into 14 sub-regions:

PRIMORSKA is right on the coast. Here the climate is Mediterranean and the wines more Italian in style – dry whites and firm, fuller-bodied reds. In some instances, the vineyards of Primorska are just a continuation of Italian ones: Collio becomes Brda, Kras is east of Corso. Vipava and Koper make up the other sub-regions.
Near Koper, the town of Piran stretches towards the idyll Adriatic

POSAVJE is more continental in climate, divided by the Sava River (Dolenjsk in the south, Bizeljsko and Smarje north of the river). In some parts of the region, especially Bela Krajna, the wines tend to be fuller as red grapes can ripen with ease. But the region is also perfect for producing botrytized wines (from grapes that have experienced Noble Rot, helping to concentrate the sugar and make the wine sweet).

PRODAJVE in the north east is similar to its neighbor in terms of climate. Resting along the Darva River, the wines grown in this region are lower in alcohol and typically white. You can find sweet wines to rival the best of Austria along with Icewine (during the good years) and Sparkling wine which is on the increase. Subregions: Maribor, Haloze, Radgona-Kapel, Predmurske, Sredjeslovenske Gorice, Prekmurske Gorice and Ljutomer-Ormoz.

If you thought German labels were tough, well, I'm sorry to report, these are a bit tougher. Written in the Slovenian language, they can be rather intimidating. But there's hope as most of what's on the label is rather essential. Here's a breakdown: 

VINAKOPER – is the name of the producer. Koper (in Primorska on the Adriatic coast)  is also the place where the grapes have been sourced.

REFOŠK – is the variety, also known as Refosco in Italy. Remember, the wines of the Primorska region have Italian-style wines because they are closer to Italy.

KLASIČNA PREDELAVA – translates as ‘Classical Production’ or Classic.

VRHUNSKO VINO ZGP – means the wine is the highest or ‘top quality’ vino. The ZGP or Zaščiteno geografsko poreklo is the quality control division of Slovenia’s wine industry. According to the law, all wines must be analyzed, tested and scored before they are delivered to the market. During this process, the wine is determined to be one of the following:  

namizno vino (table wine),
deželno vino (wine from a specific part of the country similar to Italy’s IGT),  
kakovostno vino (quality wine) and 
vrhunsko vino (or top-quality wine).

PRIDELAL IN POLNI – literally ‘grown and bottled’ by the producer Vinakoper


Slovenian wine is not nearly as popular as Italian wine. You're more likely to find a Greek or Croatian wine before you track down a white or red from Primorska, Prosavje or Prodavje. But if you're determined, check out the LCBO, especially the Vintages stores in major cities. The more popular these wines become, the more likely you'll see them around. In time, hopefully, Slovenian wine will gain a greater following. This  great country certainly deserves it.

Johnson, Hugh and Jancis Robinson, The World Atlas of Wine, Bounty Books, London, 2001.
Robinson, Jancis, Jancis Robinson's Wine Course. Abbeville Press, New York, 2003.
Robinson, Jancis (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2006.


Ivan Loyola October 7, 2009 at 10:31 AM  

Wow, excellent article. I spent time with Slovenian winemakers in the Primorska region. There is a revival in the production of indigenous varieties. I tasted Zelen, fabulous white, which production is still very small. I also had a chance with other whites, like Ribulla (Ribolla), Pinot Grigio and others I don't remember.

But the average Slovenian drinker is in love with Refosco, which they call Teran. They attribute all kind of medicinal qualitites to this wine. In Italy the variety is called Refosco and also Schioppetino. Its earthy and tannic, and although I think it may have a hard time finding followers outside Slovenia and northeastern Italy, it was good when accompanying some wild hog stew at a countryside restaurant, or Gostilna.

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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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