Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Lunch with Franci Cvetko at his Kogl Winery in Slovenia

Pictures: Christian G.E. Schiller and Franci Cvetko at Kogl Estate in Slovenia

Franci Cvetko is arguably one of the best wine makers in the emerging wine country Slovenia, the most northern former Yugoslav Republic State. He owns and runs Kogl Estate in Velika Nedelja in the Prlekija wine region, in the eastern part of Slovenia.

Recently, on our way from Zagreb in Croatia to Kitzeck in the Suedsteiermark in Austria, we stopped at the Kogl Estate and spent a very entertaining half day with Franci and his family, including a wonderful summer lunch in his garden, overlooking the vineyards.

Frank Dietrich, founder/owner of Blue Danube Wine Company, told me about Franci Cvetko and his Kogl wines, when I visited him in Palo Alto, south of San Francisco in California and he arranged a visit for me. Frank imports Kogl wines into the US.

The Wines of Slovenia

Slovenia is the most advanced wine producer of the former Yugoslav Republic States, because it always had an open door to neighboring Italy and Austria. It was also the first of the former Yugoslav Republic States to emerge as an independent country and find stability. Slovenia is wedged between Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia with a tiny, 40km of it touching the Adriatic Sea in the southwest corner. People have been growing wine in the region since Roman times.

When I lived in Zagreb, traveling from Zagreb to Graz in Austria or Trieste in Italy – through Slovenia – was always like climbing up the quality latter. At that time, Slovenian wines – but not only wines - were clearly ahead of the Croatian wines, but still far away from the qualities you would encounter in Graz or Trieste.

Slovenia has 3 main wine producing regions with a total of 25.000 hectares of vineyard area: (1) The coastal area (Primorska, or Primorje, 7.000 ha), the Sava area (Posavje, 8.000 ha) and the Drava area (Podravje, 10.000 ha). Primorje in the west is the main red producing region. Posavje in the southern center of the country and Podravje in the eastern region produces mainly white wines.

Picture: The Wine Regions of Slovenia

The Kogl winery is located in the Stajerska Slovenija, a sub-area of the Podravje. A tributary of the Danube, the Drava river cuts through the Podravje area in the eastern part of Slovenia.

Stajerska Slovenija

Winemaking in the Stajerska Slovenija – and elsewhere in Slovenia - goes back to the days when Slovenia was part of the Roman Empire. Later, the church played a major role in the wine industry. Until 1918, the Stajerska Slovenija was part of the Austrian Hungarian Empire and the Austrian and the Slovenian Steiermark a unified wine area. "At that time the better wines were made in the Slovenian part of the Steiermark" said Franci. This of course has changed due to 50 years of Yugoslav-style socialism in Slovenia, but "the gap is narrowing" Franci added.

The Kogl Estate has a Long History

The Kogl Estate has a long history, going back several centuries. Franci has the history of the Kogl Estate well documented on a wall of his large dining/tasting room.

Pictures: Christian G.E. Schiller and Franci Cvetko in the Tasting/Dining Room

The first written account of winemaking at Kogl dates from 1542. At that time the owner of the Kogl Estate was the Deutsche Ritterorden and Velika Nedelja was part of the Austrian Hungarian Empire. Except for the last 100 years, the Kogl Estate was Austrian-Hungarian. The Kogl Estate changed hands several times over the years and – closer to more recent times – ownership transferred over the Atlantic to Canada, when the daughter of the owner moved there and then inherited the Estate.

In 1983, Franci Cvetko’s father bought the Kogl Estate from the Canadian owner. Franci had just graduated from a wine making college in Maribor. “The Estate was pretty much run down, when we acquired it” Franci told us. They renovated the building and replanted the vineyards. The first vintage bottled under the Cvetko label was 1987.

Franci Cvetko’s Kogl Estate

The Kogl Estate is situated on a hill above the village of Velika Nedelja, with the vineyards surrounding the winery. The homestead on top of the hill was constructed in 1820 and initially served as a week-end residence.

Pictures: At Franci Cvetko’s Kogl Estate with Franci, Zlatka and Dog Leika

When the Cvetkos took over the Kogle Estate, the vineyard area was much smaller than today, but has continued to grow since then and now totals 10.5 hectares.

Kogl Estate sells about 60% of its production in Slovenia and exports 40% to other European countries and the USA. Slovenia is member of the European Union and uses the Euro as its currency.

In the Vineyard

When you drive up the hill from Velika Nedelja to the Kogl Estete, you pass through the Kogl vineyards; they are surrounding the winery. The soil is sandy clay. The area is beautiful and about 300 meters above sea level.

