Cyprus, an island full of (wine) treasures

Legend has it that Cyprus was called “the island of love” after Aphrodite was born from foam at the point where the sea throws itself on the rocks of the coast of Paphos… The reality, in fact, is just as idyllic on the wine side.

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Located on the easternmost part of the Mediterranean Sea, in the Levantine basin(1), the island is full of wine treasures : a history rich in traditions, indigenous varieties as varied as interesting, and the production of Commandaria, the oldest wine still in production. There was nothing more needed to sharpen our curiosity.

A plurimillenary wine tradition

Welcome to Cyprus, an island of just 1.3 million inhabitants, with around 60 estates(2) spread over 7900 hectares of vineyards, producing about 81000 hl per year(3).

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Our focus was on four essential wine producers, along with Manon Perramond, a young (and talented) photographer who accompanied the Wine Explorers at this new destination.

“Did you know that the wine-growing history of Cyprus is 5000 years old ?!”… It was with these words that we were receive with an enthusiastic energy by Mrs. Loannides, who was smiling from ear to ear. She and her husband – an 85-year-old doctor, still active – are winegrowers and the owners of the Ayia Mavri estate in central Cyprus.

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A wonderful meeting, full of humanity and positivism, where passion was more palpable than ever. Like her husband, she speaks about wine with stars in the eyes. Started in 1983, the estate produces 50,000 bottles and has been nicknamed “the sweet vineyard” by the locals, thanks to its specialization in the production of world-class sweet wines. They even have some Xynisteri vines (a delicious white indigenous grape) 100 years old… To be discovered urgently!

An island under the sign of the sun

On the way to our second visit, we were surprised to discover a lot of water heaters on the roofs of the buildings of the island.

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“The weather is so beautiful all year round that people provide their hot water needs with the sun”, Mrs. Sofroniou, from the Ministry of Energy, Trade, Industry and Tourism of Cyprus, who accompanied us during the visits, explained. “We do not use electricity from April to October, only solar panels, to supply our homes with hot water”.

Rendez-vous at Vlassides estate, a very pretty property of 18 hectares, located on the plateau of Koilani, at 700m above sea level, in the center of the island – established by Sophocle Vlassides in 1998.

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At the time, Sophocle already had the vision to transform the small shop of his grandfather to produce “garage wine”. He studied oenology at the University of Davis, California. In 2012, the success was there and the team moved to a new, more modern cellar, with a cave dug 9 meters into the rock, to preserve the freshness of the wines. As you will have realized, it is hot in Cyprus.

We visited the vineyard at 8am… at 27°C. Panos Magalios, the assistant oenologist, explained to us that Vlassides produces 120,000 bottles a year, mainly from the grape varieties Xynisteri, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. In recent years, the estate has experimented with some indigenous Cypriot varieties such as Maratheftiko and Yiannoudi (red), and Promara and Morokanella (white).

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“We need to experiment more to see which grape varieties are best suited to the heat, as well as to the high humidity present during summer time”, Panos said.

Kyperounda, one of the highest vineyards in Europe

During the discovery of Kyperounda winery, we were accompanied by Minas Mina, a fantastic and passionate Cypriot winemaker! Built at the end of the 1990s, Kyperounda belongs to more than 40 shareholders, whose control and management are placed in the hands of the Photos Photiades group.

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The estate was built on three levels, in order to use gravity to move the grape juice in the gentlest way possible.
The cellar, located in the region of Pitsilia, 75 km from Nicosia and 50 km from Limassol, is magnificent. With an altitude of 1,400 meters above sea level (one of the highest in Europe), the schist and loess soils (very poor), are fantastic for the production of deep and precise wines. Add to this low yields and cool nights – unique in the region – this combination makes the Kyperounda estate one of the jewels of Cyprus viticulture…

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A special mention for its Commandaria (100% Xynisteri). A unique type of sweet wine exclusively found in Cyprus, developed at the foot of the Troodos Mountains. This is the oldest wine in the world still in production, and is made from the grape varieties Xynisteri (white) and/or Mavro (red), whose clusters are dried in the sun to concentrate the grape berries into sugar. The juice from pressing is then fermented naturally in stainless steel vats (even sometimes in terracotta jars), then fortified(4) to reach an alcohol level of about 15%. The wine is then brought to the cellars of Limassol, where it is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two years. The result : concentrated sweet wines with an amber color and a perfume of resin, pine, dried fruit and nuts. A delight…

Yiannoudin, (red) favorite grape

We ended our stay by visiting Tsiakkas winery, in the village of Pelendri, in the south of the island.

