Wine in the Vipava Valley
It’s autumn in the Vipava Valley in western Slovenia and gusts from the Bora wind are pummeling the land. As I drive to the valley floor, I can feel my old Ford Fiesta start to shake. Another ominous sign: the roofs of the valley homes are dotted with big stones. I find out later that they protect the shingles from blowing away. Amusing, but the Bora is no joke. Last March, it overturned a semi-truck on the highway in nearby Croatia. It blows across Central Europe, but if it has an epicenter—here, speeds of 150 miles per hour have been recorded—it might be the lush Vipava Valley. A strange place then, I think, to be one of the best wine regions in Slovenia, where people have been making grape juice since Roman times.
I’ve always been fascinated, if a bit skeptical, about the idea of terroir that wine geeks hold in such esteem. That place—soil, climate, environment—can shape the final product in the glass is an appealing but questionable notion. Soil type, Bordeaux’s famous gravel for example, I get. Even a vaguer element, like the high altitude of the vineyards in Mendoza, makes some sense. But what about something as intangible as wind? I’m becoming more of an unbearable wine snob by the second, but I’m genuinely interested: is it possible that the mighty Bora could be expressed in the glass?
I decide to brave the wind and head to Sutor winery in Vipava. People say don’t judge a wine by its label, but Sutor’s pays homage to the Bora with a windy landscape print, so it seems like a good place to start. I arrive without getting blown off the road, and Mitja Lavrenčič, the man behind Sutor, guides me through his cellar and describes his process. Warm and humble, Mitja is the kind of winemaker who defies the snobbery of the wine world. When I ask him about the Bora, he flashes a look of pride. “The wind is so strong that we don’t need to spray the vines with pesticides,” he says. A definite plus, but does that really count as terroir? I question further as we begin to taste his wines, passing the spit bucket between us. Eventually, Mitja hits on something: “It acts as a natural selector, because the grapes have to withstand the high wind speeds. Lower yields, but higher quality.”
The first wines we try are international varieties: a blend of Merlot and Cabernet, a Chardonnay. As much as I want to impress Mitja and drone on about tasting the Vipava terroir, I can’t actually tell what gives them a sense of place. Then lastly he pours the Sutor White, a blend of the local grapes, Rebula and Malvazija. I swish the wine around in my mouth and swallow this time. Bracing, I think. Like a strong, cold wind blowing across my face.