Unique Slovenia Vineyards
Many of my travels begin with unexpected inspiration. So it was my recent trip to Slovenia, which captured my attention at a conference I attended in December 2019.
Slovenia is a gorgeous country, filled with Alpine vistas (you can see the Julian Alps in the distance), and vibrant vineyards producing delicious wines. It even has a small beachfront on the Adriatic. The Slovenian people are gracious and delighted to welcome you with native foods, wine, and general hospitality.
How do I get to Slovenia?
My trip started with a flight to Venice’s Marco Polo airport, the closest large hub to Slovenia’s Istrian peninsula. Piran is on the Adriatic sea which greeted me in the morning when I opened my curtains to an expanse of sea.
Piran is one of four coastal towns which are at the start of the Adriatic Sea. Aside from a fishing industry that provides the freshest seafood, Piran and neighboring Koper, Isala and Portoroz control all of the region’s salt, which is still produced by hand. I could see the salt fields (which look like rice paddies) and look forward to touring a salt field when I return.
Wine in Slovenia
My main reason for visiting Slovenia was to gain knowledge of their wine industry. The first stop was Rodica, a small winery that grows typical Slovenian wines such as Malvazija (better known as Malvasia in the US) and Sivi Pinot (Pinot Gris). Some of the grapes are macerated with skins to produce the region’s famous orange wine.
Winery owner Mariko explained that commercial wine production in Istria is relatively new. Until about 20 years ago all Slovenia wine was consumed domestically. Mariko himself is part of this new wave of commercial wine production in Slovenia. For the first part of his career, he was an auto mechanic. He is now a premium producer, including sparkling wines. The first taste was a sparkling rosé.
Wine tasting in Slovenia always comes with unique food pairings. Accompanying our tasting of 5 wines were bowls of local starpa and platters of homemade cheeses and prosciutto. The prosciutto is air-dried by the forceful burja winds common to Slovenia.
We concluded the wine tasting with Refošk, a Slovenia grape known as “black wine,” which translates to King of Darkness! Sounds scary but it is delicious dark fruits and is full-bodied. The final wine of the evening was Truske Rdece, which blends Refošk with Merlot and Cabernet.
I sampled wine from another family-owned winery called Bordon, which is hidden in a forest along the Rižana, the only river which starts and ends in Slovenia. This winery started as a wheat and corn mill, and the old milling equipment is still on display.
This winery also makes its own prosciutto to serve with its wine, along with home-grown olives. Bordon produces 10 varietals including yellow muscat, Cipro, which is a red muscat, and international grapes like chardonnay and cabernet. One of their specialties is sparkling wine, and I tried both the Evina Penina and the Evina Rose, both very dry and refreshing.
Bordon has beautiful tasting facilities, but what caught my eye was a hand-made wine holder meant to pour from large format bottles, like magnums and larger.
Goriška Brda is considered, which is the Tuscany of Slovenia. Located in the Vipavska Valley, there are over 200 wineries, and most are just a couple of acres. I only had time to visit a few iconic wineries, and each had its own unique personality.
Lepa Vida is owned by husband-and-wife Matija and Irena, who led me through their tasting. Similar to Rodica, Matija didn’t start out as a winemaker. He was a city boy who married Irena, whose parents owned the winery. He gave up cosmopolitan living to become a winemaker, and today they carry on the tradition her parents began.
In addition to having great wines, Irena was a wonderful storyteller. She shared a story that began in Egypt. Back in the time when the Suez Canal was being built between 1850-1920, an opportunity arose to help the poor families who lived in this region of Slovenia. Being a Catholic country back in the time when birth control was forbidden by the Catholic Church, most young families always had at least one infant at home.
This meant the mother was nursing her babies. Because everyone in Egypt was involved in building the Canal, they were in desperate need of wetnurses to feed their own babies.
Slovenian women were recruited to Egypt to nurse their babies. They were well-paid and able to send more money home than they could ever earn in Slovenia. While some women returned to Slovenia, many lost their connection with their roots and stayed in Egypt. In honor of these women, Leda Vida has a wine bottle whose label celebrates these women, with a profile of a pregnant woman being blown by the burja winds.
Šĉurek Winery participated in a “Poetry in Wine” program from 2005-2009, resulting in artists painting original art on the tops of their barrels. Šĉurek is owned by 5 brothers. They are an innovative vineyard, using clay amphora to ferment their wines and taking advantage of spontaneous fermentation for one of their Chardonnays. The view of the vineyard was pretty spectacular.
One of the most famous wineries in Slovenia is Movia, owned by Ales Kristancic, who Food and Wine magazine calls the “wine genius of Slovenia.” In the midst of harvest, Alec had time to chat and even let me taste some must from the Merlot he was making.
When I told him I was from California, near Santa Barbara, he was so excited because he had been there to attend the annual World of Pinot Noir event pre-pandemic. He told me of his friendship with legendary winemaker Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat…and that’s on my list to share Aless' greetings with Jim now that I’m back home.
