Slovenia’s westerly Primorska region might not seem the most obvious place to visit. None of the country’s most dramatic mountains, ski slopes or major urban centres are here, nor are the dreamy lakes of Bled and Bohinj. Yet Primorska has other pleasures: for food and wine lovers, it is a bucolic paradise – peaceful, beautiful and largely free from mass tourism.
Primorska comprises four sub-regions, all of which hug the Italian border. Ranging from north to south, they are Goriška Brda (literally, the hills of Gorizia), the Vipava valley, Slovenian Kras and finally the coastal spur of Istra which borders Croatian Istria.
Goriška Brda is easily accessible from the small airport of Trieste (sometimes referred to as Ronchi dei Legionari or Montefalcone), a 30-minute drive away. Like most of Primorska, this is a rural area best explored with a car. It’s a two-hour drive from the capital Ljubljana.
Brda is full of handsome hilltop villages, but beautiful Šmartno deserves a special mention. Not only is it one of the most well preserved, with Roman and medieval remains, but it also hosts the popular St Martin’s Day festival every November. With more than 30 local wine-makers and artisan food producers in attendance, there’s no better way to get to know the local fare.
Brda can justly claim the important white grape variety Rebula (known as Ribolla Gialla across the border) as its own – it has a documented history of almost 1,000 years here. Most wineries are small family affairs, often achieving extremely high quality. Movia should feature on any oenophile’s itinerary, not just to enjoy the commanding views from the winery’s balcony out over the Brda hills, but also to listen to charismatic owner Ales Kristančič talk about the history of the estate and to taste top quality Rebula, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (http://movia.si/).
Kmetija Štekar, in the tiny village of Kojsko, is the place for a peaceful farm stay. The view from its terrace over surrounding hills and natural amphitheatres of vines is magical. Janko and Tamara are excellent hosts, and it’s a joy to be able to drink their naturally made macerated white wines (aka orange wines) at source (http://www.kmetijastekar.si/en/house).
Heading south from Brda, the landscape opens up to the impressive limestone cliffs of the Vipava valley. The area is hugely popular with paragliders, and like Brda is also an important grape-growing territory. It’s well worth trekking up to the walled village of Vipavski Križ to get a perspective over the valley and soak in history that goes back to pre-Roman times. Although the village was deserted in the last century, it’s gradually being renovated. The recent opening of Darovi Vipavske in the village’s stunning stone courtyard, a cafe and wine-bar showcasing the area’s best local produce, has given it a boost (https://www.darovivipavske.si/en/).
Vipava can boast a rich history in wine. The famed Slovene priest Matija Vertovec wrote a book in 1844 which details the particular way white grapes were always treated, fermented with their skins like reds to produce what is now usually termed “orange wine” – so named because of its darker, amber-hued colour. Many of Vipava’s best wineries have revived this ancient method to produce orange wines which are strongly characterised and textured, but also beguilingly elegant. Visit Primož Lavrenčič’s Burja winery and marvel at the bare wall of dramatic sedimentary rock, while tasting his delicate and delicious blends. As well as being a talented winemaker, he’s also excellent at animating the region’s history (http://www.burjaestate.com/en).
Kmetija Slavček (http://www.slavcek.si/) is a tiny winery and agriturismo at the other end of the valley. At breakfast, try to find a single ingredient on your plate that travelled more than 50 metres from its origin – the Vodopivec family cure their own pršut (similar to prosciutto)and salami, as well as producing fruit, vegetables and wine.
For a little more luxury, the well-appointed guestrooms at Majerija come recommended, as does its restaurant. The small town of Vipava is nearby and a visit to its centrally located vinoteka will deepen your knowledge of the area’s wines no end (http://izvirna-vipavska.si/en).
Head back into the countryside to eat at Gostilna Theodosius, one of Vipava’s top gastronomic locations. Newly built guest apartments in the woods across the road have picture windows and a sense of real isolation (https://gostilna-theodosius.si/).
The southern side of Vipava climbs to the stony, barren Kras peninsula, which boasts spectacular views down to Trieste and Koper. Kras is famous for its lipsmacking pršut, and many families still produce their own. Splash out on dinner at Devetak, which specialises in traditional Slovene cuisine with a modern slant. It’s technically just over the border, in the Italian Carso. No-one will check your passport. The selection of local wines (Slovene and Italian) is glorious (http://www.devetak.com/en/).
Growing grapes in Kras isn’t easy as there’s almost no topsoil, and huge slabs of limestone have to be excavated to plant vines. It’s worth it, as the stony soils provide exceptional, mineral wines from the local Vitovska and Teran varieties. Top producers in the traditional style include Čotar and Renčel.
Drive for about an hour from Kras to reach Istra and the Adriatic coast. Along the way, stop at restaurant Gordia. Andrej Cep has been a chef for 20 years, and still cooks in the restaurant, but his newer passion is making natural wine. Home-made ravioli and gnocchi pair wonderfully with his macerated Malvazija and sparkling wines.
Bypass Koper (the only sizeable city in the area) and head for the coastal villages of Izola and Piran. Both are jaw-droppingly pretty, although Piran can get overrun in the summer. In Piran, Restaurant Neptun is the locals’ tip for excellent seafood, washed down with characterful orange wines from the likes of Renčel and Radikon.
The cuisine in Primorska is often simple and rustic, but the quality of the local ingredients is so high that there’s no need for adornment. Life still seems to proceed at the kind of leisurely pace most of us only dream about. Forget the itinerary, pour yourself a glass of orange wine and sit back and relax.
Simon J Woolf is the author of Amber Revolution: How The World Learned To Love Orange Wine (Morning Claret Productions, hardback, over 100 colour photographs, £30). It is the first book ever about orange wine: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Amber-Revolution-World-Learned-Orange/dp/1623719666