"The skin is the stage," Winemaker Jean Michel Morel responds as to why all of his white wines spend between one week and five months on the skins. He describes the varietal as "the performer," as expressing the grape varietal is his focus. Along with showcasing terroir, tasting the purity of the grape is often described as the goal for winemakers. Some enologists however, believe that skin maceration masks terroir. Stetson Robbins, owner of Black Lamb, (Kabaj's importer) assisted at the tasting and pushes back on this notion, "Why wouldn't that be the case for red wine which is almost always macerated?" Tasting the varietal first, skin included, is the intention at Kabaj, and after tasting 8 of their unique and inspiring wines, they are clearly achieving this goal.
Kabaj's vines are located in Goriska Brda, Slovenia, halfway between the Alps and the Adriatic Sea. Brda means "hills," which is precisely how Kabaj's vines are situated, planted according to the varietal. Jean's wines are made "practically natural," as added sulfur is necessary for his production, maintaining his practices with controlled skin-contact. He did mention, however, that each vintage has become increasingly more natural than the last. My tasting notes with Hudson Wine Merchants' retail prices are below.
1.) 2014 Beli Pinot (Pinot Blanc) $26
Crisp and almost neutral, very light in body with a hint of peach and basil on the palate. This wine spent 2 weeks on the skin, with native yeasts only, followed by 2 years in oak, after undergoing full malolactic fermentation.
2.) 2014 Ravan (Tocai Friulano) $26
Tangy, with apples, fresh pears and green leaves on the nose, spending two weeks on the skins before being macerated.
3.) 2014 Sauvignon Blanc $28
Green bell peppers, lemon rind, and river-like minerality, this one reminded me of a White Bordeaux with a touch more spice and spent 1 week on the skins. My favorite if I had to choose.
4.) 2014 Sivi Pinot (Pinot Gris) $28
Very floral, with a touch of carrots, guava, almonds and mustard greens, quite complex and spent 2 weeks on the skins. The color on this one was a beautiful copper (pictured in my hand below).
5.) 2014 Rebula $28
This is "Yellow Rebula," or Ribolla Gialla. A very orange color with a hint of burnt cashews and black tea on the nose. The tannins are apparent after spending 30 days on the skins in large oak vats, followed by 2 years of aging in oak barriques.
6.) 2007 Amfora $66
Extremely perfumed and complex with notes of blue cheese, truffles and sherry-like flavors. This is a blend of Friulano, Rebula and Malvasia, each spent 1 year on the skins (separately) in Kvevri. The kvevri is wood-fired at a low temperature and lined with beeswax as not to soak into the ground.
7.) 2012 Merlot $45
Plums, earth, mushrooms, this reminded me of Cabernet Franc a bit, minus the cherry red color and soft, balanced tannins. Jean's Merlot comes from one of his highest, steepest vineyards.
8.) 2009 Cuvee Morel $50
This Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon tastes a lot like high quality St Julien with notes of leather, soil, pine and eucalyptus. There is a pretty, perfumed quality on the very long finish, and the wine spent two years in barrel.
What other winemaker is showing their 2014 whites right now? These are clearly very special wines, well above the so-called Orange Wine fad. Jean suggests enjoying these wines cool, not cold in the summer and just below room-temp in the winter. He recommends drinking from a coup, rather than a white wine glass, as it coats the whole mouth, from each end. These wines pair with several types of dishes, due to the savory qualities. Jean recommends pork belly, dry aged meats, even Asian cuisine.