Slovenian Wine. A Brief History of Winemaking.
Not many people have heard about Slovenia and even fewer know where it is. Meanwhile, Slovenian wines more and more often get Decanter’s high points and win prizes at prestigious international competitions. So now you can find them not only in Europe but all over the world.
A year ago I bought a liquor store in the center of Ljubljana with very little experience and knowledge in this field.
There were about 300 different Slovenian wines in the store, however almost every day customers were looking for wine that I didn’t have and didn’t even know anything about.
They named some brands and told me about some producers and their wines.
Then I found out that there were more than 28,000 officially registered wineries in Slovenia.
Only in Posavje, the smallest Slovenian wine region, there are about 7000 wineries, which is more than in the whole of Australia.
In order not to drown in this diversity, I started gathering the necessary details, learning everything that I came across and soon realised that this topic is very interesting to me.
So, reading various historical sources and talking with winemakers and customers (who by the way, also helped me a lot) led me to write this article.
Winemaking in Slovenia appeared long before the appearance of Slovenia itself, around the 4th century BC.
The first wine producers here were the Illyrian Celts.
Now it is hard enough to say what exactly they produced and whether it was wine in our understanding of the word.
The first progress of winemaking in the north-west of the Balkans appeared much later, in the 3rd century AD.
It was a merit of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Probus who overturned the ban on viticulture outside Italy.
The Emperor was born in Sirmium, a city in the Roman province in the Balkans. Now it is Sremska Mitrovica in Serbia and one of the wineries located in the birthplace of the emperor bears his name.
Marcus Aurelius Probus not only provided the region with modern equipment and technology, but even used the Roman army to create vineyards throughout the northern Balkans including the territory of modern Slovenia.
Thus, the Romans raised the production of wine in Slovenia to a fairly high level.
It is curious that one and a half millennia after these events Italy took an active part in destruction of Slovenian winemaking, which was created by the ancient Romans. But more on that later.
Wine production developed rapidly with the spread of Christianity. The Carthusians, Templar, Benedictine and Carmelite Christians produced wine and used it primarily for mass.
Monasteries that quickly appeared throughout Europe became not only religious and cultural, but also serious independent economic centers.
Therefore, it is not surprising that in the Early and High Middle Ages, European monasteries became leaders in the winemaking industry.
Slovenia was no exception. One of them, Slovenian monastery of the Carthusians order, is still successfully functioning and produces quite decent wines.
In those times, the most of Slovenian vineyards was owned by the church and German landowners and most landowners leased vineyards to winemakers.
During this period, two major wine regions of Slovenia were formed: Subpannonia region (Prekmurje and Štajerska Slovenija) in the northeast and the Littoral wine region in the southwest.
These two regions differed from each other in everything: methods of growing grapes, technology of production and storage of wine, and of course grape varieties.
For example, in Primorje, grapes were grown on stripes of land separated from each other: on the hills, along the coast, as well as on plantations next to other crops.
At the same time, in Štajerska Slovenia, grapes were only grown in specially organized vineyards located on large flat plots of land.
Slovenian Winemaking During the Middle Ages.
As we already know, from the Early Medieval times till the First World War, almost the entire territory of modern Slovenia was owned by German landowners.
Some few landowners not only leased their vineyards but also trained farmers in technologies, trying to improve the efficiency of their work.
Initially, these technologies did not differ from the usual method of wine production at that time.
Actually, it is difficult to call them “technologies”.
Hand-harvested grapes were placed in wooden barrels and crushed with bare feet and various improvised means: stones, batons, etc.
The crushed grape berries were left to settle with skins, seeds and stems for several days or weeks. Now this process is called maceration.
After that, the resulting mass was squeezed out and poured into barrels for further fermentation.
In those days no one cared much about cleanliness and hygiene, so the wine was not of the highest quality and could not be stored for long.
The first winemaking standards came to Slovenia only in the 16th century.
In 1582, priest Andrej Recelj translated Bergrechtbüchel (German code of laws and regulations) into Slovene language.
Later other translations of foreign technical and legal literature began to appear.
Gorske Bukve: first Slovenian farmer-landowner code.
Gorske Bukve (Slovenian name of Bergrechtbüchel) was the first legal act translated into Slovene, described the rights and obligations of winegrowers in relation to the land they cultivated, as well as various judicial regulations and procedures for resolving disputes between farmers and landowners.
Germany was the main, if not the only market for Slovenian wines. Slovenian farmers worked in German-owned vineyards and then sold wine to landowners and paid rent with wine.
Thus, by the beginning of the 18th century in Austria, Bavaria and other Germanic regions, Slovenian wines, especially wines from Vipava Valley, were very popular in high society and even at the court of kings.