Pictures: Vineyards Surrounding the Kogl Estate

In the Tasting Room

After taking a look at the vineyards, we proceeded to the very nicely arranged tasting/dining room, where we talked a bit about the history of the Kogl Estate and tasted our first wine, a sparkler. We would converse with Franci in German and with his wife Zlatka and the children Spela and Luka, who joined us for lunch, in English.

Pictures: Franci and Zlatka Cvetko in the Tasting/Dining Room

PENINA CLASIQUE – RUBELLUS: A sparkling rosé produced in the method champenoise, i. e. with the second fermentation in the bottle. It is made with Pinot Noir, aged on the lees for two to three years. The color is slightly intense salmon-orange. The nose is delicate with spicy cedar and peppery notes. “The wine was aged in new oak” explained Franci. In the mouth, fine bubbles and moderate acidity. Medium to full body. “This can be served as an aperitif or with lighter and spicier foods and salads” recommended Franci.

Picture: PENINA CLASIQUE – RUBELLUS

Franci Cvetko’s Passion for Art

We then proceeded to Franci’s collection of Special Edition Wines. Franci likes to invite artists to the winery for a couple of weeks and then uses their output for the labels of his Special Edition Wines. Among the Special Edition Wines is also a series to honor Leon Štukelj (12 November 1898 – 8 November 1999). Štukelj is a noted figure in Slovenian sporting history. Interestingly, reflecting the fascinating history in this part of the world, he was born in the Austrian Hungarian Empire, spent most of his life in Yugoslavia and died in Slovenia.

Pictures: Franci Cvetko with Special Edition Wines

On the way to the wonderful Kogl garden, where we had lunch, Franci showed us an interesting series of paintings, which he has put on the wall at the entrance of his cellar.

Pictures: At the Entrance to the Wine Cellar

Lunch with Franci, Spela, Zlatka and Luka

We then had a wonderful lunch with delicious charcutterie, homemade pate and cheese, accompanied by 4 wines. The whole set-up was just stunning: the outstanding food, the very interesting conversation with Franci, Zlatka and son Luka, the breathtaking view of the landscape and the delicious Kogl wines! I will always remember this when I drink Franci’s wines at home.

Pictures: Lunch with Franci, Spela, Zlatka and Luka

MEA CULPA, SOLO - Pinot Noir – Rubellus: A rose wine. The nose is distinctively fruity and youthful reminiscent of red fruits, raspberries, strawberries. Red fruit nuances are joined by sweeter caramel-vanilla touch. “A part of the wines was aged in new oak” explained Franci.

MEA CULPA, SOLO – Auxerrois: Pale lemon-yellow color in the glass. Plenty of bubbles suggesting freshness. Fruity and even spicy. In the mouth more restrained. Dry with moderate acidity level. Franci said: “The acidity is low for the Prlekija region”. Lots of spices in the finish.

MEA CULPA, SOLO – Sämling: Sämling is from Germany where it is called Scheurebe; it is a crossing between Riesling and Sylvaner. Pale lemon-yellow in the glass. Rather restrained, but very fruity and juicy on the nose. The acidity level is again moderate. Its spicy and fruity character is long. “A nice summer wine” said Franci.

MEA CULPA, SOLO – Sauvignon Blanc: Sauvignon Blanc has become the signature grape of neighboring Suedsteiermark in Austria. Pale lemon-yellow color with plenty of bubbles. Notes of ripe yellow fruits. It is also a very spicy wine. In the mouth it is somewhat restrained. It stays on the palate for a long time. “It should go well with aromatic foods, like tomato and green pepper” said Franci.

Picture: The Wines we had for Lunch

In the Cellar

We finished the visit in the cellar, with more wine. This time, we had 2 delicious sweet-style wines. Franci explained that his wines are temperature-controlled fermented in both stainless steel tanks and large traditional oak barrels, as I know them from Germany.

Pictures: Christian G.E. Schiller with Franci Cvetko in the Cellar

MEA CULPA, SOLO – Kerner: Kerner is a crossing between Riesling and Trollinger. A sweet-style wine, with a wonderful balance between acidity and sweetness. Over-ripe pears on the palate. Long finish. “The wine will do well with moderately sweet desserts, such as apple pie. But it could also be enjoyed by its own” said Franci.

MEA CULPA, SOLO – Chardonnay: A sweet-style wine. Golden in the glass. Notes of honey and tropical fruits on the nose. Good structure. Fruity, fresh and jammy on the palate. Long finish with some spices.

Picture: The Wines we had in the Cellar

We had to leave although we did not want to. Time went by very fast. Franci led us down to the village and showed us where the best spots were to take the final pictures of the Kogl Estate.

Picture: Kogl Estate

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