There’s an illustration of a man with an erect penis on the bottle’s label. I’m looking at it (and holding it – the bottle) while the winemaker explains that’s how he likes to make his wine. I think he means ‘naturally, with nothing added’, rather than in the buff and aroused. Nearby, another winemaker tells me he supplies one of England’s trendiest restaurants, Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in Bray. Another tells me he macerates his white grapes for a year. He also makes a sparkling wine that’s breaking down political boundaries... The thing these conversations have in common is they all concern the single, little-known grape variety Ribolla Gialla/Rebula. So has this ancient white variety from the Italy-Slovenia border suddenly become sexy and sought-after again?
If the Slovenian section at Vinitaly, Verona’s huge annual wine fair, is anything to go by, then yes. It was the variety that I heard asked for most. It was sought-out by young men and women who were excited and eager to try the daughter of Traminec and Gouais Blanc (also a parent of Chardonnay),
“The popularity of Rebula experienced this year at Vinitaly is no coincidence, but follows a number of years of hard work and, of course, a lot of presentations of the variety and our region,” winemaker Matjaž Ščurek told me.
He continued: “Rebula certainly has the ability to become one of the most important wines. Although the cultivation of the vines is quite a challenging job, the grapes produce a very pleasant acidity and a wide variety of wines.”
Rebula is not a grape variety I knew much about before visiting Vinitaly, so I drank my way through the different variations – from sparkling to fresh and dry, from macerated and orange to aged in oak, concluding with a sweet version made from dried grapes (like those pictured at the top of the page). Along the way I learned all I could about this bitter-skinned variety and the region it calls home.
I began my in-depth education with a sparkling version called Rebolium Sinefinis, which is made from Rebula grown in Slovenia and from its namesake, Ribolla Gialla, grown across the border in Italy. It was made by friends, Matjaž Četrtič from Slovenian winery Ferdinand and Robert Princic from Italian winery Gradis’ciutta. Both are from winemaking families either side of the Italy-Slovenia border and both wanted to make a wine that reconnected their two regions, Collio and Goriška Brda – the only two regions where Ribolla Gialla/Rebula is found in reasonable quantities (see below).
For most of their history, these two regions were in the same country. Even under the Hapsburgs and Napoleon they remained together. Only in 1947, with the Treaty of Paris, were the families and vineyards split by a state border. One part went to the former Yugoslavia and the other part remained in Italy.
Matjaž and Robert launched the sparkling wine ‘Rebolium Sinefinis’ in 2012. The Latin name means ‘Rebula without borders’, and uses the name for Rebula from the Middle Ages, when it was the key grape around Friuli and all the way south to Istria (now part of Croatia).
There are lots of historical documents from the 14th century that show this was the most important grape in the area, being used to seal peace treaties as well as friendships. Over the subsequent decades its popularity went on a rollercoaster ride, reaching great heights at the end of the 18th century and mid-19th century (when it was fashionable to drink it as a sweet, cloudy, still-fermenting wine on All Saints’ Day – November 1), and great lows towards the end of the 19th century (when the tradition of drinking it on All Saints’ Day was banned in Udine and phylloxera decimated the vines).
Even after these lows, it picked up a little bit in the early 20th century, with Ribolla taking the lead role in cuvees in Collio, where it was blended with Pogroznica, Pica and Glera in still and sparkling wines. But in the 1960s it started being replaced in vineyards by trendier varieties such as Tocai Friulano, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Traminer and Riesling, and in the 1970s by Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay, until it was reduced to a few pockets around Udine and Gorizia (particularly Oslavia which, according to the book Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Dr José Vouillamoz (2012), is regarded as the spiritual home of the variety).
Slovenian producers, however, kept faith in it. In the 1980s it still accounted for more than 65% of overall production in Goriška Brda. Today, Rebula is still the mostly widely planted variety in Goriška Brda (accounting for about a third of the region’s harvest) and in Vipavska Dolina (the Vipava Valley) it is the most widely planted white variety.
There are two reasons for this. Firstly, when made in the modern style “without skins” and in stainless steel tanks, it produces a very pleasant, simple, clean, fresh wine, with mineral undertones, subtle floral aromas and high acidity. Secondly, it has a lot more to offer in the right winemaker’s hands and the high acidity means it can age well with interesting results.
As well as making the sparkling wine Sinefinis and a ‘fresh version’, Matjaž also makes two more complex Rebulas. One involves ageing the wine in 500L oak barrels (puncheons) and the other involves long maceration, following the tradition in this region before fresh and simple wines became fashionable. “We try to communicate Rebula in many ways,” Matjaž told me, as I cruised through his fascinating flight of wines.
The 10,000 bottles of the fresh version he produces annually are simply called Ribolla Gialla. The 4,000 bottles of Ribolla Gialla Reserva have undergone about 24 hours of maceration, followed by gentle pressing and cold settling in stainless steel tanks for 24-30 hours. The fermentation is started in stainless steel tanks and moved to oak barrels after three days. It stays in these barrels until the following August, with the lees being stirred fairly frequently during the first three months. “This releases fine yeast lees that enrich the wine,” explained Matjaž. At the end of August, the wine is racked to stainless steel tanks, where it ages until bottling in March or April of the following year. It stays in bottles for two years before being released to the market.
