Unlike its close neighbor Italy, with which it vies for a small slice of the Adriatic coastline, Slovenia is not historically famous for its wine. However, viticulture has existed in the tiny republic since the 4th century BC, predating the Romans' introduction of winemaking to better-known regions like France, Spain and Germany.
“People argue whether it was the Slovenians or Albanians who first made wine,” says Tatjana Puklavec, of p&f wineries in the Jeruzalem-Ormoz region of eastern Slovenia. “We have 2400 years of making wine, and we have the oldest vine in the world in Maribor. It's 400 years old and still produces red wine.”
Wine made by Puklavec’s grandfather in the 1950s and '60s, when he was exporting 80 percent of his product, was bought by Buckingham Palace. “I always say that’s why the Queen Mother lived so long – because she drank our wine.”
But Slovenia’s small size – two million people in a land smaller than the American state of New Jersey — means its wines don’t make their way into many international inventories or wine lists.
“We are not good at producing bulk. But what we have is very good terroirs. We have five percent of the best terroirs in the world so we should produce five percent of the best wine in the world,” says Puklavec.
Joshua Hanson, director of the August Wine Group in the United States and an importer of Slovenian wine for the past decade, agrees. “The terroir is exceptional. It is, in winemaking terms, the same meso-climate as Colli Orientali in Friuli, one of the great Italian winemaking areas.
“Many winemakers in Friuli admit that the land gets better as one travels east," adds Hanson. If true, that would put the best sites in Slovenia.
Hanson believes the style of Slovenian wine is reminiscent of Italy, but with a flair of its own. “They tend towards austerity by American standards, but are all approachable, even ‘playful,’ by northern Italian standards. They’re worthy of the hype they’re getting.”
Despite its size, hilly Slovenia has huge geographic variety, including coastal land, forests (covering half its territory), and mountains. Steep hillsides make it impossible for machinery to operate on most vineyards so 95 percent of the country’s grapes are picked by hand.
Wine production is concentrated in the sub-Mediterranean west, as well as the eastern part of the country, close to Austria and Germany, where continental-style wines are produced. Puklavec’s grapes grow on the eastern lowland plains that were originally the Pannonian Sea, developing a mineral crispness which she says makes them unique.
The p&f (Puklavec & Friends) winery also uses the little-known furmint grape, which originated in Hungary. In a recent success story, its Blooming wine, a semi-dry blend of furmint, welschriesling and chardonnay, was picked up by Cockburn & Campbell for import into the United Kingdom.
Not having the scale to produce in bulk is actually a blessing in disguise, says Aleks Simcic, who runs the Edi Simcic estate, his father’s eponymous boutique winery. The estate has exported its wines since 1997, producing 40,000 bottles a year – three-quarters of which go to the United States and Japan.
The Simcic winery is in Brda, western Slovenia, an area known for the white rebula, or ribolla gialla, grape. The fruit is almost exclusively harvested by hand, with between 12 and 15 people springing into action when the weather dictates.
“It’s very traditional. We are working with very low yield and the highest possible quality of the grapes,” says Simcic. “The quality of the wines is at a certain level – in Slovenia you don’t find the lowest level of the wines. We’re basically limited by quantity.”
Another limiting factor in Slovenian wine production was, of course, the Cold War. After World War II, the country became part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia; private property was nationalized and grape growers, along with everyone else, were forced into collectivization.
“Practically every wine region established a cooperative cellar that brought grapes from the surrounding area,” remembers Simcic.
Hanson believes that geopolitics took their toll on the excellent winemaking tradition in the west of Slovenia, which had been part of Italy. “After the war, the quality of the estates, now arbitrarily on the Soviet side, suffered mightily," he says. "It was only after the [Berlin] Wall fell in 1989 that the wine industry began to revitalize, and the quality increased dramatically.”
Slovenia was the first formerly communist country to join the euro zone in 2007, a move that heralded a new openness to the outside world. However, some believe that the legacy of the Socialist years lives on in its cooperatives.
Historically, on the plus side, they allowed small producers to flourish. But the downside, says Puklavec, was that growers were paid by the kilo – something her family changed when they bought back her grandfather's vineyards in 2008. The company has 600 hectares of its own vines, as well as a contract with a cooperative of 400 farmers who run 600 more.
“If you get paid by the quantity and you’re a grape farmer, what would you do?" asks Puklavec. "You’d produce as much as you can. We now take two to three kilos at the price we used to pay for eight, and our winemaker works closely with the growers. We’ve successfully changed the focus to quality.”
She reports that 40 of the farmers are now themselves serious winemakers, while the rest are simply families picking grapes, on a mutually rewarding long-term contract.
Puklavec forecasts a rosy future for some of Slovenia's winemakers. “For people who understand how to approach the export market, the quality of wines at those companies has really gone up.”
From an import perspective, says Hanson, Slovenia’s wines are much cheaper than Italy’s. “So, as an importer, we have the quality advantage of a great wine region with the cost advantage of an up-and-coming wine region.
“A few years ago, it was only the most hard-core of oenophiles who wanted such wines," he adds. "Now, they are becoming trendy.”
*In addition to those mentioned above, noteworthy Slovenian producers include: