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05.27.2008

Slovenian Wine: A New Frontier for White Wine Lovers

The wine world increasingly sorts out into two camps, those who believe increasing globalization is good for the wine industry, and those who believe that it ruins everything good about wine. Never mind that it is most certainly happening and impossible to stop. Those who regularly follow my ramblings know that I think globalization is the best thing to happen to wine since someone figured out that stainless steel tanks made for good fermentations.

Leaving aside all the petty and ridiculous arguments about the homogenization of wine, slovenian_coat_of_arms.gifwhich I think are bollocks, I offer the simplest and most compelling reason that globalization is good for wine:

Slovenia.

The folks in Slovenia have been making wine since even before the region was a part of the Roman empire, of course, but some of the wineries operating today have been in business since the 1500's. Yet until recently very few people in the United States had even heard of Slovenian wine, let alone tasted any.

Globalization more than anything else means that the market for wine, even ones made in tiny countries, by tiny producers, from slightly obscure grapes have a chance to reach wine lovers all over the world. And if they're good, they have the chance to reach levels of popularity that would never have been possible based on the local demand of their region, or even neighboring countries. Perhaps the most well known success story of this kind in the region is Movia, whose wines I reviewed yesterday. But Slovenia is much bigger than Movia, and there are a lot of wines worth paying attention to.

Slovenia's three primary winegrowing regions of Podravje, Primorska, and Posavje are planted to around 60,000 acres of vineyards, representing more than one percent of the nation's tiny 7,827 square miles of territory. With more than 40,000 registered wineries according to the Oxford Companion to Wine, it's not hard to believe that the average vineyard size for the country falls somewhere in the 8 to 15 acre zone.

This incredible diversity of producers may partially be responsible for Slovenian wine staying off the radar for so long, as most producers are so small that they wouldn't have enough wine to sell on the global market even if they could afford to get it there.

Thanks to the work of some dedicated importers and the increasingly global view of many wine lovers, the world is getting more experience with this region and it's history of producing distinctive wines.

Slovenia was the first republic to declare independence in the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, but before that nation was cobbled together, it sat at a major crossroads in the Hapsburg empire that, in some form or another, ruled the region even before the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire.

Snuggled as it is between the Mediterranean on the Southwest, Italy on the West, Croatia on the Southeast, and the Austrian Alps to the north (beautifully summarized by the country's coat of arms, seen above), it will come as no surprise that the region's major influences when it comes to wine are Italian, German and Hungarian with some French sensibility thrown into the mix.

Nothing is a greater influence on Slovenian wine, however, than the extremely variable climate of the region, which can vary to such a great degree that the size of the country's wine production regularly fluctuates twenty or thirty percentage points from vintage to vintage.

Like most relatively developed indigenous wine regions, Slovenia produces both red and white wines, but in my experience the white wines are by far the best and most interesting, and in some cases are nothing short of world-class. These whites are either made as single varietals or as blends, using a wide variety of techniques, from the more traditional vinification in large, old oak casks, to modern stainless steel winemaking.

Regardless of the methods used, Slovenian winemakers are producing distinctive wines from familiar grapes like Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc; to less well known varieties such as Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia, Traminer, and Sylvaner; to the downright obscure Kerner, Pikolit, Vitovska, Sipon, and Pinela.

It is quite unwise of me to broadly characterize the wines of an entire country, as there are great variations, from the sweet dessert wines of the southeast, to the crisp whites of the western region that falls within the unique extension of Italy's Collio appellation. However, I will say that I find Slovenian whites to be extremely distinctive, and quite unlike white wines from anywhere else, save some of the producers in Italy's neighboring Friuli region. The best Slovenian wines, even those with residual sugar, seem to offer amazing combinations of floral, tropical fruit, and more earthy qualities, often with a touch of oxidation that gives them somewhat of an "ancient" quality.

Any wine lover who enjoys white wines I strongly urge to seek out some Slovenian wine and give it a try.

Here are some tasting notes from some of the best Slovenian whites I have had recently.

Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.

2003 Kogl M.D. Albus "Magna Domenica" White Wine, Podravje, Slovenia
Pale, greenish gold in color, this blend of Riesling, Yellow Muscat, and Auxerrois has a nose that combines slightly funky aromas of wet wool and wet wood with beautiful scents of white blossoms and ripe melon. In the mouth it tastes of paraffin, pear, and white flowers wrapped around a core of tart melon flavor. The decent (though perhaps not sharp enough for my taste) acidity brings a lightly mineral, even metallic quality to the long, intriguing finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $17.00. Where to buy?

2005 Kogl "Mea Culpa" White Wine, Podravje, Slovenia
Greenish gold in the glass, this wine has a gorgeous nose of acacia flowers, juicy peaches, and paraffin, which hints at the Riesling that makes up the majority of the wine. In the mouth the wine is beautifully balanced and offers a gorgeously complex pastiche of chamomile, lemon zest, and mineral qualities that are electrified by excellent acids and textured with silky smoothness. The flavors blend and swirl into a long, satisfying finish. In a word, "yum." Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $19.99. Where to buy?

1999 Batic Reserve Pinot Gris, Vipava Valley, Slovenia
This wine pours a beautiful medium gold, even slightly orange in the glass. Orange wine is nearly always a good sign! It smells of honey and freshly shelled nuts. The nutty qualities continue into the waxy body of the wine which has a lightly oxidized quality that I find utterly compelling. The nuts and rainwater flavors carry through a long finish that seems to defiantly challenge anyone who says aged Pinot Gris can't turn into something special if made in the right way. Score: around 9. Cost: $29.95. Where to buy?

2004 Batic Pinot Gris Riserva, Vipava Valley, Slovenia
I don't think I've ever seen a wine quite this color before -- gorgeously orange-pink in the glass it reads visually more as a rose than a white wine, making me wonder if it didn't have a period of extended contact with the skins to extract such a hue. It's nose is equally wondrous - a jewel-like confection of candied apple, red apple skin, and exotic spices. In the mouth it is nicely balanced with good acid and a weighty presence on the tongue that dances flavors of paraffin, red apple skin, and those same hard-to-pin-down spices across the palate. The wine's finish is unusually short, but despite this deficit, it is most certainly one of the most distinctive wines I have ever had in my mouth. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $26.95. Where to buy?

2004 Santomas Malvasia, Primorje - Koper, Slovenia
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of melon and honey. In the mouth it seduces with a silky texture and a waxy pear and melon mix of flavors that swirl pleasingly with good acid into a moderate finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $16. Where to buy?

2006 Crnko "Rumeni Muskat" Yellow Muscat, Maribor, Slovenia
Pale green-gold in color, this wine has an intoxicating nose of melon, kiwi, and other exotic tropical fruits. It's hard not to simply want to sit and smell this wine for several minutes. In the mouth, the wine offers bright flavors of sultanas and hints of the melon in the nose. A slightly waxy quality tangos with a light spritz on the tongue as the wine finishes without quite living up to the promise of the nose. This Slovenian rendition of the Austrian "Gelber Muskateller" grape is good for drinking, but even better for smelling. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $21.95. Where to buy?

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The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.