Wine-tasting on a Vespa

I am delighted to publish Wineloon's first ever Guest Contributor, my good friend and fellow wino, Adam Hylan.

I'll leave it to Adam to explain why...

Occasionally when somebody makes you an offer that sounds too good to be true, it really is true.

I’ve only previously appeared on this website as a hater of natural wines and lover of ethereal burgundies (see Noble Rot Wine Bar, London – Second Visit). However, as well as opening bottles for Simon Reilly, I’m also a wine geek in my own right who’s studying part time for my diploma at the Wine and Spirits Wine Education Trust (“WSET”).

One morning, Simon rang me as I fought my way out of the building site that is London Bridge station and offered me the chance to go on a five-day, expenses-paid wine journalists’ tasting trip of Slovenia and North-East Italy. And he wasn’t kidding.

Simon couldn’t make it, he explained, but even though I wasn’t a highly respected journalist with my own wine blog, I could just about take his place and put my WSET diploma skills to some practical use. Roll forward a few weeks and one Sunday in early November I found myself on an easyJet plane to Venice desperately swotting up on the wines of Slovenia and the Collio region of North-East Italy.

Collio – the name seemed sort of familiar but for some reason the shelves of UK wine shops aren’t exactly groaning with bottles from this region. Slovenia – I’d once been on a one-day

business trip to the capital, Ljubljana, but never seen any Slovenian wine.

And why would anybody plan a wine trip that covered two countries?

It turns out the border between Slovenia and Italy is a relatively recent (1947) and arbitrary division which pays no attention to the boundaries of historic wine growing areas. As a result, we were to spend Monday to Thursday criss-crossing the border, visiting vineyards and winemakers in Goriska Brda (Slovenian Collio), Colli Orientali, Collio itself, Friuli Isonzo (all in Italy) and the Vipava Valley (back in Slovenia).

If you’re brave enough, you too can do this on the back of a Vespa hired from local tourist offices in both Italy and Slovenia. What could possibly go wrong?

Proceedings kick off on the Sunday night with a light dinner and tasting at Brda winemaker, Iaquin. We taste a broad range of their wines, I have time to make extensive notes on all of them, the conversation is good and the food is great. I particularly enjoy their sparkling blanc de blancs and their malvasia. This is a fantastic alternative to work, I think, and begin to contemplate a second career as a wine writer.

Roll forward to 10am on Monday morning and I’m sat in the wine cellars of Dobrovo castle with about thirty wine glasses in front of me. The wines come fast and furious. I decide it would be a good idea to spit and to reduce the WSET’s 22-point systematic approach to tasting wine down to some basic observations and an overall impression (cross for poor, one, two or three ticks for good).

These tastings are repeated two to three times a day for four days. By the end, I’m craving something completely different to drink – a German riesling or even a pint of Harvey’s Sussex Best. I’m not expecting any sympathy but it turns out that winetasting is a real job and can be quite hard work....

Self-pity aside, what did I learn from my trip?

First, authenticity is just as fashionable with winemakers as it is with East London hipsters. Collio/Brda winemakers proudly display samples of their local soil (flysch or ponca - a light-coloured calcareous marl, apparently). They enthuse about their grandparents winemaking techniques. They emphasise their historic grape varieties – malvasia, ribolla gialla (rebula in Slovenia), friulano (also known as sauvignon vert and sauvignonasse), refosco, schioppettino, pignolo and picolit.

That’s a lot of grapes you don’t see much or at all elsewhere. It’s difficult to pick highlights from amongst such a variety of unfamiliar grape varieties but I enjoyed the refreshing red wines made from schioppettino with raspberry fruit and peppery notes, especially those made by Vigna Petrussa.

Fashion seems to have swung decisively against the international varieties (chardonnay, merlot and cabernet sauvignon) that were planted here in the 1980s and 1990. I’m all in favour of authenticity but I learn that you shouldn’t turn your nose up at the best wines made from international varieties.I particularly enjoyed Sutor’s chardonnay and merlot/cabernet sauvignon wines from the Vipava Valley.

Likewise with blending – to my mind, the most enjoyable wine made entirely from local grapes was Edi Keber’s Collio Bianco 2015 which blends friulano, ribolla gialla and malvasia – the ribolla gialla brings acidity, the friulano structure and bitterness and the malvaisa a hint of smokiness. Also, Borgo del Tiglio’s Studio di Bianco combines friulano, low in acidity, with sauvignon blanc and riesling to produce an elegant and complex wine.

Secondly, the region is a hotbed of innovation and experimentation.

I used to subscribe to the “all natural wine tastes like cider” view of the world but this trip opened my eyes to orange wines – “white” wines made with extended skin contact (to show I’ve learnt something from WSET, the antioxidant properties from the tannins in the skins mean these wines can be made with little or no added SO2).

The tannins made for some challenging wines but highlights for me were Scurek’s Kontra 2009, a blend of rebula and chardonnay (I’m reassured to see in my notes that the winemaker described it as “a natural wine for people who hate natural wine”) and Paraschos’s Friulano 2011.

Thirdly, you can spend as much time as you like in the classroom but you’ll understand things better if you spend some time rooting round cellars with winemakers listening to their experiences. The friendliness and dedication of all the winemakers I met was really inspiring and, after 10 weeks of Thursday nights studying the finer points of viticulture and vinification, I returned to my WSET studies with renewed enthusiasm.

Fourthly, there is such a thing as characterful pinot grigio. Look for wines which are a little pink from skin contact or go straight to Marjan Simcic’s pinot grigio distributed in the UK by Bancroft Wines.

Finally and sadly, when I got home and started checking out UK wine merchants’ websites, I discovered that so few of these wines are available in the UK.

I’m not sure why this is. Maybe demand from the local market plus Germany and Austria means there’s little left over for us. Possibly, all those local grape varieties means Collio/Brda lacks a signature grape to boost its profile in overseas markets.

There was certainly nothing wrong with the quality of the wines we tasted. Standards were consistently high.

My solution: next time I fancy a trip to Venice, I’ll add on a few days in Collio/Brda. It’s only a couple of hours’ drive outside Venice and I’ll enjoy a beautiful landscape, fascinating history and great food to go with my wine. I particularly enjoyed meals at the Elliot Hotel in Manzano, La Subida outside Cormons and, perhaps best of all, Majerija a restaurant in a 300 year old farmhouse surrounded by vineyards in the delightfully named village of Slap in the Vipava valley, Slovenia.

I think I’ll stay off the Vespas though...

And finally, here's some vineyard porn from Slovenia to finish on: