(approx. 12 minute read)
West of the Isonzo river, the variety is well known as RIBOLLA.
East of the Soča it’s called REBULA.
Two names… one and the same river.
Two names… one and the same grape.
Interchangeability. Synonymy. Yet a captivating world of difference.
Journeying from Italy’s northeastern region of Friuli Venezia Giulia into Slovenia, one still must cross the emerald alpine waters of the river Soča / Isonzo. For centuries considered a natural partition between peoples, today you’d be forgiven for missing its flow. Overhead, traversing the motorway bridge, our 500’s speed encourages the landscape on either side to blend seamlessly. The hills are after all, one and the same. It’s striking how nature seems to pay little heed to humanity’s unnatural obsession with borders, those mostly invisible frontiers that oft become battle lines. Yet even though the physical width of such lines can span the merest of margins, the emotional crossing remains immense.
Few places in continental Europe have known such frequent geopolitical change as here. The history of the last 100 years, coupled with that of centuries long since passed, furnish us with copious tomes of testimony.
And so our ‘shortish’ story begins with once upon a time…
Acquiring the title from his father EMPEROR FREDERICK III, a young MAXIMILIAN I became supreme ruler of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE). An empire fashioned in the footprints of more ancient Roman exploits, the HRE’s dynasty and domains stretched significantly beyond its stronghold of central German and eastern European homelands. Back then it included what we know today as Slovenia & Friuli Venezia Giulia. Indeed the empires interests spread as far west as modern day Burgundy, north towards Flanders and the Netherlands and south along the Italian peninsula, as far south as Rome itself. Conspicuous as we are by our ‘lack’ of historical qualifications, we’ll refrain from recounting the entire chronicles of MAXIMILIAN’s reign ;)
Suffice to say, it was this particular EMPEROR’S CHOICE that brought us all the way to the 13th century hilltop town of Vipavski Križ.
Gathered in the cooling surrounds of a soft-lit underground cellar, Edvard Svetlik was first to confront our heightened curiousity. He recounted how he’d received exciting news from his friend and local historian, Professor Sergio Tavano at the Universty of Trieste. A very important document discovery had been made. Dated 18th August 1503, yes, precisely 515 years earlier, this document revealed how EMPEROR MAXIMILIAN had placed an official order for a consignment of Ribollio (Rebula) from Vipava.
Svetlik, himself a present day producer of Rebula, instantly grasped the significance. Not just for Rebula but for the entire winemaking community in the valley. You see in the distant past, written references ascribing to the valleys Quality reputation are rare to non-existent. How compelling therefore to have such evidence to hand. A 515 year historical ‘QC’ gap could now be bridged. Independently verified. Proof positive. Vipavska Rebula has got some truly longstanding Quality roots.
Fast forward to 2018. In Vipava, just as in nearby Friuli, one witnesses how the versatility of this ancient vine and its grapes is taking on much greater significance. Evolving from a lowly role as a blending agent during the 1970’s, 80’s & 90’s, today Rebula is employed more creatively, producing both mono-varietal and blended wines in diverse styles… fresh and dry, sparkling and still, youthful, macerated and mature. Occasionally sweet too, if you’re lucky. Yeah, with growing understanding, the phenolic wealth of the berry’s relatively thick skin, combined with its natural high acidity, has captured the respect of adventurous producers seeking their own path to self-expression.
Here’s a thing. During the morning MASTERCLASS lectures, one presentation in particular grabbed our attention. The fascinating study presented by Dr. Dejan BAVČAR of the Department of Food Technology & Oenological Analysis, at Slovenia’s Agricultural Institute in Ljubljana. Dejan disclosed how he and his team have been analyzing the influence of oxygen and skin contact during alcoholic fermentation and its subsequent impact on the aroma composition of Rebula. As an experimental control, the team carried out the same tests on two other native white grapes, Malvasia Istriana and Zelen. Worth noting, this is the first study of this kind relating to Rebula/Ribolla that we’ve come across.
On the aromatic scale, the experiments revealed that, with a brief cold maceration, Zelen and Malvasia are aromatically way ahead of Rebula. Not surprising. Rebula has never been acclaimed for its primary notes. However when adopting increasingly warmer & increasingly longer maceration periods, involving oxidative techniques, Rebula leaps well ahead in phenolic performance.
According to Dejan, the shortened summary of their analysis points to at least one conclusion. Rebula, with its meager aromatic profile, is a variety less suitable for producing young mono-varietal fresh white wines (using reductive technology) and way more suited to a classic macerated style wine, where the emphasis is on attaining a wine with greater body and taste, not scent.
Furthermore, Dejan noted that when Rebula is vinified using a traditional warm maceration, with subsequent ageing in wood, the results suggest the phenolic interplay between the wine & the wood actually work to boost the wines resistance to oxidation over a lengthy period.
