The pretty valley around Vipava in Slovenia is seeing a renaissance in development of a quality local white grape. For publication in the week of 20 August 2018.
The white grape Rebula makes fascinating and unique wine, often the colour of burnished bronze or gold. It is the fourth most planted grape in the Vipava valley, behind Cabernet Sauvignon, Malvasia and Merlot.
Vipava is about 50km south-west of Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana. This year about 225 hectares of Rebula were recorded in local databases, about 10 per cent of the valley’s total.
Plantings had declined significantly in the previous two generations – in the 1970s Rebula represented about a third of the valley’s vines before people started planting international varieties like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon – but in the past two decades locals have recognised the grape’s potential. Slovenia was the northern end of the former Yugoslavia until June 1991 when it declared independence.
This revival was possibly inspired by the success of the same grape in neighbouring Italy, where it is called Ribolla Gialla. Vipava and the Friuli region of Italy are only about 110km apart, separated by the Collio mountains, a sub-part of the Alps. In Italy wines from some of the big names in Friuli like Gravner and Radikon sell for more than 80 Euros a bottle.
Viticulture is important for the Vipava valley as it becomes recognised as a major tourist destination. A new generation of winemakers are working alongside some of the traditional or established names, and the wine route is a major example of the potential of wine tourism.
Rebula was first mentioned in the area in the 13th century, when it was used as a form of payment or salary. In 1503 Emperor Maximilian I, head of the Holy Roman empire from 1508, ordered what he described as an “excellent Vipava wine” called “Ribollio”.
This link with history explains this past weekend, when the local tourist promotion groups combined for a celebration marketed under the name “Emperor’s Wine”. It is recognition of the potential of the Rebula grape for longevity, as well as an icon of Slovenian viticulture.
In 1844 a priest named Martija Vertovzh (his surname is also spelled as Vertovec and Vrtovec) published the first book on winemaking in the Vipava valley. He extolled the virtues of Rebula and described a form of winemaking that included extended maceration. This method has been embraced in the Vipava valley and other parts of Slovenia in recent years and involves leaving the juice from crushed grapes, known as the must, with the grape skins for many days or even months.
White wine juice usually receives no skin contact. Think of this new style, often called “amber” or “orange” wine, as a white wine made like a red wine.
Dr Dejan Bavcar from the Agricultural Institute of Slovenia described the new style as part of a “Rebula renaissance”. Extended maceration sometimes reduces the aromas of what is a naturally aromatic grape but maximises the flavours and taste. “Rebula is ideal for this [maceration] method,” he said. It also improves the wine’s longevity, so that macerated wines can be cellared for decades, unlike many whites designed to be drunk with a year of production.
Dr Bavcar said Rebula grows best on sun-exposed southern and western sites, ideally at an elevation of at least 150 metres. In his book the priest Martija Vertovz recommended planting at altitude, because the valley floor should be used to grown grains like maize, and fruit trees.
The grape thrives in soils like marl and flysch, which are the main terroir in the Vipava valley. Rebula tolerates heat and drought, a good thing when summer temperatures reach 35C in August. The soils in the valley do not hold moisture well, but give the wines distinct mineral flavours.
The grape can also tolerate the extreme local wind, known as the “bora,” which bursts its way through the valley for about half of the year. Gusts have been recorded at up to 200 km an hour. The “bora” does not blow in summer, and the vines are cooled by breezes from the coast, channelled along the valley floor.
The Vipava valley extends from the town of Vipava to Nova Gorica, and is surrounded by the hills of Nanos and Karst and the Trnovo plateau. At the western end it opens onto the Furlan plain, which allows the warming influence of the Mediterranean climate in winter.
Mojca Mavric Strukelj, a Slovenian viticulture expert, said Rebula has thick skins, which means it resists disease. It is a solid producer, which means growers “can rely on it each year”. Ms Strukelj described the Vipava valley as an “ideal location for Rebula” and suggested the grape could be used to build the region’s cultural and tourist identity.
Even though the grape produces well, many producers seeking quality wine will employ a “green harvest” where they remove developing bunches so the remaining grapes concentrate flavours. It is easy to get 7 tonnes per hectare from Rebula but some producers are happy to green harvest so they obtain only about 2 tonnes a hectare, or about 1,500 bottles.
Dr Bavcar said Rebula can be made into four styles of wine: a fresh wine served young, a mature wine without maceration, a macerated style and a sweet wine made from dried grapes. Tastings of a range of Rebula over the past several days showed the young wines to be pleasant if not entirely memorable, while the macerated wines are a revelation. The sweet version is relatively rare and was not tasted.
Some producers also make a sparkling Rebula, using the grape’s naturally high acidity, and the versions tasted in the past few days were of high quality.
Some of the best producers included Batic, Mlenik, Slavcek and Guerila. These will be discussed next week.
Macerated wines are easy to recognise because of their burnished bronze or gold colours, and profound flavours. The intensity of the colour depends on the number of days or months of maceration and the time spent in old barrel, typically at least 1,000 litres. Flavours range from dried fruits like apricot through to balsamic and notes of dried herbs.
These wines represent a unique and delicious style that pairs well with a wide range of foods. For example, “amber” wines can be consumed with slow-cooked red meats or stews, cuisines which traditionally have been seen as needing a heavy red. More on this next week.
Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was the guest this past week of the Solovenian Tourist Board, who provided travel, accommodation and meals.