By Sue Style
A visit to Primorska, the coastal wine region of Slovenia, can be combined seamlessly with a wine tour in neighbouring Istria in Croatia. Once you arrive across the border, you can pause for a cappuccino on the waterfront in Piran, spread out along a tiny tongue of land tipped with an ancient lighthouse and embracing a graceful bay.
After a brief incursion into Italy, skirting round Trieste, you reach the tiny Slovenian enclave of Goriska Brda (‘Gorizia’s hills’), whose vineyards nuzzle up against those of Italy’s Collio. You can look across into the Italian vineyards from the tower of Marjan Simcic’s winery. Typically for this small region, Simcic has vines on both sides of the border: of the estate’s 18 hectares of vineyards, six are in Italy, the rest in Slovenia.
Primorska’s perfect winegrowing climate – gusts of warm air from the Gulf of Trieste to the south and cool draughts from the Julian Alps to the north – gives concentrated, full-bodied wines capable of great ageing. As in Istria, whites predominate but up here Malvasia gives way to Rebula (Ribolla Gialla in Collio) and Sauvignonasse (aka Tocai Friuliano). Simcic’s superb Rebulas – some of them are offered by the glass at one of Britain’s top restaurants, the Fat Duck in Bray – range from a fine single varietal wine through the more complex Teodor Belo blend combined with Pinot Grigio and Sauvignonasse, to their award-winning Leonardo, a deep golden passito aged 30 months in oak barrels that won a gold medal (again) in Decanter magazine’s 2010 World Wine Awards. Another lovely wine, elegant and balanced, is their Sauvignon Blanc, whose ‘pronounced aromas of apple compote and passion fruit’ convinced the jury that a second gold medal was in order. And not content with their success with white varieties, Simcic’s elegant Pinot Noir 2007 has just been named Best Old World red by the same magazine.
Belica (pronounced Belitsa) in the hilltop village of Medana just above Simcic, is a haven of peace and warmth built in typically Slovenian style – whitewashed with slender white columns, balustrades and red tile roofs – and the lodgings here make a good billet for Primorska explorations. It’s owned and run by the indefatigable Zlatko and Mary Mavric, who somehow find time along with their duties as attentive hosts to make their own wine, press their own olive oil, cook up home-made jams and preserves, cure some superbly fragrant prsut and salami, and distil an impressive range of clear fruit brandies. The brandies come in a flavour for every occasion (or as they would have it, for every ailment) including one flavoured with lovage which – assures Zlatko – is guaranteed to revive flagging libido.
Close by in Plesivo is Kabaj Morel, a sunny, sunflower-yellow domacija (literally ‘homestead’) where expatriate Frenchman Jean-Michel Morel and his Slovenian wife Katja run a lively wine bar and restaurant (plus six simple, stylish rooms). Jean-Michel is a fan of clay amphorae for his stunning Malvasia/Rebula/Sauvignonasse combination (Gary Rhodes has selected some for his restaurant empire), and he also makes a balanced Merlot-rich Bordeaux blend. Both are perfect partners for Katja’s updated, upmarket take on traditional Brda dishes – gnocchi with prsut and fennel sauce, home-made sausages with white polenta.
A visit to Primorska would be incomplete without a look at what the Lavrencic brothers are doing at Sutor, co-owned by Primoz Lavrencic, who combines winemaking with teaching at the nearby university, and his brother Mitja, the postmaster. Their first vintage was in 1991 but the vineyards were acquired in the 1930s by the Lavrencic great-grandparents. They own prime sites in this southern end of the Vipava valley, a region basking in subalpine sunshine and ventilated by the Burja, a violent northeast wind that rattles down the valley scattering any rooftop tiles not weighted down with heavy stones and shutting down the motorways.
Of Sutor’s 7.5 hectares, 70% is planted with white varieties (Chardonnay, Malvasia, Rebula, Sauvignon Blanc and Welschriesling) and the rest red (Merlot, Pinot Noir and Refosco) – “everyone talks about red wine, but they drink white,” observes Primoz. This may be true, but plenty of people are also talking about Sutor whites. His distinctive Chardonnay combines elegance and power with a discreet hint of oak, and the Burja blend (named after the infamous wind whose effects are graphically depicted in the bent-over-double trees shown on the label) of Rebula, Malvasia and Welschriesling has bright fruit, a smokey whiff and good acidity. Before your leave this spectacularly beautiful valley, with its hills and distant mountains, ruined castles, Gothic churches and picturesque villages, be sure to taste Lavrencic’s newest baby – a cherry red, smooth and scented Pinot Noir. It’s a wine to talk about, and drink, and treasure.