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The gems of the Karst: On red soil between pines and vines

 

"The pines smell good, the pines smell good, their fragrance is healthy and strong. Because all is good in this rocky landscape, to be, live, fight and be young and healthy.”

With these words Slovenian poet Srečko Kosovel was celebrating his native landscape in Poem from the Karst, where, unfortunately, he could not enjoy the shadow of the pines bent over by the wind for very long. Kosovel loved the Karst and frequently romanticised it in his poems, which exude so much love for this unique landscape in Western Slovenia with unique, proud and defiant people.

“The Karst people are somewhat special,” grins Ado Špacapan, owner and chef of Špacapan House in the village of Komen, who was born into this business. His parents took over an old inn in 1973 and Špacapan House rapidly established itself as a mandatory roadside stop for everyone who craves authentic Karst cuisine and good wine. Ago’s mother Ada set the foundations, which Ago has radically upgraded and updated in recent years.

Ago Špacapan
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Where the past and present meet

The bright rays of the November sun illuminate a spacious dining room in the warm shades of wood and rock – shades of the Karst. The place is full of old cupboards and chests and is bathed in candlelight and music from some other, more serene era.  Various fruits – Cornelian cherries, figs, sour cherries – are macerated in fruit brandy in giant glass containers. Ago serves us crystal cups filled with fragrant but pungent elixir – wild rose brandy.

Špacapan House
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

It seems that the Špacapans can fill their elegant pear-shaped bottles with anything that comes from the red karst soil including wine, which has completely consumed the young patron in recent years. As a native from Karst winegrowing and winemaking have been part of his DNA. His father Miro used to make Teran, of course, but Ago initially found more inspiration in the local pioneers of natural, skin-contact wine production.

Špacapan’s household names include Marko Fon, Sebastijan Štemberger, Joško Renčel, Kukanja, Švara, Škerk, Čotar, etc. Wines from both sides of the border, which, in addition to organic production, share – Karst. “Can you feel the minerality? This is Karst. It is strongly present in karst wines and it’s the one thing the industry couldn’t copy,” explains Ago, his eyes lighting up as he pours Marko Fon’s slightly amber-hued Vitovska into our glasses.

Fon, who has developed a unique identity and whose wines are sold out in advance, is not easy to reach. The winemaker says that he is a hermit and does not enjoy hosting guests. Ago says that the more he keeps people away, the higher the demand is and the greater the Fon myth becomes. Those who manage to set foot in his house in Brje discover a treasure trove of extraordinary wines full of softness, silkiness, elegance and distinct minerality.

macerated fruits
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Vitovska as an indigenous karst variety is becoming increasingly in demand. The international market is hungry for local less-known varieties, Slovenia is drawing more and more attention and winemakers plant it more and use it to replace slightly outdated international varieties.

Štemberger, who exports 70 per cent of his bottles abroad, says that international buyers most frequently ask for indigenous varieties, which is why he completely cleared the 11 hectares of his vineyards of Sauvignon and Chardonnay and replaced them with Vitovska and Malvasia, which are now predominant.

Štemberger is practically an in-house winemaker at Špacapan House. For Ago, he is, much like Fon, a winemaker you can count on to put on the market extremely refined, elegant natural wine, wine without too many “sharp edges”, with which you can even convince people who are still sceptical about such wines. If you leave it up to Ago, you will probably leave the house converted – carrying a bottle of his Rebula in your hand.

wine barrels
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

“If I weren’t a restaurateur, I’d probably be a winemaker,” explains Špacapan, whose philosophy when it comes to cellar work follows more experienced people in this field, winemakers on both sides of the border, torn between Slovenia and Italy. “I only learned about wine when I began spending time with them. We breathe the same air and spend our leisure time together.”

He is among the last to harvest, looking for maturity, fullness and noble mould in the grape. He uses sulphur only once, and merely press grapes and macerate them for five days. Amber-hued wine then goes from the barrels to the bottles – without any additives.

When he proved himself with Rebula, his uncle trusted him with his Merlot and Cabernet. He also cooperates with a local farmer in Komen with Vitovska and Malvasia. “I’m slowly filling the whole menu with my wines, which is great,” he says.

Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

If it isn't from the garden, it is from a farmer

The Špacapans try to pay tribute to Karst, its traditions, its terroir and local producers with their wines as well as their dishes. They produce most ingredients themselves. Anything they run out of, they buy from small local farms.

Case in point is their cheese selection – goat cheese from Vera Lipičar, sheep cheese from cheesemaker Antonič, who lives just across the border, and cow cheese is from another Slovenian on the Italian side of the border, Zidarič. The Špacapans then additionally mature the cheese in their cellar and serve it with elderberry jam. The cheese of all three cheesemakers is made exclusively from raw unpasteurised milk.

the garden
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

“We only feed our cows with karst hay. For this reason, we don’t produce much in terms of quantity, but you can really feel it in the milk,” Aleksandra Zidarič explains her philosophy in front of a cowshed that houses 80 cows on the edge of the village of Praprot above Nabrežina.

