Slovenia: Cracking wines

Driving across Slovenia doesn’t take long. About three hours from one corner to the other; it’s about the size of Wales, or slightly smaller than New Jersey. It’s a picturesque journey – from the palm trees of the western coast, past pine-covered, snow-capped mountains, arriving finally at the rolling hills of the eastern border with Croatia. If you don’t know where in Europe it is exactly, you’d be forgiven; the break up of the former Yugoslav Federation 21 years ago is bound to instil a bit of doubt. It’s here:


… and yes, it does look like a chicken, doesn’t it?

In a nutshell, when it comes to the wines of Slovenia, think of a kind of cross between Germany, Austria and New Zealand. Whites are its strong suit; wines tend to be pure, expressive and aromatic but often punchy and intense in flavour.

There are three main regions, each with their own character and classic styles: Primorje (the coastal area around the Adriatic Sea and the border of Italy – the chicken’s back foot and tail); Posavje (the chicken’s breast) and Podravje (the chicken’s head).

Primorje (the back end of the chicken), although closest to the sea, is best known for its reds. A fair bit of Cabernet and Merlot is grown here, particularly further south, but the most interesting grape is Refošk (pronounced ‘refoshk’ aka Refosco). The Bordeaux blends can be good, but Refošk is certainly hard to ignore. It is made in two different styles; one is like an intense, high-acid Beaujolais, made for early drinking; the other is deep, full-bodied, and matured in oak with medium to long-term ageing in mind. There are some good examples of both, from houses such as Vinakoper, but elsewhere it’s not hard to find some bottles with undrinkably high levels of acidity. Further north towards Italy, there is more emphasis on minerally whites.

In the 70s and 80s, Slovenia used to export a lot of wine, and it was known in particular for cheap, poor quality Laški Rizling (aka Welschriesling) – these days spoken about in the same breath as Liebfraumilch and other crimes. Fortunately, this all occurred while I was still on the orange squash, so I never had the chance to try them. I tasted a couple while I was over there and they were both quite enjoyable – I suspect the winemaking back then was to blame rather than the variety itself. What isn’t OK however is Cviček (‘svitcheck’). It is one of the worst styles of wine I have ever tasted, and it comes from Posavje (the chicken’s breast).

Cviček is very wrong indeed. It comes in many forms, but is usually a pale, pinky-red blend of white and red varieties (mostly Laški Rizling and Blaufränkisch), with low (7.5% – 10%) alcohol, low (sometimes no) tannin and blistering acidity. I tasted a few so you don’t have to: my notes are sprinkled with words like ‘bitter’, ‘thin’ and ‘harsh’. It is still massively popular in Slovenia (over 1m litres a year production, and only 2m total population) but I have no idea why. Perhaps I’m just yet to encounter the amazing ones. By all accounts they do make some good delicate, subtle whites in this region, and these are the ones to explore.

Thankfully next door is Podravje (the chicken’s head) which is better known for fuller, richer (yet still aromatic) whites. They make a fair bit of Laški Rizling, some crisp, flavoursome Sauvignon Blanc and some striking, no-nonsense Šipon (‘shipon’ aka Furmint), along with some Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. Their late harvest and fully sweet wines can be world-class.

Most of the wine produced in Slovenia is drunk locally, and much of the small amount that is exported goes to neighbouring Balkan countries. Some of the larger wineries now have enough capacity to make it worthwhile looking further afield to sell their wines, and some ambitious smaller wineries are also keen on reaching a wider audience. This is creating a drive towards better quality, and also increasing experimentation, such as sparkling Furmint. As such, we are starting to see them more and more on shelves in the UK and US. There was a real sense of optimism among the winemakers I met.

Slovenia has one of the oldest winemaking histories in Europe, with evidence of winemaking going back to the 4th century BC, but in many ways it feels like the start of a new era for its wine industry. Currently, in the UK at least, there is little knowledge of Slovenian wine so little demand for it. The wines that do make it this far are being sold on quality and value rather than reputation or brand. If you are a fan of cool-climate wines, they are well worth a try.


Some highlights:


Dveri-Pax Sivi Pinot 2008
100% Sivi Pinot (aka Pinot Gris) from Jarenina, Podravje, Slovenia
£9.80 from The Ox House Wine Company

Golden in colour, this is rich and mature with spicy vanilla flavours over apricot and peach. Full-bodied, with a creamy texture but enough acidity to keep it all in balance. The spicy oak flavours are to the fore, but with good intensity of fruit flavours as well. Medium length. 88 points, good value.

Gomila ‘Exceptional’ Furmint 2011
100% Furmint grape from Ormož, Podravje, Slovenia
£11.99 from Wine Unfurled

Bright lemon in colour, this has a heady aroma of lemon, kumquat and banana with a hint of spice. Very clean, defined flavours. Intensely concentrated, with more citrussy acidity in the mouth, a tiny touch of tannin and a mineral edge. Medium to full-bodied, this is intense, long, modern, and very impressive. 91 points, very good value.

Verus Riesling 2010
100% Riesling grape from Ormož, Podravje, Slovenia
£13.50 from South Downs Cellars

Fresh and vibrant with lots of satsuma and jasmine. Crackling acidity, with lime cordial and more satsuma and mandarin on the palate. Well balanced and long. 90 points, good value.


Many thanks to Cube Communications (who represent p&f wineries) for organising the trip.