It's Slovenia, not Slovakia. Let's get that out of the way first. You may think it doesn't happen and that the two do not get confused, but they do. Slovakia is home to Bratislava, the Slovakia Summit of 2005, Miss Wonderbra and Paul Newman; apparently his mother was Slovak. Slovenia meanwhile is Ljubljana, salt, Borut Pahor and cabbage and millet mush. Very different.
Slovenia is the teeny puzzle-fit under-hanging Austria; a right-slice of Italy. It is largely landlocked but for a small opening to the Adriatic Sea where the peninsula tips of Piran and Grado in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, peak out to form the Gulf of Trieste. A place of postcard scenery, rich agriculture and wine sipped under inky cypresses. Across the horizon you can spot a dozen or more ancient churches, their distant bells sounding out each passing hour in a country rich in Catholicism and wine worship.
If Puglia is the stiletto heel of Italy, then Slovenia is the chip on its shoulder. You can fly into Ljubljana Jože Pučnik Airport or Portorož; or, as I did, to Trieste and drive the five-minutes it takes to cross the border, but you wouldn't know it. There is no border control, no patting-down or touchy-feely. There's barely even a sign. The fit of the land remains the same as I drive towards Medana and away from Italy.
If you haven't heard of Slovenia that's probably because they don't want you to. I don't want you to. The gentle incline of sweeping roads and the sunflowers, blossoms and viridian hills are reminiscent of Tuscany, and look what happened when you found out about that! Italians stand back and gawp at the English worship of Tuscany. It's an other place, a seasonal patch that grows heavy under the weight of Brits during Bank Holiday weekends and school holidays. Slovenia is best keeping Slovenia to itself.
Like Chiantishire, the food in Medana is big-plated, peasant food. Pork lung and bread (mežerli) is served with cured meats (zgornjesavinjski želodec), artisan cheeses and white polenta. Indeed, the entire repertoire is reminiscent of northern Italy with an emphasis on pancetta (kraška pancetta), quality olive oil - particularly Goriška Brda from the Šmartno and Visnjevic regions - and a deep sensibility when it comes to wine.
I met four wine growers who together have formed the Simbiosa cooperative. They each share a belief in sustainable agriculture and the solid foundations of organic farming and practices. In addition, everything they produce is cultivated from their lands using biodynamic practices. The result, at least from an enology standpoint, is a wine which may not seem typical at first sight; made using the natural laws of hand-picked grapes without the addition of commercial yeasts or chemical additives. No physical intervention to the wine is allowed.
These farmers and wine-makers, who have mostly inherited land from their parents for generations, are all incredible characters. If you stare into their faces you'll see the deep, weather-beaten passion and intensity of hour-upon-hour of graft and labour from time spent in fields and vineyards; and there's a loveable fervour there, a close affinity deep-rooted to their land, their calling and Slovenia.
Vasja Cotar explains to me that how, upon inheriting his vineyard in 1974, he has cultivated seven hectares across the village of Gorjansko. His wines are aged in old wooden barrels but are not clarified or filtered. "I have a responsibility to use the countryside", he tells me. "What is created by nature is unique".
During a visit to the Klinec vineyards in Medana, winemaker-cum-cook-cum-art collector Aleks Klinec takes me through his vineyards and to the edge of a cliff. The rocky decline is blasted and dry and it takes all my concentration not to slip. He brushes his hand out, as hospitable proprietors do in that "Please, after you" manner, and urges me to peak over. I swear he's going to push me off. Another Brit endangering his Slovenia. It's Tuscany all over again.
"Why doesn't he fuck off to Slovakia", he must have been thinking.
It turns out that the earth has blistered below and formed a cave. You can view the sediment shifts, from the orange dust, to the ashen soil and down to clumped-mud and chalk. It's a lesson in pedology and how the force of gravity and weathering process of erosion has shaped and shifted the land throughout time.
"The soil we cultivate can be poisoned, destroyed and turned into desert", Aleks remarks. He continues, "... or, it can be kept alive and well, so that out children can one day live with it and from it". It becomes clear to me that there's a new breed of winemaker in Slovenia and whether by accident or design, they have each become the maestro of their plot; learning everything from the lay of the land to the impact of forecast weather. There is a respect of nature and a reasoning with the land: if we can treat you correctly, then what will you yield us in return?
The RAW Artisan Wine Fair takes place at The Old Truman Brewery in London on the 19th and 20th May, 2013. Explore the world of natural wine and meet some of the growers and producers from Slovenia. £20.00 advance tickets. For more information, visit www.rawfair.comSuggest a correction