In 2017 I ran two tours to Slovenia, a wonderful wine region that truly deserves to be properly discovered. Word spread, and in 2018 I took a further 33 people on a further voyage of discovery!
This beautifully picturesque region to the far west of Ljubljana, right on the border with Italy, was reminiscent of Tuscany with rolling hills and natural amphitheatres of vineyards. At the Klet Brda co-op in 2017, we were treated to an unexpected guided tour of the pretty villages and spectacular countryside before heading into the tasting room. With Ales Kmet, the COO from eVino which is headed by the esteemed Gasper Carman, we tasted crisp, clean and fruit driven wines with pleasing minerality. Lots of sunshine, relatively low rainfall, good mix of altitude giving a notable difference in day and night temperatures and the famous Opoka soil – a mix of limestone and sandstone provide some fantastic terroir, and we tasted Chardonnay/Rebula, Malvasia, Pinot Grigio and Merlot as well some great fizz and an awesome oak aged Malvasia.
The highlight was the barrel fermented Rebula 2013 that could easily have passed for white Burgundy in a blind tasting.
In 2018 we returned to the co-op, this time to explore its own history and range of wines. Founded in 1922, Klet Brda is owned by 400 “heroic winegrowers” who have 1,000 hectares of vines They are heroic because their vines grow on steep hillsides requiring manual tending, and without good grapes you cannot make good wine. Their co-op provides viticultural advice and at harvest determines which grapes will go into which if their four quality level and brands. Their winery and cellars were built in 1957, dug into hill beneath Dobrovo castle.
We enjoyed a couple of fizzes as we walked among the barrels and into the bottle cellar where vintages from 1957 onwards are stored. Boris, our host, explained that all bottles are checked every three years, corks replaced and topped up as necessary (this process is just about the most popular job in the winery). He particularly recommended the merlot from 1968 so just for fun we picked one out and watched him open and decant it.
This was actually a planned moment, and we headed to the tasting room knowing our decanter of 50 year old merlot awaited us in the cool calm bottle cellar.
Overlooking the spectacular view of hills and castles and churches and villages from their tasting room we enjoyed some fascinating comparisons of some seriously good wines including a Rebula which had just won 97 points and a Platinum Medal at the Decanter World Wine Awards. We returned to the bottle cellar where we thoroughly enjoyed our taste of the past – it’s very rare to taste a wine of such age and the perfect conditions it had lived in showed – it was lovely.
Lunch was at Osterija Klinec – as the sun shone down we were led outside to the most perfect terrace overlooking the glorious hillsides of Goriska Brda. Idyllic does not do justice to the view. Owner Simona Klinec looked after us really well – a delicious pasta, perfectly cooked beef and a stunning panna cotta. All washed down with their barrel aged Malvasia, Rebula and a superb Bordeaux blend red.
At Edi Simčič we met Aleks Simčič (son of Edi, who despite being 80 years old was planting vines while we tasted) and in 2017 his son Jare. They hosted us with great style and gave us a deep insight into Edi’s philosophy of wine making.
Aleks was a truly brilliant exponent of the history of Slovenian wine making, particularly in the Brda area, and a passionate advocate of combining high quality grapes with wood. We received in masterclass in the nuances of barrel making (who knew that the best wood comes from the middle of the tree?), how new barrels are used with different wines, and how fermentation in barrel allows the secondary aromas and flavours in the grapes to develop (longer fermentation at higher temperatures), subsequently allowing better integration with oak as the wine is matured.
Because they keep all their white wines for nearly a year in oak, and then allow them to settle down in bottle, none are released till a couple of years after the vintage. The Malvasia, Tocai Friulano all oozed minerality and richness but the highlight was the Sauvignon Blanc. From the 2013 vintage this had spent 10 months in 30% new oak and was far removed from the herbaceous gooseberry styles we have become accustomed to.
We completed our exploration of the Primorje region to the west of Slovenia by visiting the fertile Vipava Valley. The tiny four hectare estate of Sutor is run by Mitja Lavrenčič, and we received a masterclass in barrel aged white wine production as we compared vintages to illustrate the difference in style from cool to hot years. This tasting not only confirmed the very high quality of Slovenian wines but challenged our perceptions – particularly of oaked Sauvignon Blanc. Mitja was an engaging and welcoming host and alongside the mix of Malvasia, Chardonnay, Merlot and Sauvignon, and in 2017 we were overwhelmed when Mitja brought out one of his last bottles of Chardonnay 2000. Utterly superb with amazing depth and richness and with still a few years to go.
We enjoyed our lunches at local restaurants, hosted by Gregor, an enterprising local who between 2017 and 2018 had set up a restaurant and ‘glamping’ site in the hills overlooking the valley. Gostilna Theodosius provided melting beef cheeks with a Barbera matured in acacia and a very yummy pudding with a sweet yellow Muscat.
At Vina Jamšek in the village of Mance we were hosted by owners Erika and Marko. They have 6 hectares of vines, some of them varieties unique to the Vipava Valley. Erika described the business – just three of them work there, she is in charge of all things commercial, Marko her husband is in charge of winemarking and Marko’s father is mainly found in the vineyard. At harvest a crew of relatives and friends is drafted in, working weekdays or weekends according to their other responsibilities. Erika has managed to complete a doctorate in soil science while raising a family and engaging with people like us, she is a superstar!
We tasted two new (to us) indigenous grape varieties – Zelen and Pinela. Both are crisp, fresh varietals that are indigenous to the Vipava valley. Their reds include Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and a Barbera which was excellent and we finished off with a delightfully sweet yellow Muscat.
To the east of Slovenia is the second city of Maribor. The Podravje region is the country’s most important – accounting for 50% of the country’s wine production. This is where the infamous Lutomer Laski Rizling was produced. Times have changed of course and the focus is very much on top quality.
Our first stop was at the small, 7 hectare family estate of Ducal. It has a beautiful situation surrounded by a mix of rolling and steep vineyard clad hills.
Tim Lo Ducal hosted a visit which combined an eclectic mix of modern stainless steel technology, traditional old wooden vats, ancient Georgian amphorae dug into the ground and a stunning mix of fabulous modern art and antiques. We tasted through a wonderful selection of Laski Rizling, Rhine Riesling, fizz, Pinot Noir and an ‘Orange wine’ made in the amphora.
The estate is right on the Austria border so many of us couldn’t resist the opportunity to scamper up the hill to make this a two country tour!
The family owned Doppler estate enjoys a 360 degree perspective over the Sentilj hills and we arrived to find a delicious selection of aperitives, a glass of fizz and the warmest of welcomes! We lingered outside under a warm blue sky with a barley and porcini risotto, a glass of Sipon and wondered how life could get better. Between 2017 and 2018 they have made a big investment in the winery and tasting room and it was great to feel the success they are enjoying.
Owner Mihaela showed us round and we headed downstairs for more tasting and the rest of the lunch. David from Pri Florjanu restaurant in Maribor had laid on an incredible hot and cold buffet – showcasing local breads, meats and vegetables. We stuffed ourselves senseless while enjoying some fresh Sauvignon Blanc, a rose and a red made from a Blaufrankisch/Zweigelt blend and an amazing oak aged Sipon (or Furmint as we might know it).
At Velika Nedelja in 2017 we found the extraordinary Kogl winery, an estate that combines amazing modern art with a cellar that dates back to 1542. Zlatka Cvetko, the owner, is a vibrant character with very clearly defined views on her approach to wine and assertively debated and replied to the various questions posed. It was a glorious afternoon and we sat outside overlooking the views out to Croatia from the beautiful hilltop garden tasting through their range of wines accompanied by a lovely light spread of local meats and cheeses.
In 2018 we visited the Gaube family winery. Here Patrik, son of Klavdija and Alojzij, first took us up to the vineyards where he explained about the different soil types – clay by the homestead, marl on the other side of the hill, and the need to keep the deer away from the tasty vines (muscat is the grape of preference) – we cautiously skirted the electric fence until we realised it wasn’t turned on).
