In the ever-widening world of wine, Slovenia -- the Central European country bordered by Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia -- is emerging as a promising new producer with an idiosyncratic personality. A generation of post-Soviet era vintners is reclaiming a lost tradition of family winemaking, and since Slovenia's 2004 entrance into the European Union, they're getting more of their wines into the hands of American wine lovers.
In the last year, Slovenian varietals -- Refosk [Refosco], Sauvignon Blanc, Ribolla Gialla, Pinot Gris, Malvasia, an indigenous grape called Pinela -- along with a few blends, have turned up on local wine store shelves and top restaurant wine lists across L.A.
Movia Pinot Noir, for example, is one of a dozen Slovenian wines on the list at Bastide in West Hollywood. Movia wines, the best-known and most widely available in the American market, are also at Osteria Mozza, Providence, Divino and other restaurants. A growing number of area fine wine shops carry limited production wines from producers including Movia, Simcic, Guerila, Batic, Santomas and Kogl.
"There are strong parallels between Slovenia and Burgundy," says London-based wine expert Jancis Robinson. Fresh from her first trip to Slovenia, Robinson is optimistic about the potential of Slovenian wines. "This is a land of small domains run by youngish, determined winemakers who also tend their vines themselves," she says.
"They are quite anarchic and individual in their use of oak and, to my mind, are making more distinctive wines than most of their neighbors in [Italy's] Friuli."
Bastide head sommelier Pieter Verheyde discovered Slovenian wines in 2001 while working at New York's Alain Ducasse restaurant. He was so enthusiastic about the wines that he returned to his home country of Belgium and began importing them there. When Verheyde overhauled the wine list at Bastide last year, he took the unconventional step of giving Slovenia a small section of its own.
On a recent morning at a coffee shop across the street from Bastide, Verheyde spread a map of Slovenia across a table to provide a quick tutorial on the country's three wine regions. The best-known region is Primorska, along the western edge of the country, abutting Italy and the Adriatic Sea. Brda, known as Collio in Italy, is a premier district within Primorska that straddles the Italian/Slovenian border. Podravje, a northeastern continental region, is influenced by Austria, Hungary and the Julian Alps. Posavje, the third major region, occupies the southeastern corner closest to Croatia.
Each of these ancient wine regions has produced wine since the Roman era. Today, Slovenian vineyards are mostly family owned plots smaller than 12 acres. When the region emerged from Soviet control in 1991, vineyard owners were released from a Soviet-era requirement to sell their grapes to the local cooperative winery. Independent wineries started opening across the country.
Few vintners produce more than 5,000 cases of wine. "It's a struggle for these winemakers," Verheyde says.
Outside of Slovenia, few wine enthusiasts have heard of their wines, and it is a rare producer rich enough to invest in marketing. Add to that the weakness of the U.S. dollar against the euro that is squeezing profits on all European products sold in the U.S. and it's easier and more lucrative for these small vintners to sell their wines at home.
Still, Slovenian winemakers want American consumers to learn about their wines, Verheyde says. It's a necessary step toward building an international reputation as well as an opportunity to create interest in other aspects of the Slovenian economy, particularly tourism. Already, "wine is bringing Americans to Slovenia," he says.
Veheyde's selection of Slovenian wines represents a tiny fraction of Bastide's 1,400 label list, proportionate, he says, "to their importance in the world right now."
"They bring diversity to the list," he says. They're lively and complex with unexpected flavors.
"I pair the Santomas Malvasia with a ceviche of scallops; the red Refosk [Refosco] wine goes with dry aged beef. I have a Movia Pinot Noir I like to pair with Hawaiian sea bass."
Movia winery's owner, Ales Kristancic, is the eighth generation of his family to farm his vineyard in Brda.
"Italy's Collio and Slovenia's Brda is one wine region. It was divided by bureaucrats after World War II," Kristancic says. Many local producers, including himself, have vineyard plots on both sides of the border. It's confusing for consumers.
"Everything -- the grapes, the region, the towns -- has two names, the Slovenian name and the Italian name," he says.
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