You don’t have to be a wine expert or even a wine drinker to enjoy Goriška Brda, the best wine region you’ve never heard of. This scenic corner of Slovenia has been compared to California’s Napa Valley. It also has been called Slovenia’s Tuscany.
I came here with friends who were studying to become certified as sommeliers, but ordinary visitors can expect the same warm welcome as our experts-in-training. Here’s how to discover Slovenia’s artisan wines in one perfect weekend.
Gorška Brda Wine Tasting Tour
For a good orientation to the area, stop at Dobrovo Castle, a local landmark that has been restored as a restaurant and tasting room. Irina in the tourist information point told us about things to do in the local area. We left with an armload of maps, brochures and a helpful pamphlet listing the opening times of nearby wineries. The tourism authority has a helpful website in English. A viewing terrace overlooks Klet Brda, the largest wine producer in the region, where tastings are available. If you’re on a group tour, it’s likely to stop here and move on.
Goriška Brda’s Divided History
The shifting borders in the area make for complicated history. The major town of Gorica (Gorizia) ended up in Italy after World War II, and Nova Gorica was built on the Yugoslavian side of the border, becoming Slovenia in 1991. Sandwiched in between the Adriatic and the Alps, Brda’s winemaking has influences from both Italy and Austria.
The rolling hills now in Slovenia eventually lead to the karst region and its fantastic caves, with adventures ranging from family fun to UNESCO world heritage. The karst geology also influences the wines here. The white rebula grape has been called the queen of the region and is growing in popularity.
My tasting tour was arranged by friends who have completed the demanding course for sommeliers in Slovenia, requiring detailed knowledge of the different wine regions and ideal food/wine pairings for literally every kind of grape in the world.
One of our companions was a top finisher in the sommelier competition. Among the many required skills, contestants must empty a magnum of sparkling wine into 22 glasses, each with exactly the same amount, using only one hand and one try. (Do not attempt this at home.) The same friends took me on an epic 12-hour wine crawl through Ljubljana and connected me with secret wine cellars in Ljubljana and Bled. So fasten your seat belt, it’s going to be a delicious ride.
This charming villa with green shutters might look like a transplant from Tuscany, but the tastes at Kabaj are uniquely Slovenian. The key word here is “maceration,” the process in which the grape juice remains in contact with the skins for weeks or even months. This produces the color and higher tannins of Slovenia’s orange wine. Think of it as a white wine produced like a red wine.
The orange-colored Sivi Pinot (Pinot Gris) 2014 was the perfect starting point. Our four-course tasting lunch, a bargain at 40 euros per person for the high quality, paired various white, orange and red wines with Goriška Brda farm ingredients and regional recipes. Plan ahead if you’d like to stay overnight in the villa.
Different grapes and different ways of processing mean that some wines will be capped with a twist-off top for drinking now, while others are aged in wood or amphorae and corked. “Sun in the glass,” explained Katja, who has owned the place with her French husband since 1993. On a tour of the cellar, we saw some special bottles intended for export to Asia. Most Slovene wine, however, is consumed here in Slovenia. Three hours flew by. And this was only the beginning!
Blažič Farm: A Vineyard Divided
Imagine you have a friend who produces award winning wine on a farm that straddles the Slovenia-Italy border. You walk to the stone that marks the dividing line. Over the span of four generations the land has been divided among four different countries, cutting off the cellar from the Blažič family’s vineyards until the Schengen Agreement relaxed the border controls in 2007.
We sat on a shady patio and sampled the wines with local cheese and ham, feeling like family as children played nearby. We learned fun facts, like how the name of the Jakot variety is really a backwards spelling of Tokaj. In 2004 Hungary trademarked Tokaj for its region that produces sweet dessert wines. Slovenia’s jakot is something completely different, having more in common with sauvignon vert and a local word which historically means “very good wine.”
One of our Slovene friends brought an accordion and added some festive music to this memorable afternoon in Brda. Wines from this farm are served at the famous Hisa Franko restaurant in Kobarid, but you can taste them here in Brda by appointment.
Gonjače Lookout Tower and Villa Vipolže
After all that tasting and relaxing we needed to stretch our legs with a climb to the top of the Gonjače lookout tower. It’s well worth the effort for a commanding view of the sunset over Goriška Brda wine region from the Alps to the Adriatic.
Villa Vipolže was the perfect place for a nightcap of filling soup, ice cream or yet another wine. Area residents are justly proud of this Austrian renaissance building, which is a local hangout when it’s not hosting weddings or cultural events.
Cukjati Farm Hospitality
Our friends reserved my family of three adults a room in a farmhouse — a comfy triple with private bath and a kitchen we could share with our companions. We’re early risers, so we took a walk around neighboring Gredič Castle, a luxury hotel that is also the backdrop for a popular Slovenia TV show. And then we met Wanda.
She was selling freshly picked cherries by the roadside and invited us into her shady patio garden for coffee and homemade cookies. The farm stretches to the Italian border and she had lots of stories to tell about the surrounding vineyards and the families who run them. She and her husband often had to outwit the border police to keep their farm in business. Guests who arrive in time for the grape harvest are invited to join in. She keeps in touch with American relatives but doesn’t speak much English, so my son’s Slovene language skills allowed us to carry on a lively conversation.
Medieval Times at Hiša Marica in Šmartno
It doesn’t take long to visit Šmartno, a tiny gem of a walled medieval town. There are helpful signs in English on the streets to help you understand the history. The church has been restored with paintings by a notable 20th century Slovene artist. We were lucky to snag a parking spot — the lot fills up fast during peak season.
Once again, the Slovene sommeliers led us to an unforgettable lunch at Hiša Marica, a small inn in the center of the walled village. It is run by the same family that operates the popular Belica homestead in Dobrovo. Why order off the menu? Just ask them to bring whatever is in season and delicious. Several courses and wine pairings later, my world-traveling son declared this to be one of his most memorable meals EVER.
Terry’s Travel Tips
Getting there: Goriška Brda (no need to buy a vowel), it’s pronounced Gore-EESH-ka Bur-dah, or simply shortened to Bur-dah. The name in Slovene refers to the hills around the town of Gorica. It’s an easy two-hour drive from Ljubljana, as long as you stay on the motorway and don’t take the alternate route that snakes along a crazy mountain road. It looks shorter but it’s not. If you have a rental car, be sure you are allowed to cross the border into Italy, which you will do at least once before arriving in Dobrovo.
Enjoy in moderation: Slovenian law has zero tolerance for “drink driving.” Be smart and designate a driver, or just plan to stay overnight. The point of this tour is to taste as many different wines as possible and enjoy the pairings with local foods while soaking up the history and scenery. Take your time. Two or three days at least. We all commented that our weekend break felt like we had been away and relaxing for much longer.
More than Just Wine: Fascinating local history is a reason to visit Brda even if you are not a wine enthusiast. A peace walk along the World War I Isonzo Front allows for in-depth hiking discovery of important sites during the war to end all wars.
Reservations Advised: This “hidden gem” gets more discovered every day, but most of the accommodations are small B & B’s or farmers renting out rooms. The few hotels are popular sites for destination weddings. Brda fills up in the peak summer season, or during festivals. The good news is that it won’t break the budget, with most rentals under or around $100 USD per night, or slightly higher for luxury standard.
And yes, the more wine I drink, the more Slovenian I speak. “Potrebujemo vino!”
Want more tips on authentic experiences in Europe and the rest of the world? Like @strangersinthelivingroom on Facebook, and sign up for the occasional email when there is a new post here on the blog.