Slovenia’s eastern borderlands in winemaking renaissance

Slovenia’s eastern borderlands in winemaking renaissance
Wine of P&F Jeruzalem Ormoz.
By Kester Eddy in Ormoz - Slovenia May 13, 2016

On a fine, spring day, the vista from the Taverna – a hostelry in the hills near Ljutomer, northeastern Slovenia – is enchanting: tiny, sparkling hilltop chapels, surrounded by hamlets not a dozen dwellings strong, sit above a maze of carefully manicured vineyards and lush, verdant woodland. Away from the chatter of diners, save for the purr of the odd car and twitter of birds, there is little to disturb the bucolic silence.

Little wonder that crusader knights returning home this way from their bloody forays into Palestine in the 13th century, christened the highest peak in this region “Jeruzalem” after the focus of their quest.

Though still largely undiscovered outside its immediate environs, the products of the Jeruzalem-Ormoz wine region might well have been ‘savoured’, albeit largely unconsciously, by many in Western Europe in the not-too-distant past: certainly many Britons of a certain age will remember Lutomer Riesling, the bargain-basement Yugoslav plonk that lubricated student parties in the 1970-80s.

But Mitja Herga, chief executive and vintner at P&F Jeruzalem winery, is keen to erase any lingering association between that semi-sweet alcoholic juice of the communist era and the region’s produce of today. “It was an entry-level product,” he euphemistically tells bne IntelliNews at his office in Ormoz, the town on the southern edge of the Jeruzalem-Ormoz appellation. “It sold well… but the people of this region are not so proud of its quality.”

Herga, a local who has experience of vineyards in South Africa and New Zealand, has been striving for a renaissance in winemaking at Ormoz and Ljutomer – the very same wineries which once produced the party plonk – for seven years.

Crucially, he has the financial and emotional support of Vladimir Puklavec, a Slovene businessman whose grandfather founded the Ormoz winery in 1934, and who bought the two ailing wineries out of liquidation in 2009.

Since then, Herga, 35, has overseen a comprehensive renewal programme, including a new bottling hall and production lines, while one-third of the 640 hectares of vines owned or managed by the winery has been replanted with new stock.

As a result, P&F now vies with a rival in Brda (western Slovenia) as the country’s largest winery with an annual production of close to 6mn bottles, consisting mostly of international whites such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, but also including local varieties such as Sipon – the Slovene term for Furmint of Hungarian Tokaj fame. 

With the domestic market overflowing with local produce, P&F has invested heavily in marketing abroad – it has 18 staff in offices outside Slovenia – and, as a result, 55% of production is exported, compared to a mere 6% at privatisation.

While the bulk of sales are to the Netherlands (which takes almost 1m bottles), the UK, Croatia, Germany, Poland, China, the US and Brazil also provide important outlets, especially for higher-quality wines. Its wines have also been served on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Brussels Airlines and Virgin Atlantic.

Such a turnaround does not come without cost, however. “How the [company] situation was represented to the [Puklavec] family in 2009 was not quite fair. The situation in the cellar… and the vineyards... was really quite bad. They expected the company would get positive within five to six years, but honestly now, we see eight to ten years will be needed,” says Herga, who estimates the total investment so far at €35mn, with another €3mn-5mn for additional marketing.

True character

Yet at the other end of the spectrum – at least in financial terms – another offshoot of the former Ormoz winery is playing its part in the revival of the eastern Slovenia vineyards. Danilo Snajder, who was chief winemaker with the winery there until 2007, frustrated with management incompetence, he and two colleagues left to strike out on their own.

By pooling their own vines, and persuading relatives, friends and neighbours to accept their vineyard management, they had just 12 hectares of vineyard when they founded Verus Vineyard – so named because, as Snajder puts it: “Verus means truth, and we want to produce wine that shows truthful character of the special site here in Jeruzalem.”

Working from an anonymous, former bakery just one mile from their previous employer, Verus was, and remains, “always in crisis... I don’t know how we survived in the early days,” says Snajder.

Yet their very first vintage made headlines, when leading UK wine critic Jancis Robinson, chose their Sipon/Furmint as wine of the week in 2008 – a first for a Slovenian wine.

Today, Verus can sell “all we can produce” from its expanded 18 hectares under vine, with 70% of annual production – typically 75,000 bottles – exported to 20 countries, and its wines on menus at top restaurants in London and California.

Snajder modestly insists other winemakers, including P&F, Pullus in nearby Ptuj and Marof near Murska Sobota, are all helping to put all of north-east Slovenia onto the global wine map. “This entire region has great potential in terms of varietal expression,” he says.

Snajder, of course, is hardly a disinterested observer, but Caroline Gilby, a UK wine consultant, concurs. “This area of Slovenia does make some world-class whites, I’m thinking of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. There are some really good producers of these in a style that is very well understood globally, all very aromatic, fresh, crisp and vibrant,” says Ms Gilby, “This is definitely a region worth watching.”