My Slovenian wine adventures began in the eastern region of Bela Krajina (pronounced ‘bella cry-ner’). It’s a small region of just 400 hectares, but it’s a beautiful one. The vineyards are integrated fully into the landscape, with abundant woodland, lots of small mixed agriculture, and then mostly small plots of vines. Many of them are attached to small weekend houses, where the owners come down and tend their small vineyard plots as a sort of rural leisure experience. This isn’t a well known region internationally, with most of the wines being made for local consumption. But I was here because there is one producer who has ambitions to change this.
I arrived at Zagreb airport in Croatia and then hopped the border to the town of Metlika, where there was a festival underway. As part of this, there was a tent showing local wines, and even though it was 11 pm, the festival was still going strong. I tried a few as a sort of sighter for the next day, when I was visiting Šuklje, an important winery in the region (pronounced ‘shook-eee-yay’).
The modern history of Šuklje begins when Guillaume Antalick, a tall French guy with a PhD in enology from Bordeaux University heads to do a post-doc in Stellenbosch, South Africa. There he meets Katje Šuklje whose parents Jože and Tatjana have a vineyard and winery in Metlika. The two fall in love and end up going to Australia to work together at Wagga Wagga (Charles Sturt University). Eventually, they moved back to Metlika and took jobs with local research institutes, but also got involved with Katja’s family winery, at the same time as beginning a family together.
The winery is small, but by the standards of the region it’s a good size, and Jože was one of the first in the region to make winegrowing his main activity. During the years of socialism, everyone tended to do a bit of everything when it came to agriculture. Small was good, and it wasn’t possible to be an independent winemaker. Things progressed and he built the current cellar in 2000. The slightly warmer, more continental climate here in the east of the country means that red wines predominate, and it’s Blaufrankisch, known here as Modra Frankinja, that is the key variety. Of the regions 400 hectares, 120 are Blaufrankisch.
Since 2016, Guillaume, Katja and her brother Matija have taken this winery to a new level, working on the vineyards (no herbicides are used and they are on the conversion path to organics) and also using their scientific expertise in the winery. They have also begun a planting project, too.
We began by visiting the three vineyard sites. The first is the home block, where the winery is, which is called Doma. It’s 2.3 hectares with lots of red brown clay in the soils as well as some limestone.
The second is Lokvica, which is an 0.6 hectare parcel surrounded by woods and fields, entirely planted to Blaufrankisch. This is their coolest site, and has a lot of sticky red clay, overlaying some very hard limestone.
The third is the main site, the hill of Plešivica, which can be seen from the winery. They have 3.6 hectares on this hill, and the vineyards are planted up and down this south-facing site. It has old marl-rich soils that are free draining and which have a high proportion of limestone. This has Blaufrankisch, plus an old block of Sauvignon Blanc, and a new planting of Pinot Noir that was intended as an experiment.
Šuklje is unusual in the region in that it’s working with clay/limestone-based soils. Most of the other vineyards here share a soil type in common with most of Slovenia, which is called Opoka (also known as Flysch). It’s a mixed sedimentary soil that’s mostly based on sandstone, although it can be mixed with limestone too.
The wine range is three-tiered, with the regional wines, then the terroir wines, then the single-vineyard wines.
Šuklje Ciao Belo 2021 Bela Krajina, Slovenia
This is mainly Chardonnay with some Sauvignon. Fermented in barrel but only spends a couple of months there. Taut, showing lovely freshness with crisp citrus fruit and a linear personality. Has good acidity and precision. 90/100
Šuklje Belo 140 2018 Bela Krajina, Slovenia
This is Kerner (half in acacia, half in French oak) and Riesling in stainless steel. This has a lovely fruity, expressive character with some lively, grapey fruitiness. Dry but textured with nice floral grapey notes. Expressive, showing nice weight. 90/100
Šuklje Belo 140 2019 Bela Krajina, Slovenia
Very precise with lovely vibrant, crisp fruit. Shows floral aromatics and some notes of table grape, as well as some richness and freshness. There’s some flesh here too. Has some depth. 91/100
Katja did a spell working with Giaconda in Australia, and fell in love with Chardonnay. So they’ve been buying in grapes for this Chardonnay project. They have planted some, and will be harvesting their own this year.