Matjaž’s favourite wine, however, is MRR, the long-maceration version. Matjaž describes it as “pretty extreme” as the best grapes from the best vineyards are macerated until the next harvest (the following year). It doesn’t get filtered either.
Like most of the wineries in the region, it’s a family affair. Matjaž runs the business with his brother Iztok (who looks after the books and logistics) and father Marjan (who tends the vines and thins out the clusters to ensure only high-quality grapes are harvested). That leaves Matjaž to make and sell the wine, which is branded ‘Ferdinand’ after his great-grandfather, who was killed in the Second World War. When Matjaž was given the family’s biggest vineyard in 1992, while he was still a teenager, he replanted it with Rebula, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot vines, producing his first wines in 1997.
The family has always believed in minimal intervention, so it was relatively easy to gain biodynamic certification. They are also lucky in having what Matjaž considers the most suitable sites. “Rebula is suitable for just some very poor terrains in hilly parts with the right marl soil to produce the right quality,” he said. His suitably poor ‘opoka’-soil sites in Kojsko, Šmartno and Snežatno are on terraces 150-300m above sea level, so the grapes receive plenty of sunshine and disease-deterring breezes. The big drop in temperature at night also helps the grapes to retain their acidity and develop the subtle floral aromas.
The aim of the family is not only to make wines that honour their great-grandfather’s name but also the region where the grapes grow. Sip by sip, their passion for the variety and the region were becoming more understandable…
Goriška Brda is a stunningly beautiful area between Slovenia’s watersports wonderland, the Soča River, the Idrija River, and Friulian lowlands. It’s on a latitude north of Bordeaux and south of Burgundy, between the Julian Alps and the Adriatic Sea. It’s where the Mediterranean and the Alps shake hands, according to another leading producer in the region, Marjan Simčič, Another producer, Marko Skočaj, explained the benefits of the location this way: “The Mediterranean gives body to the wine, while the mountain breeze preserves their freshness.”
The mountains are about 40km to the north while the coastal resorts of Slovenian Istria are about 30km to the south. Goriška Brda is an area of 72sq km dominated by two steep hills, Sabotin in the east and Korada in the north. These are the Brda hills where approximately 6,000 inhabitants live, mostly in villages encircling little white churches and overlooked by old castles.
As well as selecting the most suitable slopes for the variety and the best clones with the smallest yellow berries, the new generation of Rebula winemakers is also reducing yields by switching from double to single Guyot training systems and green harvesting. Before Slovenia gained independence from Yugoslavia in June 1991, most of the vines were left with 20-30 buds after pruning but now it’s more likely to be 10-15 buds.
“A few years ago Rebula was mainly used for lower quality wines and, of course, for quantitative purposes,” Matjaž Ščurek explained, as we sipped his family’s Rumena Rebula, “But it is now realised that with proper cultivation of grapes in the vineyard, it produces a very good quality wine. At least we think so.”
I was thinking so too by now, as I compared the fresh and more complex versions. Tasting them side by side, in front of signs reading ‘Rebula? Yes!!!’, the fresh versions that stood out came from Ščurek, Marjan Simčič, Edi Simčič and smaller producers Pulec, Zanut, and Mužič. Of the more complex versions, the top examples, for me, were Ferdinand’s MRR, Movia’s Rebula Lunar and Marjan Simčič’s Ribolla Selekcija. I liked their deep amber colour, honeyed-fruit flavours, hint of nuttiness, rich minerality and thick texture. Lunar is made as naturally as possible with late-harvested whole berries fermented in specially-adapted barriques. After eight months or so the wine is bottled without filtering or added sulphites at the next full moon. Winemaker Aleš Kristančič has to decant it before serving it.
For Selekcija, the late-harvested berries (early October) are fermented in a 3,000L barrel, left on skins for six months, and aged for 18 months in 500L barrels. The wine is then bottled without filtration.
Somewhere in the middle of the two diverse styles is Marko Skočaj’s “extremely dry, so you can taste the terroir” Dolfo Rumena Rebula. This wine undergoes three days of maceration, during fermentation by indigenous yeast. After pressing, the fermentation continues in stainless steel tanks, so it’s the terroir that shines through. “My heart is tick-tock for terroir,” Marko explained, as I swirled his wine in my mouth.
The lees are stirred regularly until the first racking in January. The wine then spends a year on fine lees before being bottled. These are the bottles carrying the sketch of a naked man to show how natural the wine is. Marko says they are blessed with great natural conditions (soil, location and weather): “Our task is to learn how to use all these natural advantages to achieve an above-average quality.”
Like Matjaž at Ferdinand, Marko named his wine after his grandfather, Dolfo. Also like Matjaž, Marko took over the family winery as a teenager (at the age of 19 in 1986). He now has 4ha in Italy and 10ha in Slovenia, producing 50 hectolitres a year – the same amount that Matjaž Ščurek’s great-grandfather was producing from 1ha! How things have changed!
