Wine without frontiers
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Most wine regions bask in the sunlight of settled identity. The loyalty of Bordeaux to the English crown ended more than half a millennium ago, at the battle of Castillon in 1453; Burgundy has been French since 1678 but was Burgundian for a thousand years prior to that. The biggest challenge to identity in the modern wine world tends to come from counterfeiters rather than insurgents.
Of course, wine regions can, from time to time, change their political allegiances – or have change imposed upon them. One of Europe’s starkest examples is found along Italy’s border with Slovenia, where Italy’s Collio and Colli Orientali regions enfold Slovenia’s Brda like a socket clasping a ball.
The meandering border through this rumpled hill country was the immediate result of the Paris Peace Treaties signed in February 1947, imposed by the Allied powers on a region in bitter internal turmoil since the dissolution of Austria-Hungary 28 years earlier. It was reputedly drawn up in great haste, and instituted in just 24 hours on September 16. The border was then closed for seven years. It divided families and their landholdings. It split cemeteries and even individual houses.
The wound began to heal with Slovenian accession to the European Union in 2004; Slovenia’s entry to the Schengen area in March 2008 has made cross-border farming much easier. A number of growers in Collio and Brda have subsequently made wine blended from fruit harvested on both sides of the border to celebrate, the best-known being Silvio Jermann’s Vecchia Contea. Indeed many would love to do so regularly, unifying Collio and Brda under a single cross-border wine appellation. “That’s my dream,” says Stefano Bensa of La Castellada in the Italian Oslavia, though he says there is little political will on either side to bring this about. “We hated this border,” confirms Aleš Kristančič of Movia, who lives in Slovenia at Dobrovo though almost half his vineyards lie in Italy. He then taps his head. “This is the place the border has to disappear first.”
The most ancient and most provocatively rewarding of Collio’s and Brda’s wines are the golden whites based on the Ribolla Gialla (or, in Slovenian, Rebula) variety: they can smell of cheese, fungus, straw or honey, and they seem to taste flat and torpid at first. Out of this monumental and thick-textured uncrispness, though, comes a set of compelling aromas and flavours, and great gastronomic aptitude. “To me,” says Kristančič’s near-neighbour Marjan Simčič, “this is the pure juice of our soil. The variety itself is neutral but the wines have the smell of the soil after rain, when the sun comes out again and the rain evaporates.” The distinctive soil Simčič is thinking of is called opoka in Slovenian and ponca in Italian, derived from the mixture of shale and sandstone known as flysch, and common to both Collio and Brda.
Two other no less distinctive white grape varieties found here are Malvasia, another layered, uncrisp and almondy white ransacked from the old Habsburg store cupboard; and the variety today known as Friulano. This is the same as Chile’s Sauvignonasse – a woodland-fresh white which can achieve a nobility here it manages nowhere else. A Collio grower called Kristian Keber (working with his father Edi Keber) blends all three varieties for his haunting, nutty Vino del Territorio. Slovenians, by the way, often use the name Jakot for Friulano; it’s “Tokaj” backwards – because Tokaj or Tocai Friulano was the traditional local name for the variety, now abandoned in deference to Hungarian sensibilities.
You’ll also find Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Pinot Grigio (Sivi Pinot in Slovenian) hereabouts, and you might casually assume that these are modern, international interlopers. Not at all. They arrived with Napoleonic armies at the beginning of the 19th century as part of the “eight years of enlightenment” associated with the 1805-1814 Kingdom of Italy, and qualify as indigenous now. Chardonnay and Pinot Gris here can have substance, depth, weight, vinosity and drive, and reward experimental purchase; Sauvignon Blanc is inoffensive, better than that if blended; Merlot, by contrast, rarely achieves the depth which lovers of St Emilion or Pomerol might hope for, and is often over-oaked.
The region also specialises in a set of boundary-pushing experimental orange wines (wines made with white grapes fermented with their skins) and amphora-fermented wines, of which Josko Gravner’s dark, unshowy, meditative golden whites are the best-known examples. A series of six growers in Collio’s easternmost zone of Gorizia specialise in giving Ribolla, Malvasia and other varieties varying styles and lengths of skin contact, visually cued by a spectrum of colours from deep gold to russet-amber. The savoury scent and flavour known as umami is already part of Ribolla’s sensorial repertoire but vinifying it with prolonged skin contact seems to intensify that resonance, as well as lending the wine extra textural wealth; the drawback is that low or zero sulphur levels can leave such wines smelling cidery and oxidised.
Would all of these experiments, many of which are concerned with a journey back to a distant winemaking past and a search for some kind of lost historical serenity, have happened if Collio and Brda lay elsewhere, in a place of untroubled identity? Several growers (especially those with Slovenian names living in Italy but including those on the Slovenian side, too) confessed that the alienation and struggle inherent in their past had left them with a hunger to call into question all divisions and boundaries, including those which customarily separate wine varieties and styles. The result, today, is a unique transnational wine scene of rewarding intricacy – and a pretty set of hills which can, at last, be freely crossed.
Andrew Jefford’s blog ‘Jefford on Monday’ appears each week on decanter.com