Border regions are always the most interesting. “Conventional wisdom” can’t really exist, as the notion of conventional in one culture is constantly being challenged by the conventions of the other.
These thoughts occurred to me as I stood deep inside the dark and crowded cellar under the Slovenian home of Aleš Kristančič, the man behind the wine brand Movia. Kristančič was about to pop the hatch of a barrel of his strange and wonderful wine called Lunar. I say hatch, a word not commonly associated with barrels, because that’s what it was. These barrels, which had been specially modified, looked like plump, wooden minisubmarines. The opening atop the barrel was extra wide to be able to accept a flow of whole, biodynamically grown Ribolla Gialla grapes (a native white variety of the region). After the barrels have been filled, the hatch clamps down to create a seal, and then at some point spontaneous fermentation begins. Over a year later, Kristančič will open the hatch and decant the wines off the dead skins.
“It’s the only wine in the world that nature is the winemaker,” said Kristančič, who is wiry, bald, and, like his wines, overflowing with energy. “The only times man touches it is to put the grapes in and take the wine out.” He poured me a taste. A pale but luminous orange in color, the wine had deep and delicate flavors of dried herbs, mineral, earth, and citrus peel. It was a completely natural, fascinating, and original wine from a region that is equally fascinating and original.
Kristančič’s region, Friuli, sits at the farthest northern tip of the Adriatic on Italy’s northeastern corner, an area far in style and habit from the Tuscan ease most people associate with Italy. The pristine seaside city of Trieste anchors the region to the southeast, with Udine in the northwest and Venice in the southwest. The Austrian Alps fence in the region to the north, and Slovenia lies to the east. From some of the best hilltop vineyards, one can see both the sparkling Adriatic and the towering snow-capped Alps, the two forces that create the climate perfect for white wine. Friuli’s naturally warm climate is tussled over by the cool, dry winds from the Alps and the balmy air from the sea. Wine grapes thrive here.
And the profusion of white wine grapes that comes from this little region is astounding. Sauvignon Blanc is zesty and pungent. Malvasia makes a wine of incredible perfume and the scent of ripe apricots. Ribolla Gialla makes a stout white wine that is leavened by incredible acidity. Friulano (until recently known as Tocai Friulano) is lower acid, with flavors of nuts and herbs. Picolit and Verduzzo make thick, warm, sweet wines.
But it’s the complexity and creativity that exist at the confluence of Italian and Slovenian cultures that makes this region extremely fascinating. Some wines skew Italian. That is, they are made in a style as sleek and modern as any classically Italian product like pointy leather shoes and sharklike sports cars. They are very clean and elegant. The Sauvignon and Malvasia of Venica are great examples of this: crisp with vibrancy and richness. These wines are brilliant for their economy and precision.
But there’s another strain of winemaking here that comes from a different school of thought, a strange and wonderful, exceedingly sheltered, Slavic sensibility. This style uses old wooden barrels instead of stainless steel tanks. It prizes intuition and folk wisdom over science. This is reflected in the wines of Movia: The current vintage of the reds like Merlot is 2004, as it spends an unheard-of five years in barrel, yet magically retains freshness while becoming exceedingly complex. The style also shows in the famous wines of Joško Gravner, which are fermented on the skins in massive terra cotta amphorae that are made for Gravner in the former Soviet republic of Georgia and are buried in his cellar with only their open tops emerging from the floor. These wines—and others like them—become a bit like Movia’s: salmon-colored, fragrant, mineral, and a perplexing blend of heavy and light. There’s nothing like them in the world; they’re completely unconventional. But that’s understandable. When two entirely different cultures and languages meet, convention is always the first thing to go.