“If this were the US, maybe there’d be a Disneyland-style theme park built to the wine here but we’re shyer people,” says Robert Gorjak, one of Slovenia’s 10,000 little known winemakers and sellers.
Photo by the author.
The greatest winemaking nation may not be France, Italy, New Zealand, or Australia—it could be one you've never heard of. Like Slovenia.
Nestled above Italy and tucked just underneath Austria, the central European country spent centuries as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Occupied by Nazi Germany, it was co-opted into the former Yugoslavia and for the last 24 years, has been a nation state in its own right.
But among Slovenia's historical comings and goings, wine—whether made by Austrian Benedictine monks, supported by Hapsburg emperors, or drunk by Napoleon—has been a constant. The Slovenians even have empirical evidence of their longstanding love affair with wine.
Growing on the wall of a small house on the banks of the river Drava in Slovenia's second city of Maribor, is the world's oldest vine. The 400-year-old plant has survived a blight of phylloxera that wiped out vines across Europe, two world wars, late 20th century industrialisation, and squatters who chopped down its branches to burn in winter. When researchers started to take an interest in the tree in the 1970s, branches were removed to encourage growth but the vine soon revived and has produced grapes every year since 1981.
"We usually only keep vines for 40 to 50 years because after that the quality declines, so it's lived way beyond its optimum," explains Jernej Lubej, sommelier at the Old Vine Museum, whose frontage supports the ancient plant. "This particular vine is known for the quantity of its crop rather than its quality. On the other hand, the grapes get lots of heat from the house and because it's close to the river, the vine gets lots of water too."
If you've got a spare €10,000 or so, you might be able to find out for yourself. This year for the first time, a 250 millilitre bottle of wine made from the vine's grapes is coming up for auction. Every year, a hundred are made, usually to be given as gifts. The Queen has a bottle. The Pope has a bottle. Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister of Russia, has a bottle.
The chances of being able to sample a glass are slim, but Slovenia is home to 10,000 other winemakers too—a fact that makes the country's relative anonymity on the world wine scene even more confusing. If so many people are making it, where is it all going?
The answer is down to Slovenians themselves. Of all the wine produced in the country, 94 percent is consumed by the people who live there.
"Here, you either grow grapes, or you know someone who does," says Robert Gorjak, seller at Dveri Pax wine cellar. "We're some of the best drinkers on the planet."
Long held winemaking skills have been passed down through families like the Dreisiebners.
"We've been farming for seven generations," says Janez Dreisiebner. "In 1901, we won our first award for one of our bottles of wine but we were making wine long before then."
Like most vine growers in Slovenia, they have a relatively small vineyard of nine hectares, not anywhere near enough to mass produce wines on the scale of countries like France or Italy.
The reason smallholdings like these haven't been subsumed into larger vineyards is in the landscape. Slovenia's slopes make great skiing in the winter and fantastic sun traps for vines to max out on in the summer, but machine harvesting is basically impossible.
"We have a lot more hills than other wine-growing countries so all our grapes are handpicked," explains Lubej. "The good thing is that it's a lot easier to control quality when you pick them by hand because you can remove the bad grapes as you go along."
The bad thing is it takes a lot longer to harvest the crop. The Dreisiebner family spends around a month to bring in all the grapes from their land, a process that starts when the grapes feel ready in their hands.
"They have to be at the right sugar level and have the right colour," says Dreisiebner. "We pick them in good weather and have to collect it before the heat of the day."
It's a skill that's in the blood as much as it's learned, and the end result is delicious.
It also helps that Slovenia has 5 percent of the best terroirs in the world, a fact discovered by visitors to the country for centuries. The wine produced at Dveri Pax is made from grapes grown in an area east of Maribor called Jeruzalem.
"When the Crusaders on their way to Israel in medieval times, they stopped there at the top of the hill and decided to stay. They saw the women and the view, and drank the wine and said, We go not further. This is our Jerusalem." says Gorjak. "If this were the US, maybe there'd be a Disneyland-style theme park built to the wine here, but we're shyer people."
So shy Slovenians have been keeping this wine to themselves for centuries.
Old habits really do die hard. But when every other house in your country has a wine cellar and your wine is some of the best in the world, why wouldn't you drink it all yourself?