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Perched at an altitude of 1000m, it is probably one of the most beautiful vineyards in Cyprus, with its northern exposition and amphitheater shape. Costas Tsiakkas, the owner of the estate and a former businessman (he was a banker in a previous life), started in 1988 with only 5,000 bottles. Today, with a production of 150,000 bottles, his success is impressive.

His secret? The search for unrecognized or forgotten indigenous grape varieties. “I like to focus on local grape varieties : they are more resistant to diseases and are the future of Cypriot winemaking, both in terms of taste and identity”.

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Here we discovered Yiannoudin, a red grape with very fine skin and berries, and concentrated juice. And a special mention for the cuvée Yiannoudin 2014, a generous red wine full of depth and freshness, with notes of wild black fruit, leather, spices and cigar. We loved it!

We departed from Cyprus with stars in our eyes… A (wine) destination of great interest. And a country full of authentic people and wine treasures. Our last meal on the beach, a plate of Halloumi (the traditional cheese) and a glass of Ouzo.

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Another facet of the rich local gastronomic heritage.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Vlassides, Ayia Mavri, Kyperounda Winery and Tsiakkas Winery for their warm welcome. Thanks also to the Trade Office of the Embassy of Cyprus in Paris and to the Ministry of Energy, Trade, Industry and Tourism of Cyprus for having organized and supported this visit in such a beautiful way. Finally, thanks to the young and talented photographer Manon Perramond for participating in the trip.

 

(1) The Levantine Basin is a subdivision of the eastern basin of the Mediterranean Sea and corresponds to its easternmost part (Southern Turkey, Cyprus, Middle East).
(2) The island has about 60 commercial domains, as well as many small domestic plantations intended for private consumption.
(3) Production 2016 – source : Cypriot Ministry of Energy, Trade, Industry and Tourism.
(4) Following fermentation, the wine is fortified, either with a wine brandy containing 95% alcohol by volume or a distilled wine containing 70% by volume of alcohol.

Macedonia, towards a new wine-making blast

Have you ever heard of red grape varieties such as Stanouchina, Prokupets, Vranets, Kratochia and Kadarka? Or white ones like Smederevka and Joupyanka? So many indigenous treasures which seduced us and helped to build the wine heritage and the identity of the Macedonian vineyard.

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Although the vineyard is the country’s second largest crop with 28,000 hectares (after tobacco production), it is certain that Macedonian viticulture is coming back from a long road. To our greatest happiness, it plays in the big leagues today. Overview of a beautiful country, as green as it is mountainous, with a rich wildlife – one can encounter wolves, bears or lynxes – that bewitched us at first sight.

A revival of the vineyard after independence

It should be noted that viticulture was introduced to Macedonia in ancient times. Maintained by the monasteries under the Ottoman Empire – from the 14th century to 1912 – for the production of quality wines. It experienced a sharp turn towards mass production in the last century . So much so, that during the communist period, Macedonia was able to supply up to 80% of the wine production of Yugoslavia.

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Macedonian wine was then cheap, sold in bulk and often mixed with blended wines. “In the days of communism, not only was maximum production expected from the farmers, but the one who had the most grapes per vine won a television!”, we were told. It was only after September 8, 1991 and the independence of the country, that a viticulture of quality was reborn, with the creation of new wineries.

Like the Popov estate, established in 2001 in Sopot, in the heart of the most famous wine region of Macedonia(1), which with 45 hectares of vineyards, has successfully overcome the challenge of modernity.

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I must admit, all the vineyards we visited positively surprised us, showing that Macedonia has more than ever earned its place on the world wine scene. With a moderate continental climate (the country is totally continental, without any maritime boundary) and a rather mountainous topography, the country has all the geographical assets to produce beautiful wines. It only lacks global recognition, which would be important to revalue its production ; a kilo of grapes are currently sold for around 0.25 euro cents.

