Explore the medieval city of Maribor through its vineyards, wineries and restaurants on a gastronomic tour of Slovenia, the central European country that is celebrating its 25th anniversary of independence from the former Yuguslavia this year
“I don’t just sell this wine to anyone you know,” says our enthusiastic host, gesturing towards a shelf of bottles caked in dust, visible only through dim candlelight and positioned behind a rather large and old-looking metal gate. I’m standing in one of the biggest wine cellars in Europe, and not only that, it’s one of the oldest, too. Intricately-carved wooden barrels depicting stories of the region’s winemaking history flank narrow walkways leading to cellar after cellar of classic bottles and newer vintages. It’s an impressive hoard, but what makes it surprising isn’t the winemaking prowess that’s on show, but the fact that I’m underground in Slovenia.
If you don’t immediately associate this pretty central European country with fine wines, you can’t be blamed, but Slovenia has a long and proud wine-producing history that spans hundreds of years, particularly in the country’s ‘second city’, Maribor (the first being its capital, Ljubljana). Situated on the Drava River in the east of Slovenia, you don’t need to stray far from the town’s cobbled streets to reach miles and miles of hilly vineyards, but our introduction to the region’s viticulture is starting right here in the vast cellars of the Vinag winery.
I ask why they’re so picky about these carefully guarded bottles, and what makes them so covetable, and I’m told that the vintage in question – a 1966 Riesling – is reserved for those who “really, really appreciate the wine.” And if you pass that test? Well then of course you can take a bottle home with you. But only if you have a minimum of 7,000 euros at your disposal, which is how much the last one sold for. What the next bottle sells for is anybody’s guess, but what’s for certain is that it won’t be gracing the dinner table of any old wine drinker.
No need to worry though, as there’s plenty more on offer, and a lot of it sits at the top end of the wine spectrum. Penina is the region’s answer to champagne, and a very fine version it is too. Made using exactly the same technique (the methode champenoise) as the classic French fizz – including the all-important in-bottle second fermentation that produces the bubbles – it’s 100% chardonnay, and as you’d expect resembles a blancs de blancs champagne. It’s the perfect way to toast the start of our Slovenian wine adventure.
Venturing further into town, we reach a picturesque riverside building with a terracotta-tiled roof and a large vine creeping all the way along it. This isn’t just any vine though – at 450 years young, it’s the oldest fruit-producing vine in the entire world. More than just a tourist attraction, the grapes from the imaginatively named ‘Old Vine’ are still used to produce wine, but again, you can’t buy it. Not even for 10,000 euros (a recent offer that was turned down by the house). These covetable bottles are reserved for the likes royalty and presidents.
What you can get hold of in Maribor, however, is a range of bottles that will not only please the palette, but tell a story too. Here you can find many European wine types in one country, with Riesling and Welschriesling the most prevalent. You can sip the classy whites in one of the town’s typically charming wine bars, where locals spill out onto the streets in the evening, but to really get a taste of what the region is all about, we head to its source.
Riding through the bright-green vineyards is an enchanting way to really see this part of Slovenia at its best – green, undulating fields with rows and rows of vines heavy with perky grapes, ready to be harvested and made into bottles of supremely enjoyable wine. We stop off at one hilltop winery to admire the view (and their rosé), and are offered a selection of cheese and charcuterie that’s been made by the same hands responsible for the wine. I only feel slightly guilty (ok, very guilty) wolfing down a few slices of salami-like venison sausage while gazing at a field of deer, as the owners passionately tell us about the produce they make.
And it’s that passion for all that’s local and high quality that‘s the reason this part of the world has such rich pickings for those with an interest in all things gourmet. While it starts at grass-roots level – with superb food and wine coming out of farms where making your own bread and honey for breakfast isn’t a novelty, it’s just what you do – it goes all the way through to the city’s finest restaurants.
Restaurant MAK is at the top of the pile when it comes to Maribor’s high-end dining establishments, and as we take our places around a farmhouse-style table in a rustic, laid-back dining room, it’s quickly apparent there won’t be anything casual or understated about the meal we’re about to have. Head chef David Vračko is cagey when it comes to revealing exactly what’s on the line-up for the evening (there isn’t even a menu), but what’s evident is his enthusiasm for his home country’s produce.
He approaches the table, proudly holding a vacuum-packed bag of veal chops that have been cooked sous vide. We next see them plated up with white asparagus and a delicate foamy sauce. The meal is full of Michelin-level touches, with plate after plate of appetizers giving way to some serious mains and knock-out wines. It’s hard to imagine we’re on the outskirts of town in a restaurant that feels very humble, eating food you’d expect to find in the dining rooms of a five-star hotel.
Over in the centre of the city, Rozmarin has a flashier feel, with a beautiful crowd dressed to impress sitting in a buzzy dining room. Despite the contrast in style, the dedication to top-quality produce sourced from within a few miles is exactly the same. It seems that wherever you are here, the dedication to local food and wine puts a lot of other places to shame. While it’s still relatively unknown as a gourmet destination, the buzz surrounding Maribor is growing rapidly, so get in quick, and bring as many bottles home as you can.
SLOVENIA TRAVEL TIPS
The Habakuk Hotel (http://www.hotel-habakuk.si/en/) is a good base from which to explore the region. Set at the foot of some very pretty mountains – perfect for a brisk morning hike – there’s a spa offering traditional treatments, a wine sauna (yes, that’s a thing) and thermal pools for some rest and relaxation after all that taxing wine tasting.
Although it’s only a two or so hour flight away, don’t be tempted to just take hand luggage – you’ll want to bring as many bottles of wine home as you can, as the majority aren’t available in the UK. EasyJet fly to Ljubljana from London Stansted from £90 return.
Plan a day or two in Ptuj (about 30km away), one of the oldest towns in Slovenia with a Medieval town centre that’ll make you feel like you’re skipping about in a fairy tale (although that could just be us). There’s some decent wineries to explore here too, as well as a hilltop castle and some lovely boutiquey bars and restaurants. ptuj-tourism.si