Slovenia: Just the Beginning


Standing in a windswept hillside vineyard, I see the Alps to the northwest, soaring like a giant wall, the bay of Trieste visible to the southeast as the hills slowly descend in elevation toward the Isonzo River. These vineyards are eerily familiar. Ribolla Gialla, Friulano and Malvasia vines are all around. Yet there is also something alien about them, as my guide recites the names Rebula, Sauvignonasse and Malvazija. A robust and chilling wind blows from the northeast, yet I don’t feel cold despite it being the middle of December. My guide exclaims, “That’s the Bora.” From these moments alone, you might think I’m in Friuli, but I’m not even in Italy. I’m in Slovenia. 

Looking out across the border of Slovenia and Italy toward the Gravner winery.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me backtrack to add a little context.

This story begins in Friuli, more specifically in Oslavia, three years ago, standing in Joško Gravner’s vineyards and looking across an unrecognizable border. From that hilltop perch, I could see directly across a series of undulating hillsides and a patchwork of vineyards falling on the Slovenian side of the border. It was Brda. Divided only by a small brook and a strip of woodlands, one would never imagine this was not one continuous wine-producing region. The fact is, at one time, it was. With a natural continuation of topography, colors and even architecture being so apparent to the naked eye, how could these regions be so different? Suddenly, my curiosity was piqued. I needed to understand how something so close and seemingly so similar could be so different. I wanted to know why conversations with sommeliers in Collio would inevitably lead to discussing Brda and the wine revolution across the border. That’s how I ended up in Slovenia only a few years later.

Following the drawing up of borders after World War II, producers in both Slovenia and Italy found themselves separated from family, friends, property and vineyards that were suddenly no longer within their own country. Gravner and Radikon are perfect examples, as are Movia and Marjan Simčič on the Slovenian side. Before 1991, when the Republic of Slovenia declared independence from Yugoslavia and borders slowly began to open, these producers would have to go to great lengths to care for their land in a foreign nation. These issues existed on both sides of the border, but now that is a distant memory. In fact, today, crossing into Slovenia is as easy as skipping over a stream or driving down any ordinary road. As a result, I often hear of new projects spanning both sides of the border and even a push to somehow reunite the two regions of Collio and Brda. 

The wines of Slovenia can no longer be ignored. Not only are they extremely high in quality, but they are also wildly different from their neighbors in Italy.

Storybook stone walkways in the village of Šmartno, a Cultural Heritage Monument.

Just The Beginning

This is the first article of what I hope will become a deeper focus on all of Slovenia and its wines. With Italy to the west, Austria to the north, and Croatia and Hungary to the east, it's easy to imagine how diverse the winemaking and styles can be from one border to another. However, I’ve chosen to focus primarily on Brda for this first expedition into Slovenia. Brda is a hotbed of activity and produces the lion's share of Slovenia’s best wines, but I also felt it necessary to touch on the Vipava Valley and Kras. Located in the southwestern part of Slovenia, known as Primorska, all three of these districts (the term for a growing area, or AVA in Slovenia) are natural extensions of their neighbors in Friuli. That said, I included one or two other producers making wines in other parts of Slovenia. I came to know these producers by word of mouth or conversations across the border as my fascination with the country and its wines has grown. 

The terroir of Brda is extremely similar to Collio. Keep in mind that, at one time, this was all one region under Austrian rule before being divided. In fact, when looking at a map of Collio and Brda, it’s as if someone took a marker and drew a crescent moon border right through the middle of one wine-growing region. Brda shares the same hilly interior and lush woodlands as Collio. Yet in Brda, we find a slow progression of high elevations and steeper inclines as topography changes closer to the Julian Alps. The soils are also incredibly similar, formed by Flysch (a mix of chalky marls and sandstone with a high pH)—known as Ponca in Friuli and Opoka in Slovenia. These vineyards are often terraced due to steep inclines ranging from 10% to as much as 50%. The push and pull of cooling alpine influences from the north and warming Adriatic currents from the south creates a more Mediterranean climate than continental. Moreover, the harvests in Brda can run later than in Collio due to the proximity to the Alps and higher elevations. 

Looking out toward the historic town of Šmartno from the Gonjače Lookout Tower.

The Vipava Valley and Kras (Karst) both extend east from Collio and the city of Gorizia in Italy. Kras is the smallest district in Primorska, existing on the same limestone plateau as Italy’s Carso, with elevations ranging between 200 and 400 meters. Dense sheer limestone mixes with red, iron-rich soil known as terra rossa. Here, the primary grape is Teran, a dark, wild and high-acid red variety, followed by Vitovska, a crisp white variety that relies on its minerality to impress.

