The wines of Slovenia are being rediscovered after Slovenia’s emergence from the old Yugoslavia, and there are now pockets of excellent vineyards all over the country.
Recently, I was in the Istrian part of Slovenia, which is sandwiched between the much larger Croatian Istria and the Italian city of Trieste. Essentially, it is a narrow finger of land, with a short seaboard, before the country opens out toward the capital Ljubljana. And like Croatian Istria, it is an area of gentle hillsides, with vines and orchards, scattered with small villages. The one town of any size is the port of Koper, which was once called Capodistria, when it was part of Italy. And you cannot escape the proximity of borders in this part of Europe. We breakfasted in Italian Trieste, tasted wine during the morning in Slovenia and were in Croatia in time for lunch, which all makes for an exotic mix.
A daughter takes over
Leading the way in Slovenian Istria is Santomas, where Tamara Glavina introduced us to her family estate, just outside the village of Sarje, close to Koper. She is bright and vivacious, and highly competent, proving herself to be a talented winemaker. For her father, wine was really just a hobby, but he has invested in a new streamlined cellar and given his daughter a free rein. She focuses on Malvasia, and even more on Refošk, which are the two principal grape varieties, as in Croatian Istria.
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Glavina said Refošk is usually made quite simply so that it can be drunk young, within the year, but she is now working on a change of style, developing wines that will have a much longer life.
This has necessitated changes in the vineyard, with single or double Guyot pruning, rather than the traditional pergola system. There is a greater density of 4,000 plants per hectare, and a much lower yield, of less than 1 kg per plant. The old pergola system even allowed for vegetables to be grown between the vines, as the Italians used to do with cultura promiscua.
Wine from the cellar
In the cellar Glavina has had the help of Claude Gros, a consultant oenologist from the Languedoc, who really saw the potential of Refošk when he came to visit. Glavina talked of her experience of working a vintage in France, a challenge when her French was still fairly limited. And then she treated us to an impressive vertical tasting of her red wines. We began with a young Refošk, with some appealing freshness, that had been kept in a stainless steel vat. Refošk means quite simply “king of the dark” and is deep in color, with low acidity and spicy berry fruit. The berries are large with soft skins — Glavina said that it is impossible to make rosé from it as the skins provide so much color.
Glavina also has some Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, which she might blend with Refošk. She said that she felt that sometimes it was difficult for people to appreciate Refošk and that some Cabernet or Merlot helped. I could not help feeling that, although the blend, and indeed some pure Cabernet were very good, the quality and character of the Refošk stood alone. So as well as the fresh Refošk, she makes two other cuvées, which may or may not be single vineyards: Antonius, for which she aims for a powerful rich style of wine, that may be either Refošk or Cabernet Sauvignon, and her Grande Cuvée, which she does not make every year, and for which she is looking above all for elegance.
An impressive wine tasting
Tamara opened bottles back from her first vintage in 2006, and included a 2005 made by her father. Highlights included the 2009 Grande Cuvée Refošk from the Certeze vineyard, given two years aging in French oak. It had some intriguing spice on the nose, with well-integrated oak and perfumed red fruit on the palate, with great length.
A 2009 Antonius from 25- to 50-year-old vines from the Sergasi vineyard, a sunny amphitheater that enjoys a maritime influence, was smoky and youthful, with ripe fruit and tannins. And 2009 Petrache Refošk, another vineyard, was spicy and perfumed with some freshness and elegance. In other words, we enjoyed three quite different Refošk from the same vintage, showing the versatility of the grape.
The 2006 Grande Cuvée from Refošk still retained a freshness combined with a richness, while the 2006 Antonius Cabernet Sauvignon was rich and powerful with cedary notes. We finished with Ludvik Glavina Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, which had developed some elegant cedary cassis flavors, making a fitting conclusion to the tasting. The Cabernet Sauvignon was good, but I came away with a lasting impression of the charm and originality of Refošk.
Main photo: The Santomas winery, with the town of Koper in the distance, lies in Slovenian Istria. Credit: Copyright 2017 Marjan Močivnik