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The Doppler Effect
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The Doppler Effect

James Tanner takes us on a tour of the little-known vineyards of Slovenia.

Many years ago, while exploring the vineyards of Friuli, I took a wrong turn and ended up at a Slovenian checkpoint. I was short of time, and it was at the height of the Balkans war, so I turned back, always regretting it, and always meaning to return, which didn’t happen until last year! Slovenia – not to be confused with Slovakia – is south of the Alps, one country below Austria, and one above Croatia. Italy and Hungary hem it in on the east and west. Natives will tell you that its shape looks like a chicken, but I think you have to squint to see it! Part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, later it would become the northernmost part of Yugoslavia. In the 1970s, private businesses evolved where previously there had only been cooperatives. Slovenia became independent in 1991 and joined the EU in 2004. Yugoslavia’s soft brand of communism left a legacy of localism and community mindedness, which perhaps has helped to create a vibrant wine industry. Slovenia is a remarkably clean and green (both in colour and outlook) country. It’s a mecca for food and wine lovers, walkers, fishermen and cyclists.

The Wine Districts

The vineyards’ latitude is similar to that of Northern Italy and further over, the Mâconnais and the Northern Rhône in France. Summers are hot and winters are wet, with hills and mountains creating many microclimates. Vines are generally grown on slopes, some quite steep. According to the Oxford Companion to Wine there are over 20,000 ha of vines and 29,000 wine growers, with 70% of the production being white wine. Going from west to east, there are three wine regions: Primorska, near the Adriatic, Posavje (around the Sava River), and Podravje (around the Drava River). The three regions are divided into wine districts, the best known of which, going from northwest to east are: Goriška Brda (Gorizia Hills), Vipavska Dolina (Vipava Valley), Slovenska Istra (Slovenian Istria), Dolenjska and Štajerska Slovenija (Slovenian Styria). Grape varieties are often seen in nearby Austria and Hungary, so Laski Riesling (Welschriesling), Sauvignon Blanc and Furmint (Šipon) are used for whites, with Modra Frankinja (Blaufränkisch) and Pinot Noir for reds.

The names of the regions and grape varieties are not necessarily easy for anglophones, but it is well worth persevering. A few tips on pronunciation are easily found online. Quality control by the authorities is strict, which has led to wines of high standards, these are largely drunk domestically with increasing amounts being exported. Skin contact whites and orange wines are common, perhaps a USP when exports markets are already awash with fresh dry whites. Soils, being mostly limestone, are particularly good for growing high-quality grapes and Slovenia has plenty of limestone, giving the world the word ‘karst’ for the description of landforms, and claims to have some of the world’s best underground cave systems, the most famous being the Postojna Cave.


We travelled the length and breadth of the country and on the first day, saw a huge cellar – a labyrinth of tunnels with very large old Slovenian oak vats – but the norm, we went on to discover, was modern, well-equipped wineries, sparkling stainless steel and newer oak, with establishments often having benefitted from much funding by the EU. We started in Podravje wine region in Maribor, Slovenia’s second city and the capital of Štajerska Slovenija, which is close to Graz in Austria. Maribor has a wonderfully eccentric restaurant called Mak and also the oldest vine in the world, or so they claim.

Not far away, at the end of a steep lane and only 5 km from the Austrian border, is the Doppler Winery. It’s a strikingly modern structure with clean lines of concrete, expanses of glass giving panoramic views and the fermentation and maturation areas buried within the hilltop. At over 1000 feet above sea level, it looks over the Pesnica Valley and the Šentilj Hills at the tail-end of the Alps. Mihaela Kopse runs the estate, and it was her grandfather, Ivan Doppler, who  bought it in 1938, though winemaking origins here go all the way back to 1816. Mihaela took over from her mother, but she credits her grandfather with teaching her a lot. He died at the age of 92, but not before his wedding ring was returned from Germany, many years after he was held in Dachau concentration camp. The ring features on one of their wine labels. Mihaela works with her three daughters: Lina, Lena and Lana, so there is a strong line of female succession here.

The vineyards extend to 9 ha on clay/limestone soils. With 2000 sunshine hours and 1000 mm of rain per year, there are large night and day temperature variations that lead to bright fruit flavours. Mihaela and her daughters are committed to nature and respect for traditions. They converted to organic in 2021 so will shortly be certified, though in actual fact they haven’t used pesticides for nine years.


Posavje, occupying the middle-south portion of the country, is an area of rolling hills covered by oak forest as far as the eye can see (yes, people get lost in these woods). Dolenjska is the district showing most potential and developing more serious varietal wines, a move away from the unusual but pleasant, light Cviček wines, a fruity but acidic blend of red and white grapes. Posavje has roughly half the hectarage of vines compared to both Primorska and Podravje.

Primorska would naturally have a decent coastline had Italy not been given the important port of Trieste and a panhandle of land after the First World War, so Slovenia has just a small part of the Istrian Peninsular (the rest is in Croatia), with the port of Koper and some pretty seaside villages and vineyards, which are famous for Malvasia in white and Refošk (Refosco) in red. To the north, Vipavska Dolina, a deep valley, is sandwiched between the Kras (Karst) littoral plateau and the Trnovski Forest.

We travelled on to Goriška Brda which is arguably Slovenia’s most fashionable region with its intense, if expensive, whites and Bordeaux-inspired reds. It is indistinct geographically from its neighbouring region Collio, across the border in Italy. To get to Goriška Brda, we travelled through Nova Gorica, a casino town (which serves mainly Italians!), over high hills before dropping down into this most gorgeous of wine regions with its patchwork of vines and hilltop villages. We finished our trip by a flatter route via Gorizia in Italy, our Slovenian guide explaining that this nonsensical border had been devised by American GIs after World War II. We returned via Ljubljana, Slovenia’s fantastical capital and must-see Lake Bled which, with its church-crowned island, features in almost any travel article on Slovenia.



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