How about that for tasty data!
In a postmodern winemaking context, we found ourselves blissfully speechless in the face of this unambiguous, quasi-radical, scientific review! Indeed what a mind-opening revelation we believe it to be for Rebula (and indeed Ribolla) winemakers.
Sprinkling historical gems onto our freshly acquired analytical truth, Matjaž Lemut, Dr. Borut Koloini, Mojca Mavrič Štrukelj and Primož Lavrenčič all provided us with further valuable context, in terms of Rebula’s ongoing importance to the Vipava valley community. One gem in particular shone bright when Primož Lavrenčič introduced us to the extraordinary life and works of MATIJA VERTOVEC.
A man of multifarious talents, back in 1844, Vertovec was the first Slovenian to write on the subject of viticulture. Indeed his ground breaking book “VINOREJA”, published that same year, is testament to his learned experience and expertise. Some 174 years later, his guiding principles, which cover everything from vineyard management to winemaking, are once again en-vogue, with justifiable merit too. Can’t wait for the complete translation to be published!
Ironically, it feels as though MATIJA VERTOVEC has elected to come ‘back-to-the-future’ to once again espouse the enduring quality of fermenting white grapes on their skins. Far from being what many conventionals have called a crazed winemaking fad, skin contact wines are age-old in this part of the world. Traditional techniques that have always worked. Modern convention encouraged neglect, at which point it became all too easy to forget.
In the face of such knowledge, one wonders will conventional winemaking wisdom at last sit up, take note and reflect ?. There’s plenty of OLD SCHOOL stuff to be reconsidered. There are new Quality choices to be made.
Following our morning enlightenment, the afternoon MASTERCLASS TASTING afforded us the unique opportunity to compare Theory with Practise… 25 wines from 19 of the valleys producers. Everything from Sustainable to Biologic to Biodynamic practices, Selected yeasts and Spontaneous fermentations, Zero to extended skin contact, Mono-varietals and Blend wines too, sparkling, youthful and aged, vinified in Steel, Concrete and Wood. Filtered and unfiltered. You name it, the MASTERCLASS pretty much had it.
We were rocked by so many high quality expressions from Vintage 2017 back to 2009. And yet, on reflection, there should have been no surprise when the tasting bore out exactly what the good Doctor Dejan had spoken about earlier that day. Remember Rebula’s suitability ?
We’ve now been to the hill top, we’ve seen the amber light and we believe. The essence of Rebula is born out of Style. It’s born out of Choices. With skin contact, to whatever extent and duration (short or long), surely it affords both the grape and the winemaker the best opportunity to express their “combined potential”. And you see that’s where the key to its identity lies. Yeah, it’s with skin that you’ll open the door to the real essence of Rebula.
Congratulations and sincere thanks to the 6 winemakers who between them worked tirelessly to make Vipavska Rebula Emperors Choice a reality – Miha Batič (Batič Wines), Primož Lavrenčič (Burja Estate), Valter Mlečnik (Mlečnik Wines), Zmago Petrič (Guerila), Franc Vodopivec (Slavček), Edvard Svetlik (Svetlik).
Not only have they given service to their own Vipava valley community, but they are surely doing so much for the Rebula / Ribolla winemaking community at large.
They have opened their hearts, minds, vineyards and cellars to shared discovery and cultural exchange. What a truly awesome valley of artisans. Brimful of winemakers whom we wholly admire and wonderful food producers and service providers too, like Peloz, Ekolat, Kante, Ma ku fino, Erilo, Leone, Darovi vipavske, Ošterija Žogica, Majerija, Restaurant Grad Kromberk and the Šempas Association.
This event was a collective celebration of all the fruits of their labour. And to be quite honest, unforgettable.
Yes, The Lonely Planet got it right! Vipava Valley is one of Europe’s most amazing undiscovered destinations!
For our part, we left the Valley happily reborn. We will return. We will return regularly!
Because what you get from Vipavska Rebula is a sincere feeling.
One that embodies the valleys spontaneous natural energy. A place where creative spirits live for their winemaking and where their wines live for them. Life-saving and life-giving. Reflective. Respectful. Imaginative. Innovative. Uniquely Identifiable. Totally Enjoyable :)
[A poem by THENATIVEGRAPES 2018 :) ]
Immersed in captivity,
4,080 minutes between cellar, hill and plain.
Time enough for rock, soil and air
to light ‘The Flame’.
A vocal, soulful, resonating amber hue,
That in a place of shelter, burns still,
That in a place of love, burns true.
Barbara & Nina – Franc & Alenka (Slavček) – Valter & Clemen (Mlečnik) – Edvard & Ivi (Svetlik) – Primož & Mateja (Burja Estate) – Miha (Batič) – Zmago (Guerila)