On Tuesday evening the 8th of march, my friend Tomaz Srsen came to fetch me at Ljubljana airport, this was the beginning of a very tasty evening. Back in the ‘80s Tomaz used to be the bassist of Slovenia’s top rock group, today he is a wine and food critic but still looks like a bassist… he also write a guide of Slovenia’s top 110 restaurants; 110 in a country of 2 million people? It strikes me that this is the equivalent of citing the 3000 best restaurants in France. This evening we are going to one of the best, the Gostilna pri Danilu at Škofja Loka, a few kilometres outside Ljubljana.
I had met the Carman family (Vesna and Dušan, and their son Gašper) two years ago, when Tomaz had organised a Slovenian dinner in London with Wendy Fogarty of Slow Food UK, the Carmans did the cooking and two winemakers presented some top Slovenian wines.
This place redefines hospitality, after winding through a snowy landscape one enters the warmth of this friendly inn, with its honest cuisine, rooted in tradition yet innovative, the son Gašper takes care of matching every dish with a different wine. Yet this is just an inn! There are few star restaurants in France this ambitious.
The level of Slovenian wines is impressive, in these fresh terroirs at the foothills of the Alps one finds deep complex fresh natural wines, made by subtle winemakers with a light touch. The whites are most remarkable, benefiting from a range of top quality local grape varieties. They are similar to the wines of Friuli (the only serious region for whites in Italy) but not over-oaked or overworked technologically as so many of today’s Italian wines. It is evident that Slovene winemakers are in close contact with the “revolutionaries” from Friuli, one finds in these wines the philosophy of their Italian genius neighbours Stanko Radikon and Josko Gravner (or is it the Slovenes who are influencing the Friulani?).
In this beautiful country just separated out of Yugoslavia and having already almost caught up with the European standard of living, the national anthem is a traditional wine-drinking song. Slovenia has definitely found a place among the nations of good wine.
For starters we had a Bjana sparkler, a méthode classique from pinot noir I believe, wines made from a 3 ha property with low yield vines from the fresh climate of Brda, with superb acidity and discrete fine bubbles with lots of elegance.
To accompany a plate of thin slices of ox tongue on a bed of cabbage, we were served a Rebula 2003 by Valter Sirk, also from the Goriška Brda appellation area. Rebula is called Ribolla across the border in Italy (and it may be the same as Robola in Greece). This grape produces wines with a fruity concentration that enhance the sweet-sour taste of this delicate cabbage, adding a citrusy note.
The discussion veers towards grape varietal issues, and on the situation of the Tokaj grape name (Tocai in Friuli), since the law is forcing the elimination by 2007 of the name Tokaj in Friuli and Alsace in order to protect the hungarian wine “Tokaji”. I had heard the new name was going to be “Friulano”, but Gašper now shows us the provocative solution envisaged by Radikon, who named his 2002 “Jacot” (Tokaj spelt backwards). Our next wine is a Tokaj 2002 by the excellent Edi Simčič. I had met Alex Simčič in London, that evening he introduced himself by saying that he believes that a winemaker should linit his role to accompanying nature, to making sure that all goes well in the vines and in the cellar, because it would be a shame to spoil the product of a good terroir by intervening with a heavy hand. His wine is proof of the soundness of this philosophy, the Tokaj is intense, with evident perfume of roses and lychees, superbly balanced and very fine. It does a great job with a barley soup served in a bowl bade of bread, you can eat the howl thing, with its fine spices (bacon, cloves, carrots). This place makes its own bread, in fact several varieties, including a traditional bread made from flour and potatoes, something that used to be made once a week and that kept fresh for days.
I was just sitting hoping that we would taste something from my other favourite Slovene winemaker, Valter Mlečnik, and sure enough a Rebula 2001 is served to accompany trout served on a bed of Swiss chard. Slovenia is truly paradise for white wine lovers. This spicy fruty Tokaj lets the delicate taste of the trout come through unspoilt, and somehow seems to match the sweet Swiss chard leaves. And yet these wines are all under 14€… Tomaz reminds me that the wine areas are only an hour’s drive from Venice; so that’s it, I am determined to make the trip in a few weeks and fill the trunk of my car.
A change of colour, a red Bordeaux-inspired Duet of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot by Edi Simčič is decanted in order to prepare it for beef filet accompanied by a purée of leeks and potatoes and a slice of štruklji, a roll of fine dough with ewe’s cheese. The Duet is finely and reasonably oaked, complex, very elegant, it costs 18€ and it is better than many super-tuscans that cost 10 times as much, it is airy and has none of the excess oak, delicious.
For dessert, a trio with a slice of chocolat cake with a mysterious spice that Vesna describes as “shaped like a banana but thin and black, grows on tress”… then a walnut parfait, and a sweet štruklji (is this a distant relative of strudel ?). All this accompanied by a sweet wine made from air-dried Malvazija grapes, a Kras 1998 by Renčel.
From my first six hours in Slovenia, I can only conclude that this is a country that knows about taste and hospitality. Thanks you Tomaz, Vesna, Dušan and Gašper.