We taste promising, modern wines in Slovenias oldest wine cellar

We taste promising, modern wines in Slovenia's oldest wine cellar
Barrel tasting in Slovenia’s oldest wine cellar, Ptujska Klet.

[This trip was taken in early May. It was organized by an importer for whom my husband is a consultant.]

The three of us wind through the streets of Ptuj in the car, past the hilltop castle, a monastery, and countless unknown wonders. We won’t see anything in Slovenia’s oldest town (mentioned by Tacitus in AD 69) except Slovenia’s oldest wine cellar, Ptujska Klet, which can be traced back to the year 1239. When we arrive, we are given first the tourist treatment, then the behind-the-scenes tour. As tourists, we walk through a cold cellar beneath the visitor center and tasting rooms, where there are rows of oval wooden barrels taller than I am, rich dark-chocolate wood trimmed in forest green, with picturesque scenes of winemaking carved (recently) on the barrel heads. We also see the famous wine archive, where wines dating back to 1917 are stored, recorked every twelve years. Tito drew wines from this archive, and anyone fairly young can still buy a wine from their birth year, back to at least the 1950s, in the shop next to the tasting rooms. There we spot a wine from my husband’s birth year–a welschriesling from 1959–for 600 euros. (Can it possibly still be drinkable?) I should state right now that Ptujska Klet’s wines are not yet available in the U.S.–the notes below are just a tease.

Hand-carved barrel.

In the tasting room, we are joined by Bojan Kobal, the enthusiastic and amiable thirty-year-old enologist, who takes us through the lineup. Ptujska Klet is clean and modern in its winemaking. The semi-cooperative operation buys from 140 growers. Importantly, it can afford to select the best fruit, all picked by hand and grown under a program of restricted chemical use prescribed by the winery. This is the Maribor region of Slovenia, where wine production is 80% white, of which some 50% is welschriesling. Our later walk through the working cellars, with numerous stops for barrel and tank samples, suggests much experimentation going on here; on the higher end (the Nobl line), the production is quite small, at 600 cases or so. Of the whites tasted upstairs, the most interesting are:

“Noblesse,” a rumeni muskat (yellow muscat) with a beautiful muscat nose, off-dry and fairly simple, but with a lingering perfume.

“Nobl” Cuvee 2005, of traminer, chardonnay, and sauvignon blanc–a tank sample with a long finish and a layer of sweet barrique oak that will mellow after bottling.

“Nobl” 2005 Traminer (last year’s Slovenian dry wine champion), an oily, almost-full body and honeyed mineral flavor, with slight lychee/floral notes–good character and depth. For this wine, half the grapes were raisined at picking, and the halves were fermented separately, then blended.

Red wines are only 15% or so of the winery’s production. We taste a few pale pinots and a couple of blaufrankisch, of which the 2004, with a red plum and rosehip nose and an earthy, black-pepper finish is most pleasant. We taste a more impressive sample in the cellar, though, from a barrel that will be bottled in ’09.

The archival wines in the dungeons of the cellar.

The tourist complex winds into the rest of the cellars, which extend beneath the city streets for blocks and bring us up beneath the winery a five-minute walk across town. We pass more giant oval barrels and barriques, plus an aisle of glass-lined concrete tanks, and row upon row of stainless steel tanks of various sizes, from which we taste another dozen samples, including a couple of pinot noirs with promise (more extract than those mentioned above), a sweet muscat and an excellent sweet German riesling. It’s cold down here–I can see my breath as we examine thousands of bottles cellared in square brick bins on the floor, all coated in thick black mold, even the fairly recent vintages of the 90s.

We return with out host, Marko, to his home in central Slovenia, for a homemade lunch of light chicken broth with short, straight noodles; green salad dressed in local pumpkin seed oil; veal in a bath of savory brown gravy, accompanied by sour cream and blackcurrant jam; and marvelous, billowing pillows of layered dumpling dough filled with a mild, ricotta-like cheese. Thus fortified, we depart by car for Istria.