We spent the day within a stone’s throw of the Austrian border, in the spectacularly pretty region of Podravska, north of Maribor, a couple of hours’ drive from Ljubljana.
My group (which we will only call the Grand Cru group among ourselves) visited the Gaube family winery in the morning. 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).
Once again we heard about the effects of climate change, as winter (and here snow) arrives later and summer sooner, making spring a very short affair.
Patrik pointed up the hill to his grandparents’ house which is the old winery, and is precisely on the border with Austria. He described how during the Yugoslav era any visitor to the winery had to be registered with the local military, to ensure nobody tried to escape.
Nowadays 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.
I won’t try to describe each individually, but 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.
It was very hard work to get everyone to leave, but after a quick tour through the cellar we reboarded the bus and had a 15 minute drive to Doppler.
Here we joined the other group (Premier Cru?), for a lovely lunch in a simply glorious setting. Again, looking across to Austria, amid the vines we enjoyed some fizz, with parmesan lollipops and bowls of barley risotto, and then went into the restaurant for a buffet lunch of charcuterie and melting roast pork and stuckli (a kind of ravioli with potato and onion). Chicken and fish were also available but I did not have room to try them! Their wines were equally delicious – a sparkling Chardonnay which Mihaela Doppler told us was called Diona to celebrate the fact that women now run this family business, a spicy Šipon (or furmint – the variety Hungarian Tokay is made from), a rosé, a sauvignon blanc, and the ‘360’ – the best grapes picked each year, named to celebrate the panoramic view from the hilltop winery.
As we were guided through the cellar we drank their late picked oak aged Šipon, a slightly sweet Muscat Otonel which was nearly as spicy as the Traminec (Gewurtztraminer) that followed. We finished with the Efekt red (made from the Blaufrankisch grape), named by Mihaela’s grandfather because of the ‘effect’ these wines would have on people rebuilding their country after the second world war. It has proved to be a very good effect!
For our afternoon visit we went to Ducal, which the other group had visited in the morning. What a contrast! Still among the vines, and one could chuck quite a big rock and it would reach Austria. Tim Ducal, an ex professional footballer, told us his story.
This is not a historic wine making family. Tim’s father (whose passion was climbing) had built up a restaurant business in Trenta in the east, and was looking to do the same in the Šentilj hills. He had round a run down winery, and bought it with that in mind, but Tim had other ideas, and around the old building a new one was built, with the help of EU funding. A modern winery, with an elegant tasting room, and some very striking artworks makes for a fascinating visit.
The wines (first made in 2009) were equally distinctive – much more impact in the cellar where Tim is experimenting with Georgian amphora (sunk into the earth), concrete eggs and different wood barrels.
This was a more challenging tasting, and probably divided opinion quite markedly across the group. I was fascinated by the savoury flavours, hints of oxidation, and richness, as we tried their Welchriesling (another name for Laski), both as a single variety and blended with Pinot Blanc as a sparkling Méthod Traditionelle, their Šipon orange wine, two vintages of Rhine Riesling (2014 and 2011) which could not have been more different and finally their Welchriesling from amphora which had an almost antiseptic quality on the nose.
So there we are, our first full day of visits has confirmed the diversity and complexity of Slovenian wines, and the charm and generosity of the people. How lucky are we to have three more days of this!