The Balkans Revisited (Sept. 7, 2019)

I still find it hard to reconcile the notion of someone importing wines from the Balkans to Israel. It's like, they're a niche wine producing country and we're a niche wine producing countries, and niche players shouldn't be trading with each other. Well, I'm wrong on a few counts and I know it. Wine lovers and producers in niche countries can learn as much from other niche players as from the mainstream wine producing countries - to a certain extent, even more, like how to mix heritage and modernism and how to market your country. Anyway, I no longer think of the Balkans as a niche, but rather a landscape with a very rich history of winemaking, albeit one that was iced by Communist regimes and then civil war. To paraphrase what I've said in the past, their wine culture is as deep and valid as that of their neighbors across the Adriatic Sea.

(Also, it's pretty provincial to label one's own country a niche.)

The only thing that is a "niche" about Balkan wines is the fact that their whites see a lot of skin contact. But that technique is part of their heritage and my guess is made sense to do that in the past, when wine storage was a shaky proposition.

My second tasting at Saro Imports as enjoyable and educational as any I've been to in recent years. Probably more, because everything is still so new to me, but I now have enough background knowledge to actively participate in conversation with co-owners Eran Elhalal and Ido Levran. Plus I can make more sense of the wines, their flavors and aromas, their structure, and how they relate to styles of wine I'm more familiar with.

Kobal, Slovenia, ┼áipon, 2017

Hailing from Podravje, a relatively cool-climate region in northeast Slovenia, Kobal is a star producer who is quite successful in exporting his ware. ┼áipon is the same grape as the Hungarian Furmint and the wine sees 36 hours of skin contact. It was a wine I liked at the last tasting as a light, summer drink. It's still a lovely summer drink, only it's fuller and more persistent now, with grapefruit, white flowers and a light pungency on both nose and palate. 75 NIS.

Jeruzalem Ormoz, Slovenia, Sipon, 2017

The only true quaffer in the lineup, nothing long or complex here, just a fun summer wine, with tart, white fruit and lively acidity. 65 NIS.

Scurek, Slovenia, Jakot, Gredic, 2016

This is made of Sauvignonasse, a grape formerly known as Tocai Friulano. Scurek calls the wine Jakot - a private joke targeting the European Union ordnance that forced the Slovenians to change the name of the grape. Gredic is the name of vineyard (in the north western wine district of Primorskawhere the vines average a very respectable 50 years of age. The wine undergoes 12 hours of skin contact. As always, there is a contrast here between ripeness and a very dry body with loads of exotic minerals and spices. There’s an unresolved interaction of ripe and bitter flavors on the finish. 95 NIS.

Scurek, Slovenia, Sauvignon Blanc, 2016

From the same area of Solvenia, sourced from 40 year old vines, this undergoes a week of skin contact. The result is a captivating and challenging display of funky minerals. Think of the smoky exterior of Pouilly-Fume combined with the stony reserve of a Graves white. Then dial down any trace of overt fruitiness and thrown in a hint of cured meats. That gets you within a timezone or two of how Sauvignon behaves with skin contact. New Zealand is a planet that doesn’t exist in the same universe. 100 NIS.

Kobal, Slovenia, White Reserve, 2015

Half Chardonnay, half Gewurtztraminer, going through 3-5 days of skin contact and fermentation with indigenous yeast,. What you get is the fragrance of Gewurtz, ie rose petals and a touch of ginger, while the Chardonnay tempers the grape's usual blunt attack in mid-palate. 135 NIS.

Toreta, Croatia, Posip sur lie, 2016

And we jump to the Dalmatian islands in Croatia, for a wine made of the local Posip grape, which sees 24 hours of skin contact followed by 14 months of aging sur lieThe is the kind of wine that rewards the search for new areas. First, the nose. Simply wonderful, with a set of aromas so new to me that I don't have the vocabulary for them. The palate is concentrated and full of verve due to the acidity, which is the result of the high difference in temperature during the day. Absolutely captivating and magical. 160 NIS.

Guerila, Slovenia, Retro, 2017

From a high, steep vineyard in Vipava in western Slovenia, this is a field blend of Rebula, Zelen, Pinela and Malvasia, undergoing 5 days of skin contact and aging on lees in a 2000 liter foudre. Just as weird as the Posic, its magic arguably less convincing, for me, anyway. Others liked more - I totally understand that and it has the potential to turn out to be just as exotic as the Posic. 200 NIS

Stekar, Slovenia, Morus, Alba, 2016

An orange wine from the Slovenia-Friuli border. Morus is a daughter label of the Stekar winery. Alba is made of 50 year old Sivi Pinot (Pinot Grigio) and goes through 30 days of skin contact. This is a wine that combines funky, nigh-dirty aromatics with a clear and focused structure. 140 NIS.

Scurek, Slovenia, Dugo, 2013

Depending on your inclination, this stretch of orange wines might be the highlight or the nadir of the evening. I'm not a great fan of orange wines, but I adore the Dugo, a blend of Rebula, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc that is kept on the skins for 14 days. 180 NIS.

Scurek, Slovenia, Kontra, 2016

The Kontra is a blend of Chardonnay and Rebula that is kept on its own skins and the remnants of the Dugo for ten months - an orange Ripasso, if you will. The result, surprisingly, is actually more refined than the Dugo, even lyrical. It’s as though someone took the basic character of an orange wine, dialed it down and added more fresh juice. 220 NIS.

Santomas, Slovenia, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2017

This is an unoaked Cabernet Sauvignon from northwest corner of Slovenia and it feels more a Beaujolais Cru than a Cabernet. 95 NIS.

Benmosche Family, Croatia, Plavac Mali, 2014

From a very steep vineyard in the Dalmatian peninsula, and made of the Plavac Mali grape, this definitely feels like a warm weather red, sturdy yet soft. 220 NIS.