The itinerary was a moving target, changing almost up until the moment we jumped in the car. “We” being two Slovenian wine loving friends and myself – holed up in a film studio in Maribor for the week, and dying to get out into Slovenian Styria’s vineyards on the Saturday.
That Saturday was the 14th March – one of the last days before Europe started its inexorable retreat into corona-lockdown.
Our target was to visit all of Štajerska (Slovenian Styria)’s biodynamic/Demeter-certified winemakers. Unfortunately two of the prime movers, Božidar Zorjan and Rado Šuman, were both committed to attend a Demeter symposium in Germany over the weekend. Instead, visits were scheduled with biodynamic pioneer Aci Urbajs (Demeter certified since 1999) and Šumenjak – an organic certified grower close to Maribor, also making delicious natural wines.
Srečko Šumenjak was the first to cancel. He didn’t give details, but with a schoolteacher wife he was clearly closer to the frontline than some. The next casualty was the Demeter gathering in Germany. Zorjan and Šuman were grounded – but paradoxically both would now be delighted to receive us. We reconfirmed with Aci and bolted on Miha Keltis (organic but in conversion to Demeter) for good measure.
There was no mention of Covid-19 when we reached Rado Šuman’s bucolic estate near the village of Voličina. Watching newborn lambs frolicking through the vineyards and bees in a mesmerising rhythm of activity, we were in another universe where infectious diseases didn’t exist.
“It’s important that every corner of my vineyards is touched by animals”, Rado explained.
“That’s where energy and lifeforce comes from”.
We tasted pure and precise orange wines (a Sivi Pinot and the Sun Drops blend particularly outstanding) in the cellar, laughed and bemoaned the fact that time was short and the next appointment was calling.
A smiling Božo welcomed us as we pulled up at Zorjan, clutching a home-made disinfectant spray based around his own grape seed oil. We were ritually cleansed, with laughter and good humour. Next on the agenda was a quick walk to Božo’s two hectare enclave of deer – an animal whose behaviour he delights in observing.
“You see the females?” he said gesturing towards a bunch of skinny looking roes.
“They’re all pregnant”.
The deer have a practical use – natural fatalities or surplus males end up as delicious charcuterie and their bladders are used to mature some of the biodynamic preparations.
Corona also felt far away at Zorjan. The estate is isolated and there is an overwhelming feeling of energy and life, both amongst the animals (sheep, deer, dogs) and in the wines.
“There’s no virus to worry about here”, said one of our party brazenly.
It was a grim thought that as the sole international visitor, I was most likely to render that statement false. I didn’t verbalise it.
Driving high into the hills above the hamlet of Rifnik, we reached an isolated wooden cottage and an impossibly steep amphitheatre of wizened vines. This is the home of Aci Urbajs, self-styled “organic anarchist” and natural winemaker. After talking for 20 minutes, he looked thoughtful.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m thirsty” he smiled.
We opened quirky yet superbly refreshing wines that felt outside any other reality than the here and now.
Urbajs, together with his wife and two adult children, live a life which seems so tranquil and otherworldly that even Covid-19 could not break the spell. Yet after three hours, we realised it was time to hit the road.
After 90 minutes of driving on empty roads, we reached Keltis by nightfall. Just minutes from the Croatian border, a wrong turn would have risked a steep fine and a two week quarantine – Croatia was already in lockdown. Miha cracked open a delicious pet nat to satiate our thirsts – and those of his two friends, a local chef and his marketeer girlfriend. His dad Marjan cooked up a storm as we clustered in the kitchen happily chatting.
The tyranny of clockwatching was over – we’d sleep here and return to Maribor the following morning. The party swelled to eight people. After copious libations of lightly macerated Traminer and Pinot Grigio, we sat down to feast on plump blood sausages, sauerkraut and repa (shredded turnip). Out came Miha’s “Cuvée extreme” – a five month macerated white blend that, despite its name, is a silky textured thing of beauty.
The evening continued with an enjoyably inebriated descent to the cellar – glasses in hand, spittoons absent without leave. We returned to the table. More bottles were broached, cigars were lit, some switched to cognac. Conversations intensified, drunken plans were hatched, solemn promises made. We partied almost until dawn.
The next morning, I woke to sunshine and jaw dropping views over the valley. The landscape was deserted, as were the roads we drove home.
It felt like the end of time, as if nothing could ever be the same.