Popova Kula and the Stanushina

Located in the heart of one of the largest ornithological parks in Europe, in the south-east of the country, the Popova Kula estate welcomed us under the watchful eye of its watchtower. Welcome to Demir Kapija, a region with a unique microclimate of 300 days of sunshine a year, which was already chosen by King Alexander I of Yugoslavia in the late 1920s, to plant his vineyard. Today, the estate focuses on wine tourism (a pioneer in the region) and offers outstanding activities to its visitors: off-the-beaten track trails, wildlife viewing, traditional cooking lessons, and even folk dances lessons!

Spotlight on Stanushina, an endemic grape variety discovered ten years ago on the Popova Kula estate which grows nowhere else in the world (2 hectares planted).

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Characterized by small berries with thin skins, it produces juicy red wines, light, with delicious flavors of plum and wild strawberry. We loved it.

Tikves, the Macedonian giant

A true emblem of Macedonian wine since 1885, Tikves is the most important winery in Southeast Europe in terms of production, with an average of 12 million bottles sold per year. Not bad.

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It is located in the town of Kavadarci, in the south. We visited this impressive winery complex, accompanied by Marco Stojakovic, the oenologist. Despite the size of the premises, the professionalism and meticulous organization that reigns here forces admiration. A model of its kind.

The region, bathed in sunshine for most of the year, is very pleasant to live in. The pure water of the surroundings, from Lake Tikvesh, combined with a light and constant wind, gives the vineyards – some of which are planted on plots higher than 700m above sea level – optimal conditions for the maturity of the grapes.

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As a result, we tasted surprising wines with intense aromas, such as the red wine “Barovo 2013” (blend of Vranec and Kratosija), with notes of blackberries, blueberries, garrigue and cigar…

Bovin, the different tastes of Vranac

It is in Negotino, a charming city of 15,000 inhabitants in the south of Macedonia, that the vineyards of the Bovin estate grow.

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We were warmly welcomed by Kostadin Kitanov, the Sales Manager, a very happy and enthusiastic person. Here, “positive energy is de rigueur”, and “that’s how we make good wines!”. This is perhaps what explains the success of Bovin, Kostadin explained, since 80% of the production of the estate is exported to 36 countries. During the tasting, we discovered with wonder the many possible variations of Vranac, an autochthonous red variety representing 60% of the estate’s production. Sometimes dry, sometimes sweet, fermented in stainless steel tanks or in barrels, this grape variety never stopped surprising and delighting our taste buds.

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Not far from there are the ruins of the city of Stobi, which Kostadin kindly took us to visit. An important experience to understand the history of the country. The city occupied a key position in the Vardar Valley, on the strategic axis linking the Aegean Sea to the Danube basin. The invasion of the Ostrogoths in 482, and the earthquake of 518 were two disasters which Stobi never recovered from, and it would have been abandoned towards the end of the 5th century. A must-see site, and a wonderful testimony to Macedonian cultural heritage.

Château Kamnik, hunting landmark and fine wines

Welcome to Château Kamnik, a majestic 15-hectare vineyard in north-central Macedonia, in the beautiful capital of Skopje.

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Upon our arrival to the estate, we visited the hotel complex with Anita Jovanovska, a person as funny and kind as she is welcoming. The decoration is in the style of a “hunter’s landmark”. Ambiance guaranteed…

Founded in 2004 by Mr Ilija Malinkovski, an outstanding businessman, passionated about wine, hunting and gastronomy, Château Kamnik produces beautiful bottles from a wide range of grape varieties: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Vranac ; not to name them all.

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Spotlight on the cuvée “Chardonnay Barrel Fermented 2006“, very complex and with great freshness, proof that Macedonian white wines can age well.

And while recognition on the local market is still complicated – “it’s easier to sell a foreign entry-level wine in Macedonia than the best Macedonian wine”, according to Anita – Macedonian wines are worth the detour and have a thousand and one tastes, one as interesting as the next… Go for it.

 

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Popova Kula, Bovin, Tikves, Popov and Château Kamnik for their warm welcome. Thanks to the Stobi team for this exciting visit. Thanks to our friend Anita Jovanovska, from Château Kamnik, for having played the guide in Skopje at night. Finally, thanks to Mr Ante BACIC, from Les Robes de l’Est, for his valuable winery recommendations.

