Last post from Slovenia – written after returning. Thanks for following.
“How do they harvest the grapes that are planted straight down those steep mountains?” The wine cellar guide in Ptuj (pronounced Pit-tooey) looked at me like I had tasted one too many of their lovely wines. “Well they just climb down and pick them.”
The day before on a loop ride out of Ptuj along the Drava River and into the Haloze wine region on the Croatian border, we had found ourselves at the top of some of these mountains with vineyards planted straight down the steep slopes. I had stood at the top and looked down those almost vertical lines of grapes, so steep that I had held on to a grapevine with one hand and leaned out as far as I could, only to see the grape-laden vines disappear immediately from sight as they plummeted down the steep slope.
As I stood hanging on at the top, I assumed the only way to pick the grapes was to anchor at the top with a rope and harness and essentially belay down. So I asked the question again assuming she had not understood. And she just laughed, “Oh no. They just climb down and pick them. They are used to it. There is a saying in Slovenia – Even the goats have sticks.”
This was the end of a very interesting morning tour of the central wine cellar in the small medieval town of Ptuj in the northeast corner of Slovenia. Wine has been produced here since the Romans, and consistently in the town for over 700 years when the local royalty chartered a monastery and charged them with wine-making.
Since then the area has produced wine consistently, and is particularly known for its incredible white wines.
We were touring the old Ptuj wine cellar, a dank, cobweb laced musty smelling maze of tunnels that once were connected under the entire city connecting the private cellars of the well-to-do of Ptuj. This wine is famous for its wine archive – including a few precious bottles of a 1917 Riesling that will celebrate its 100 birthday next year with much hoopla. A 1927 vintage is for sale for something like 40000 Euros, if you’d like a bottle for your collection.
The wines are regularly rotated and re-corked and lucky cellar employees have the task of tasting the aged wines to make sure they are still good in the bottle. The only missing vintages are from the war years, but the cellar has vintages from every year since 1946. During World War II they saved their archived wines from soldiers who used the cellar as a bomb shelter by placing huge casks of wine in front of the doors, hiding the entrances. The soldiers happily drank the casks, drunkenly oblivious to the priceless archive hidden safely behind the barrels.
Now the original cellar is owned by a company based in Slovenia that is known as being one of the European Union’s largest producer of … Chickens. Yep. Chickens. When the company bought the cellar they brought in outside experts from wine regions around the world and revamped the wine to make it conform to modern palettes – specifically by making more single source, dry wines. And they do it very well. Their wines have won awards and the Sauvignon Blancs (which taste like New Zealand Sauvignons … probably because they brought in a winemaker from New Zealand to teach them). Rieslings and Chardonnays and other whites are among some of the better whites I’ve ever tasted.
The cellar corporate make-over included -re-branding the wine to be named “Pullus” which is derived from Latin and is a technical term for a young chicken. Every bottle has a chicken recipe printed on the label because, as our guide explained, “In Slovenia there is a problem with alcoholism. In many rural places even the children grew up drinking wine because it was what was available. So we are trying to promote the idea the wine is for food.”
Then, without flinching, she pulls out a bottle for us to taste – a rose´. She explains, “This wine is marketed differently. This is more for the young people and the clubs.” And she pours us a taste of “PinkyChick”, a rose´ that keeps the chicken theme sans the recipe but features a young woman’s pink hotpant-clad butt prominently on label. PinkyChick tastes only one or two notches better than the Boone’s Farm Tickle Pink that used to be our wine of preference as teenagers.
We also learned that Pullus is distributed in the United States by a New Jersey based distributor who comes to the cellar once a year, tastes the wine, and then instructs the cellar on how to change it to fit American palettes. Apparently, Americans like wine that is a darker color and more intensely flavored. And the cellar will make the wine to the distributor’s specifications and export it under their label.
All of this information about wine marketing and production was enlightening, and a very different wine education than I expected. I wonder how many winemakers around the world willingly compromise the integrity of their wine to please the export market. I suspect that most international wines distributed in the US may be compromised in this way. Wine is considered nothing less than art and history and a source of national pride for many countries and regions around the world and here at home. Yet clearly, buying a bottle of Italian or Slovenian or French or South African wine is no guarantee that you are buying any of the tradition or taste of the country or region where it’s sourced.
So, if you would like to try some delicious Slovenian wine, I can only suggest you do it in Slovenia. But then you should go to Slovenia anyway – and for more than just the wine. And maybe take a lesson from the Slovenians … keep and drink the local wines from the local winemakers you know … who make their wines with care and love. And support the local winemakers you like … so we can keep the good stuff here at home.