Šuklje Projekt Chardonnay 2018 Bela Krajina, Slovenia
Just one barrel, new. This has nice aromatics with hints of toast and spice as well as some pear and white peach. There’s some flesh here with good fruit intensity. 88/100
Šuklje Projekt Chardonnay 2019 Bela Krajina, Slovenia
Two barrels this year, one new. Nuts, spice and citrus on the nose with some marzipan. Fresh citrus and pear fruit on the palate with good texture and some nice acidity. Has depth and freshness. 90/100
Šuklje Projekt Chardonnay 2020 Bela Krajina, Slovenia
Three barrels, none new. Lively aromatics with a spicy, toasty twist to the rich fruit, with a hint of pineapple and some pear, as well as a touch of spice and meal. Lovely intensity, with a pleasant bitter twist to the finish. 91/100
Šuklje Single Vineyard Lozice 2019 Bela Krajina, Slovenia
This is a single plot of Sauvignon Blanc on the Plešivica hill. It has overnight skin contact and then is barrel fermented in used oak. Distinctive aromatics of pear and herbs, with some citrus pith. The palate is focused and fresh with compact citrus fruit and fine herbal/sage notes on the finish. Lots of sage, actually. 92/100
Šuklje Single Vineyard Lozice 2020 Bela Krajina, Slovenia
Lovely character here with some terpenic notes and also pleasant elderflower and citrus. Nice intensity with some pear, and also a bitter pithy hint. Good acid line with some sage on the finish. 93/100
Šuklje Single Vineyard Lozice 2021 Bela Krajina, Slovenia (cask sample)
Very fruity and expressive with high acidity. Lots of grapefruit and citrus with nice balance and plenty of aroma. Good potential. 92-93/100
Šuklje Modra Frankinja 2018 Bela Krajina, Slovenia
This is the regional-level Blaufrankisch from all the vineyards. Sweetly aromatic on the nose with black cherries and also some black tea and fine spices, as well as a touch of mulch. The palate is fresh, pure and has lovely drinkability, showing notes of orange peel, cherries and blackberries. Such good acidity and drinkability. 92/100
Šuklje Modra Frankinja 2020 Bela Krajina, Slovenia (from tank)
Beautifully floral and expressive with black cherries and a hint of pepper, as well as fine green hints and some straw. Juicy, direct palate with fresh red and black fruits and some crunch. Supple and textural with nice freshness. 90-92/100
Šuklje Lodoma 2018 Bela Krajina, Slovenia
This is the village-level Blaufrankisch, and in this debut vintage it was just Lokvica and Doma, but subsequent vintages have included parts of Plešivica hill. Two weeks maceration, then pressed to tank for malolactic, and then racked to barrel. Really aromatic with sweet black cherries and some liqueur-like notes with floral hints and some raspberry jam. Supple cherry and raspberry fruit on the palate with amazing fruit presence but also good structure. 94/100
Šuklje Lodoma 2019 Bela Krajina, Slovenia
Whole berry ferment. Beautiful floral aromatics with sweet black cherry and some raspberry, with great purity. The palate is fresh and crunchy with firm tannins and good acidity. There’s plenty of structure here with amazing fruit (raspberry and black cherry) as well as a hint of savoury olive. 94/100
Šuklje Lodoma 2020 Bela Krajina, Slovenia (tank sample)
Vibrant raspberry and cherry nose with a touch of redcurrant. Juicy and vibrant with lovely flesh and some green hints. Refreshing, showing spicy dried herb notes, too. Finishes fresh with the emphasis on fine fruity notes. 92-94/100
Šuklje Single Vineyard Vrbanjka 2015 Bela Krajina, Slovenia
This is the single vineyard Blaufrankisch from the hill. This is the old label, with less strict selection and less good barrels. Aromatic with red cherry and wild strawberry fruit complemented by some cedary, spicy oak. The palate is supple and light with a fresh character and a spicy edge. A lighter style. 91/100
Šuklje Single Vineyard Vrbanjka 2016 Bela Krajina, Slovenia
Sweetly aromatic with dried herbs and straw on the nose complementing the wild strawberry and cherry fruit. The palate has a slight green edge to the crunchy, juicy red berry and plum fruit. Nice freshness and depth. 92/100
Šuklje Single Vineyard Vrbanjka 2017 Bela Krajina, Slovenia
Vibrant nose of spicy black cherry and raspberry fruit. The palate is brooding and intense with good concentration of berry and black fruits with firm tannins. This compact wine has a hint of green but there’s also some flesh here. 93/100
Šuklje Single Vineyard Vrbanjka 2018 Bela Krajina, Slovenia
Ripe, sweetly aromatic nose with dried herbs, some spice, some tar and black tea, and sweet black cherries. There’s also a sappy edge. The palate is supple and dense with lovely silky texture and some dried herb and straw character. Juicy and detailed, with massive drinkability. 94/100
Šuklje Single Vineyard Vrbanjka 2019 Bela Krajina, Slovenia
Fine, dark and intense with supple black cherry and blackberry fruit, with nice compact tannic structure and good acidity. Shows sweet black cherry and herbs, with some pepper. Nice digestibility with dried herbs on the palate, which finishes assertively. 94/100
Šuklje Single Vineyard Vrbanjka 2020 Bela Krajina, Slovenia (tank sample)
This was the vintage where they started to do a stricter selection. Wonderfully aromatic nose with sweet raspberry and cherry fruit, and notes of tar and spice. The palate is juicy with lovely structure and fresh black cherry fruit, showing real finesse and elegance. Has precision and a lot of potential. 94/100
Šuklje Single Vineyard Vrbanjka 2021 Bela Krajina, Slovenia (barrel sample)
Fresh and supple, but with some density. Sweet core to the cherry and berry fruits with some floral hints and a touch of dried herbs. Very fine and expressive with bright fruit and plenty of potential. 93-94/100
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