The largest wine region in Slovenia was Vipava Valley, whose inhabitants Johann Valvasor wrote that they are “hardworking and enterprising, making a living growing grapes and producing wine.”
Johann Weikhard Freiherr von Valvasor, or Janez Vajkard Valvasor (1631-1693) – German nobleman, natural historian and writer.
At that time, a local blend of white wine Vipavets (wein von Wippach), also known as Kindermacher (kid maker) was created.
The wine was made from grape varieties Zelen, Rebula (Ribolla Gialla) and Pinela, often with the addition of other Vipava wine varieties such as Malvasia, Klarnica or Laški Rizling (Welschriesling).
Now it is no longer known why this wine was named Kindermacher: either because it was helping to increase the birth rate or because this wine was turning adults into children.
Here you can find one of the few reincarnations of this undeservedly forgotten wine.
In Prekmurje and Stajerska Slovenija, wine production was also an important source of income. So important, that in 1635 the peasants of Lower Styria even burned three women as witches who allegedly sent storm and hail to the vineyards.
Slovenian Wine in the 19th and 20th Centuries.
Later, when the horrors of the dark Middle Ages gave way to enlightenment, the importance of winemaking in Styria, as well as throughout Slovenia remained high.
The owners of castles and vineyards were not only small landowners, but also noble barons and even archdukes.
They were actively involved in the development of technologies, soil analysis, research and selection of new grape varieties.
They trained winemakers and controlled hygiene practices in wine production.
First Viticulture School in Slovenia: Maribor, 1872.
In 1872, the School of Fruit Horticulture and Viticulture was founded in Maribor. So the Habsburg archdukes taught peasants to wash their hands, grow the vine and make the best Riesling in the world.
Late 19th and early 20th century – Slovenian vineyards are destroyed by an epidemic of the grape aphid (Phylloxera Wastatrix) that came from America.
One of the most disastrous years was 1880, when vineyards perished in all wine regions of Slovenia at once.
At the same time this situation became a powerful incentive for the further development of winemaking.
The state began to provide interest-free loans for the recovery of vineyards.
In addition, the development and implementation of technology has become a prerequisite for the survival of the industry.
The government has also funded the development of new, more disease-resistant grape varieties.
The planting material was sold to farmers at a very low price, or even free of charge.
Infected vines were destroyed throughout the country, and areas were dug up and cultivated.
Winemakers learned to plant the vine and protect it from disease.
In trouble, for the first time, farmers began to listen to the specialists that the government hired and sent to the regions.
Alojzij Štrekel, the first Slovenian viticulture expert.
One of these viticulture experts who made a huge contribution to the restoration of vineyards was Alojzij Štrekel (1857 – 1939) who worked in the Slovenian littoral region and Dalmatia.
He graduated from courses in viticulture at the Graduate School of Wine and Fruit Growing in Klosterneuburg, and then traveled to various regions of Slovenia, giving lectures, publishing articles in Slovenian agricultural newspaper and teaching new wine-making technologies.
In 1894, the first agricultural chemical laboratory was created in Styria, the main task of which was to analyze the soil and study the effect of various types of fertilizers on plant development.
A few years later, the same agricultural station began operation in Ljubljana.
As a result of the measures taken, it was possible to restore winemaking in a short time, although the volume of production never reached the level that it had before the epidemic.
Moreover, the number of vineyards was rapidly declining.
Before the grape aphid epidemic in the late 19th centure, there were about 46,000 hectares of vineyards in Slovenia.
By the 1950s their area was already 35,000 hectares, and after another 20 years all the wine regions of Slovenia occupied no more than 20,000 hectares.
Thus, what the phylloxera epidemic failed to do was done by two world wars, followed by a redistribution of borders and economic crises.
So, after World War I, when Austria-Hungary collapsed and the territory of Slovenia fell under the influence of Yugoslavia and Italy, Slovenian wine producers lost their traditional markets – Austria and Germany.
As for the Italian market, it was legally closed for Slovenian winemakers.
The Italian government by any means protected its producers from competition from its eastern neighbour. Which, in general, is quite logical and reasonable.
Winemaking in Slovenia in the 2000s.
The revival of winemaking in Slovenia began only after the country gained independence in 1991.
In 1993, a project of tourist wine routes (vinska cesta) was launched in all wine regions.
Wine route sign in Prekmurje, northeastern wine region of Slovenia.
Special educational programs were created in agricultural schools, new colleges and faculties were opened.
The market is growing as well as the number of producers. Also, which is more important, the quality of wine is getting better and new brands of Slovenian wine such as Simčič, Batič, Kabaj and others are becoming famous and popular all over the world. So popular that now we do not have enough these wines because almost everything goes abroad.
