Most of us, regardless of our experience with wine, feel pretty confident we know what wine is. There’s wine out there, though, that challenges these basic assumptions.
Some of it, ironically, is more wine-like than the stuff that hews closer to our notion of what wine ought to taste like.
That’s the way I’ll introduce the Slovenian wines of Kabaj, made a stone’s throw from the Italian border by a remarkable man who was born and raised in Bordeaux before he went to formerly Soviet Georgia to study amphora-based winemaking and then settled in Brda.
Brda means “hills” in Slovenian, as “colli” means “hills” in Italian. Brda, Slovenia, occupies the same hills as Collio in Friuli, Italy.
Jean-Michel Morel is an exacting, uncompromising man. When he married the Slovenian woman whose family, named Kabaj, had grown grapes in Brda to sell for decades, he knew what he wanted his wines to be – and not be.
“Most wine is not real wine,” he told me when I stood in his vineyards 18 months ago.
So, what’s “real” wine? For Morel, it’s dense, dry, stable, demanding. Most of the Kabaj wines use white-wine grapes, but Morel treats them like reds: Crushed grapes macerate (rest on their skins) for up to 30 days (five to seven days is the longest most white wines macerate), ferment with native yeasts in large oak tanks and undergo full malolactic fermentation in barrique (relatively small used-oak barrels).
They age for a year or more on their lees before being bottled unfiltered.
Morel’s Amfora wine is vinified in qveri, the traditional Georgian 3,500-liter clay amphorae, for 10 months before going into oak for another year.
Usually when one reaches for a white wine, one is seeking freshness, fruit, intimations of delicacy, and a sort of prickly, lively quality. Kabaj wines do not satisfy any of these criteria.
They’re vital but subdued, contemplative, heavyset, with some of the personality of dry sherry, the rich textural spectrum of Bordeaux, and the taste profiles of food itself, as it’s eaten rather than food flavors in abstract.
Deeply amber-colored, their moods are almost impossibly relaxed, unhurried. There’s a kind of fierceness to them, a reluctance to please, a power that is startling given the low 13 percent alcohol.
Like Morel himself, the wines are exacting, fundamental, massive, grounded, focused.
They’re about excellence. Whenever I drink them, I feel rewarded and calmed rather than entertained and excited; mature rather than modern.
When I visited the winery that September, Morel drove me around bumpy roads on hot days in a car that had cases of his wine in the trunk. I asked why and he said it was to confirm for him the wines’ stability, their ability to withstand whatever came their way. These wines are that rugged, that secure. Bottles left open for days taste the same as when the cork was first pulled.
They’re not for everyone. I’ve drunk Kabaj wines with different people, and a good number simply do not enjoy them. That’s OK. Not all wines are for all people. Kabaj wines are like a doctoral program for the building blocks of wine at its core: primal, mineral, elemental.
Three Kabaj wines are available in Maine, thanks to Devenish Wines, which has picked up parts of the portfolio of Central European wines imported by Blue Danube Wine Co. Drink them all at close to room temperature, and take your time.
Start with Ravan 2010 ($25), made from the Tocai Friulano grape. It is greener and fresher than the others (some Slovenians call this varietal “green Sauvignon,” with good reason), and will more immediately refer to your touchstones for a white wine.
The aromatics speak intensely of peaches, green grapes and underripe strawberries. There’s a tone of vanilla and slight caramel that every over-oaked Chardonnay tries but fails to achieve. Seventy percent of the wine hits in the last 20 percent of the tasting arc, splintering into smoky shards of fractured color.
The Rebula 2010 ($25) is extraordinary. Made from the grape called Ribolla Gialla in Italy, it is austere, briny and marmalade-y, and it suffers no fools: pinpoint acidity, with the spice, dried-herb and dark-cherry elements of a red wine. I’ve drunk it with almonds, green olives and Tarentaise cheese; with roasted vegetables; with chicken; with mussels; with meatloaf (!), and it’s stunning every time. A wine for those who are uncompromisingly devoted to uncompromising wine.
Finally, Amfora 2006 ($90). This is the reason Morel makes wine, and though the price tag will dissuade most from pursuing it, those who take the leap will be transformed. Morel vinifies Rebula, Tocai Friulano and Malvasia separately in the clay amphorae, then blends, works and waits – tasting, thinking, making alterations.
It speaks from centuries ago, with grandeur and authority. Its flavors include compote, black tea, meat, cologne, grape, worn wood, wet and dry clay. Texturally, it is seamless and vast. Unlike the other non-red Kabaj wines, light tannins show.
If you taste this and still need to ask, “What is ‘real’ wine?” you’ll never know.