Gaube has transformed itself from supplying in bulk to the local co-op to being a maker of some very fine wines, which we tasted beside the winery, in very pleasant light sunshine. Sadly their ‘young wine’ which they make in a month and sell in a month each autumn was no longer available, but we thoroughly enjoyed their Laski Rizling (described as Italico Riesling), Sylvaner, Rosé, Dry Muscat, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, and in the premium Kaspar range their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Everyone agreed that these were some of the best wines we have ever tasted on tour! All fresh, attractive, but with great interest and increasing complexity as we drank our way up the range. It was a fabulous tasting, and Patrik was a brilliant host – he charmed us with his enthusiasm and passion, and entertained us with some very witty descriptions about how three people (him and his parents) reach agreement.
Istenič is Slovenia’s largest sparkling wine producer. At 150,000 bottles production is still quite modest by most standards and they have acquired a terrific reputation. Miha and Johanes Istenic were great hosts and made us feel very welcome.
The quality was exceptional and we thoroughly enjoyed the tasting which comprised a Chardonnay/Pinot Noir/Rumeni Plavec blend, a 100% Pinot Noir, a Yellow Muscat and their Prestige Brut – a classic Chardonnay Pinot Noir blend. We then headed off to their Villa where a superb five course lunch was washed down with copious quantities of fizz. It was a truly memorable end to a fantastic tour.
On our first night we strolled along the river Ljubljanica to the acclaimed Manna restaurant. We were treated to our first taste of Slovenia’s gastronomic delights: an extravaganza of delicious and innovative cuisine: clever little amuse bouches, beef tail soufflé, exquisitely precise venison and melting white and dark chocolate brownie and strawberry ice cream. All the courses were paired with Slovenian wines. We drank exceptional sparkling wine from the Istenic estate, Malvasia from Istria, Pinot Noir from Modri, Cabernet Sauvignon from Movia and Muscat from Goriska Brda in what was a glorious start to our trip.
The acclaimed Rozmarin restaurant in Maribor was the venue of the final night dinner on Tour 1 and yet another special occasion was in store. Marco, the sommelier, hosted a sparkling wine reception and gave us a sneaky tour of their Bordeaux cellar. An eclectic and beautifully presented dinner was enjoyed. Nettle soup with cottage cheese dumplings and smoked pancetta, a savoury truffle ice cream on polenta, delicious lamb cutlets and finished off with a chocolate brownie and rhubarb dessert assiette. We drank Pinot Gris, Ducal’s Renski Riesling 2010, Dveri Pax Pinot Noir and finished off with an incredible rarity – a magnum of 1996 sweet Rhine Riesling that was a majestic treat!
Our final night dinner on Tour 2 in 2017 and our 2018 tour was at Gostilna AS, one of the best restaurants in Ljubljana, and we sat outside on a beautiful terrace on a warm balmy evening. A fresh tuna and wasabi starter was followed by a delicious king prawn pasta. The chef then brought out two huge flaming seabass that were then served at our table. Dessert, coffee and oceans of Malvasia made this a wonderful finish to our tour.
What my clients said about this tour
“Thank you for making us so welcome on our inaugural Tim Syrad wine tour.It was a bit of leap into the unknown for us as we had never been to Slovenia, never knowingly drunk Slovenian wine, and never been on a wine –tasting holiday. It turned out to be just the job, with so much variety in terms of wines, locations and styles of food. We loved the way each winery had its own charcuterie and cheeses and fresh bread; and the rosé at Doppler on the top of the mountain was a moment to savour for a long time.” – John and Mal, Somerset
“Thank you so much for such a wonderful wine tour. The wine and the winemakers were so interesting and It was lovely seeing so many familiar faces as well as meeting some new ones!” – Caroline, Chiswick
“For my wife and I the tour to Slovenia was something of a revelation as we knew practically nothing of the country or its wines; we left with a love for them both. Over four days we visited eight wineries, including the stunning Doppler estate. There were factors that were common to each winery: natural beauty, wonderful wines and unfailingly courteous hosts. This was a tour that I would recommend to anyone with a love of wine and an appreciation of beautiful locations.” – John Ellis, Richmond