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Biodynamics greats from Štajerska – Aci Urbajs and Božidar Zorjan
Organic Anarchy. There is probably no wine in Slovenia whose name says it better.
“Everyone tells me: Aci, you don’t have any concept when it comes to wine. That’s good. A concept only sets boundaries and restricts your freedom. I leave everything to nature,” explains with incredible serenity Aci Urbajs, a biodynamic winemaker from Rifnik, a hill above Šentjur pri Celju, where the astral forces are believed to be particularly strong.
Indeed, Rifnik has a special energy – which is attributed to its history and unique location (the largest Late Antique settlement in Slovenia was discovered here; the top of the hill was settled throughout all crucial time periods), the location or to something greater, intangible, just like Aci Urbajs, one of greatest unique characters among winemakers.
With his beige linen shirt, a straw hat and a wide smile with which he pours you a murky amber elixir, he is a character who is difficult to overlook, even at festivals of natural wines or sustainably produced wines. The label of his “organic anarchy” can be recognised from afar; it contains a minimalistic Celtic cross, the year, which is sometimes corrected by hand, and the inscription “STOP” (to added sulphur).
Urbajs is one of the more radical winemakers – if you consider full compliance with nature to be radical, that is. He does not add anything to his wines, not even sulphur – small amounts of which are permitted in the world of biodynamic wines. In fact, he practically leaves it untouched. He firmly believes that wines are not made by winemakers, but rather by nature. People only aid the winemaking process with minimal agents, such as natural products in the vineyard used by biodynamic winemakers to protect the vines against pests, mildew, frost or any other phenomena which are treated by conventional winemakers with herbicides and pesticides.
As you come to Rifnik to visit Aci, it feels like time has stood still. A winding narrow country road meanders steeply uphill, past old apple trees and blossoming pale pink rose bushes, until you see four untamed ponies grazing on the edges of the vineyard, a garden below the forest and a wooden house that looks just like the house in the story of Hansel and Gretel.
Aci’s miniature vineyard, an idyllic cacophony of vines, fruit trees, self-sown plants and animals from where wine travels to trendy bistros worldwide, from Paris to New York, descends into the valley below the house on a steep slope. Slovenian wine drinkers might just be the people who are least familiar with it. But for foreign lovers of sustainable and orange wines, Organic Anarchy has been a favourite for years. It is a unicorn among wines; hard to find due to the limited number of bottles but in high demand.
Aci sits you down on a wooden bench in front of the house, from where you can see the whole vineyard, puts in front of you a decanter wound like a snake and a stem-less biodynamic glass bearing an astral symbol, which he drew with the help of the sculptor and conceptualist Marko Pogačnik. Like Joško Gravner, a pioneer of such wines who lives just across the border, Urbajs believes that the energy in this type of glass is completely different. Aci’s wine is drunk only from these glasses.
He slowly pours the honey-coloured liquid into the decanter, capturing the rays of the late afternoon sun in the wine, additionally lighting it up. Drinking this type of wine is a ritual. Under the lush green treetop of an old walnut tree, a house cat is lazily lying around, and not far from the cat, ragged cow horns sit, which are filled with products and buried by winemakers, who strictly follow the teachings of Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), a pioneer and theoretician of biodynamics.
“That’s where I cook tea,” he points to the remains of a fire under the tree next to a rock bearing a carved symbol of a star, one of many on the estate. Aci, who hails from extremely grounded economics, fiercely believes in the power of the sky and the moon; for him, the astral realm is a step further from biodynamics. “I was a winemaker in one of my previous lives, I think I was a Scandinavian hunter in my second life,” he smirks and leaves no room for doubt that this is true.
How could he not believe that your life path is outlined, when during the construction of his estate he came across a cemetery of native inhabitants who Urbajs believes were winemakers? He does not have any problem with the fact that he lives above a cemetery, he has completely come to terms with his life cycle and even knows where his grave is going to be; under a huge rock that sits like an altar among tree roots on a slope behind the house.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that his cellar is slightly reminiscent of an entrance into an Etruscan tomb, a temple of priests. A long path through the forest, past abandoned hundred-year-old farms, old apple trees and cattle grazing under them leads to it.
