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All Changes over the Last 20 Years Came from the West

ALL CHANGES OVER THE LAST 20 YEARS CAME FROM THE WEST

Matjaž Lemut
is the head of the Tilia Estate, which focuses on pinots, noir and gris, which led the Potoče cellar in the Vipava Valley to be known as the House of Pinots. He is considered to be one of the greatest experts among his wine-growing colleagues. He has been passing on his knowledge to students of the University of Nova Gorica, where he has been giving lectures about the basics of wine-growing technology. For more than 20 years he has also been giving lectures on oenography at seminars of the Sommelier Society of Slovenia,  primarily an introduction to wines of the wine-growing regions. With him, we discussed the characteristics of the Primorska wine-growing region, its development and the diversity of the four districts that compose it.

"The land of Primorska consists of more than a third of Slovenian wine-growing areas and represents more than a half of the market share. All the changes that happened in Slovenia over the last 20 years, came from the West, namely from the Primorska region. This happened in parallel with the development of Mediterranean cuisine," says Lemut.

Photo: Jure Makovec
How did Mediterranean cuisine influence the development of wine production?

This cuisine was directed somewhat more towards clean, fresh notes of varieties that the Primorska region started to introduce at that time. Changes in technologies and in the approach used, in addition to changes in gastronomy, caused Primorska to become the leading region at the beginning of the 1990s. On the other hand, the entrepreneurial approach, which started particularly in Vipava, the Karst and Goriška brda regions, led to the emergence of new brands. Although Styria had its own brands, such as Čurin and Kupljen, they were less directed at everyday wines. This identity has been preserved by Primorska until this day. To sum up, the identity of Primorje houses has been perfected both from the perspective of their offer and their communication.  

The Primorska wine-growing region has four districts, which in addition to having numerous shared features, differ from each other greatly. What are the most significant differences?

The main difference originates from its natural and sociological characteristics. If we start with climatic features, we know that the Mediterranean is present everywhere and that it highlights each  district in a particular way. Mountains play a significant role in this, for example, the Trnovo Forest Plateau in the Vipava region causes more precipitation, leading to greater differences between the highest and the lowest temperatures. In terms of climate, the most consistent wine-growing district is definitely the area of Slovenian Istria. There are no major weather fluctuations during the vegetation period as are present in Brda and the Vipava region. The fluctuation in Brda is larger moving towards Korada in the north and smaller if you go in the opposite direction, towards the sea. It is similar in the Vipava Valley. The further east you go from the west, the greater the climatic fluctuations, whereas the Karst has a rather homogenous climate similar to the one in Istria, yet somewhat based more on continental foundations.

What was the role of big wineries in the development of wine production in an individual district?

At the time of Slovenian independence four major wineries dominated, each in its own district. Each of them covered from 50 to 60 percent and in Brda even 80 percent of wine production. The Vipava winery was the strongest and kept its share for a very long time, even longer than others. Back then it was generally thought that plenty of wine must be produced. But this was no socialist trick, as many claim, this was a belief shared by the whole of Europe. In the 1980s everyone was satisfying the demand for large quantities. I therefore cannot agree with the premise that the major wineries were the cause of quality issues. Due to fragmentation into smaller wineries, the market share of big wineries decreased. The share decreased the least in Brda. Inhabitants of Brda also made the largest leap forward, which is most likely connected to their contact with Italy. Inhabitants of the Karst and Istria followed, and only after that inhabitants of Vipava, who were in last place in terms of entrepreneurship, because we did not have any strong private wine producers except for Radivoj Lisjak. Today, everything has been turned a somewhat upside down. Inhabitants of the Karst are exactly where they were, whereas inhabitants of Vipava have made the largest leap forward over the past few years.

You also mentioned the sociological aspect.

The sociological angle might be even more important, because it influenced how the wine-growing industry operated, and later on, how it communicated. Consequently, it affected the development of the area. If we consider land ownership, which is the most important sociological factor, it is clear that Vipava farmers were the first to become independent and free. Therefore, small wine-growing plots of land are typical of Vipava farmers, as well as their early joining together into agricultural co-operatives, which have been partially retained to this day. An average Vipava wine grower is therefore smaller than one from Brda who transferred his land from the former land ownership type as the colonus tenant farmer. Farmers from Brda therefore acquired their land only after 1945. The coastal region has its own story with optant ownership, therefore plots of land and wine-growing ares are large, as some managed to renew them after Slovenia’s independence. Land itself also has a very strong influence on building a brand. The technological part is clear. Each of the Primorje districts has its own offer, while the majority of the Primorska region is incredibly rich in local varieties.

What is the importance of native or local varieties for the identity of an individual district?

There are reasons behind why the majority of local varieties have remained local. This is not only true of Slovenia, but of all countries. The present-day technique and way thinking enable us to preserve and emphasise this biological history. And that these varieties can be brought onto the international scene. Native varieties are therefore a major biological advantage, since they have their own history and tradition and a heritage that can be used. But the question is whether it is sensible for everyone to present this heritage in their own way. I think it is necessary to come together and present the heritage in a united way that would make it clear for everyone. For now, the only thing that is clear is the fact that it exists.

What about other varieties? It seems that a consensus on which varieties give the best results in individual districts has still not been reached.

Winemakers are also searching for their identity through the various varieties. Currently, there is some confusion regarding this, particularly due to the many winegrowers and even winemakers that do not do this full time. The easiest way to build your identity is to bring in a new variety. But why would you plant syrah and other varieties if you have rebula? The same is true of the disease-resistant varieties. Therefore, there is some confusion, however, this is simply part of the organisational evolution. Of course, basic varieties are the most important for the recognition of districts, such as Refosco or Malvasia in Istria or Rebula in the Vipava region or in Brda. Also Merlot or Barbera in Vipava and Tocai or Sauvignonasse in Brda.

Evolution has been present also in the processes of production...

The evolution of technology has been relatively clear for the entire region. In the 1990s, with privatisation and farmers’ desire to identify with the final product, the course of evolution went from open wines (bulk wines) through fresh wines to wines matured in barrique barrels. Over the last ten years everyone has been searching for their own identity. All who are now producing orange wines used to sell bulk wine 20 years ago. Some winemakers created balance while others, particularly those whose wine production is their part-time craft job, went to the extremes. This is the situation in the entire region of Primorska. A true winemaker has a bit of everything to satisfy the needs of the market.

Primorje winegrowers are also leading in the process of re-directing towards ecological and biodynamic wine-growing.

This is also part of evolution. It is actually an interim phase. Winegrowers discovered that it is easier to get to the specific, key market if they focus on this type of production. It is one of the important options that makes it easier for a winegrower to gain recognition in the European market. In the next phase, buyers will want to personally see what has been certified and this is where wine tourism comes in. If you can additionally endorse the certificate on home ground, in the place where it actually grew, you have a success on your hands.

Wine tourism is on the rise. The Vipava Valley, for example, has been listed by Lonely Planet for two consecutive years as one of its recommended destinations...

Wine tourism is a double-edged sword. Essentially, it is welcome, of course, but a winegrower should not forget that this is merely a supplementary activity. It happens that winegrowers become lazy and only want to produce wine for the person that comes to their courtyard. And this is where they offer them a swimming pool, prosciutto and anything else you can think of. Wrong! Wines still need to be introduced around the world.
Interview was published at our new Wine Magazine, 2019. Journalist: Vanja Alič, Finance, O vinu

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