Francios Button is the first winemaker to produce non-vintage sparkling wine in Slovenia. At Domaine Slapšak (pronounced “slap-shak”), he blends reserve wine from prior years to make a “house style” just like they do in Champagne. But in Slovenia they call sparkling wine Penina… and this year he’s releasing his first Blanc de Blanc.
A Happenstance Meeting in Ljubljana, Slovenia
Twenty-four hours is not much to explore a city, especially when wanting to discover the cuisine and local wines.
On a recent northern Italy trip with a wine loving colleague we found ourselves in route to Ljubljana (pronounced lee-ou-blee-ahna). It was a spontaneous decision, a quick side trip because we could. And it’s so easy to get to from Verona or Venice.
After hiking to Ljubljana Castle we parked ourselves at the Wine Bar Suklje terrace on the car-restricted banks of the Ljubljana River. Afternoon sunshine made me desire sparkling wine to celebrate our choice to come.
The glass enjoyed was fresh with a delicate creamy mousse and just enough brightness balanced with light toast. My curiosity was piqued, questions were asked. This is how I met Domaine Slapšak.
An Old Country Vineyard
The Domaine anchors the tiny village of Telce in the heart of the Dolenjska district halfway between Ljubljana (capital of Slovenia) and Zagreb (capital of Croatia). The southeastern Posavje wine region is its home, the smallest of Slovenia’s three regions.
Like many people in Slovenia, Martin Slapšak had a vineyard and made wine for family consumption only.
A French Winemaker
Enter Botton, a Champagne native. Although his family isn’t in the business, Champagne is in his blood. Being surrounded by, and playing in the vineyards of Champagne as a child, he developed a curiosity about those vines. After working for different Champagne houses including Roederer and Ruinart, he went on to get a formal winemaking degree from the Reims University.
From there he went to California interning at Clos Pegase (2004). A few years later he returned with French company Laffort, working on enological products with their Vinquiry Lab in Sonoma Valley (2007 to 2009).
Through work and travels he met and married Urska Slapšak. Her heart won him, and also the beautiful country of Slovenia and the prospect of making traditional method sparkling wine there with her family.
“In 2009 when I came to Slovenia, I made my first experiment with Martin’s local grapes, producing base wine. Very early I understood there is a real potential for bubbly in this part of Slovenia. A few years later with the family I established Domaine Slapšak.” François Botton
I contacted Botton after my trip to learn more about the sparkler.
And knowing he was passing through Bordeaux last week, I and spoke to him about his trajectory and plans for the next decade. This is what he shared with me.
Q: What first attracted you to wine and champagne?
It was part of my everyday life, a curiosity, I wanted to work in agriculture and started in viticulture quickly knowing I wanted to be a winemaker… they work hand in hand. I got a sense for what the word means in France. It became real… as soon as you put one foot inside you understand.
Q: Talk about your decision to move to Slovenia.
I first went there on vacation in 2004 and met my now wife. She moved to France with me and joined me in California as well. I spent time there discovering the area and local grape varieties like Zametna Crnina. She convinced me we would have a happy life in her country. She was right!
Q: What are the differences working with Chardonnay in Slovenia versus Champagne?
Where we are in Slovenia the soils have less chalk. They’re heavier with a certain amount of clay… more like those in certain areas of the Loire. You get a different profile in wines without the sharpness and super high acidity. And where we are in Slovenia you get higher levels of phenolic ripeness in the grapes.
I’m only at 50% of pressing yield. I just want the pulp and nothing from the skin. The heavy soil gives a lot of aromatics that we don’t want for our sparkling wines. If the base wine is too aromatic you loose the elegance in the final wine.
Q: The organic, biodynamic, natural wine and other grape growing and winemaking philosophies are big now. What are your thoughts on this topic?
It’s a reset, constantly questioning yourself asking what you are doing. I’m a proponent of rethinking of what you’re doing. But now there’s marketing confusion. These terms have different meanings in different countries. For example different products are authorized in the US versus the EU. What I don’t particularly like is the newer natural wine push. There’s no scientific sense to it, it doesn’t characterize the wine. Wine is not a character of nature but of Man. Nature doesn’t farm, man farms. The misconception and marketing around it is confusing as people think they’re drinking things that are more natural but that’s not always the case.