The biggest producer in the region is the co-operative Vinska Klet Goriška Brda (the Goriška Brda Wine Cellar). The cellar in Dobrovo was built in 1957 and has a capacity of 170,000 hectolitres. It’s owned by 540 growers who harvest 8,000 to 10,000 tons of grapes a year. Approximately 24% of the vines are Rebula.
The winemaker, Darinko Ribolica, has been leading the changes there, insisting on lower yields to improve the quality, and fermenting the grapes at lower temperatures to retain more of the freshness. The co-op has three Rebulas: Rebula Bagueri – a full-bodied, zingy wine which benefits from 30% of the grapes, from the best vineyards, being fermented in French barriques and 20% being matured in oak; Rebula Quercus – a lively, fresh Rebula that has only seen stainless steel; and Peneča Rebula – a sparkling wine with the secondary fermentation taking place in a Charmat tank.
The only sweet wine made from Rebula grapes that I tasted in Verona came from Marjan Simčič, who has 12ha of vineyards in Slovenia and six in Italy. Leonardo is an exceptional wine by any standards. Named after Marjan’s son, Leonardo is made from late-harvested, carefully selected Rebula grapes that are air-dried until April, fermented, and then the wine is aged for 30 months in oak barrels. The result is a silky smooth, well-balanced sweet wine with aromas of apricot, fig and orange peel, and a dried apricot, roasted almond, toffee, caramelised apple and marmalade flavour. The wine, which is paired with jelly and ice-cream and macerated strawberries and shortbread biscuit on the Fat Duck tasting menu, somehow retains the variety’s characteristic slight bitterness in its long, long finish. When it was named Wine of the Year in the 2012 Sommelier Wine Awards, the judges said: “An oxidised Slovenian dessert wine made out of dried Ribolla grapes might be a tough sell. But, my god, it’s worth the effort. Simply outstanding.”
To complete my education, I discovered that biodynamic producer Movia also makes a grappa from Rebula. Winemaker Aleš Kristančič, who has 22ha of land, half in Collio and half in Goriška Brda, processes the marc while it is still fresh and soft.
Since returning from Vinitaly, I have also tasted some Rebula from the neighbouring Vipava Valley. Damjan Štokelj makes a lovely dessert wine from dried Rebula grapes (they're his grapes at the top of the page) and biodynamic producer Batič (Miha and father Ivan) make a savoury orange wine by blending Rebula with other rare indigenous varieties such as Pinela, Zelen, Vitovska and Klarnica – varieties still waiting for their time to come. Unlike Rebula.
Rebula? Definitely yes!!! In all its variations.
Why? Because, as Miha Batič says, “We have come to the realisation that the taste of wine is of secondary importance, while the feeling left after a sip of wine is of primary importance.” And right now, after tasting my way through the full spectrum of Rebula wines, I am feeling fantastic.
Ribolla Gialla in Italy...
In Italy, it’s more difficult to find Ribolla Gialla/Rebula as a decent single varietal. The exceptions all seem to come from Oslavia, near Gorizia. The main producers are Radikon, Primosic, Princic, La Castellada, Fiegl, Il Carpino and Josko Gravner. Gravner ferments his essentially biodynamic grapes (although he would never describe them as such) in ancient clay amphorae from Georgia. These are buried outdoors. After fermentation, he stores the wine for several years in large oak barrels. Josko has 18ha under vine. He doesn’t add yeast and he only adds the tiniest amount of sulphur dioxide to preserve his wine. He doesn’t believe in temperature control or filtering either. He does, however, believe in minimal intervention and long skin contact (up to seven months for his Ribolla Gialla).
His Ribolla Gialla vines are up to 80 years old. The result is a dense yellow wine with amber highlights, hints of honey, big, complex flavours and an even bigger body. It’s a long way from Rebolium Sinefinis but, in its own way, it breaks down boundaries.
Another Italian producer of Ribolla Gialla that I like is La Castellada, which makes wine from 10ha of organically grown grapes in Collio, 180m above sea level.
This winery’s story starts in 1956, when innkeeper Giuseppe Bensa bought a small piece of land to produce his own wine. His sons, Giorgio and Nicolò, took over the winery in the late 1970s. Nowadays it’s Nicolò and his son, Stefano, who run the show at La Castellada. We like their attitude. “I can best summarise my philosophy in a Slovenian phrase: ‘Respect and appreciate all that surrounds you and you will be rewarded’,” says Nicolò.
They believe in low yields, spontaneous, open-vat fermentation, prolonged skin contact, aging in oak sur lie, and bottling without filtration or sulphur dioxide treatment. The exact amounts and timing of each will depend on the grapes. Each lot is treated individually and with respect.
The result is a complex Ribolla Gialla with earthy notes and a combination of herbs and yellow fruit – and further proof that this grape variety has amazing properties. Especially if you like your dry white wines richly layered and more savoury than fruity. The only thing holding it back, according to Matjaž Četrtič, is its current small production.