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Published:  23 July, 2008

If Slovenia means anything to UK wine drinkers, it means Lutomer Laski Rizling. But as the former Yugoslav republic prepares to join the EU, that could be about to change. David Williams reports from a small country with big plans

In a scene from an early episode of Only Fools and Horses, Del Boy is looking to impress a berd' in a Peckham nightclub. Look love, you could come back to mine,' begins the typically quixotic Trotter seduction. I've got 25 crates of Slovenian Ryesling [sic] in the garage. We'll have a party, just you and me, my cherie.' Not surprisingly, the object of Del Boy's desire declines his overtures. A job-lot of cheap medium-sweet white wine from an obscure European country doesn't have much appeal, she says, certainly not enough to cancel out the camel hair coat and franglais of her potential host. Of course, in the last decade, job-lots of medium-sweet white wine from Slovenia haven't had much attraction for anyone. Lutomer Laski Rizling, the leading name of that genre of wine, used to be the UK's leading white wine brand. Nowadays, as Graham Belgrove, director of The Drinks Group, the brand's UK distributor, confirms, Lutomer, and its sweeter relation, Tiger Milk, are struggling. Lutomer is one of those brands that you look back on with affection, a starter brand, like Hirondelle or Mateus, that got a lot of people into wine. But sales of both Lutomer and Tiger Milk have receded to a fairly small share of the market,' Belgrove says. They no longer have national distribution, and they are confined to regional independents.' Fortunately for the Slovenians, the country's wine scene isn't synonymous with Lutomer, or even medium-sweet white wine. Far from it. Slovenia's 400 growers produce between 800,000 and 980,000 hectolitres a year from 24,500 hectares of vineyard in the three regions of Podravje, Posavje and Primorje. What's more, they do it in a number of styles: from Collio-style whites in the west, to Austrian-style late-harvest stickies in the northeast, and full-bodied reds grown on the terra rossa' of Koper in the southwest, near Croatia. The problem is that knowledge of this diversity has not spread far beyond the country's two million inhabitants, and exports stand at just 10% of annual production. According to Iztok Jarc, Slovenia's minister of agriculture, forestry and food, it's a situation for which the Slovenians have only themselves to blame. People just don't know where or what Slovenia is, let alone what kind of wine we produce,' says Jarc. That's because the wine industry has been rather closed and self-satisfied. We haven't needed to look for exports, because we have been able to sell all our wine on the domestic market for good prices.' Jarc thinks the days of this cosy, insular approach are numbered, however. Indeed, he says, they have to be. At the beginning of next year Slovenia will be one of ten new countries to join the EU, in the first wave of its eastward expansion. Admission will force a number of changes on Slovenian wine growers, not least of them the adoption of the EU's exhaustive list of rules and regulations regarding viti- and vinicultural practice, quality control and traceability. More importantly, it will also open up a domestic market currently dominated by home-grown wines to competition from the rest of Europe. The positive thing [about joining the EU] is that we will have much better access to markets in the rest of the EU,' says Jarc, who is responsible for negotiating the agricultural small print of Slovenia's entry. But, he adds, Slovenians will try other wines, and it certainly won't be easy for our wine industry to compete.'

