Wines of Slovenia – one degree of separation

Bojan Kobal, Ptuj Wine Cellar winemaker

Slovenia always seemed so foreign to me.  If I didn’t know where it was, how good could their wines be?  I first became familiar with Slovenia the wine region when I read a Wine & Spirits magazine article about the Istrian Peninsula, where a tiny piece of Italy, Slovenia and Croatia meet on its western coast.  Then I met Slovenian winemaker Bojan Kobal in Stellenbosch a couple of years ago where we were fellow wine judges at the Michelangelo International Wine Awards.   Kobal is everything you hope for when you meet a winemaker – shares information freely, has strong opinions and experiments a lot.  He even brought some of his wines to South Africa for us to taste and I remember that they were very well made.  But you know at these wine competitions, you never have a lot of free time to discuss home.  So I was delighted to hear from him recently when he was touring the U.S. with his Assistant Winemaker Vinko Mandl.

Catching up over lunch at Oenotri here in the Napa Valley, I learned that Slovenia isn’t all that foreign in terms of location, history and style, and that many of us have already tasted Slovenian wines without realizing it.

I got a sense for just how close Slovenian wines are to the European wines I know when he told me that, oh, he met our fellow judge and friend Parani at Vinitaly last year, just a 4-hour drive west to Verona from where he lives.  Four hours?   And Austria is just a 2-hour drive north.  Really?  That’s like driving from LA to San Diego, or from San Francisco to Carmel.  So it turns out, Slovenia is about the size of New Jersey, bordered on the north by Austria, to the west by Italy, to the south by Croatia and to the east by Hungary.

Wine has been made here since Roman times.  Since European viticulture began in the south and spread north, Mandl said that Slovenia has an older winemaking culture than most northern European wine regions such as Austria.  So why don’t we know that much about it?   Because for decades until 1991 when Slovenia became independent from communist rule, wines were made under government-controlled cooperatives without priority for high quality or export.

Privatization encouraged modernization in the vineyards and winemaking in the last two decades so that the Slovenia wine industry, from a global perspective, is quite young.  Not unlike South Africa’s wine industry, which was dominated by the KWV cooperative until about the time apartheid was abolished and embargos lifted in the early 1990’s, leading to widespread replanting and investment.  One of the effects of this was innovation in wine styles, for example, in South Africa, pink Sauvignon Blanc and ‘cappucino’ style Pinotages, both made for the domestic market.  The same is happening in Slovenia, where Kobal works for the oldest and one of the largest wineries Ptuj Winery in the northeastern wine region of Stajerska where he makes about 40 different wines.

In Stajerska, the terrain is hilly, with marly clay soils.  The climate is continental with cooling influences from the nearby pre-Alps.  Here, at about 42nd latitude, just south of Austria, the climate and soils are ideal for aromatic white varieties and they make up about 85% of Ptuj Winery’s wines.  The leading wines are Welsh Riesling, Furmint, Sauvignon, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Traminer, Muller Thurgau and Chardonnay, most made in a clean, fruity style.

The fresh, fruit-driven white wines of Ptuj Winery

The main brand of Ptuj Winery is Pullus and the wines which exemplify their style are the Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc wines both of which retail for about $15.  The Pinot Grigio is pink (!) a result of up to 72 hours of skin contact with this deeper-colored white grape.  This wine is very dry, fresh and with a purity of peachy fruit.  The Sauvignon Blanc wine is made from grapes which were picked in stages, not reflecting irregular ripening, but deliberately to capture different stages of sauvignon expression:  early for the more herbal aromas and later for tropical flavors.  In essence, a very international Sauvignon Blanc!

Of Slovenia’s three major wine regions, one of the better known areas, Primorska, is just across the border from Italy’s Friuli-Venezia Giulia.  I was surprised to find out that some of my favorite Italian whites made by Movia or Gravner, for example, are made by Slovenian winemakers whose vineyards straddle Italy and Slovenia.  Silvio Jermann also has Slovenian roots.  Clearly, this part of the world excels in whites but don’t try to clump them all together.

When I tried to draw parallels with more familiar wine regions saying “so Slovenian wines have a little bit of Austrian and Italian in them…”  Mandl quickly corrected me saying, “No.  Austrian wines have a little bit of Slovenia, Italian wines have a little bit of Slovenia.”  And so on.

The wines are imported by Vinum USA.  In Manhattan, Pullus wines are sold at specialty wine retailers such as Crush Wine & Spirits, Astor Wines & Spirits and Garnet Wines & Liquors, with distribution expanding to the west coast.  For more information on Pullus, visit the website