Brda is Slovenian for hill, and on Friday we headed west to the Goriska Brda region, which borders the Collio and Colli Orientale regions of Italy.
The history of this region is of conquest and shifting borders, though I imagine for the majority of the local peasantry whether their feudal overlords were (among others) the Hapsburgs, the Venetians or Napoleonic adventurers, life went on much the same. The oak forests were felled to build Venice revealing a landscape of Tuscan like prettiness, on which hilltops castles, churches and villages were built. And vines planted, vineyards knowing no boundaries so either side of the border you will find the same grape varieties.
Two years in the last century were particularly significant.
In 1947 the border was fixed overnight and closed for the next seven years, causing much misery for divided families and the virtual destruction of the export markets for wine from the Slovene side.
In 1991, after three decades of Yugoslavian style communism, the country gained independence and self determination and Slovenes set about revolutionising their wine industry away from mass production of high yield low quality bulk wine towards the Austrian model of quality wine for export.
A leader in this effort was the Klet Brda co-op, founded in 1922 which half of us visited in the morning. Our host, Boris, who had done pretty much every job in the winery, explained that the co-op 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 coop 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 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:
Two Rebulas, one unoaked from their Quercus range, the other barrique fermented and aged in Slavonian oak from the Bagueri range. The latter had just won 97 points and a Platinum Medal at the Decanter World Wine Awards, which had caused great excitement in the winery.
Two Merlots, again from the Quercus and Bagueri ranges demonstrating with a grape we were much more familiar with the contrast between grapes that crop where yield is controlled to different levels, and maturation happens in oak vessels of different sizes. I personally loved the lighter Quercus, around 2kg grapes/vine and one year in big oak vats, but the Bagueri (1kg/vine, one year in barrique) was altogether more serious.
We compared two vintages of the A+, top of the range blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc – the 2013 was very powerful, but for me the 2009 was the winner – loads of fruit and tannin and altogether too young – very intriguing.
We enjoyed a refreshing sweet Pikolit before returning to the bottle cellar where we really did enjoy our taste of the past. What probably grabbed us most was that the 1968 vintage we were drinking had had none of the advantages of later years as the knowledge of the winemakers improved, and the age of the vines increased, so a small investment (these wines are not expensive) in later vintages is definitely worth considering – Klet Brda do mail order to the UK (and a few of their wines are stocked in Majestic).
From Dobrovo it was a short drive to the Klinec Inn where Simona Klinec hosted both groups together. We enjoyed a delicious lunch made from meat and produce from her organic farm accompanied by her organic and biodynamic wines, on the vine covered terrace overlooking the glorious landscape.
Ravioli followed by pork was followed by pannacotta with sauce made from a raspberry variety that is nearly a century old. We enjoyed her white blend of Friulana, Rebula, Malvasia and Veduc, and her red blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc
Despite it being 3.30pm it felt far too early to be moving on but we had an appointment at Edi Simčič, which Tim’s group had visited in the morning. Aleks Simčič, son of Edi (who, despite being 80 years old, was out planting vines) welcomed us and walked us through a maze of barrels, explaining that the building work going on around us was going to create space for them to work and to entertain visitors. Their approach to winemaking is very much about engaging the grape with wood, all their wines are barrel fermented, and all spend time in wood – up to four years, which means there really are a lot of barrels taking up more and more room!
We added another dog to our tally (every vineyard we have visited has produced an obligingly cute canine (I would not say that to the face of the ridgeback at Gaube), and we enjoyed the lovely designs on the wines labels, many of which featured sketches of dogs in very acrobatic poses.
Despite having had a big tasting in the morning, and plenty of wine with lunch, our attention was at full tilt as 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.
We tasted the Rebula 2015, Malvasia 2015, Chardonnay 2014, all wines made from grapes from different vineyards. The last we contrasted with a the 2014 Kozana, from a single vineyard of particular quality due to its rocky soil and high elevation – this was a very serious wine, with far more minerality than I would expect from a chardonnay, and wonderful complexity.
The 2010 Sivi Pinot (Gris), despite being from a cold rainy vintage was amazing, I have only tasted that variety that good in Alsace.
The biggest revelation was the Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (the same vintage Tim’s groups had tasted last year), not like any Sauvignon Blanc I have tasted before – white flowers and white peach on the nose, and amazing rich complex flavour with a huge finish.
We finished by working our way up the range of reds, all blends of 80% Merlot, 10% Cab Sauv and 10% Cab Franc. Duet 2015, Duet Lex 2013 and finally Kolos 2011, the last two from magnum. Each one was lovely, and then completely outclassed, if that were possible, by the next one. Kolos is only made in very good years, and is selected from the best barrels that would go into the Duet Lex which matures in barrel for four years. Despite it being enormous on the palate it was very attractive, with layers of plummy fruit and immense promise for many years of evolution. What a set of wines!
With some difficulty I persuaded the group to tear themselves away from the view from the new tasting room (in construction) and reboard the bus, and I stayed awake for the whole journey back to Ljubljana, my mind racing over the range and quality of wine we had tasted during this amazing day.