We left Venice at 10:00 a.m. after a short stay in that magical city. Because it is impossible to rent a car in Italy and drop it off in our final country, I found a great service (Ondaytrip.com) to drive us to what i told my wife was “city 2 and City 3.” As we set out in the car, she thought we were going somewhere else in Italy. As we continued on the freeway, the signs pointed the way to the Italian cities of Udine and Trieste. Along the road there were miles and miles of grape vines, leading her to conclude we were visiting some northern Italian wineries. Cagey man that I am, I did not correct any of these impressions and merely grunted every time she made a guess.
She wasn’t wrong in terms of the direction we were traveling – north and east of Venice – and the famous wine regions that can be found in that direction. But before we arrived in Italian wine country, we veered due east and took some small roads through the beautiful countryside at the foot of the Dolomite mountains. One minute we were in Italy, the next minute we were in Slovenia. Twenty-five years ago, this crossing would have been much more momentous and could not have happened in such a sneaky manner. Back then, the trip would have been from Italy to Yugoslavia, which was one of the Soviet-bloc countries and had much stricter border control. Today, Slovenia is a member of the E.U. and the borders are open, unmanned and require no surrendering of passports or other documentation.
After we crossed the border, we meandered through the Slovenian countryside for a few miles before turning off on a small road and making our way a narrow mountain road. Halfway to the top we pulled into a parking lot for an establishment called Kabaj Morel. “What’s this?” asked the missus. “It’s where we’re having lunch,” I told her.
Two weeks before we left on our trip, Jean-Michel Morel, the winemaker at Kabaj Morel, was in San Francisco promoting his Slovenian wines to the California market. A friend met him and got one of his cards for me. I decided that it would be fun to visit since it was only about two hours from Venice and on the way to our next destination. “Where are we?” she asked. “Goriška Brda,” I offered, as if this was helpful information. “That doesn’t sound Italian,” she replied. “What a relief, since we are in Slovenia.”
Any possibility that she might be upset or shocked by being whisked to an obscure winery in Slovenia was erased by the views visible from the parking lot as soon as we got out of the car.
It was as if Napa Valley and Tuscany got together and produced the perfect offspring. Rolling hills covered in grape vines with beautiful houses and a church at the top of almost every hill. We went inside and were greeted by Jean-Michel Morel’s wife Katja Kabaj, whose family has been tending vines in the local area for many generations. Together, they have been bottling their own wine since 1993. Katja told us that lunch would ready in about a half hour and that we should take some wine with us to enjoy on the patio outside overlooking the vineyards. We found the perfect spot with the perfect view and enjoyed a glass of Zeleni Sauvignon, which translates to “Green Sauvignon” but we would call it Sauvignon Blanc in the United States.
When we were called in for lunch, Katja told us we could choose between a five-course lunch, with each course pairing a different Slovenian offering from their Kabaj label, or we could order any of the items from the course menu and have it a la carte. We chose the five-course menu, naturally, which turned out to be the absolute right decision. Each course was an authentic Slovenian dish made from locally-sourced, seasonal ingredients, but accentuated with a modern touch.
For each course, Katja brought a different wine and explained how it was produced, how long it was aged, in what type of barrel, etc. We were blown away by the uniqueness and quality of these wines. In terms of color, aroma and flavor, they were not at all similar to anything we are used to consuming in Napa Valley or other U.S. wine regions. Many of the white wines were, well, not so white – they had more orange and in some cases brown hues, a result of the process of “maceration” where the juice is left in contact with the skins for extended periods of time. Almost all of the Kabaj wines have long maceration periods to extract impressive colors and deep flavor.
The wines shown above are what we would traditionally think of as white wine. We also tasted one of their red wines, a blend, and it had a very nice balance of fruit, earthiness and minerality.
We stayed at Kabaj for 4 1/2 hours and left well fed and most definitely over the 0.08 alcholol limit, which made us very happy that our driver Barbara was at the wheel. We felt a little bit bad for her that she could not drink with us, but felt better about the decision as we headed east out of the wine region and across some windy roads to our intermediate destination, Ljublana, the capital of Slovenia. It was dark when we arrived so we asked Barbara, who lives in the town, to take us somewhere where we could see the city lights and enjoy a bit of the evening ambiance. We started at the castle, which sits high above Ljublana with near-360-degree views of the capital city.
We then went into town and walked along the river and down some of the streets where there were many bars and restaurants and people sitting on outside terraces.
We did not have enough time to enjoy Ljublana and will definitely go back on our next trip to this region. It looked like the kind of town where a two night stay would be very enjoyable. But we were on a mission – heading east again – and left the capital city after about an hour and a half. “Where are we going now?” asked the wife. “You’ll see soon,” I told her. It would have been nice to sneak her across another border, but this time we were traveling to a country with a traditional border control/passport inspection. After surrendering our passports for a few minutes, we were in Croatia and on the short drive to Zagreb. Despite the long day, the wife was still smiling and told me as we drove to the hotel: “You’re 2 for 2.” Let’s see how long I can keep that streak going.
October 25, 2016