18 Jul 2013

WINE: Under Gaze of Tito

KLEMEN Mlečnik fleetingly casts eyes to a clearing high in the densely-forested hills. There, a five metre high inscription made of stones proclaims ‘TITO' in capitals. "Older people maintain it," says Klemen, face taught and eyes granite. "They remember a time of easy work for all. But Tito blocked entrepreneurs who wanted to succeed..." 

We meet in the vicinity of the village of Bukovica in the Vipava Valley, Slovenia. It is a country roughly the size of Wales, but, at two million people, a third less populous (of people, at least). Despite the country's injured economy, the spot where we stand feels a heavenly haven. Fringing vines are cherry trees in blossom, while wild garlic may be nibbled, fresh from the ground. 
Klemen, born July 1989, lives with his parents across the quite quiet road. Tito is again recalled here, this time in faint stencil on a wall, where his countenance appears even kindly. "One day we'll paint over it - for us this is not a nice piece of history," he says. "‘They' were mafia, with everything in their hands." Pinching thumb and forefinger, Klemen adds: "Tito was only a bit nicer than Stalin." 
Close-by, a huge Alsatian incongruously whimpers, and a mustard-coloured Opel, shaded under trees, patiently awaits restoration by a car fanatic. Klemen's father, Valter, who is four centimetres shy of being two metres tall, and is silvery-haired but barely wrinkled, strides towards us, then gently gestures away from the dog to corroding bulldozers. These remnants from the Second World War, left by the Americans, were repaired and harnessed to flatten hillocks and ridges to roughly sow vineyards for the quantity-over-quality cooperatives of Yugoslav Communism, he explains. 
Vineyards have grown here for over 200 years, says Klemen, producing a certificate to demonstrate his family's recent adherence to organic farming. But, although the Mlečnik family have lived here since the 1920s, they were not allowed to work the land after it was confiscated in 1964. "My father was clever, though," says Klemen, proudly. "He joined the local co-operative which meant we were allowed to stay on the farm." 
Matters improved in the early 1980s when Valter re-gained control of the stables. "He subsequently gave up work in a factory to pursue wine full, rather than part-time in 1985," says Klemen. "Due to high inflation, things had loosened." 
In the small, rustic winery, past a ladder diagonally hung on the wall, and modern-ish press, Valter keenly demonstrate his much-loved, pre-1900 basket press, purchased by his grandfather. "This is the best press, and this is the best sound," he says with a satisfied smile, as he ratchets the machinery with a raucous "click-clack" into action. 
In the Mlečnik's very cosy kitchen, albino daffodils sprout a vase reflected in the glass of the portrait of great grandparents, Angel and Ana. A particularly rough oil optimistically depicting more flamboyant flowers graces the window-wall. 
 Klemen sees me squint. "Art's never been really important in this house - there has always been more work to do." Meanwhile, mother, Innes saws homemade bread and dispenses an excellent smoky stew "snack" of farro risotto ("farrotto"). 
Reaching across the long table with his extensive arms, Valter pours wines dating back two decades. The selection includes a limpid, sprightly, fruit-driven Chardonnay from 1993. It frankly dazzles in the broad, hand-blown Slovenian glass and feels, for my perhaps overly-modernised palate, a more vigorous, vital drink than the Luddite, hazily-unfiltered, orange styles Valter favours today. These he deliberately crafts free from temperature control and artificial yeasts, with minimal use of potentially carcinogenic preservative, sulphur. 
I wonder, perhaps the promotion of eco-ethics and maintaining his ancestors' methods are more important to Valter than making something more customarily sapid? But then again, the movement for such a style of winemaking seems to be drawing in its' dedicates both here and abroad. Valter sums his mantra: "All we have to do is to ‘raise' the wine and let it mature and so fulfil its' mission..." 
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