 

(1) Macedonia has three major production regions: the Vardar Valley, where 85% of Macedonian wine is produced, along the Vardar River, which crosses the country from north to south; Pelagonie-Polog, in the south-west of the country, where the vines grow on plateaus between 600 and 680 meters above sea level (11% of Macedonian wine) ; Pchinya- Osogovo, more arid and mountainous (4% of Macedonian wine).

Montenegro, the European wine Tom Thumb

As small as it is charming, as wild as it is welcoming and as mountainous as it is verdant, Montenegro deserves the detour on your next summer vacation.

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Bordering five other wine-producing countries (Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo and Albania), the country has barely 680,000 inhabitants (less than Marseille, for example). And with 4300 hectares planted(1), this little European Tom Thumb progressively tries to make its way in the wine landscape… but has not finished to surprise us. Overview.

Viticulture concentrated around Podgorica, the capital

From the south of Croatia, it took us a little more than 3 hours by motorhome to cover the 150 km that separate the coast, to the west, from the Podgorica region, to the east, where the Montenegrin vineyard is located. To go inland, we had to follow winding roads, with innumerable turns.

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The mountains of Montenegro are among the most hilly roads in Europe… and I can assure you that it was climbing. But the beauty of the scenery overcame the fatigue of the road. Here, nature is beautiful and preserved. Everything is green during spring. Along the majestic Skadar Lake, we finally reached the Petrovac valley, which adjoins Podgorica.

It is here that we discovered Zenta, a family vineyard of 4 hectares, where Drasko Vučinić, aided by his aunt Dragica, produces superb red wines from Vranac, an indigenous grape variety, among others.

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“We have a very interesting microclimate for the cultivation of vines, since we are in the most southern part of the Adriatic coast. The result is a temperate climate with mild nights and sunny days in summer, and regular rainfall, concentrated in winter and spring”. Be careful where you step though, some horned vipers hang out here in summer! Fortunately, the cats in the field stand guard. And the place remains idyllic.

When painting, wine and music go hand in hand

An invitation can’t be refused. Especially when it hides a beautiful surprise.

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Welcome to the Ćetković winery, in the village of Beri (15 minutes from Podgorica), a vineyard of 3,200 vines (barely one hectare), planted with Vranac and Marselan, producing 4,000 bottles per year.

A peaceful place, founded by Vucic Ćetković (painter) and his cousin Vuk Ćetković (oenologist) less than five years ago. Why such a project? “We wanted to continue the wine tradition of our grandfather who was already making wine on this land”, the two men said unanimously.

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We discovered with great pleasure their concept, around “Art and Wine”. A formula that is not new, some people will say. Perhaps. Except that here, everything fits wonderfully.

The tasting cellar is none other than the painting workshop of Vucic. The place is full of good vibrations and positive energy. A little paradise… Especially when tasting some good Montenegrin red wines, with music beautifully played by the duo formed by Vucic’s girlfriend, Milena Vukovic (violin) and her friend Milica Vujovic (cello).

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A pure moment of sharing and joy!

Plantaže, the European giant

Curious as we are, we could not visit Montenegro without stopping at the estate Plantaže, which alone accounts for more than 80% of the country’s wine production(2).

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With 2,310 hectares – and 11.5 million vines planted – Plantaže is today the largest single vineyard in Europe.

Rather impressive, even paradoxical, to find such a large estate in such a small country. “The most significant phase in the development of Plantaže was the realization of the project called “The Plains of Ćemovsko“ in 1970, when 2,000 hectares of vines and orchards were planted, in addition to the existing vineyard. At the time, it was the biggest project in Europe”, we were told.

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For the anecdote, part of the current vineyard was planted on the former military airport of the country, which moved its activities to the Independence of Montenegro in 2006.

And it is on the old aerial track of 2178 m – from which the planes took off – that we went through the vineyard by car, vines passing on each side of the cockpit, as far as the eye can see. In the neighboring mountain, the underground military hangar which was built to protect and maintain the equipment, has now been converted into a cellar by Plantaže for aging its wines. A striking and magical place.

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On the wine side, some very nice surprises. The vineyard is bordered by a chain of limestone hills, benefiting from very beautiful poor soils with a sandy tendency, on which mainly Vranac (70% of the production) are grown, alongside a multitude of international varieties.