However the market, like nature, abhors a vacuum: new, still unknown, but no less interesting wines begin to appear.
There are a lot of them and we will talk about them in detail in our next publications.
And now – a little about the wine regions of Slovenia.
Slovenian Wine Regions.
Winemaking regions of Slovenia.
There are three of them: Podravje, Posavje and Primorska, each of which is divided into sub-regions.
Podravje, North-East of Slovenia.
The largest by territory wine-growing region of Slovenia is Podravje, whose name comes from the Drava River.
The heart of Podravje, the largest Slovenian wine region.
Most of the region is in a continental climate zone with dry hot summers and rather cold winters.
The temperature difference between day and night is also significant and at different times of the year can reach 15 – 20 ° C.
The region’s soil is mainly carbonate rock and Pleistocene clay, which is good for grape growing.
The region consists of 2 parts: Štajerska Slovenija (7.329 ha) and Prekmurje (784 ha).
Štajerska Slovenija has a varied landscape with valleys, hills and terraces.
Excellent semi-dry, semi-sweet and sweet wines have traditionally been and are still being made here.
Although in recent years winemakers of the Štajerska Slovenija region have been offering a sufficient number of dry wines, the region’s trademarks are still semi-dry Riesling, semi-sweet Yellow Muskat and sweet Gewurztraminer (Traminec).
The Prekmurje wine subregion, located next to the Mura River, is the easternmost district of Slovenia, bordering Croatia, Austria and Hungary.
Until recently, only simple homemade wines were produced here and did not think about going outside the region.
However, now the situation is changing and more and more often we can see interesting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Precmurje in the wine stores of Slovenia and abroad.
In Podravje, mainly white varieties are grown: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Yellow Muscat, Traminec (Gewürztraminer), Šipon (Furmint), Rhine Riesling, Laški Rizling (Welschriesling), Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Kerner, Ranfol, Silvaner and some red grapes: Pinot Noir, Modra Frankinja (Blaufränkisch), Žametovka (Black Velvet), Portugalka (Portugieser blauer) and Zweigelt.
By the way, the origin of the name of Šipon wine is interesting. Actually, it’s a Hungarian wine furmint. In the Middle Ages, French knights-crusaders, staying in Prekmurje, once tasted this wine, exclaimed “c’est si bon”. Slovenes, however, heard “shypon”, which became the local name of this variety. The Hungarian name furmint comes from the Italian “fiore monti”. This was the name of this grape variety in Italy until it came to the territory of Hungary during the reign of the first Hungarian king Stephen.
The wines of the Podravje region are distinguished by their rich fruity-floral aroma and delicate elegant taste.
Alcohol is rarely more than 11%, which makes Northern Slovenia’s wines very light and drinkable.
The most famous wine brands of the region: Doppler, Gjerkeš, Frangež, Kupljen, Zlati Grič, Marof.
Posavje, East of Slovenia.
Wine region Posavje is located along the lower part of the Sava River near Croatian border.
Posavje is the smallest wine region of Slovenia.
The region is divided into three wine sub-regions:
- Dolenjska – 2194 ha
- Bizelsko-Sremic – 1061 ha
- Belaya Krajina – 530 ha
The Posavje valleys are interspersed with hills of various sizes, from small to very high, with steep slopes.
The soil is diverse with marl and limestone prevailing, which are covered with sandy soil mixed with clay, limestone and dolomite prevail in the Dolenjska region.
The climate of the region is the same continental as in Shtaersk Slo, but slightly more humid.
The Posavje region has maintained its reputation as a producer of light white and red wines for many years.
Almost half of the wines produced in the Posavje region are made from red grape varieties: Žametna Črnina (Black Velvet), Pinot Noir, Blaufränkisch, Portugieser Blauer.
The white varieties are dominated by Welschriesling and Kraljevina, as well as Sauvignon, Yellow Muscat and Gewürztraminer.
One of the most popular wines of Posavje is Cviček, produced in the Dolenjska wine region.
Cviček is a unique blend of red and white wine varieties Žametna Črnina, Kraljevina, Modra Frankinja, Laški Rizling and other varieties.
The traditional recipe for this wine defines a strict ratio of 65/35 reds to whites, while within this ratio the varieties can vary.
The most famous wine brands of the Posavje region: Frelih, Šturm, Prus, Keltis, Istenič, Kunej.
Primorska, South-West of Slovenia.
The Primorska (Littoral), while not the largest wine region, occupies almost half of the Slovenian wine market.
Vipava Valley vineyards.
The littoral region is characterized by a hilly and mountainous landscape, and a wide variety of soils and various climatic conditions.
