Jean-Michel Morel, proprietor and wine maker at Kabaj.
“Taste it with your eyes closed,” says Jean Michel Morel as I swirl his Amfora 2006 in my glass.
We are at the Kabaj tasting for trade and press, held Thursday at the restaurant Terroir in Tribeca, NYC. Jean Michel and Kabaj’s sales manager, Tomo Ceh, were there to pour eight wines made in the hills of Goriska Brda hard against Slovenia’s border with Italy.
I closed my eyes and tasted the light amber wine in my glass. The aroma was rich, of honey and sweet pollen. The wine was smooth, with ample body and a lactic topnote, like the smell of a great cheese shop, as well as a noticeable oxidation which, with the healthy acidity and slight tannin of the wine, gave its body rigor. Beneath was an elusive floral quality and light smoke. If I hadn’t known this wine was white, with my eyes closed I might have assumed it was a red with a little age on it—and that was Jean Michel’s point.
The truth about Amfora.
“It’s red wine—only the color is white,” he says. The 2006 is the middle vintage of three white blends he is pouring that are made in Georgian clay amphoras buried in the ground following a 7,000-year-old method. Amfora is made from the indigenous Rebula (Ribolla Gialla), Sauvignonasse (Tocai Friulano), and Malvasia Istriana. The maceration and fermentation of these whites is ten months long, extracting tannins, deep color, and the flavors of wild yeast while intensifying further through the loss of 20% of the wine through evaporation.
Kabaj’s non-amphora wines are also intense. Winemaking in this area of western Slovenia is characterized by long maceration for concentration and structure. Many who taste the wines may recognize the grapes from their knowledge of the Italian wines of Collio, but most don’t realize that Collio and Brda are the same place. Both words mean “hills,” and the vineyards cross borders without regard for nationality. (30% of Kabaj’s Sauvignonasse grapes grow in Italy.)
Tasting at Terroir Tribeca.
Kabaj’s wines are Old World in style, with the still-tart acidity made for food, and the structure for aging. Tomo pours the 2007 Merlot and I ask when he would drink this herbaceous, smoky, slightly tannic red. His answer: “From 2013 to 2020”. It is easy to imagine the Cuvee Morel 2006 (60% Merlot, 18% each of Cabs Franc and Sauvignon, 4% Petit Verdot), a beautifully complex wine that tantalizes the senses with aromas of herbs, flowers and grasses, developing nuance upon nuance well into the twenty-teens.
After the tasting, Stetson and I chat about what makes these wines stand apart. It is Brda and its winemaking traditions, the terroir of soil/fruit/yeast that the wines express, and Jean Michel’s careful guardianship in the winery. These are not “minimalist” wines, which can sometimes seem dirty and experimental, but they do possess a quality that I loosely call funky. Funky is a very good thing—it means I can taste the land, the fermentation process, a bit of oxidation maybe. The wines taste earthy more than fruity, and they have integrity.
“Elegantly funky,” says Stetson. Perfectly stated.
Jean-Michel and Tomo are flying now to California where they will be hosting a number of wine dinners and tasting events in Los Angeles and San Francisco starting Sunday, May 15 with a tasting at Silverlake Wine at 3pm. We hope to see many of you there.
You can read the full schedule of the Kabaj events on the new community site Slovenes in USA.
Text by Katherine Camargo, DWS