Making house-wine in Montenegro, a thousand-year-old tradition

“Every household here makes wine and distills for its own consumption.

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It’s a millennial tradition since Roman times”, according to Miloš Rajković, the third generation of winegrowers on the BUK estate, who welcomed us with a glass of Rakija, a national brandy made from grapes!

It is in the peaceful village of Bukovic that this young enthusiast produces 11,000 bottles of wine a year, from Vranac, Marselan (he was the first to introduce this grape variety in the country in 2005), Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Muscat Ottonel. His favorite pastime: being in the cellar to make the blends. At the forefront of equipment technology (wine press, vats, fudges…), its red wines are delicious and full of freshness.

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A very nice winegrower and a family that welcomes one with huge smiles. Even their dog looks like a huge plush! We loved it.

Seven kilometers away, after taking a few narrow paths in the forest, where our camper van was just passing through, we finally found the charming village of Utrg, 10km from the Adriatic (to the east) and the Skadar Lake (to the west). An appointment was taken with the Vukmanović estate, as the last visit of our journey.

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A micro vineyard of 1 hectare, perched at 380m above sea level, mainly producing red wines from the Vranac, Kratosija(3) and Lisičina native varieties. Another little corner of paradise, where the water of the mountains is drunk directly at the source!

Aleksandar Vukmanović, 13th generation of winemakers on the estate, shares his week between his job as an electrical engineer and his passion for wine. “I like to perpetuate the tradition. Working in the vineyard three days a week, as well as on weekends and during my holidays”, said this non-standard and very sympathetic winegrower, back from a walk in the mountains.

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The tasting was done under the trees, to the sound of the bees that foraged around us. The moment was out of time.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Zenta, Ćetković, Vukmanović, Buk and Plantaže estates for their warm welcome. And special thanks to Vucic Ćetković, founder of the Art & Wine House Montenegro concept and his family for giving us such a nice overview of their country and making us feel at home during our stay.

 

(1) Latest official figures, according to the Ministry of Agriculture of Montenegro: about 4300 hectares of vines planted.
(2) 2/3 of the country’s vineyard is used for commercial production; the rest has been planted by private individuals for personal production/consumption.
(3) the kratosija variety is also known as Primitivo and Zinfandel.

Slovenia… the (little) European nugget

This was our first departure on board of the Wine Explorers’ new house-office-mobile, a brand new G700GJ campervan offered by Pilote, the French market leader.

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I looked forward to test this vehicle, fully equipped for the project : two offices, four beds, a kitchen, a huge fridge and a bathroom… what else could one want ?!
En route for 1200 km, heading south-east of Europe. After two days of driving, as a reward for the journey, a wonderful spectacle awaited us. The Monte Forno, the last rampart between the northern tip of Italy, Austria to our back and Slovenia proudly standing in front of us.

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With only 85km left before arriving in Slovenia, we couldn’t wait!

One of the most interesting vineyards in the world

Coup de cœur for the Slovenian vineyards, the preserved green treasure of Europe, where German, Slavic and Roman cultures have been intermingled for millennia. Only a drop of water in the world’s wine-growing ocean with 22,300 hectares planted (0.5% of the European vineyard), the country produces some of the best wines in the world. Its 2,400-year-old wine tradition, its unique climate (protection by the Alps from the north and the oceanic influence in the west), its complex soils (opoka, schist, granite…) and its multitude of seductive autochthonous grape varieties, made Slovenia one of the most interesting wine cultures that we have discovered so far.

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“The Slovenian wine market is growing very rapidly. With the help of some of the biggest names of Slovenian winegrowers, such as Marjan Simšič, our country is increasingly recognized as a wine country”, Saso Papp, CEO and co-founder of vinoo.co explained. “We are the only country with the word LOVE in its name – sLOVEnija”, he proudly added. A whole symbol.

The country has three main wine regions: Primorska, in the west (along the Mediterranean) and the Drava (Podravje) and Save (Posavje) valleys in the west. We chose to start with the wine-growing sub-region of Goriška Brda, in the west (1000 hectares of vineyards), nicknamed “Tuscany of Slovenia” for its undulating landscape.

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A small corner of paradise and a must stop for any wine lover. Its very particular location, 50 km from the Alps and 20 km from the sea, which makes it a fantastic region for the cultivation of vines.

