Slovenia is a new subject for this wine club. We have covered many of its neighbors - Austria, Croatia, and Italy (several times). There are a number of similarities in history and geography that cross borders, however Slovenia remains a compelling subject for our next foray into Eastern European wines.
Similar to Croatia and Austria, Slovenia’s history with the vine predates the arrival of the Roman empire. Historians believe that the Celts and Illyrian tribes were making wine in this region as far back as the 4th century. By the middle ages, most of the production was centralized under the Church and its monasteries. Over time, families regained control of the production and it was said that everyone in Slovenia either knows someone who makes wine or makes it themselves. The same can be said today, however there was a brief interlude.
With the foundation of Yugoslavia, most of the wineries were nationalized and turned into cooperatives, where quality was low and quantity high. This led to a massive nation-wide decline in quality and a talent-drain that lasted for a generation. At this critical time where much of the world was trending towards globalization and export markets were being established, Yugoslavia was focusing inward. As a result Slovenia of today only exports roughly 5% of its 90 million liter production, mostly to the US, Croatia, and the Czech Republic.
Geography & Climate
For a country that has as much vineyard acreage as France’s tiny Alsace region alone, Slovenia has a staggering amount of wineries and microclimates. With 28,000 wineries and only about 55,000 acres under vine, ownership is highly fragmented and localized. With a small population of just over 2 million, that’s one winery for every 75 people! For a mind-blowing comparison, the USA, with our 330 million people, has 13,000 McDonald’s restaurants and 16,000 Starbucks locations. So add both of these up and it’s just slightly more fast food venues in the ‘land o’ the free’ than Slovenia has wineries.
Slovenia has three major wine growing regions, each with a different climate. Roughly 75% of the production is focused on white grapes, with a small amount of reds in the warmer zones. The northern part of the country is largely defined by the Alps, where it is too cold to regularly cultivate grapes. The Western part, bordered by Italy, Croatia, and a small sliver of the Adriatic Sea is warm and mediterranean in climate. This is sometimes called the Littoral wine region, but Slovenians refer to it as Primorska. Here, there are four subregions - Vipava valley, Slovenian Istria/Koper, Goriška Brda, and Karst. Due to the proximity of Italy, most of the grapes grown here are somewhat familiar to Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Gris. Also popular are the regional varieties found across the border in Italy’s Friuli region - Ribolla Gialla (Rebula in Slovenian), Refosco (Refošk), and Friulano. One interesting note is that Refošk is called ‘Teran’ when it is grown on iron-rich soils of the Karst plateau.
The south-eastern part of Slovenia, bordering Croatia, is called Posavska, or the Lower Sava Valley. This area is the only Red-wine dominant region in the country. It’s divided into three sub-regions, Bizeljsko-Brežice, Dolenjska, and Bela Krajina, all of which tend to be focused on more bulk production and obscure native grapes than anything else.
Lastly, the eastern part of the country, bordering Austria, Hungary, and Croatia, is known as Podravska, or the Drava Valley. With seven sub-districts (too many to list) and the highest production in the country, this area is certainly important. Interesting to note is that this region is 97% white wine production, including a special style of sparkling wine (Penina) from the Radgona-Kapela district. Fun fat, the world’s oldest known grapevine is grown here. Located in the town of Maribor, the vine is roughly 450 years old. It is terraced along the side of a building and, despite its age, produces 100 lbs of grapes per vintage.
Above: Old vine in Maribor. Photo: Andrej Tarfila
Pullus, ‘Haložan White’, Štajerska, Podravska 2022
Ptujska Klet Winery has been around since 1239. Their cellars stretch for hundreds of meters under the town of Ptuj, which is the oldest recorded town in Slovenia. Located in the Štajerska sub-region of Podravska, the family focuses on light, cool climate wines. They have built a modern working winery atop the almost 700-year old cellars. Under the ‘Pullus’ sub-label, they market their Haložan wine, which is a range of white, orange, and red wines sold in liter bottles meant (but not required) to be mixed with sparkling water and consumed any time of the day you please. The recipe, listed on the bottle, couldn't be simpler -
Prep time: 30 seconds (if that)
One part: Halozan White (at 50°F)
One part: sparkling water (also at 50°F)
Mix and enjoy.
Taking a step away from the vintner's recommendation and looking at it like the standalone wine it is (and will likely be consumed as) - The wine is a blend of dry farmed Welschriesling, Riesling, Chardonnay, Furmint, and Pinot Blanc. Grapes are harvested separately in three successive pickings (for optimal ripeness). Fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks for a short time before bottling in the spring following harvest. This is a simple wine, produced and selected to showcase the local drinking customs of the Slovenian people.
The wine itself is bright with a fresh minerality, creamy mouthfeel, and notes of green apple, kiwi, and pineapple.
My recommendation would be, if you are to drink this wine in the morning or mid-day, you can follow the recipe above for a SpriTzar. If you are drinking in the evening, you can drink it at full strength (11% ABV). Moderation!
Terraced vineyards belonging to Ptujska Klet/Pullus winery
Rodica, Refošk, Koper, Primorska 2021
For most of his life, Marinko Rodica was a car mechanic by day and wine lover by night. But in 1998 he decided to pivot careers and founded a small winery. WIthin 10 years they had grown to 60,000 vines and were certified organic. By year 15, they had completed a state of the art, environmentally friendly cellar. Today, 25 years later, they have 3 generations of Rodicas farming 15 hectares of vineyards and making a range of wines that are some of the most respected in Slovenia.
The family largely focuses on two grapes - Malvasia and Refošk. From these two grapes, they make an astounding number of wines: White sparkling, red sparkling, white, orange, rose, red, reserve red, dessert white. This cuvee, their base Refošk, could probably be considered their flagship. It is picked from certified organic grapes, destemmed, and macerated on the skins for 8 days. After a stainless steel fermentation, it is aged for 8 months in large slavonian oak barrels and 8 months in stainless steel. The result is a plush, earthy and spicy wine with notes of blackberry, cassis, cherry and plum. It has a sanguine, iron note on the palate with a long finish, medium+ body, bright acidity and food-friendly tannins. Good winter wine to enjoy on a cold rainy day while pretending you’re in a village in the Slovenian alps (or Sunny Istrian Coast).
Rodica’s modern winery in Primorska, or Slovenian Istria.