The Vipava Valley, sandwiched between the Karst mountains and the Alps, forms a corridor between the Adriatic Sea, Collio and Brda. It’s heavily influenced by strong Bora winds, with a more continental climate and alpine influences. I tasted just one portfolio from the Vipava Valley, Hedele, a serious standout. Between experiencing the wines and hearing a lot of chatter in both Friuli and Slovenia about their excitement over the Vipava Valley, I can assure readers that future reports will have a stronger focus there.

Merlot dominates the red wine scene in Brda.

The Slovenian Scene

Despite the above, the wines in western Slovenia are markedly different from those in Friuli, as is the culture. First and foremost, English is like a second language in western Slovenia. Any American tourist would find themselves easily communicating and traveling from place to place. The culture is a melting pot of Germanic, Hungarian, Italian and Slavic influences. Meat lovers will feel right at home, as the local foods mix the best of all the surrounding nations, reminding me quite a bit of German and Austrian cuisine more than anything else. 

As for wine, the scene is still developing yet has serious upside potential. Since Slovenia was under socialist rule until 1991, artisan winemaking didn’t exist beyond individuals making products for consumption between family and friends. And so, in many cases, most of Slovenia’s modern-day wine traditions have only begun to form over the last three decades. The first wave of producers were farmers with vineyard holdings who contributed to the cooperative system of the past, often learning their craft working for those wineries. Today, the younger generation is taking the reins and trying their hand at serious winemaking. As a result, many of these projects are extremely experimental and run the gamut of styles. 

The primary grape is a perfect example. Rebula (Ribolla Gialla) can be produced as a fresh-and-lively or dark-and-serious wine, made with long skin contact or without, enshrouded in a cloak of new oak, or even as a sparkling wine. Many producers see this diversity as a positive. However, it can create confusion amongst consumers looking for broad generalizations. One that I can say is that the wines of Brda, no matter the variety, are often richer, more fruit-focused and have a slightly higher amount of alcohol than their neighbors in Collio. That said, they are also beautifully balanced. Locals will tell you that this is partially the result of long growing seasons. However, it’s also important to note that I find many producers in Friuli picking early to add more acidity and greenness to the wines, a practice that doesn’t always work to their benefit. 

Slovenia's dominating white wines, from Rebula to Sauvignon and even Chardonnay.

I was shocked to learn that Chardonnay is the second most widely planted variety, followed by Merlot—which is far less surprising, as Brda and Friuli can excel with the variety. As for Chardonnay, my issue lies in the fear that Brda may lose its regional identity if producers lean too heavily on it. There’s certainly no shortage of excellent Chardonnay in the world. Another possible downfall I see comes from the rapid pace of growth in both Brda and Slovenia as a whole. Just a decade ago, finding more than one or two regional producers in foreign markets was rare, but now Slovenia is bursting with new projects. In many cases, these are young winemakers learning as they go, often without formal training. 

The good news is that I witnessed a sense of community and unparalleled camaraderie while visiting. Even while tasting at Klet Brda—the largest co-op in Brda, which produces wines at a surprisingly high level—I was happy to find that their winemaker knew the analytical data on most of the wines that were presented to me. Later, he confided that most winemakers send samples to him for lab analysis, with which the winery is happy to assist. And that’s just it: these producers aren’t in it for themselves. They care about the positive growth of their entire region—growth being something I expect we will see much more of. 

Due to the similar terroir and open-mindedness found in Slovenia and specifically Brda, many Italian producers are beginning to look across the border to find a way to expand and diversify their portfolios. Radikon is a perfect example, as is Edi Keber, one of Collio’s darlings. The Edi Keber winery, today led by Kristian Keber, is well known for turning its stereotypical portfolio of numerous Collio wines, both traditional and international, into just one wine, a Collio Bianco. Only ten years ago, Keber began revitalizing a vineyard two miles across the border in Slovenia and now produces a similar wine, under Kristian Keber, labeled “Brda.” I expect to witness more collaboration and many new projects in the coming years. In my opinion, these are still early days in the evolution of Slovenian wines.

I tasted all of the wines for this report in Slovenia during December 2023 and in our New York City offices in January 2024. Please see Friuli for vintage data now, as southwestern Slovenia follows many similar trends.

© 2024, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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