Bjana Estate, the effervescent story of Miran Sirk

Miran Sirk and his wife, Petra, are the proud owners of Bjana Estate, a small 6.5-hectare estate in the Brda wine region, specializing in sparkling wines produced in traditional method. Their story is as beautiful as it is touching.
Until the early 1950s, Miran’s father owned a hundred hectares of vines. But after the Second World War, the vineyard and the house were requisitioned by the State and divided, as in most areas, under the regime of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia.

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The family then only had a small piece of their own house, and little land. In 1976, it was the coup de grace. An earthquake destroyed the whole house, as well as other surrounding dwellings. The vineyard project was buried and along with it, the young Miran’s winemaking dreams.

In 1991, after the creation of Slovenia and the independence celebrated, Miran only had one dream in mind : to rebuild the house and the family estate, in order to produce great sparkling wines. He had to start from scratch. He replanted the vineyard in the same year, but couldn’t rebuild the house and the cellar before 2007, lacking money… A crazy bet and the work of a titan, during which, from 1991 to 2009, Miran worked as trade inspector in the casinos, traveling a lot and accumulating days of 16h, to earn enough money to pay for the construction.

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Today, thanks to his idea of planting a vineyard exposed to the north – in order to reduce the effect of the sun in this warm Mediterranean region – Miran produces, without a shadow of a doubt, world-class sparkling wines. And his “Cuvée Prestige” (70% Chardonnay, 30% Rebula), aged 56 months on the lees in bottles (!), has literally blown us away… Respect.

Marjan Simčič – Mr. Opoka

Another fantastic winemaker from Goriška Brda, and a great favorite of Wine Explorers, the emblematic Marjan Simčič, whom I like to call “Mr. Opoka”, or “the rock star of Rebula“.

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Every time I think about this visit and this encounter, I get goosebumps. Rarely have I had the opportunity to taste white wines with such intensity and depth. Wines of meditation, combining power and elegance, density and lightness, length and precision. Memorable.

Marjan and his family own 18 hectares of vineyard – some vines more than 55 years old – with parcels on both the Slovenian and Italian borders ; historical-geographic-political conflicts oblige. Marjan discovered different types of soils, one of them having obtained world-wide reputation for its unique character as a “terroir”: opoka.

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“The soils of Brda, deposited by ancient oceans on the surface of the hills, are fascinating. Wind, rain and sun have crushed, washed and heated them for thousands of years. The result: opoka, a soil rich in minerals which makes it possible to produce unique wines with a recognizable terroir“, Marjan, the 5th generation of winegrowers on the estate since 1860, explained.

Here, the dominant and most famous variety is the white Rebula(1), which accounts for about 25% of the wines produced in the region ; offering generous and inimitable wines. But that’s not all. This winemaker, who has magic in his fingers, also produces among the most beautiful cuvées of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc that we have never tasted… (yes!).

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We finished the visit by admiring a beautiful sunset in one of its vineyards, right next to the Italian border. A moment out of time.

Vinakoper, land of Refosk

Next followed a change of region with Istria, in the south-east of Slovenia. And a change of scenery with Vinakoper, a 570-hectare estate created in 1947. A very successful example of a “fairly massive” producer, who has managed to concentrate exclusively on quality and who deserves to be visited.

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The key to success : a vineyard spread over 10 micro-locations around the town of Koper, one more beautiful than the next, from ground level up to 320 meters above sea level. Preserved and virgin sites of any dwelling, along the Gulf of Trieste, offering a microclimate unique to the region. We admired one of the vineyards, a plot of 64 hectares on the Debeli Rtič peninsula, literally plunging into the sea. Wild asparagus grow here on the edge of the forest. We improvised a picking and ate some green asparagus on the spot. A delight.

Overall, the wine range positively surprised us, with iconic wines around the red grape varieties Refosk (the most popular red varietal in Slovenia) and Cipro (an Istrian early ripening indigenous grape variety with only 6.6 hectares of vines in the whole world!).

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“Slovenia still lacks gratitude, even though wine has been produced here since the Roman era. Thanks to indigenous grape varieties such as Refosk, a variety with incredible potential and in which we firmly believe, it seems possible to make a difference and to assert Slovenia as a wine country with its own identity”, Gregor Bandel, the sales and marketing Director, explained.