At the end, you see a meadow with of view of the villages bordering wild Kozjansko, and in the meadow, a 500-year-old wooden house that would serve as a type of museum if anyone else owned it, but now it is “just” an idyllic tasting room. Tastings reminiscent of meditation in the middle of faded religious images, old household artefacts and bouquets of dry flowers hanging on the edge of wooden curtain rods.
Aci leaves his visitors to this rustic idyll. “This is your home now,” he tells them as he lights a grill in front of the cellar with his daughter Tina, and puts fat shiny beef steaks from the nearby Jenšterle organic farm on the red-hot grate. In the kitchen, Aci’s wife Brigita and son Žiga mix salad from the garden and add a touch of organic anarchy to the buckwheat porridge that is cooking on the old stove.
There is no conventional tasting of wines, smelling and establishing whether overly ripe greengages or apricots can be tasted in wine. Instead, guests sit at tables and while they talk and eat, Aci explains about the mysticism of the Rifnik–Kalobje–Resevna triangle, where he also has his tiny vineyards and pours his Kerner wines, 15-year-old Chardonnay, Blaufränkisch, Radicall (a tribute to late Stanko Radikon), and a completely wild variety of Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. “It was a bad vintage, so I just mixed them up,” Aci says with a nonchalant chuckle.
The wines are in great shape, even the oldest ones, although he does not add even a milligram of sulphur. Every time you visit Rifnik, Aci has something new to show you, each vintage is a surprise. Nevertheless, he says that he is slowly retiring and leaving the business to his son Žiga – not than anyone truly believes him. But Žiga has already put his first wine on the market named Žiga, some kind of Cviček from Rifnik, a rich, lively wine with the wild character of his father’s wines.
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan
Only half an hour’s drive from Aci, deeper into the heart of Štajerska, a similarly uncompromising wine story is being written by Božidar Zorjan.
Here, on the igneous rocks of Pohorje, on the edges of the Pohorje primeval forest, Božidar Zorjan and his wife Marija cultivate four hectares of vineyards which complement the spacious completely biodynamic organic farm.
Zorjan’s wines have become popular among lovers of such wines in recent years, but he found more widespread fame when Decanter, a prestigious wine magazine, pronounced his Dolium Muscat Ottonel, 2016, to be the best orange wine in the world. With 95 points, he shares first place with Graue Freyheit, wine from the Austrian Heinrich Cellar.
Božidar, a former police officer, does not seem to be affected by all these awards and attention at all. He remains firmly on his path, without much patience for anyone who doubts this type of wine production and assesses wines by templates. There are no templates in nature. “People are redundant. Unfortunately, you only figure this out when you’re old. People are just a part of everything,” he gazes at his vines. “We do what we absolutely need to, everything else is clutter.”
Zorjan is not a novice on the wine scene, although some people are just getting to know him. Although we can hear more about Slovenians living on the Italian side of Goriška Brda (Gravner, Terpin, Radikon, Princic, etc.) than about the pioneers of biodynamic, organic (orange) wine production, Zorjan was ahead of them in many ways.
Marija and he inherited their vineyards and the farm in 1980 and after only two or three years focused on organic production. They filled their first wine bottles in 1986 under the mentorship of great Stanko Čurin, a doyen of winemakers in this area, but they had plenty of problems as those were different times. The times of cooperatives where there was no mention of boutique winemaking – the system was geared towards mass production, putting severe strain on vines. Quantity not quality.
But Zorjan did not give up, he obstinately pursued his philosophy. At the time when no one was talking about Georgian wines, traditionally produced wines in kvevri (earthenware vessels buried below the ground), he brought several amphoras from Croatia in 1993 as an experiment to see what would happen.