Most of the territory is covered with hard soil, which is a combination of sandy stone and various limestone and clayey rocks.
A unique combination of Alpine and Mediterranean climates with an average annual rainfall of about 1460 mm. and warm breezes from the Adriatic Sea, allows ripening of almost all popular grape varieties.
Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Refošk, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Barbera grow well here.
The Primorska wine region is divided into four wine regions:
- Istra – 2249 ha
- Kras (Karst) – 704 ha
- Goriška Brda – 1898 ha
- Vipava Valley – 2548 ha
Slovenian Adriatic coast is the warmest and sunniest region of the country, which is perfectly reflected in the wines of Istra: here you’ll find all shades of sun and see.
Slovenian Istra is the land of Refošk (Refosco) and Malvasia.
These two grapes have come from Italy, but they feel as good as at home here.
You will recognize Istria Refošk and Malvasia immediately and remember for a long time.
They are intense and even slightly wild, with high minerality and rich finish.
Besides these varieties you’ll find here Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Yellow Muscat, Syrah…
When tourists come to our store and ask for authentic Slovenian wine, the first name that comes to mind is Teran.
Teran is a very iron-rich Slovenian red wine made from the Refošk grape grown in the Kras region.
The name Teran is geographically protected, so only wine from the Kras region can be called Teran.
Why Teran? The name comes from the Italian terra rosso – red earth.
Kras’s unique red soil is a combination of Cretaceous limestone with carbonate and flysch rocks.
The Kras region is located on the Slovenian karst plateau, fenced off from the Adriatic coast by a thin strip of Italian soil.
The climate here is warm, dry, with strong sea winds Bora (“Burja” in Slovene).
Besides Teran, wines of Kras are also made from Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malvasia and Vitovska Grgania (one more authentic Kras wine) varieties.
Brda is translated from Slovenian as “hills”.
The relief of this region is hills, natural terraces on which vines grow changing the taste of the alcohol content in wine depending on the altitude.
This wine region has a typical Mediterranean climate with very mild warm winters and rather humid hot summers, which makes the region one of the main suppliers of fruits in Slovenia.
Every autumn, in addition to grapes, Brda gives the country a rich harvest of peaches, persimmons, figs, chestnuts, cherries and other delicious fruits.
The soil in Brda is an organic mix of sandstone and limestone, well suited for growing a variety of grape varieties, especially the region’s traditional Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. As a result, the region is famous for its Bordeaux blend wines.
The best Rebula in Slovenia, especially the orange one, is produced here, in Goriška Brda.
It is worth mentioning separately that this region has the largest concentration of the rock-stars of Slovenian winemaking. Edi Simčič, Marjan Simčič, Kabaj, Jakončič, Kristančič, Ščurek and many other famous winemakers who made Slovenian wines popular all over the world, work here.
Vipava Valley wine region is located in the west of Slovenia, along the border with Italy.
The soil of the Vipava Valley is an ancient flysch marine sediment interspersed with layers of clay and sandstone.
The region is constantly blown by frequently changing Mediterranean winds, bringing alternately cold, warm, moisture or dryness to the vines growing here.
The Vipava region has been producing unique autochthonous Slovenian wines for over a thousand years, such as Zelen, Pinela, Klarnica, Vitovska Grganja….
Here, in the Vipava Valley, in the Middle Ages, the famous wine blend Vipavets (Kindermacher) was created.
In short, this story can end with two conclusions.
#1. Traditions are important, and Slovenian winemakers are fine with that. Even if we don’t take into account the Celtic and Roman periods and start counting from the monasteries of the 11-12 centuries, this speaks of a fairly long history and rich experience.
Add here the open minds to new ideas and trends, the desire to learn and experiment (only Georgian qvevris in Gorishka Brda are worth a special story) and we get simply unstoppable conquerors of the global wine market.
From my personal experience: almost all tourists ask me about Slovenian orange wines. They are sure that orange wines first appeared in Slovenia. Well, honestly, I do not want to upset them denying that.
#2. A large number of producers is always good. Of course, not everything they produce is worth drinking but such a tough competition allows to obtain increasing product quality.
By the way, I’ve been told about this by the French people living in Slovenia: “In France, buying some wine for 20 euros, I cannot be sure if it’s any good. Here I can buy with my eyes closed, knowing that any wine for this price is just excellent.”
The Slovenian wine market is now at a stage when natural selection is taking place and quality standards are constantly being raised. It means that by making mediocre wine, you simply won’t be able to put your product on the shelf of Slovenian wine store.
This was a relatively short overview of Slovenian winemaking. More detailed story would take many more pages and hours but we’ll keep going anyway, very soon.