Suklje, the revival of traditional viticulture

We finished our Slovenian stay at the Suklje estate, only a few kilometers from the Croatian border.

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A small and charming 7-hectare vineyard in the south-west of the country, in the mountainous region of Metlika. Here, there are no less than five generations of passionate winegrowers who have succeeded one another to make this estate one of the jewels of the region.

In 1994, a great turning point was initiated by Joze, the father, with the first bottling and an undeniable qualitative turn. Until then, the wine was sold in bulk, a common practice under the Yugoslav air. Matija, the 5th generation of vine growers, took over the reins of the vineyard, planted partly with Blaufränkisch (Modra frankinja), Laški rizling, Kerner and Sauvignon blanc ; under the watchful eye of his father. Katja, her sister, and her husband Guillaume Antalick, both doctors in oenology, also consult the vineyard.

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The Suklje family is actually turning the vineyard towards local and responsible oenotourism, offering exclusively fresh local products at the vineyard table (where you eat wonderfully well). A wine bar project has also been set up in Ljubljana, the capital(2). It is an initiative of Matija, Katja & Guillaume. We wish them all the best in this great adventure!

Let’s conclude this most rewarding journey with a humorous touch. We discovered an ingenious and original way of “re-filling” bottles of wine for the weekend! Practical and economical, the wine pump seems to be a success. Well done Vinakoper for this great initiative.

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Slovenia, we will be back soon. I promise. Your vineyard is a treasure.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

 

 

Thank you to Bajna, Marjan Simčič, Vinakoper and Suklje estates for their warm welcome. And a huge thank you to our friends Ante & Barbara BACIC, from Les Robes de l’Est, for their valuable help and winery recommendations.


(1)
The Rebula, aka ‘Ribolla or Ribuela is a white grape variety originating in Greece but which has been cultivated in Slovenia for at least 750 years.
(2) For more information on the Suklje wine bar in Ljubljana: https://www.facebook.com/winebarsuklje/

Slovakia, vineyards in reconstruction to be discovered

One can only marvel at the beauty of the Slovakian vineyards.
3000 years old, it is concentrated in the south of the country, along the Carpathians(1).

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After being marked by more than 40 years of real socialism(2) and the collectivization of vineyards by the State, the Slovakian wine sector is now booming and is full of wineries one more interesting than the next. Some have opted to focus only on production, exclusively purchasing their grapes from vine growers. Others, more recently, have invested in the vineyard and have created their own estates. We met with three of them.

Modern viticulture that has suffered from “real socialism”

From 30,000 hectares in 1990 to less than 17,000 hectares today(3), Slovakian vineyards are slowly being rebuild.

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After the velvet Revolution of 1989, state wine companies began to collapse. The vine growers, who were previously obliged to sell their grapes to these big farms, now found themselves in a difficult situation. They had two options : they could either continue to sell their grapes to other new establishments, or they could establish their own estates.

Slovakia – after gaining its independence in 1993 – took the decision to apply a protectionist policy on imported wines, thus encouraging a qualitative progression of local production for almost 10 years(4). This allowed winegrowers to sell all of their production in Slovakia at low prices without foreign competition.

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Divided into six regions – Small Carpathians and Eastern Slovakia to the west, Nitra and Central Slovakia to the south, Southern Slovakia and Tokaj to the east – a more qualitative approach is now being adhered to. As proof, a system of controlled appellations was set up in 2009.

Mrva & Stanko, a successful example of controlled grape purchases

Established in 1997, Mrva & Stanko was born from the meeting of two men. Mr Mrva, a talented winegrower who has made his mark in many European countries, and Mr Stanko, a Slovakian businessman. They began with 12,000 bottles and immediately made the choice to buy grapes from producers, in order to concentrate exclusively on investing in equipment (winery, cellar, barrels…).

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“In Slovakia, it is normal to separate the vineyard part from the production part. One hectare is very expensive”, according to Mr Mrva, who admitted that he preferred leaving to Austria during the communist period. Understandable when you are passionate and want to produce nice wines.
Now producing 400,000 bottles, the Mrva & Stanko estate has grown extensively but still remains qualitative, only buying grapes within 2.5-hours driving distance maximum from the production site, for better control of the quality. Thus the winegrowers under contract with whom they work are all located at the 48th parallel north (equivalent to Vienna in Austria, Munich in Germany, or Brest in France).