Cheesemaking in the Karst does not have a long history – local people were poor and simply could not afford the lengthy procedures and maturing, as milk had to be sold as soon as possible, which took housekeepers to the market in Trieste. They only took up cheesemaking later on and the Tabor cheese remains the base product Zidarič upgraded with juniper berries and herbs. They also produce soft cacciotta, but they are probably most known for their Jamar cheese (Cave cheese), which is matured for four months in a 70-metre deep, difficult-to-access karst cave with 90 percent humidity.

The Špacapans also buy yoghurt from Zidarič and turn it into an exquisite sorbet with the addition of celery, dehydrated olives and olive oil, which is served just before the main course to clean the taste buds.

Slovenian Karst food
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

From Krškopolje pigs to wild boars

Cured meat products are another passion of the Špacapans. In recent years, Ago has invested a lot of time, energy and money into establishing their own maturing chamber, which now houses fragrant, 36 months matured prosciutto legs of Krškopolje pigs, and wreaths of excellent salamis also made from this indigenous Slovenian breed.

Amuse-bouche selection is a neat overview of the Karst in small scale – a pine cone filled with polenta crisps, fried sage from the herbal garden with honey is served on grandma’s porcelain plate, pate is made of a capon, sourdough bread is served with butter infused with yeast, nasturtium leaves are used as small green ‘tortillas’ filled with black olives, homemade ketchup and mayonnaise and anchovy.

prosciutto
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

The menu’s underlying theme is the transformation of traditional Karst dishes, such as ‘šelinka’, a hearty soup from celeriac, celery and carrots served with pork-skin sausage made from the Krškopolje pig. Beef tongue is presented with a modern twist, but the essence remains the same as it used to be at the time of our grandmas – with fried leeks, onions and horseradish sauce. Ago’s favourite childhood dish was “pasta-fagioli”, pasta and bean soup, which is now upgraded with a dash of 30-year-old homemade Teran vinegar to perfectly round the plate with aromatic acidity.

Almost ritually, Ago sprays the creamy dish with a perfume bottle right in front of you. The sour supplies kept in a special sour cellar are just too precious.

spraying with vinegar
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

“Different kinds of vinegar and the vinegar making tradition have always been present in the Karst, but I had to learn a lot,” he explains while dipping a pipette into one of the oak barrels. Teran, pears, apples, Rebula, etc. is written on wood in chalk. He makes balsamic vinegar from all of them. “These are stories built for the long run. Eight years is the minimum for balsamic vinegar,” he points out, pouring the sour gold drop-by-drop.

vinegar barrels
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Hunting is another Karst tradition. Ago’s father is an excellent hunter and game has always been strongly present on the Špacapan’s table. Given the fact that the farmers’ and winemakers’ greatest enemies are wild boars, which have multiplied greatly but do not end up on restaurant tables very often, the choice to serve wild boar as the main course is a good example of sustainable cuisine. The Špacapans serve it with things that the wild boar cohabitated with and ate – oyster mushrooms and clover with black garlic mayonnaise to top it all off.

wild boar dish
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Ago pours Štemberger’s Merlot into our glasses, a wonderfully fruity, full-bodied wine and a perfect match for the game on the plate, before we move to the village of Šepulje, 15 minutes’ drive away and where Štemberger has his cellar in the old Turk farm from 1750.

The farm covers an area of 56 hectares and boasts a 250-year-old refosco vine, which survived through grape phylloxera, which killed most vines in Slovenia (and beyond) at the end of the 19th century, on account of its unique location. According to written records, one cellar on the farm originates from 1850 and the other one is even older. These are Sebastijan Štemberger’s creative spaces.

Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Štemberger is among the natural winemakers, who put Karst on the international wine map. As a grandson of one of the large winemakers in the Vipava Valley, he planted his first vineyard as a teenager. He wanted to graduate in organic winegrowing, but the university told him that he will never find a mentor for that and to continue his studies in Italy. “That was the last time I set foot in a faculty,” he chuckles, while pouring wild, untamed naturally sparkling pét-nat of Refosco, Vitovska and Malvasia of an almost raspberry colour. It does not contain any added sulphur, just like other Štemberger’s wines.

Štemberger
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

To go with the bubbly, he is cutting generous slices of silky lard, which melts on your tongue, and homemade salami on an old wooden table in the shadow of a yellowish mulberry tree. Štemberger breeds his 15 pigs in the same spirit in which he cultivates his vineyards – completely naturally. Animals, which are crucial for his biodynamic philosophy of a natural circle, graze outside in the nearby forest, and male animals have names – Jaroslav, Janko, etc. We ate Marko that day.

a Karst spread
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

It was St Martin’s Day and the nearby winemakers Ago works with spontaneously got together first at one winemaker’s place, then at another’s and ended up in the Špacapan’s cellar. Kukanja brought his salamis, Švara played old vinyl records on a record player, while Ago roasted heavy thick Florentine steaks in the fireplace.

For some, the night ended around five. Others merely continued the Karst tour the next day at another winemaker’s place.

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