The result was pure liquid gold. He says that the 1995 vintage is revolutionary; equally revolutionary was his exclusive use of amphoras. Zorjan does not use amphoras for cellaring, but for nature to make wine in them, as he says. More specifically: Harvested grapes together with kernels and pedicels go directly into amphoras; “as if you were making soup” he colourfully explains.
They remain there until Easter, and 30 per cent evaporate into the ground. Today, seven amphoras with a capacity of 500 to 2,500 litres, completely primal and bare without even as much as beeswax for coating, are buried in secret locations all over the estate, under the sky; he believes that the earth breathes in and out every day without any man-made barriers. The only wine he makes that remains in the barrel is Italian Riesling. All other varieties are in amphoras.
Božidar does not take half steps. When he begins something, he does it in minute detail without shortcuts. The same goes for biodynamics. He says that biodynamics cannot really exist without animals – ungulates and ruminants to be exact; therefore, he has deer in an enclosure in the middle of the forest in addition to a flock of Ouessant sheep from Brittany grazing freely in his vineyards.
Also, because of the products he uses in the vineyard, which are usually put in cow horns and buried all over the estate in seven caves – the number seven is a biodynamic constant, so everything is marked by this number. He keeps such products in a sealed chest in a special room full of horns and dried flowers and herbs. You are not permitted to enter this room with a mobile phone not to disturb the energy.
Zorjan believes that the point of a farm is that you produce food at home; that is why garden beds above the house are full of strawberries, potatoes, courgettes, tomatoes, lettuce, etc. Blossoming sage with a pleasant aroma grows under the fig tree, a bunch of glowing pot marigold next to it. Climbing from the raised garden bed towards the sky is yam, little known plant which Rudolf Steiner, a doyen of biodynamics, believed had a higher energy level and brought light to our bodies. For some additional energy, he puts tree stumps in garden beds, which presumably make food more wholesome. While walking around the estate, he points to a deformed tripled walnut. “Next year, there will be several women with bigger bellies, just watch,” he claims.
Božidar has vineyards in three locations, one even in the middle of the forest. “They said that I was crazy, that animals would eat it all – but they haven’t eaten a single grape. If you accept that this is part of us, nature will feel you. Our grandparents lived completely normal lives, but we lost our way,” he explains. “Nature is never a problem. Nature knows exactly what to do.”
Božidar slowly ascends along blossoming meadows past a hunting perch towards the forest He plucks a nettle leaf and demonstrates how to smooth and roll it so that you can eat fresh nettles without them burning your fingers or tongue. “Raw nettles are excellent for women during their period,” he explains.
The forest path winds past the enclosure with six deer and a buck called Felix watching them from above. Božidar continues on deep into the forest, which has an almost tropical character with a murmuring creek, European crayfish and lush greenery edging the creek.
It is not hard to imagine that monks from the nearby Žiče Charterhouse probably sought contact with nature and the Almighty here. Zorjan’s whole homestead is built on the foundations of one of the complexes of the Žiče Charterhouse, including an impressive, arched 250-year-old cellar with an unmistakeable patina. Here, Zorjan keeps barrels, special bottlings, tinctures and products for the natural protection of vines. Lemon balm, sage, Valerian, etc. can be read on the faded labels of bottles lit only with flickering lamps.
He sucks a sample from one of the smaller barrels with a pipette – an enticing and fragrant 20-year-old brandy. “Can you guess what this is?” he asks as he lifts the lid of the second barrel from which a pleasant aroma rises. “Balsamic vinegar. From 1997. I messed something up, so I have to leave it be for ten years. But I have time, I’m in no hurry,” he smiles with a twinkle in his eyes.
And finally, to wine. A lively but elegant, additive-free but balanced amber-coloured elixir. On the label, a male and a female character interlock in free love like trees with roots – he with full roots as he brings the flint to the earth, and she with light roots as she brings the aqueous and reproduction. On the back, there is a crossed out mobile phone number. The vintage is not mentioned. “I don’t mention that because sommeliers have certain expectations even before they taste the wine,” Zorjan snorts. “And also – there are no bad vintages. There are only bad people who don’t wait for the wine.”
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