If you look at a map - and here is a map...
... it seems a bit unfair, doesn't it? They have more or less the same climate and terroir as the much more lucrative northern Italy. But then, the 20th century dealt the lands and their wine industry a bad hand, didn't it? The wrong kind of wars and Communism pushed them off the center stage, never mind that these countries never spawned anything like the duchies of Tuscany and Piedmont that put Italy in the limelight. Even the language doesn't trigger the same sense of familiarity as Italian.
What they do have are unique grapes and an even more unique wine-making history. Long before the rise of the trendy "Orange Wines", Balkan winemakers were making white wines with at least some skin contact. The whites taste different, exotic, but I can't really tell if that's due to the characters of the grapes or the effect of skin contact.
Actually, I shouldn't attempt to make any generalizations at all. My actual tasting experience with these wines is woefully limited. The only time I ever sat down to taste the wines seriously was this, my introductory tasting of the Saro Imports portfolio.
Saro is the child of the friendship and partnership of two wine lovers. Eran Elhalal, a former Manhattanite chef originally from Jerusalem and of Bosnian origins (hence the connection to the Balkans), and Ido Levran, with over a decade of experience in Tel Aviv wine bars and stores. They carved a niche where nobody expected to find one - the kind of niche you'd have to be either super trendy or super cheap to sustain. They found a middle ground, good value wines with touches both of Balkan heritage and hipster appeal, and they've been doing very well.
Kobal, Sipon, 2017
From northeast Slovenia, Kobal makes a varietal Sipon, known in Hungary as their national treasure, Furmint. A lean, floral, summer porch wine, with pink grapefruit and pips - whatever it is that the 36 hours of skin contact contribute, it sure wasn't a heavy body or oxidized notes.
Santomas, Malvazija, 2016
This is a Slovenian winery based near the port town of Koper, where I spent a very long summer week three years ago. I drank a lot of Malvasia that week, a wonderfully tasty quaffer. This is the serious version of those summer drinks, an attention grabber, with broad flavored summer fruits and a chalk and burnt matchstick kind of mineral funk (that recalls the best the world of white wines has to offer, without treading any overly familiar grounds). It does have a lot of alcohol, 14.5% ABV that's not noticeable as such, but I do know that it means I have to find a suitable wine evening atmosphere to enjoy the bottle I bought.
Scurek, Jakot, Gredic, 2016
This is another Slovenian property and is the first wine of the night that I find needs some bottle age. It's made of Sauvignonasse, a grape formerly known as Tocai Friulano, before the the European Union took umbrage with the similarity to more vaunted name Tokaj. Scurek calls the wine Jakot - to show what they think of the EU, I guess - and it comes from a vineyard called Gredic where the vines average a very respectable 50 years of age. The wine itself has a sweet attack, recalling apple cider, and a bitter finish tinged with steely minerals.
Sladic, Marastina, 2016
A Croatian wine this time, with a mineral funk that recalls the Santonas, although the overall effect is finer, more refined and nuanced. Think lemons, oysters and bread crust. Marastina is the name of the grape and the vines average a decent age of 35.
Scurek, Dugo, 2013
And here we have the orange wine of the tasting, which I find very alluring, a showcase of a different culture and wine-making personality, a very convincing one. The blend is 50% Ribolla Gialla, 30% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Blanc from vine with an average of 40 years. The fruit is sweetish without being heavy, the nose swathed by minerals and flecked by touches of red fruit.
Steyer, Diseci Traminer, 2016
A Slovenian Gewurztraminer, one that sees 24 hours of skin contact - and if there's one white grape where skin contact is not going to make a huge difference, you can bet it's going to be Gewurtz. This is very typical for the variety: rose petals, ginger, white pepper - with good complexity, dead center between dryness and sweetness.
Phillip Vina, Testudo, 2015
The only red of the tasting, this hails from the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. A marriage of different styles found in the neighbor across the Adriatic sea, I find it a cross between the dusty tar of Piedmont and the sweet cherries and chives of Tuscany. A sweetish attack and a tannic finish, it's nicely balanced and should age nicely in the near-medium term.
Money Changes Everything
The Testudo costs 120 NIS, the Dugo - 180. Everything else will cost between 75 NIS - 95 NIS. Silly prices compared to their peers.