Goriška Brda is home to many of Slovenia’s most independently minded producers. Combining ancient technique, with modern know how, Kabaj is among the best.
The people Generations of Kabaj (Ka-bye) tended vineyards in Goriška Brda, but the family had never bottled wine commercially. In the late 80’s Katja Kabaj met French-enologist, Jean-Michel Morel, while he was working at an Italian estate, eventually they married and settled in Katja’s family village of Šlovrenc, to raise their family. In 1993, the first vintage of Kabaj was released. In addition to vineyards and winery, the estate includes charming bed and breakfast accommodations, and a simple restaurant serving home made local fare with a French touch. Today, 3 proud generations of Kabaj maintain this genuinely family business. This has led to many accolades including being named a Wine & Spirits Top 100 Winery both in 2013 and 2015.
Disciplined, tireless and determined, winemaker and former French Legionnaire, Jean-Michel Morel’s motto is, “Quality must go up”. His own penchant for world class wine, especially Champagne, drives this. Having worked from Bordeaux to Collio, he is a winemaker in the “classical” sense, but sees experimentation as necessary to improvement. His curiosity, and the magical wines of neighbor and “Amphorist” Jasko Gravner, led him to Georgia to study its ancient monastic wine culture.
Ultimately, Jean-Michel adapted some of their techniques to the Kabaj wines. Most significant is the practice of macerating white grapes for close to a year in buried 3500 liter ‘Qvevri’, imported from Georgia. The blend of their contents, ‘Amfora’, is today the flag ship wine of the estate. In contrast, the red wines of Kabaj, made primarily from Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon are vinified in typical Bordeaux fashion. Contradictory as this may sound, it is typical of Kabaj. Jean Michel is not interested in convention, only terroir and quality.
The appellation The border between Northeast Italy, and Western Slovenia, runs from the Alps, to the Adriatic Sea, dividing a terroir important to both. Known as ‘Collio’ in Italy, and ‘Brda’ in Slovenia, their shared meaning is ‘hills’.
While Collio is famous, particularly for its age worthy white wines, Goriška Brda (Gor-eesh-Ka Bur-duh) is little known. This is a factor of politics, in the 40’s Slovenia became part of the “Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia”. Wine production was run by the State until Yugoslavia disbanded in 1990. Since then, private production has resumed and the terroir remembered.
At only 15 miles from the Adriatic, Brda sees mild winters, an early spring, and an extended growing season. The extreme temperature differences between the Alps and the Sea, and their close proximity to each other, make wind in the area a constant phenomena, to the north an ideally situated ridge of limestone protects Brda from ‘Bora’, the worst of these. Brda’s prized hills of marl and flysch, are the hardened remains of an ancient limestone seabed, sculpted by the slow action of rain and river. Their steep slopes offer an infinite range of vineyard exposures and micro climates.
Approximately 4800 acres of vineyards are planted in Goriška Brda, much of it to the local white varieties, Rebula (Ribolla Gialla in Italy), and Sauvignonasse (formerly known as Tocai Friulano). Many French varieties, introduced to the region centuries ago, also flourish, most notably; Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.
In the vineyards A drive to each of the Kabaj vineyards is dizzying. They are managed by Jean-Michel’s brother-in-law, Herman Kabaj. While the 2 primary sites, Šlovrenc and Belo, account for the majority of grapes harvested. Their widely scattered collection of vineyards includes numerous smaller sites of varied aspect, soil and micro climate. This is advantageous, each contributes something to the final wine; be it, color, acid, texture, or otherwise.
Kabaj maintains 29 acres of mainly terraced, marl vineyards. 70% are planted to white varieties, with an average vineyard age of 30 years, and yield of 1.5 kilos per vine. Single Guyot trellising is preferred, but older vineyards pruned otherwise, remain. The primary fertilizer is horse manure. Kabaj typically harvests later than their neighbors, yet the wines rarely exceed 13% abv. Working in batches and picking into small baskets, grapes are in the winery and de-stemming and in tank in less than 45 minutes.
In the cellar Kabaj produces between 60,000 and 70,000 bottles annually. At the core of their production are the local white varieties, Rebula ‘the queen of Brda’ and ‘Ravan’, an old local name for the grape formerly known as, Tocai Friullano. These two grapes are the primary components of ‘Amfora’ their most exotic wine. Smaller amounts of Beli Pinot (Pinot Blanc), Sivi Pinot (Pinot Gris) are also bottled. Finally there are the Kabaj red wines, taught, mineral expressions of Bordeaux varieties.
The winery is modest, and free of technology. Fermentation is typically conducted in large oak tank. All wines are fermented with native yeast, and macerated (fermented with the skins), between 1 and 30 days, depending on the sort. Malolactic fermentation in barrique follows.
Kabaj makes no “fresh wine”. Everything, white or red, spends at least 12 months (Amfora is an exception) in their large vaulted cellar room. Jean spends a tremendous amount of his time here. Tasting, planning and ultimately blending.
In the deepest point of the cellar, past the barrels, is an exposed wall of natural limestone with a spring whose colors inspire the earthy greens and browns of the Kabaj labels. In addition to artistic inspiration the spring serves a real purpose, of keeping the cellar appropriately humid and ideal for aging wine.
Wine & Spirits Magazine recently published excellent reviews of Kabaj wines:
Kudos for Kabaj, Kogl, and Batič
Wine & Spirits Magazine named Kabaj one it's Top 100 Wineries in 2013 and 2015.