Ask the average wine drinker about Slovenian wine, and chances are you’ll be met with a dumb stare; ask a somm, on the other hand, and you’ll probably get a gushy earful on amber wines, opoka soil, and unsung grape varieties like rebula, refošk, and pikolit.
What the pros know (and the rest of us are just beginning to realize) is that Slovenia is Europe’s most promising new wine destination, not only for its cult-status bottles but also for its spectacular landscapes, soulful “zero-kilometer” cuisine, and insane—we’re talking half-the-price-of-Bordeaux insane—value on everything from winery tours to meals to vineyard-side glamping.
A Bit of Background
Designer tasting rooms and signposted wine trails may be new in Slovenia, but winemaking isn’t. The Celts and Illyrians put down the first vines here as early as the 5th century BC, and the Romans picked up where they left off, tending vineyards from the foothills of the Julian Alps to the shores of the Adriatic. By the Middle Ages, Christian monasteries had inherited the tradition, their wares destined for consumption both ritual and recreational. But centuries of winemaking knowledge would be dashed in the decades following World War II, when Yugoslavia’s government-imposed collectivization prioritized quantity over quality. Nobody knows how many endemic grape varieties were wiped out in blind pursuit of bland bulk wine, but suffice to say, today’s winemakers are still bitter about it.
Slovenia’s separation from Yugoslavia in 1991 was the catalyst for epochal change in the wine industry. The new capitalist economy returned power to individual landowners, who went back to making proprietary wine as opposed to funneling it into a cooperative. Suddenly it was possible to produce, say, a single-vineyard merlot or a brežanka (white blend) that reflected its precise terroir, the sum of the soil, sunlight, and other environmental factors from which it came.
What followed was an unlearning process that sometimes pitted the new generation of winemakers against the old, but, lucky for us, the quality-driven school ultimately prevailed.
Getting Your Bearings
Slovenia is roughly the size of Ireland and takes about three hours to traverse from end to end. Hemmed in by Italy, Croatia, and the Adriatic Sea on one side and by Hungary and Austria on the other, the country is a feasible add-on to a trip to Venice (2 hours 40 minutes by car), Zagreb (1 hour 40 minutes), and even Vienna (3 hours 50 minutes). The landscape—ranging from Alpine to Mediterranean—varies widely, and because of that, so do the wines, which run the gamut from cool-climate riesling and pinot noir to ultra-ripe merlot and muscat.
There are three main wine regions: Podravje, in the northeast, a black-horse hotspot turning heads for its zippy whites; Posavje, in the southeast, which produces mainly ordinary, rustic reds and isn’t quite ready for its closeup; and Primorska, in the west, the heart of Slovenian wine country with prestigious vineyards peeking out between postcard-worthy hills.
Where to Taste
Note: Advance booking is required at all of the below wineries.
In Primorska, start in the subregion of Brda with two of the biggest names in the biz, Movia and Marjan Simčič, whose wineries are conveniently located directly across the street from each other. Their owners, Aleš Kristančič and Marjan Simčič, are childhood friends and—by dint of their determination and teamwork—are largely responsible for catapulting Slovenia onto the international wine scene in the mid-2000s. But that’s where the common ground ends. Movia’s wines—whose highlights include Veliko, a merlot blend from a 63-year-old vineyard, and Puro, a honey-hued pét-nat that requires tableside disgorging—have a seductively feral edge to them, as if they were designed to quell the wrath of some fiery pagan god.
Marjan Simčič, conversely, is all elegance, finesse, and Austrian-esque precision. One whiff of the nutty, multilayered Opoka Rebula, made with rebula grapes grown in crumbly opoka soil (which you’ll smell and break apart with your hands during the tasting), and you’ll be livid that this sleeper-hit varietal isn’t on the menu at your neighborhood wine bar.
Any extra time you have in Primorska should be devoted to the subregion of Vipava Valley. Burja, an up-and-coming natural winery, has a particularly exceptional zelen, a curious local white redolent of cantaloupe. When you’ve emptied your glass, have your designated driver plop you a few miles up the road at Guerila for some killer biodynamic barbera and amphora-matured rebula served with a side of architecture porn: With its sleek minimalism and mountain-top location, the multimillion-dollar winery wouldn’t be out of place on the cover of your favorite design magazine.
But there are plenty of vineyards to wander beyond Primorska, despite what the guidebooks may tell you, especially in Podravje. Riesling lovers will go weak in the knees for Frešer’s back-vintage bottles, which exude pineapple and mineral notes in addition to that grape’s telltale petrol funk. The whites at Kobal wine, a stone’s throw from the Croatian border, are even more bracing, thanks to the vines’ high altitude and marl soils.
Where to Stay
Meeting vintners on a whirlwind winery tour is one thing, but sitting down to a laid-back dinner with them as they whip out bottle after bottle from their secret stash? That’s primo bucket-list material for wine geeks. At Domačija Novak, a charming bed-and-breakfast 35 miles southeast of Ljubljana, you never know what famous winemaker is going to waltz through the door, since the inn’s owner, Boris Novak, is perhaps the best-connected wine professional in the country. He’s the cofounder of Slovenia’s Orange Wine Festival and has amassed a stupefying array of cult natural wines, which he uncorks with brio over dinners of grilled local venison, warm potato salad, aged bear salami (go ahead, read that again) by Biosing, and other seasonal delights.
A more practical home base for adventures in Primorska is Gredič, an upscale castle hotel with turret rooms, a well-stocked wine bar, and an outdoor pool fringed by fruit trees. Happily, it’s a five-minute walk from Movia and Marjan Simčič, so you can leave the car in park while you swirl and sip to your heart’s—er, liver’s—content.
If pin-drop silence and serenity appeals after a long day of winery-hopping, check out Theodosius Village, a secluded glamp-site in the woods with sweeping views of the Vipava Valley. Each box-like dwelling has heated floors and furnished balconies overlooking the vineyards; upgraded digs add in-room saunas and outdoor hot tubs.
Insider tip: Flying to Slovenia from the U.S. is often a non-starter. There are no direct flights, layovers are either too long or too short, and airfare is often obscenely high. For most of us, it makes far more sense to land in Venice, where—bonus perk—you can shake off the jet lag in one of the most beautiful places on earth before embarking on your wine-fueled adventure. Pamper yourself at Ca Maria Adele, a delightfully over-the-top 16th-century palazzo that welcomes guests with prosecco and serves breakfast till a cool 12pm. Included in the rate is a round-trip water taxi to the world-renowned Berengo Studio on the island of Murano, where you can watch the glassblowers at work and splurge on gleaming wine goblets that could double as museum pieces.
Where to Dine
Sue us: Slovenian pršut (that’s prosciutto in Slovenian) can be just as good as the finest di Parma stuff from across the border. Marica, a locavore restaurant in the quaint medieval town of Šmartno, Brda, proves this hypothesis with its melt-on-your-tongue slices carved from house-cured hams. The cheeses, olive oil, beef, liqueurs—they showcase the best flavors of this corner of Primorska.
When in Podravje, it’s worth taking the 20-minute jaunt off the main road to Gora Pod Lipo, a farmhouse-turned-restaurant in the village of Zgornja Ložnica (population: 320) with checkered tablecloths, carved wooden furniture, and a corner chimney with logs on the fire. The set menu hinges on whatever was ripe in the garden that morning, but you can always count on a textbook-perfect rendition of štruklji, wafer-thin pasta dough wrapped in a neat spiral around fresh cottage cheese.