I first visited Collio, the hilly zone just outside the town of Gorizia, in the late 1980s. The vibrancy of the Italian wines from Collio contrasted with the heavy hand of state control that manifested itself in the dull wines produced across the border in Slovenia. The Iron Curtain may have been fraying, and there were rumours that country lanes ensured grapes from Slovenia found their way across the border, but little of Italian Collio’s brilliance filtered through to Slovenia’s wines.
Today, the Slovenian part of Collio, Goriška Brda, is brimming with energy. There are about 2,000 hectares of vineyard on the Slovenian side of the border, and just over 1,300 hectares on the Italian side. New vineyards are being planted in Slovenia, with the likes of Jermann, among others, crossing the border in search of the sort of sites that have long since been planted in Italy.
Goriška Brda is worth the visit just for the scenery. Clumps of beautiful forests attach themselves to the rolling hills. Castles and old villas attest to the wealth that resided here prior to the First World War and the government has done an admirable job of restoring as many of these fine structures as it can.
These hills are situated 25 kilometres north of the sea and 35 kilometres south of the Alps. The moderating influence of both ensures the warm days give way to cooler nights, a key factor in the accumulation of flavour in the grapes.
In the vineyards, the slopes are steep, the friable soils are of marine origin and the viticulture has greatly improved over the past two decades. In fact, the quality of viticulture is now astonishingly good. Density averages about 6,000 vines per hectare and most vines are trained in a vertical shoot position. This provides an excellent spread of fruit, a balanced canopy and good circulation of air to protect against rot and mildew.
The tops of the hills are planted with Rebula (known as Ribolla Gialla in Italy), as it is the latest ripening of all the varieties. “Chardonnay is picked at the end of August, Rebula a month later,” says Gašper Čarman of the eponymous winery. It was first documented in Slovenia around the year 1260, having likely been brought from Greece by the Venetians, who controlled the Aegean and the Adriatic and had established trading outposts in Crete and the Peloponnese.
Gašper uses Rebula to add backbone to his Chardonnay in his well-priced and delicious blend of these two varieties. Unoaked and vibrant, the ripe pear fruit of the Chardonnay is nicely complemented by the stone fruit and steel of the Rebula. He uses a small selection of Rebula, from his two best vineyards of Borg and Ronk, to make a pure varietal. The wine undergoes 16 hours of skin contact and is aged for 12 months in used French oak followed by a further 12 months in 4,000 litre Slavonian oak. The oak is nicely balanced, the fruit intense yet taut and the flavour long and lingering. It will be a new addition to our September list.
The other native variety is Malvazija, known in Italy as Malvasia Istriana. We now know, thanks to DNA testing, that this variety did not arrive from Greece, although its name, like all those of the very loose Malvasia family, is derived from the Peloponnese port of Monemvasia which, when Latinised, became Malvasia.
This Istrian variety is quite distinct and has long been prized by the Friulani for its tightly wound fruit, lively acidity and waxy texture. To the south, in its native Croatia, it is also producing wines of real interest and distinction. Not surprisingly, it is also one of the stars of Gašper’s portfolio, its delicate aromatics setting it apart from the more brooding Rebula.
Given the success of Pinot Grigio across the border in Collio, it should come as no surprise that the Slovenians are doing well with this variety. Gašper’s unoaked version won a gold medal at the Decanter World Wine Awards this year, and it is easy to see why. The nose has lovely aromatics of white pears and bread crust, while on the palate it has lovely weight balanced by a lifted acidity that drives the flavour through the finish, giving the wine a satisfying length.
These wines light up Goriška Brda, illuminating hills that were sulking in the shadows 30 years ago. The dull mediocrity of the late 1980s has given way to a region that is carving out its own identity and creating styles of wine that are distinct from its more illustrious neighbour across the border. It is exciting to see such changes taking place in this strikingly beautiful wine region. Keep an eye on Goriška Brda – there is more to come, I’m sure.