Unique places to visit in Slovenia
One of the most unique places to visit in Slovenia is the Lipica Stud Farm, where they breed the Lipizzaner horses for the renowned Spanish riding school. These magnificent white horses are beautiful, and I was fortunate to arrive early in the morning when they leave the paddocks for the pasture.Interestingly, the females all live together but the males are kept separate because they will fight and injure each other. After a guided tour of the grounds, I was treated to a buggy ride led by two Lipizzaner geldings. There was an opportunity to enjoy a private picnic complete with all the Slovenian foods I was growing to love
Postojnska Jama caves, which at over 24,000 meters long (that’s nearly 15 miles!) are only the 2nd largest cave system in Slovenia. Postojnska cave is the country’s number one tourist attraction, it is still authentic in its own way, and definitely not to be missed.
After getting a ticket, I boarded a little open-air electric train and traveled about a mile through some pretty cool stalagmites and stalactites. Upon exiting the train, we were met by an English-speaking guide (there are guides for several languages) who led us on a hike through about another mile of the cave.
The magnificence of the caves from this vantage point is second to none. The Postojnska Jama cave was opened to the public in 1818 for a visit by Archduke Ferdinand of Austria.
The cave had actually been discovered in the 17th century, and graffiti dating from the 1200s was found, so the cave has been explored by humans for over 800 years! When the cave was first opened to the public, it was lit with candles. They weren’t replaced by electric lights until the 1940s. Hard to choose what impressed me the most, but the “spaghetti room” was very cool with its short, curly stalactites. Also, the aquarium that’s home to a few “olm”, the world’s largest troglodyte amphibians in the world and the only living creature inside the cave.
After leaving the caves, we drove to Slovenia’s capital and largest city Ljubljana. A charming city of only 200,000 people, its central district is divided by the Ljubljanica River. There are 5 bridges that traverse the river including the Triple Bridge, the Dragon’s Bridge, and the Butcher’s Bridge, which is adorned with love padlocks. Statues abound, like the lovers and the headless man.
What was the most fun about Ljubljana was my walking food and wine tour, led by local chef and guide Jazmina, who was born and raised in the city. She shared a wealth of knowledge about the history and the culture, and food is a huge part of that. So much to tell that I will write a separate blog on the 6 stops we made on the tour. Suffice to say, you can make a reservation to eat at world-famous chef Ana Roš restaurant and spend upwards of $300 per person, or you can do a food tour like I did and enjoy it every bit as much!
The last day in Slovenia was a trip to one of its most beautiful natural wonders, Lake Bled, about an hour’s drive from Ljubljana. In the summer, this is a huge resort area, as evidenced by all the hotels and tourist facilities surrounding the lake. Fortunately, I was there in October, when it was relatively quiet, and luckily a beautiful sunny day.
In the middle of the lake is a natural island, upon which stands the historic Church of the Mother of God, built in the Baroque style. You reach the island by a pletna, a flat-bottomed wooden boat that is rowed by an oarsman.
The church has a couple of stories worth sharing. First is that there are 99 steps to get from the boat landing to the church, a hefty climb just on your own. But the custom for couples getting married in the church is that the groom needs to carry his bride up the entire flight in order to guarantee a long and happy life together. If nothing else, anyone who can carry another person up 99 stairs is guaranteed a strong heart!
The other story has to do with the Wishing Bell inside the church. Bled Castle, on the shore of the lake and dates back to 1004, had a number of residents by the middle ages. One man was murdered and dumped into the lake, and his distraught widow tried to gather enough gold and silver to have a church bell constructed in his memory.
She piled all of the precious metals on a boat to reach the island with the church, but a storm came up and sank the boat. Even more devastated, the widow traveled to Italy to appeal to the Pope for help. He took pity on her and had a craftsman in Padua build the bell, which is now installed in the church. For a small fee, you can ring the bell—no easy feat, especially after climbing those 99 steps—and make a wish.
Also on the shore of the lake is a rather modern rectangular building with was built for Tito, the ruler of the former Yugoslavia. This had been Tito’s coffee house, and today it is a café, one with a very different architecture than almost every other historic building on the lake.
The last activity before leaving Slovenia was lunch in Bled Castle, followed by a brief walking tour. Of note is the print shop, which dates back to Primus Trubar, a Protestant priest in the 1500s, who is known as the Slovenian Martin Luther. He wanted people to learn to read Slovenian so they could read their prayerbooks. He smuggled Protestant books in from Germany and translated them into Slovenian.
Today the printshop prints tourist trinkets, but the employee does it using the same methods Trubar used in his time.
Wine Lovers Travel had one private group heading to Slovenia in April 2022, and I would love to bring other groups as well. Contact me if you also want to go to the country where LOVE is part of its name.