Plugging the gap The industry in general is working under the assumption that 20-30% of their domestic market will be lost to imports in the next two to three years, and that they will have to fill this shortfall with exports of their own. Many in Slovenia, including influential wine writer (and ex-member of Slovenia's leading Eighties rock band) Tomaz Srsen, think that the only way forward is to concentrate on the niche market: We have to focus on our boutique wineries, who make individual wines; wines that could only come from Slovenia, and which really are as good as wines from anywhere else in the world.' Though around 70% of Slovenian wine is produced by the top 14 companies, Slovenia nonetheless has a head start on other former communist countries, such as Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, in the boutique stakes, with a number of producers fitting Srsen's bill. According to Srsen, this is the result of what he calls the soft socialism' of the Yugoslav era, which permitted private ownership (euphemistically termed self-management') of wineries. During the 80s and 90s a lot of these guys travelled abroad to learn about oenology, and the kind of wines they were making really took off in Slovenia,' he says. Leading the way are growers in the Goriska Brda sub-region of Primorje, near Italy, who are increasingly dominating the wine lists of Slovenia's top restaurants and have picked up more medals and awards at international competitions and exhibitions than producers from any other sub-region in Slovenia. Not surprisingly, given that the region lies right next to Slovenia's border with Collio in northeastern Italy (in some cases the border actually dissects the vineyards), the predominant style is dry white, with producers making single-varietal wines from Rebula (Ribolla Gialla), Tokaj (Tocai Friulano), Beli Pinot (Pinot Blanc), Sivi Pinot (Pinot Gris), Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, and combining them in flagship' white blends. Possibly the most successful of the Brda bunch, in terms of an international reputation and sales, is the Movia winery, in Medana. Ales Kristancic, the young winemaker who runs the property on biodynamic principles, echoes Srsen's sentiments about the future of Slovenian wine. There's going to be two groups. The first will be what you might call "common wines", made for the supermarkets and prepared in unnatural, or industrial conditions,' Kristancic says. These wines could come from anywhere, and there is no reason for buyers to choose Slovenian versions. The second group of wines are those made by artisans, and, in terms of Slovenia, this is the group that will have a bigger chance of selling their wines abroad. These are smaller winemakers, so they won't be able to sell to the supermarkets, maybe, but they will be able to make it into top restaurants and wine shops.' Kristancic has already had some success in finding listings abroad (including a spot on the list at Alain Ducasse's eponymous New York outpost), as have other artisanal' growers such as Marjan Simcic, Edi Simcic and Scurek from Brda; Cotar from Kras (using red varieties); and Joannes from Maribor in Podravje (to mention a few). They remain a hard sell, however, as Patrick Sandeman, who used to stock Movia wines at Lea & Sandeman, can confirm. We've had some very good wines from Slovenia, but God knows how you sell them, even in bin end sales, or whatever,' he says. It seems extraordinary that you can sell a wine from Collio, but as soon as it's from Slovenia, which is, you know, 100 metres away, you can't do it.' Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that at Ducasse's restaurant, Kristancic sells his wine with the word Collio prominent on the label (something which he will be unable to do once the country becomes part of the EU).

Bigger getting better It would be nice to think, as Srsen and his boutique buddies do, that Slovenia's impressively quirky, handmade wines could do the job of raising the country's wine exports single-handedly. But the reality of life in the EU wine fast lane is somewhat harsher, and the bigger companies, the former co-operatives, have also had to think hard about the future. In doing so, many have turned to the services of winemaking consultants and flying winemakers, specifically Angela Muir MW and her team at Cellar World, to help them in the process. One of these is the largest producer in Slovenia, Vinska Klet Goriska Brda, which is responsible for producing 8-12 million litres of wine each year, 75% of it white. The company's winemaker, Darinko Ribolica, says that the idea of the Cellar World collaboration is to make styles that are popular in the UK, wines which have a specific flavour profile and packaging for the UK market'. This has resulted in the Quercus brand of single-varietals, each of which is produced in what Ribolica calls a modern' style, with the majority of the blend made using cold fermentation in stainless steel, and the rest (between 20 and 30%) fermented in oak. The partnership with Cellar World was not without its strains, however, with differences in winemaking opinion never far away. I feel that too cold a fermentation is too much of a risk, because you don't get all the flavour compounds out of the grapes,' says Ribolica. So, when they suggested 12 to 14C for the fermentation, I had to put my foot down. We ended up fermenting at 16C.' Perhaps this is why another of the big boys, Vinag Maribor, which has 300ha of vines in Maribor, Podravje, decided to spurn the advances of Cellar World. When asked why, the company's chief winemaker, Milivoj Trstenjak, says his company simply didn't think the time was right for us to use an international consultant'. But you suspect that there is a touch of Slovenian diplomacy here, particularly when you hear him talk, with some passion, about running his huge cellar under the city of Maribor to some degree on traditional principles, and using Slavonian oak a classical style, wherever possible.' Whatever the size of the company or the style of winemaking, however, the Slovenians are ready to prove that they now have much more to offer than Lutomer. They even have a government-funded UK generic office now, and last year saw 15 of the country's best producers descend on London for the first-ever Slovenian generic tasting. The wines on show might not have been the kind to appeal to Del Boy, but consumers might well find that they are pretty lovely jubbly' all the same.