The next Tuscany?

DOBROVO, Slovenia — Among the verdant, grape-laden lands that have been suggested as the next big destination for travelers in search of la dolce vita, Slovenia’s Brda region makes a convincing candidate — and not just because locals have started planting olive trees by the sides of roads.

“In 100 years we have changed our market three to four times,” said Toni Gomiscek, manager of the Vinoteka Brda in Dobrovo, a partnership of winemakers in Brda. As they made wines to satisfy their various rulers, north, south and east, the farmers of Brda learned to satisfy different tastes. As Slovenia turned west with its independence from Yugoslavia, “in the last 20 years people are turning their attention on the wine,” Gomiscek said.

As Gomiscek explained the region’s tortured history, he poured wine made from 10 varieties of grapes, all from within a region of about 30 square miles. Dobrovo, where the vinoteca is run in the village castle’s cool cellar, sits on one hill among many rolling hills topped by quaint villages. While the white wines are made from both well-known (chardonnay, pinot grigio) and local (rebula and sauvignonasse) varieties, the reds include only those grapes that would look at home on an American supermarket shelf: merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, syrah and pinot noir. At the end of the 19th century, Gomiscek explained, Brda’s Austro-Hungarian rulers ordered that the “American” vines planted after the phylloxera crisis be torn out and replaced with grapes popular internationally, mostly French grafts of Bordeaux and Burgundy varieties. Before then, the local wines were made by sharecroppers and immediately sold. The new wines were made to satisfy the tastes of the Austrian market.

Brda borders Italy’s Friuli region, and was a part of it during the first half of the 20th century. Local roads still connect the two countries, where they always have, and the border is impossible to spot between the patchwork fields. The region is well-suited to growing merlot and cabernet franc, popular with Italians and important for export.

But after World War II, when Brda became part of Slovenia and, thus, Yugoslavia, the winemaking economy changed dramatically. As Gomiscek tells it, the counts who had owned the land fled to nearby cities and no one was allowed to own more than 10 hectares of vineyards. With such small harvests and no cellars, farmers sold their grapes to cooperatives, which produced wine for the Yugoslav market. Meanwhile, the farmers also grew vegetable crops to feed their families.

“Land was divided between Italy and Yugoslavia in a very crazy way,” Gomiscek said. “No one was controlling the amount of hectares you had on the other side of the border.” The farmers were given special permits to cross the border and work the land, selling as much as they needed to support the activity on the Italian side and bringing the rest back home.

Brda’s history of being passed from one empire to another led its winemakers to develop a taste for different types of wines than those made in other parts of Slovenia and Yugoslavia. But a natural disaster put the region’s farmers on the path to becoming boutique producers with their own style and flare, making small batches behind bright, cheery villas.

“In 1976, there was an earthquake and a lot of small houses were destroyed,” Gomiscek said. “Everyone got a new house with little garage boxes. Everyone started to make wines.” When Yugoslavia broke apart in 1991, and Slovenia relatively peacefully became an independent nation, the winemakers could suddenly get bottles and corks. “Then all this started to change. We realized our wine from Brda has a style that suits the international palate.”

Now, Gomiscek said, “they start to work in the cellar when they are able to walk. You can have technological knowledge, but normally it is not enough. You must have a heart for the wine.” In addition to heart, or whatever it is that created the delicious and diverse wines on offer in the Dobrovo Vinoteka, “equally important is making a story,” said Dimitrij Piciga, general director of the Slovenian Tourist Board. Pressing into my hands a copy of “Wines of Slovenia,” a sleek pocket guide, he said that cuisine and wine is an easy way to promote the small country as a whole. Slovenians like to say that they “eat like Italians, work like the Germans and enjoy life like Slovenians.”

But it would not suit Brda’s winemakers to create a singular style, aping the Italian wines just over the border. The region is so small, in the end, that supplying big chain supermarkets is out of the question. Instead winemakers aim to supply restaurants and attract tourists.

So Gomiscek doesn’t resent the comparison to Tuscany: “You know, everywhere there is a ‘Venice.’ Maybe Tuscany was the first area east of France to define wine tourism. Now [Germans and Austrians] say they have Tuscany so close to their doors.”

And about those olive trees — they are not just a strategic ploy to play up Brda’s Italianate atmosphere. Back in 1929, the region was filled with olive trees. During the Great Depression, they were cut down for fuel. With newfound wealth and a growing wine economy, the olive trees are growing again.