Usually Tim’s tours end with a final night dinner, at which we reflect on our experiences over a lovely meal and some final samples of the region’s wine. On this tour, because of the lateness of the return flights, we had a bonus trip on Sunday.
On the roof terrace of stylish Gostilna AS in the middle of Ljubljana we had a super fish-based meal, ceviche to start, langoustine pasta, sea bass brought to our table aflame, and a very splendid cake (not made of fish). Assisted by a choice of Rebula, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon which flowed pleasantly, the only downer was the soundtrack of whoops and cheers from the bar downstairs as my team were thrashed by Real Madrid.
Next morning we had packing to do, but were still on the coaches by 9am, for the hour or so’s journey towards Zagreb, turning north just before the Croatian border. A few km later we arrived at Istenič, Slovenia’s best known (and best) sparkling wine maker. Miha Istenic greeted us and took us up to the tasting room where we were a bit startled to find we were eating lunch!
Miha explained that his father’s family came from this area, and on a visit to the area he found the property of less than a hectare, with a cottage and a few vines, and decided to settle down.
Father Janez had studied winemaking and worked as an oenologist when his career as the Yugoslav soccer team’s goalie ended (his last international match was in 1958 against England at Stamford Bridge). Janez’s wife Mihaela’s family also came from the region, so it made sense to use their resources and contacts to create a sparkling wine tradition on the marine, chalk-like soils of the old Pannonian sea. He gained the support of politicians (including Tito) to pursue this ambition and the business grew.
Miha, who had played rugby for Yugoslavia, now runs the business leading its expansion – 2018 is its 50th anniversary and Istenič is considered to be one of the top 20 sparkling wine makers in the world. With our barley risotto, pumpkin soup and duo of chicken, we tried their flagship black label ‘No 1’ (celebrating Janez’s goalkeeping shirt), a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Rumeni Plavec (the indigenous variety of the area), the 2016 Barbara (named after Miha’s sister who was born at the time of the very first harvest), a very pretty demisec (slightly sweet) blend of Welchriesling, Rumeni Plavec, Sauvignon Blanc, and a Yellow Muscat extra brut.
We took a break from lunch to explore the winery, glasses in hand. Miha explained that they keep small presses in each of their five vineyards so grapes are pressed at their freshest, and the juice brought to the central winery for fermentation. As with all Méthode Traditionelle winemaking, the wine is bottled with additional yeast and sugars and undergoes a secondary fermentation. Further through the cellar we saw the huge racks of bottles moving slowly through 180 degrees, so that the yeasts can settle in the neck, to be removed as a frozen plug before the traditional cork is inserted.
Miha explained how important it is for the base wine not to be too alcoholic, so that further fermentation can take place, but the final wine be in balance, and how essential acidity is to great sparkling wine. We sampled one of his experiments – a joint venture with an orange wine maker which is still in development.
Back in the tasting room we discovered we had only reached the halfway point of lunch, and sampled their top of the range Gourment Rosé 2015 and Prestige Extra Brut 2011 – both were well up to the task of complementing the rich pork and stuckli main course. I particularly enjoyed the rosé.
Our final wine was the Yellow Muscat sweet fizz, with its delicate grapey nose and lovely sweetness. It went beautifully with vanilla ice cream accompanied by their own balsamic vinegar reduction (made from final pressed grape juice), preserved strawberries and mint.
A huge meal, accompanied by a wonderful range of good wines – a perfectly fitting end to the tour. Tim summarised the trip by answering the question he posed at the start – Why were we visiting a country many people haven’t heard of, that produces less wine than many regions in France or Italy, and has a tiny presence on the UK market? Because of the beauty of the scenery, the welcome given by the dynamic people we met, the fact that Ljubljana is a fantastic place to stay, and most importantly, the wine is really good. Anyone who gets the chance should visit, and I am sure that most of us on the tour will return.