By bne IntelliNews April 14, 2011

Kester Eddy in Ljubljana -

Bojan Kobal bangs the table in his enthusiasm when talking about 2003, when he took over as chief winemaker at the Ptujski Cellar, north-east Slovenia. Dating back to 1239, it lays claim to being the country's oldest winery; but eight years ago, standards were no better than in the Yugoslav era.

"The farmers were used to bringing all sorts of grapes to the winery, whatever the vine plant growth. They had 3 [kilograms] and 5 kg [of grapes] per vine, and sometimes 20% botrytis [fungus] on there. From that you cannot make [high-quality] wine," he says.

Finding the Ptuj cellar largely awash with plonk fit for only the domestic market, Kobal and his small management team met the farmers and spelled out the choice: cut back the yields and produce better grapes, or sooner rather than later, join the dole queue. "We put [different] wines on the table, and said, 'okay, this is wine [made from grapes] with 1% botrytis, this is with 5%. This wine is made from grapes with [a yield of] 1.5 kg per vine, this is 5 kg per vine. Taste them. How long do you think you'll be able to work with grapes that make this kind of [low-quality] wine?'," he recalls.

Kobal then set about overseeing production from some 60 different grape growers across an area of 450 hectares, stretching from the Croatian border south of the river Drava to hills well north of Ptuj, cajoling, pleading and occasionally threatening them to raise standards. The winery, he insisted, would accept only first-class grapes with a maximum of 1% botrytis. "More than that, and they were second class, worth only half the price," he says.

Eight years on - aided by a hefty €2m investment into new cellar equipment (paid for by the owner, Perutnina Ptuj, the local poultry producer) - Kobal has achieved little short of a revolution. The Ptuj Cellar, now under the brand name Pullus, boasts scores of medals from competitions at home and abroad, and produces some 2m bottles of (predominantly white) quality wine, of which close to 10% is exported. After a tasting in New York in March, John Foy, a US wine consultant, wrote on "If you're looking for a novel wine experience that will impress your been-there-drank-that friends, pour a glass of Ptujska Klet Pullus Welschriesling 2009."

One bottle in a crate

Pullus is only one of a growing band of Slovene wineries that has gained international attention, and markets, since Slovenia's independence 20 years ago.

The popularity of London's Slovenian wines press and trade tasting, which takes place in early June, is an indication of the increasing interest in the Alpine country's viniculture - and in the rising self-confidence of the vintners themselves. Launched only last year, when it attracted 26 producers, this year's event had attracted 32 at the last count, Tina Coady of the organisers Hunt & Coady tells bne - though she cautions that in terms of the UK market, awareness of Slovene wines is still very limited.

The charge for high-quality and innovative wines was arguably led by wine makers from the Primorje region, south-west Slovenia, beginning in the mid-1990s. In particular, winemakers from the Goriska Brda sub-region (abutting the Italian Friuli border, near Nova Gorica) such as Marjan Simcic, Edi Simcic and Ales Kristancic have all won critical acclaim internationally - and sell a high proportion of their produce in Western Europe, the US and Japan. "I particularly like Marjan Simcic, a brilliant winemaker who pioneered lengthy maceration techniques [which allows the grape skins to soak in the pressed grape juice] for whites, making them capable of keeping several years," says Angela Muir, a UK wine consultant.

Further to the south, Ludvik Glavina of the Santomas Winery, near the Adriatic port of Koper, has worked his own revolution on the local refosco grape, which until recently was little known outside the region. "Mr Glavina is one of few Slovene winemakers who dared to use a foreign consultant. With this help, he has changed the way we look at the refosco grape, making it age-worthy and drinkable at last," says Robert Gorjak, a Ljubljana-based wine specialist.

The hard work has paid off - Santomas exports about 60% of its production of 80,000 plus bottles, chiefly to the US, Poland, Denmark and the UK. But the Primorje region benefits directly from Slovenia's strong domestic and international tourism sector, and many wines from the smaller, niche wine makers have become quite pricey. Starting later, and in the less-fashionable - and less-visited - north-east, Bojan Kobal faces a tougher task, forcing him to employ a strict pricing policy in order to ensure Pullus wines carve out a stable and reliable market for his much larger vineyard production.

As a result, Pullus' mainstream quality wines are priced to reach the domestic supermarket shelves at around the €5-6 per bottle, despite the high costs of working the steep slopes south of the Drava, which rule out the use of machinery in the vineyards.

He admits the tight pricing causes grumbles from the grape growers, but urges patience. "There are 22,000 winemakers in Slovenia - it's a very crowded market. I'm certain our Sauvignon Blanc can be compared to any [on the international market], but nobody built a regional name in two to three years. If you build a name for your region, then you can slowly raise your prices. And that is our plan," he says.

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