Modern borders are artificial constructs that can create confusion and paradox when it comes to understanding wine quality or names.
Collio in Italy’s north-east corner is regarded as one of the country’s most important white wine regions. A few metres across the border in Slovenia the wines are less well known and sometimes attract lower prices, despite being made from the same grape varieties, albeit with different names, and the quality is just as high.
This paradox is the result of modern diplomacy and war. Most of what we now call Slovenia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for centuries and has only existed since 1991.
World War 1 hit this region hard. Fighting along the Isonzo Front was as brutal as anything in Flanders and focused along the river and in the mountains between Italy and Austria. By the end of the war Trentino-Alto Adige and the mixed Slovene-Italian city of Trieste had become part of Italy. The western region of what is now Slovenia was Italy from 1919 before being handing over to Yugoslavia in 1947. Ethnic conflict in Yugoslavia led to the creation of Slovenia and Croatia in 1991.
Changing borders have caused problems for winemakers because they separate vineyards and families. Many still grow grapes in both Italy and Slovenia. The situation is most dramatic in Brda, arguably western Slovenia’s most important wine region. Collio means hills in Italian. Brda has the same meaning in Slovenian. Essentially Brda was part of Italy’s Collio region that became detached when the border was fixed in 1947. Often the border went through villages, putting brothers and cousins in different countries.
The Slovenians grow the same grapes as the Italians in Collio and nearby Colli Orientali (which translates as eastern Collio). But the names are seldom the same. An example is the grape now known as Friulano in Italy. Its original name was Tocai Friulano and it was called Tokaj in Slovenia. But entry into the European Union meant potential confusion with the Hungarian Tokaj so in 2008 the Italians dropped the word “tocai”. The Slovenians renamed it Jakot (tokaj spelled backwards). Interestingly, the grape is actually Sauvignon Vert or Sauvignonasse, widely planted in Chile where it was wrongly believed to be Sauvignon Blanc, and many Slovenians label their wine Sauvignonasse or Sauvignon Vert because some Asian markets do not like the word Jakot.
Wines by Borgo del Tiglio winemaker Nicola Manferrari in Collio represent the peak of achievement with local grapes. The 2013 Borgo Ronco Dela Chiesa is a blend of Friulano and Sauvignon Blanc and translates as vineyard near the church. It has magnificent intensity of fruit flavours and length. Manferrari has been making wine for 35 years yet says he still finds it difficult to find the right words to talk about wine. The classic idea of beauty was based on harmony, as in music, and his wines sing beautifully. They could be likened to fine poetry or painting. “The language of scents and flavours [in wine], like that of sounds and colours, is a universal language common to all humanity,” he said.
The 2010 Borgo del Tiglio Studio de Bianco, which translates as “white wine experiment,” is a blend of Friulano and Riesling. The intensity of the fruit flavours gleam in this marvellous wine with its balance and profound length. Harmony in a glass.
Other grapes with parallel names include Ribolla or Ribolla Gialla in Italy, known as Rebula in Slovenia; Pinot Gris (Italy) becomes Sivi Pinot (Slovenia) and Pinot Noir (Italy) is Modri Pinot (Slovenia). The region also grows classic international grapes like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. To add to the confusion, the last is often actually Carmenère.
The 2014 Keber Collio is 70 per cent Rebula with 15 per cent each of Petulano and Malvasia. It has a mineral backbone that highlights the precision of the wine with its lovely harmony of fruit and acid. It reminds one of a racing yacht with its clean lines. Winemaker Kristian Keber said he had tasted a 1960 a few days earlier and found the emotion in the wine still present. His father Edi is one of the region’s best winemakers.
The Collio region averages about 1 million bottles a year from about 100 to 120 producers. Traditionally wines are blends.
In nearby Brda most estates are small, averaging about 2.5 hectares. The local cooperative with its 700 members is the largest producer in Slovenia. Some of the best wines tasted came from Kabaj, Iaquin, Carga, Bjana, Klet Brda, Marjan Simcic and Bregar. Kabaj and its winemaker Jean-Michel Morel were one of only two Slovenians listed in the world’s top 100 wineries by Wine and Spirits magazine this year.
The other was Movia and its winemaker Ales Kristancic. Movia’s 22 hectares of vineyards straddle the border and Kristancic has attracted global attention for his unconventional methods. He releases his Puro sparkling wines with the yeast sediment still in the bottle, where it continues to evolve until the bottle is opened. Movia wines are small miracles and worth finding.
The rolling landscape of both regions is beautiful in November with an array of autumnal tones and bright blue skies. Another lovely area in Slovenia is the Vipava Valley. A tasting and lunch with a group of passionate winemakers provided a chance to try some wonderful wines. Some of the best were from Sutor, Tilia, Burja and Guerila.
A visit to the Isonzo area, tempered by winds and ocean breezes from the coast, offered more excellent wines. The 2014 Borgo San Daniele Jiasik Bianco is a blend of Riesling and Malvasia and offers hints of ginger on the back palate as well as zingy acid and pristine fruit. The local language is Friulian and Jiasik is Friulian for where the wine is made. Winemaker Mauro Mauri works with 18 hectares of vines. “We embrace the best practices of biodynamic viticulture and we don’t use chemicals,” he said.
The 2013 Borgo San Daniele Arbis is a blend of Friulano, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc. The cepage varies depending on vintage conditions. Arbis sings of flowers and aromatic herbs, and comes from the Friulian word for herb. This wine would pair well with Asian dishes.
The Tenuta di Blasig winery is one of the oldest in Friuli and is in the heart of the town of Ronchi dei Legionari. The Blasig family has run the estate since 1788. “We were here before the town,” noted owner Elisabetta Bortolotto Sarcinelli, “and it has grown around us.” The 2014 Tenuta di Blasig Elisabetta brut sparkling is 70 per cent Malvasia with rest Pinot Bianco and like the person the wine is named after is stylish and serene.
About four in five bottles in the region are white but some lovely reds are available. Some of the freshest come from the Schioppettino grape. It is full of fruit and low in tannins with a delicate spicy quality. This variety was rescued from near extinction in the 1980s and is enjoying a modest rebirth. An excellent example is Paolo Rodaro‘s 2011 Schiopottino Romain, made from overripe grapes that are dried before being pressed, and singing of red and black fruits.
WINES WITHOUT BORDERS