We met with a winegrower working for Mrva & Stanko. “We work hand in hand and grow the vines according to Mr Mrva’s recommendations. Everyone is happy like that and it is very pleasant”, he explained.

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We ended the visit by discovering the cellars of the estate. There are private lockers, rented to wealthy clients for storage of the great wines of the estate (a system we had seen in China). This approach seems to please a clientele long deprived of premium bottles. Count 600 €/year for a locker of a hundred bottles.

Tajna, the renewal of independent viticulture

Tajna estate is a new and very promising project and is a great example of the Slovakian wine-growing revival. Starting from zero, Rastislav Demes and his father planted 16 hectares in 2011, in the commune of the same name. “We have total freedom of action, both in the choice of grape varieties and in the management of the vines and the equipment used”, Rastislav enthusiastically explained..

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With its high-tech wine cellar, Tajna is well equipped to produce great wines. “It’s in the details that we are making the difference”.
During the wine tasting, Rastislav kindly proposed to us to choose the music of our choice. Delicate attention. We opted for a jazzy and convivial atmosphere. The wines of the estate, although made from young vines, are already very promising : mineral, generous, with nice tension and great freshness.
“The geological substratum of the Slovakian wine-growing regions is very varied : from limestone to granite, via volcanic rocks and river sediments, the typicity of the Slovak « terroir » is indisputable”, according to Rastislav.

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We finished the day with a delicious Perkelt cooked by his dad, a traditional meal made from marinated meat and potatoes. A delight.

Some nice Slovak wines discovered during our journey :
Rizling Vlassky Tramin 2014, from Tajná (80% Rizling Vlassky, 20% Tramin)
Vinolovca Exclusive 2013, from HR Winery (70% Rizling Vlassky, 30% Pinot Gris)
Cuvée 2012, from MRVA & Stanko (Hron, Vah, Rimava, Rudava)
Pinot Noir 2013, from Tajná
Cabernet Sauvignon Barrique 2012, from HR Winery

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HR Winery, a women’s story above all

Created in 2012, HR Winery is the story of a hunter and wine enthusiast, who succeeded in acquiring a vineyard of 230 hectares with 30-year old vines. Often traveling to satisfy his first passion, he entrusted the reins of the vineyard to two women. Beata Saskova, oenologist. And Mila Kissová, the sales manager. A duo full of joy and energy.

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While visiting the vineyard with Beata, we were amused by the radio, which suddenly began to sing on the village loudspeakers, alternating two pieces of traditional music and flash-info for five minutes. It was 3pm and time for advertising!

We discovered no less than 26 different grape varieties on the estate. Alongside the international varieties, there are others emblematic of the country, such as Rulandské Biele (Pinot Blanc), Devín, Pálava and Rizling Rýnsky (Riesling Rhénan) for the white and Frankovka Modrá, Svätovavrinecké (Saint-Laurent) and Rulandské Modré (Pinot Noir) for the red.

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After the visit, we improvised a tasting and a photo session in a room filled with stuffed animals. The “trophies” of the domain. Rather special but fun.

To conclude, it is impossible not to mention the famous Tokaj wines.
Known as the “wine of kings, king of wines“ in Hungary, it has been the subject of many dilemmas between the two countries since the Second World War. Although Slovakia has a legitimate right to the Tokaj designation and can produce it, only Hungary has the right to market it within the European Union. A big and understandable frustration for the Slovaks.
In any case, the country’s viticultural future is indeed there and its positive growth is encouraging. A country to discover urgently.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to MRVA & STANKO, HR Winery and Vino Tajná for their warm welcome. Thank you also to Miklós Jobbágy and Guyard Paul for their nice winery recommendations.

 

(1) Source : Slovak National Statistical Office
(2) Socialist parties throughout the world experienced splits in the 1920s (or “real socialism”) applied by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the latter being proclaimed the “homeland of socialism”.
(3) Source: Slovak National Statistical Office
(4) It was at the time of Slovakia’s accession to the EU on 1 May 2004 that the producers had to face rapidly a major international competition.