By Claudia M. Caruana
Pop the cork! Slovenian wines are here – if you can find them.
Like many Americans, you might be unfamiliar with the country, much less its wines. Slovenia has quietly produced quality wine for centuries; many of the current wineries have been operating since the 1500s. One particular place of wine growing interest is the city of Maribor in the northeast corner of the country, where you can find a vine that has continuously produced wine grapes for more than 400 years.
Slovenia’s wine regions share the same latitude with Bordeaux and Piedmont. Slightly smaller than the state of New Jersey, Slovenia was the northernmost republic in the old Yugoslavia before that country dissolved in 1991. Home to more than 2 million people, it is nestled among better-known wine producing nations: Italy to the west, Austria and Hungary to the north and east, and it shares a border with Croatia in the south.
After World War II, winemaking became a cooperative enterprise across Yugoslavia – owned collectively by everyone. When Slovenia gained its independence, families and private companies produced their own wines again. Today, an estimated 10,000 vineyards grow 52 varieties of wine grapes, most of them in three distinct wine-producing regions. About 63 percent of Slovenian wine produced each year is white, 27 percent is red, and 10 percent is sparkling and Rosé. Of all these, about 70 percent meet the criteria for quality and superlative wines.
All of which leads to the question: why so little “buzz” about these stellar wines?
One reason: most Slovenian wines are consumed inside the country; on average, Slovenians drink more than 40 liters of wine each year. Only an estimated 6 percent of the wine is exported outside the region. But, this seems to be changing, albeit slowly, as more Americans visit and experience Slovenian cuisine and enjoy the wines. It is many of those individuals who have visited Slovenia who inquire about the wines at fine restaurants. That nudge, and more restaurateurs and food professionals who visit Slovenia themselves, have resulted in a handful of these wines appearing on wine lists, mostly on the East Coast.
So at the moment, the best place to experience Slovenian wine is in Slovenia.
Most travelers start their visit in Ljubljana, the capital, an easy hop from major European airports or by train from neighboring countries. Other visitors to Slovenia arrive on cruise ships that stop at the country’s major Adriatic Sea port city, Koper.
Don’t expect a bustling and frenzied capital city; Ljubljana is quite the opposite: like a fine wine, it’s meant to be savored at a relaxed pace. Known for its green spaces, Ljubljana was named the European Green Capital for 2016; one of its biggest attractions is Tivoli Park, home to an expansive rose garden, greenhouse, pond, 17th-century castle and outdoor sculptures.
Your first introduction to Slovenian wine is likely to happen in one of the small, outdoor cafes or old city markets that dot the Ljubljana River, which flows through the capital. Of course, you’ll find the wines in restaurants and bars as well. Although professional wine-themed tours escort visitors to the three important grape-growing regions in Slovenia, you also can reach these areas on their own either by driving or taking a bus from the terminal near the shopping district in Ljubljana’s city center.
The largest of the three wine regions is Podravje, in the northeast corner of the country. Here, you’ll find a continental climate – hot summers and cold, dry winters, similar in many ways to the American Midwest. Not surprisingly, many sweet white wines are produced here.
The Primorje region, in the east along the Adriatic Sea, is known for its red wines while the Posavje region, in the Lower Sava Valley on the southern border near Croatia, produces mostly whites.
Tourism for wine enthusiasts is year-round, but many visitors plan their itineraries around the St. Martin’s Day festivities on November 10. Slovenians celebrate St. Martin’s Day with a passion, as it symbolizes the must (freshly pressed grape juice) transforming into wine. Must usually is considered “impure” and “sinful,” so a townsperson dresses as a bishop and “baptizes” it before revelers down the wine with traditional foods such as goose and mlinci (a flat bread).
Ohioans have a special reason for awakening their interest in Slovenian wines: when Eastern Europeans began immigrating to the US in the 1880s, industrial cities in the Midwest attracted thousands of skilled laborers from that part of the world. By the turn of the century, Cleveland boasted the largest Slovene settlement in the US. Even into the 1990s, more than 50,000 people of Slovenian heritage lived in the area – still one of the largest communities outside Slovenia.
For information, go to www.slovenia.info.