I like the concept of reducing sulfur to make wine and use very little but if you use less or none, you have to compensate with something else. You have to protect your juice somehow… cooler temperatures during winemaking is one but that requires extra energy. Compensating one thing for another is not a solution that is satisfying with nature. I’m working with patchwork vineyard plots surrounded by trees and plants. The benefit is the increased diverse insect population as a result.
I’m not organic certified… it’s different in Slovenia. Unlike in France where there are a lot of controls once certified organic or biodynamic, in Slovenia there’s minimal control. It’s confusing for customers as wineries promote and market organic products without any independent body to monitor and check that they are respecting the certification.~
From here, we talked about the Dolenjska Hills and sparkling wine he makes at Domaine Slapšak including his new Blanc de Blancs. I share those below, followed by tasting notes.
The Dolenjska Hills of Southeastern Slovenia
This particular area of the Dolenjska district on the right bank of the Sava Rive is climatically mixed. It experiences Mediterranean and Pannonian influences; the Foehn wind brings warm and humid air from the Adriatic sea; spring arrives early, summers are warm to hot with periodic rain spells and cooler weather, and winters are cool to cold. The climate is more like Bordeaux where moisture can be challenging.
The area is known for outdoor adventures (hiking, cycling, watersports, dream-like countryside), verdant hills, thermal springs, and good quality wine made from indigenous and international grape varieties.
All Sparkles at Domaine Slapšak
Two hectares (five acres) of vines are planted on slopes at 500 meters (1,650 feet) on the edge of the woods. Soils are schist, limestone, and chalky marl. Grapes are hand harvested due to slope steepness.
Botton works like a Champagne house, blending different base wines from previous years to create the domaine, or ‘house’ style. They now have three or four years of reserve base wines (depending on the grape) used for this blending. A Champagne winemaker friend joins Botton annually for the assemblage (blending of the wines).
In certain vintages they also make a dry red wine made from the Modra Frankinja grape (also known as Blaufränkisch).
Penina Brut Reserve Non-Vintage
It pours a pale lemon color with fine mousse persistent. Well-defined lemon, green apple and pear sit beneath constrained elements of light toast and crushed stones. It shows friendly brightness on the dry palate with a medium body and alcohol. Flavors are reminiscent of yellow apples, savory lemon custard and salted toast with a dry and delicate mousse accompanied by a lingering finish and balanced structure. A very good wine- fresh, bright, and round. Seafood (sushi, oysters, any grilled fish), risotto, and popcorn and a movie pair nicely, to name a few.
13€ | purchased
Penina Brut Rosé NV | 100% Zametna Crnina
An ancient native grape to Slovenia, here it pours pale pink in the glass with expressive wild strawberry, red currant and pomegranate aromas. The palate has wild strawberry, currant, and mild forest spice with round creaminess dotted by pine. It’s lacy-textured yet sprightly, medium-bodied and elegantly balanced. A solo sipper any time of the year but also pairs with various seafood, chicken, pork, and this savory vegetable and fruit tart.
13€ | purchased
Blanc de Blancs NV | 100% Chardonnay
This is their inaugural Blanc de Blancs on the right, 100% Chardonnay produced from the single Pesce Vineyard Botton planted with his brother-in-law in 2010. Thirty percent was barrel fermented and no oak aging. It spent 40 months sur lattes with final residual sugar of 3 grams per liter.
Although I have a bottle chilling, Mark and I haven’t popped it yet. ~Sigh~ We’re saving it to open at with friends who love sparkling wine this spring. I’ll report back and update this article with the tasting information.
18.50€ | purchased
In closing, Botton is working to develop his style, managing base wines from different vintages, aiming to bring consistency with the same great result in every bottle. This is the process used in Champagne where it’s called the house style. He wants a bit of many things in his wines, nothing dominant. I’d say he’s well on his way after tasting two of his three sparkling wines… elegant yet bright and precise!