In the final part of our four seasons in Slovenia series, we meet the orange winemakers of the Goriška region, and discover why autumn is one of the best times to visit the country. Eleanor Aldridge went to find out more.
Autumn is a beautiful time to visit the far west of Slovenia. The leaves of the Malvazija, Jakot and Rebula vines are flecked with gold, amber and pink. Light breezes rustle the olive and permission bushes, and pigs fattening for this year’s pršut, or prosciutto, snuffle obliviously in the gentle sunshine. The odd hiker traversing the Alpe Adria Trail and tractors trundling in with the harvest are the only interruptions.
Here, the Slovenian region of Goriška merges seamlessly into Italy’s Friuli-Venezia Giulia; and surveying the rolling hills and scattering of red-roofed farmhouses, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you were across the border. This part of Slovenia has a character quite different to the misty mountains around Lake Bled and the busy towns of the Adriatic coast. The country might be small, but it packs a lot into twenty thousand square kilometres.
Yet there’s more than just natural beauty here. Goriška is home to some of Europe’s most exciting winemakers – known for their natural orange wines – and thanks to a growing number of B&Bs and wine routes, this is the perfect time to discover them.
IT’S ALL NATURAL
The natural winemaking renaissance began in the 1990s. A group of Slovenian farmers decided to return to traditional methods, growing their grapes organically and producing macerated white wines, commonly known as orange wines in the UK and USA.
These wines are made from white grapes but vinified like red wines. The juice is left to macerate on the skins for up to a month – imparting colour, flavour and tannins – rather than being pressed straight off. The result is an array of orange- to honey-coloured wines that exhibit a unique set of spicy, bitter and floral notes.
Orange wines are likely to be “the most unusual wines you ever taste” according to natural wine authority, Isabel Legeron, and they’re coveted from London to Tokyo.
WINE DOWN IN THE VIPAVA VALLEY
The ideal place to start a voyage of discovery is Ajdovščina. (Try pronouncing it like “out of China”.) Only an hour’s drive from Ljubljana at the heart of the Vipava Valley, this pretty town of just over 6000 inhabitants is built on Roman foundations. Its narrow streets are interesting to wander and provide shelter from the valley’s famous wind, the burja, which is starting to flex its icy muscles at this time of year.
In the town centre, tasting room and boutique Faladur provides a great introduction to Vipava Valley wine and gastronomy. They stock bottles from a host of local winemakers and offer food pairings that give a sense of the proximity to Italy – think crispy fried polenta and quail’s egg paired with a smooth Barbera, or home-made herb ricotta lifted by a zippy white Zelen or Pinela. You can also sample award-winning craft beer from enigmatic young brewers Pelicon – founded just a year ago, they’ve already been crowned Slovenia’s finest.
As for orange wine, the valley’s finest winemaker is Mlečnik, based in pastoral countryside on the lower Vipava Valley wine road. This father and son team have a holistic approach. At their scenic farmhouse they produce a beautiful Rebula, one of the region’s indigenous varietals, but their gloriously aromatic orange Chardonnays are the highlight. Released after five years of maturation, these will have even the most hardened “ABC” (anything but Chardonnay) adherents ripping up the rulebook.
It is interesting to remember, however, that this diversity is a relatively new concept for Slovenia. Before independence in 1991, winemaking was subject to the edicts of Yugoslavian socialism: private production was banned and grapes were contributed to industrial behemoths that churned out millions of bottles a year.
Today, things are different. There’s huge national pride in local winemaking, and in a uniquely Slovene tradition, “wine queens” are chosen each year to champion their region.
INTO THE HILLS: GORIŠKA BRDA
Neighbouring the Vipava Valley, Goriška Brda is the closest part of Goriška to Italy. It’s named after the hills, or brda, which are the hallmark of the region. There’s been a twenty percent increase on tourism year on year here, thanks in part to the checkpoint-free roads that lace the border (you can drive to Trieste or Venice in around an hour), but it retains a sleepy tranquillity. Even the slew of outdoor activities on offer – ebiking, kayaking, paragliding and hiking to name a few – do little to disturb the peace.
Brda is characterised by small, somnolent towns like Šmartno, home to just thirty souls. In the surrounding countryside are some 150 independent winemakers, many of whom have opened up their farms as guesthouses and restaurants. They provide a perfect base for exploring the region.
The Klinec homestead and restaurant is one of the most beautifully sited, perched on a hill in Medana overlooking vineyards, olive trees and lightly-forested hillocks. The furnishings might be traditional, but the wines couldn’t be more different. Their surprisingly delicate Jakot and Malvasija – unusually aged in local acai and mulberry wood – are some of their most interesting orange wines. Aleks and family also make prosciutto and olive oil on site.
Yet more tranquil is nearby winery and B&B Kmetije Štekar. This simply decorated yellow farmhouse welcomes WWOOF volunteers and paying guests alike. For a sweet note to end a wine tour, try their intensely floral pinky-orange Pinot Gris with panna cotta.
CELEBRATING ST MARTIN
Back in the capital, Ljubljana, wine is also the focus at this time of year. On 11 November the country celebrates St Martin’s day, a feast marking the end of the harvest and the first day on which this year’s wines may be drunk. Stalls pop up across the old town for the Ljubljana Wine Route on the preceding and following weekends, these days attracting an increasingly international crowd.
As orange wine’s cult status continues to grow, this international interest is set to continue. Visit now while this side of Slovenia remains blissfully undiscovered.
Eleanor travelled to Ljubljana with Wizz Air, who fly from London Luton to Ljubljana. If you haven’t got time to venture far beyond the capital, enlist the help of local guide Mateja Kregar Gliha, who runs food and wine tours in the city. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.