Slovenian winemakers invited journalists to discover the unique style of the Rebula grape grown in the Vipava valley. For publication in the week of 27 August 2018.
Wine has been grown in the Vipava valley in the west of Slovenia, about an hour’s drive from the capital Ljubljana, for at least 2,500 years. Rebula was the main white grape in the valley until the 1980s when people planted international varieties that were more commercially desirable. Rebula went from being a third of all plantings in the 1970s to about 10 per cent now.
Because of an awareness of the uniqueness of local grapes (known as autochthonous varieties), Rebula is being planted again. Last year it represented slightly more than a tenth of the valley’s 2,240 hectares, with more being planted. Other autochthonous grapes in the valley include Zelen, Pinela, Klarnica, Pergolin and Pikolit.
Recently attention has focused on a book that a local priest, Matrija Vertovzh, published in 1844. Vinoreja is believed to be the first book about winemaking in Solovenia. It was discussed in last week’s column.
Local winemakers invited about 30 local and international journalists to learn about Rebula and the valley. They were Miha Batič (Batič Wines), Primož Lavrenčič (Burja Estate), Valter Mlečnik (Mlečnik Wines), Zmago Petrič (Guerila), Franc Vodopivec (Slavček) and Edvard Svetlik (Svetlik).
Journalists attended lectures by a group of academics specialising in viticulture and oenology. Some of their comments were reported last week. This week focuses on visits to the wineries.
Rebula grows best on sunny slopes that face south and west on flysch soils containing limestone and gravel. Flysch comes in two forms known locally as sovdan and opoka. The former consists of layers of sandstone and marl while the latter is mostly marl.
Flysch struggles to hold moisture, sommelier Valentin Bufolin told me. This explains why most vineyards on slopes are terraced, because when it rains water runs rapidly downhill and terraces help manage erosion. An example is shown at left.
Batič Wines has 27 hectares of vines and another 50 hectares of forest and parkland. It has been certified bio-dynamic since 2013 and this attention to detail shows in the quality of the wines. “Nature always provides what is best for Man, and for this reason we remain faithful to tradition, which dates back to 1592,” winemaker Miha Batič said. Batič explained that summer heat of about 35C helped grapes ripen but breezes kept vines cool.
The company commissioned noted Slovenian designer Oskar Kogoj to create a distinctive bottle (at left) for its young wines – 2017 is the current Rebula vintage – along with the delightfully zingy 2017 rose, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (97 per cent) and Cabernet Franc. These are popular in the United States.
One of the finest wines tasted was Miha Batič’s 2011 Angel, a blend of 40 per cent Pinela, 20 per cent each of Chardonnay and Malvasia, and 10 per cent Rebula, with the rest a group of local grapes. My tasting notes simply say: “The start of something great.” Angel was named for Miha’s son, born in 2010.
Angelo Mlečnik created a farm straight after the end of World War One. His grandson Valter shifted from farming to winemaking because the flysch soil was more suited for grape growing than agriculture. The first bottling of Mlečnik Wines was in 1989. This tiny estate of 7.5 hectares only produces about 12,000 bottles a year because average yields are only 2 tonnes a hectare.
But Mlečnik creates superb wines. The older macerated styles of Rebula are distinct and delicious, a gorgeous gold in the glass. Maceration takes place in open tubs where fermentation occurs spontaneously. Grapes are pressed in a wooden press the family has owned for five generations.
Wines are matured for two years in large wooden barrels, with another three years in bottle. The 2013 and 2015 Rebula (the latter not yet released) are superb wines that are worth seeking out. Indeed, all of this estate’s wines are unique.
A highlight was tasting the wines in the family house with a local un-named dish made from grated zucchini, olive oil and a local cheese known as Cadrg. Cadrg was the first cheese recognised in Slovenia as being made by organic methods and comes from a village of the same name that only has five houses. Each house make a distinct cheese.
Winemaker Valter Mlečnik is a philosopher as well as oenologist: “We believe that by understanding life we realise that there are no coincidences and that everything is interconnected.”
Slavček means nightingale in Slovenian, and Slavček Wines are named after the many birds that sing in the forests that surround the estate, in Goriska Brda close to Vipava. Winemaker and owner Franc Vodopivec (left) can trace his family in the area back to 1769.
They focus on winemaking but also produce fruit, livestock and other agricultural products. All of them are high quality, based on the pancetta, salami and other delights offered during our visit.
Franc works with his wife Alenka and their sons Andrej and Tomaz. They work hard because vines are cultivated organically on very steep slopes. A tour of the estate involved four-wheel drive vehicles, culminating with a tasting of their excellent sparkling Rebula in the hills consumed with a local delicacy known as frtalja – made from eggs, flour, sausages and local wild herbs.
The Slavček Rebula Reserva is a seriously good wine. We tasted the 2013 and 2016 vintages. Both are burnished amber in colour with a range of delicious aromas of burnt orange marmalade, dried figs and quince, yet with beautifully balanced acidity. A feature of the wines is the fact they spend time in acacia barrels. The 2012 Classic Rebula is another fine wine, an unusual and appealing combination of salinity and creaminess.
We were the first to taste Guerila wines at the new winery and restaurant located about 400 metres on the southern slopes of the valley at Planina. Zmago Petrič is owner and winemaker, and is passionate about working with nature. His estate has been certified bio-dynamic since 2014.
The winery is modern and beautiful, and designed to blend with nature. We tasted nine wines over lunch with some of the best views of any restaurant in the world. I have insufficient space to talk about them, but all were well made and will get better as the vines age. Petrič’s 2015 Rebula Extreme was the best of these fine wines.
The last visit was to Svetlik Estate, where Edvard Svetlik has planted 1.5 hectares of Rebula, a grape he adores, high above the village of Kamnje. The village’s name translates as “grace” and Edvard has achieved a state of contentment there while producing fine wines.
The kind of folk music played while people worked in the fields was echoing through the vines when we arrived, near sunset, on a glorious sunny day.
“The vineyard possesses its own magic and its own strength,” Edvard Svetlik said. He described Rebula as the “queen” of white grapes who showed her true beauty when macerated. Grapes are fermented through yeasts on the skins and macerated for 14 days before spending at least two years in 2,500 litre barrels and then two years in bottle.
The 2011 Svetlik Rebula is a good wine but the 2013 Svetlik Rebula Selection is even better, with aromas of dried figs and pears and notes of dried herbs and sea breezes. Both wines come from young vines and will improve as the vines age.
The region also makes lovely olive oil, especially that produced by Kmetija Kante.
Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was the guest of the Solovenian Tourist Board, who provided travel, accommodation and meals.