Goriška Brda is Slovenia’s best known wine appellation. This is due to the cross border status it shares with the more famous Italian Collio. Both Brda and Collio mean hillside. This vast land of verdant church topped hills spilling with vineyards, fruit orchards and groves of olives is uniquely positioned between the Alps and the Adriatic. The climate of Brda is influenced by both. Interspersed with rivers and forests the environment is clean and rich in biodiversity. Rebula and Savignonasse (Tokaj) are the premiere local varieties. Additionally many French varieties brought to the region during the Napoleonic period have proven well suited, most of all Merlot and Pinot Grigio. The cuisine is mixed; not Balkan, Austro-Hungarian or Italian but some combination of all three.
The Kabaj family has grown grapes in Goriška Brda for generations. Up until the late 80’s, like most families in the region, their harvest went to the local State cooperative. In the late 80’s Katja Kabaj married a French enologist Jean Michel Morel who she met while he was working at various wineries in neighboring Collio, Italy. They decided to settled down in Katja’s childhood village of Slovrenc to start a family and establish their own winery.
The first vintage of Kabaj was in 93’. Jean Michel were drinking skin contact wines and started experimenting themselves in 97’. By 2005 they were macerating all white varieties at least a few days. Having consistently produced a range of exemplary original wines like this for about 15 years now they prove it is not necessary to make the modern fruity style of wines so ubiquitous today. They make 60,000 to 100,000 bottles annually. 30% of the production is classical renditions of Bordeaux varieties, 70% is white grapes fermented with the skins.
Many of the iconic producers in the Italian Collio have Slavic surnames. These were some of the wineries who first introduced skin contact white wines to the international market. Modeled after Slovene homemade wines it would be inaccurate to identify these wines as culturally Italian. In fact the Collio is an epicenter of what Jean calls “fresh wine”. Fresh wine is wine made in temperature controlled stainless steel so as to preserve the fresh fruity character of a wine in a way that was not possible before the technologies of refrigeration and sterile filtration. Kabaj makes no fresh wine.
Millions of years ago the area was a shallow sea shore and delta. The soils are a complex mix of sedimentary flysch and marl interspersed with sandstone and limestone. The flysch and marl soils local known as “Ponka” are most prized. They farm 12 hectares spread across 7 different positions. Most vineyards are terraced marl planted to mature (older than 25 years) and single guyot trained vines. Depending on the harvest they make 7-10 wines each vintage. Instead of singling out the best lots for the premium wines, all wines are composites of different vineyard locations, each contributing and supporting the ultimate wine in different ways.
The general approach to farming is to create an environment for the vine to thrive and try to intervene as little as possible. Pheasants once common in the vineyard who had all but disappeared have begun returning to their vineyards. Higher elevation more exposed vineyards can be farmed ecologically, but they are not 100 percent ecological, every year they move more in this direction. They don’t spray herbicides because this evaporate and settles on the fruit. Only horse manure is used as fertilizer. Elemental sulfur is applied liberally but copper very rarely.
All wines are fermented with native yeast and moved according to lunar cycles. Each undergo some amount of skin contact whites and reds alike. The length of skin contact varies based on variety and vintage. For the skin fermented white wines the goal is not to make extreme wine. Jean’s opinion is that if you take a bottle of wine in the vineyard, you should be able to taste the grape and then taste the wine and find the same flavors. The only big vinification difference between Ravan (Sauvignonasse), Sauvignon Blanc, Beli Pinot (Pinot Blanc), Sivi Pinot (Pinot Gris) and Rebula is length of skin contact. Yet they all look, smell and taste completely different from each other.
After being racked off of the skins and finishing fermentation the wines spend a minimum of 1 year in used exclusively French barrique and complete malolactic fermentation. The process of macerating is evolving; starting in 2017 they are leaving 30 percent of the skins in tank for 5 months post malolactic because the grape skins naturally settle at the bottom and cover the lees to allow the cleaner wine at the top to be removed without disturbing the lees.
The style Jean brings to the KABAJ reds is reminiscent of late 80s Bordeaux, where he grew up. Brda is cool for Bordeaux varieties and Merlot is the grape that is best suited to the conditions. It is the dominant component in both Merlot and Cuvee Morel. Grapes are destemmed and fermented in stainless steel and macerated for approximately 6 weeks. Cuvee Morel is co-fermented. The wines are aged in barrique some new for 24 to 36 months. Aristocratic in style they harken back to a time when Bordeaux was Claret. Nuanced, perfumed and enduring.
Jean Michel’s interest in skin contact white wine eventually led him to Georgia, the other location where this style of winemaking has historic precedent. There he studied wine making at a monastery. He brought this knowledge and 9 of the 3,000 liter clay qvevri that Georgian wine has traditionally been vinified in. Amfora is made according to Georgian traditions. The qvevri are filled with grapes after fermentation they are sealed and left with the skins for as long as 2 years. This is the most eccentric, grand and personal wine of KABAJ.