€16.99 plus any shipping costs
Liam and Sinead Cabot first crossed my path in November 2016. ‘We're subscribers’, he wrote, ‘wine importers (in Ireland) and also winemakers (in Slovenia) where we have a small hands-on winemaking project. We'd love to send you some samples – we have just three wines – if possible? Regards, Liam’.
Thus it was that three Roka wines arrived on my doorstep: a Furmint, a Laški Rizling and a Blaufränkisch from the district of Štajerska (Slovenian Styria) in the north-eastern Podravje wine region. The distinctive labels bore a child’s handprint and the name of the winery, Roka, meaning ‘hand’ in Slovenian. The ‘Blue Peter-esque’ labels, as Liam described them, were made by getting one of their kids to stick a hand in the lees from a barrel and then plonk it onto a piece of paper.
And getting their hands dirty is precisely what this couple, who’d previously spent about 10 years importing and selling wine and who still currently run Cabot and Co and supply fine wines in County Mayo, Ireland, seem to be good at. In 2007 their lack of practical wine experience prompted them to do what any crazy person would do (and indeed Chris Boiling has done, and chronicled in his Diary of a dream), and buy 1.5 ha of vineyard in Slovenia. It’s exactly what you need to add to running a wine business and bringing up three children, just to make sure you’ve got something to do to fill the 48 hours of each day.
They chose Slovenia because Liam’s father had worked there for many years, they’d visited several times and found themselves drawn to the lush, rural, backwater gentleness of this small country, so similar to their home country. Their Slovenian home is in Kog, chosen in part because it’s so usefully located. As Liam wrote, ‘We're 40 minutes due south from Austria/Styria, two hours from Burgenland, 20 minutes from Hungary and literally about 1,000 metres from the Croatian border’. They import the wines of Roland Velich (Moric), the Blaufränkisch king from Burgenland, and can ‘nip up’ the road to pick his brains on how to get the best out of this edgy grape. And there were two other deciding factors: land in Slovenia was relatively affordable, and they got a vineyard planted with old-vine Šipon (Furmint) and Laški Rizling (Welschriesling) just 100 m from the house with a cellar attached.
Soils here are deep, heavy clay pocked with sandstone and limestone on a bedrock of old Pannonian seabed rich with fossils. The elevation is about 300–325 m and although the climate is continental, it is often cooler here than on the coast thanks to alpine winds and the Mura and Drava rivers. They get an average of 900–1,100 mm (35–43 in) of rain a year.
I was smitten by all three of the wines (see my tasting notes of the 2015s) so when Liam contacted me again this year and asked me to taste their 2016 vintage, I agreed with alacrity.
The wines were as good as – no, better, than - the 2015s had been in 2016. They were slightly more serious, as if they’d upped their game. From insanely gluggable youthfulness the year before, I was suddenly thinking more long term. But the purity, and the fine-boned beauty of their structure, was still very much there.
The Laški Rizling (Welschriesling) is a lean, tight wine when cold, somehow reminiscent of citrus and ground glass. It softens as it warms, like spring, turning to blossom in the mouth.
The Blaufränkisch, or Modra Frankinja as it’s known in Slovenia, reminded me a little of a northern Rhône, as if it had been chiselled out of rock; fruit and spice and sinew sketched in kohl pencil; deeply private; underground caverns of beauty. If I was drinking it now, I’d decant, and be careful with food: something simple but very good, such as seared duck breast, or venison steak.
The Blaufränkisch was very nearly my wine of the week, but the Furmint (Šipon in Slovenian) has something about it that if I’d tasted it blind, I’d have said is that ‘biodynamic edge'. (It isn’t biodynamic, by the way.) It was, as with all the Roka wines, from manually worked vines, manually harvested (this year, early in the morning, on 7 October 2016). The vines are 35 years old and the yields are very, very low – 1.5 kg of grapes per vine. It was spontaneously fermented with natural yeasts in an open-top wood fermenter for four weeks without temperature control, and then it was racked into stainless steel and spent a year on the lees. No fining, no filtering and minimal sulphur (same goes for all of their wines).
My tasting note says: 'Lime peel and spicy hay is what it smells of, but in the mouth it has a pungency and rock-salt, white-pepper, and green-apricot ferocity that comes out of left field. Not so much the fruit, but the structure, the tension, seem to vibrate with intensity. There’s a wonderful ground-chalk texture, at once talc-powder smooth and yet resistant, something to push against, as if the wine has boundaries and challenges you to cross them. There is an understated glory to this wine that could be easy to overlook, because it’s speaking of earth not fruit. I would love to taste this in a couple of years’ time.'
It's beautiful now, but with that wintry, stripped-back beauty – the way that frost etches a mosaic of fallen leaves. Nothing showy, nothing obvious. I suspect, however, that with a couple of years in the cellar, this quiet, intense wine will start to acquire a more overt, honeyed loveliness.
All three wines retail for €16.99, and for that, not only do they deliver incredible elegance and flavour with pretty low alcohol levels, but this is an estate where absolutely everything is done by hand, from planting and pruning to bottling. The family spends the four months of summer in Kog, with flying visits back and forth for harvest, winemaking and pruning. A local winemaker checks in on things for them when they are back in Ireland, but apart from that, the Cabot handprints are all over the wines, and not just on the labels.
These Roka wines are, unfortunately, available only from one Irish retailer, but Cabot and Co will ship internationally. Contact them via firstname.lastname@example.org or tel +353 98 37000. There is no minimum order, and the merchant informs us that 'the standard cost for delivery to the UK is €18.99 for up to 12 bottles. We don't have a direct shipping option to the US, but can point potential customers towards UK-based specialist forwarding companies and deliver to them for the same €18.99'.