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Love Letters to Limestone

New Releases from Benjamin Zidarich

It is telling that the name for the geology of the Carso is also the name of the region itself; Carso/Karst/Kras, after all, means both the stone and the place, and this picturesque stretch of the Istrian Peninsula between Trieste and the Isonzo River is defined by the hard limestone on which it sits. Winegrowing here, indeed, is no mean feat, and the labor required simply to cultivate the vine in this unforgiving terrain speaks to the admirable tenacity of its inhabitants. In many areas, no soil exists at all—merely vast expanses of white limestone—and topsoil must be trucked up from Trieste just for the vines to have something in which to find purchase. The naturally occurring soil that does exist here is deep red and markedly rich in iron, which imparts to the wines a pungently mineral character—particularly to the indigenous red variety Teran which thrives in such a terroir.

Though wine has been produced here since Roman times, and though the Carso’s vinous offerings were highly regarded by centuries of monarchs, the ravages of 20th-century warfare—particularly devastating in this much-disputed border zone—severely endangered the rich and ancient local winegrowing traditions. In the 1970s, a handful of committed growers sought to rescue the sublime indigenous white variety Vitovska from extinction, and to protect the Carso’s distinctive vinicultural history from the encroachment of international varieties which were sweeping through other parts of the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region. Even today, although there are a mere 60 hectares of Vitovska in existence, the Carso boasts a winegrowing culture remarkably vibrant in spirit and astonishing in the overall quality of its output.

At the forefront of the current movement is Benjamin Zidarich, a man whose acquaintance we at Rosenthal Wine Merchant were fortunate to make two years prior, and whose wines exemplify the region’s singular terroir at its most exquisitely rendered. Following his father, Benjamin began in 1988 with a single hectare and has since grown his holdings to eight hectares, all of which he farms biodynamically (certified as such). He employs both Guyot and Albarello trellising, severely limiting the number of buds per branch in order to maximize each vine’s intensity of expression. The vines grow in the classic iron-rich red soils of the area, extending deep into the Karst limestone that looms just below the surface. Benjamin works primarily with Vitovska, but he also has plantings of Malvazija Istriana and Sauvignon—as well as small surfaces of Teran and Merlot for his reds. Harvest is done entirely by hand, and Zidarich’s hard-fought yields typically hover around a modest 30 hectoliters per hectare.

Benjamin’s cellar is an awe-inspiring love letter to the Carso itself. A five-story cave which took over eight years to construct and plunges nearly 70 feet into solid limestone, it mirrors the wines themselves: simultaneously imposingly raw and stony, and breathtakingly beautiful. All of Zidarich’s wines are fermented, aged, and stored within. In terms of handling his fruit, Benjamin uses an old basket press, and—like others in the region that have re-embraced ancient, more natural methods—he keeps his white wines in contact with their skins for a few weeks during fermentation (which always occurs spontaneously). However, in comparison to the bold, unabashedly tannic, deeply copper-colored wines of someone like Gravner, the skin-contact influence in Zidarich’s wines is remarkably subtle—their color remains relatively brilliant and vibrant, and the gentle tannins weave so tightly and seamlessly around the wines’ pungent, clinging minerality as to be almost undetectable. These are first and foremost wines of minerality, not wines of skin tannins, and—to suffuse them with an even more profound sense of stone—Benjamin has recently begun fermenting some of his Vitovska in vessels of Karst limestone, constructed specifically for him by a local artisan (more on that below). Ageing takes place in Slavonian barrels of varying sizes, and the employment of skin contact allows Benjamin to employ a minimum of added sulfur. The wines are bottled without fining or filtration, typically two years after the vintage, and rest for a spell before being put up for sale.

We eagerly await a round of new releases from Zidarich—including a stunning new old-vines Malvazija called “Lehte”—scheduled to arrive mid-May, and we cannot encourage you strongly enough to experience these electrifying conduits of one of the most compelling terroirs we have encountered in our long history.

2016 Vitovska Venezia-Giulia
Great Vitovska is one of the wine world’s best-kept secrets. The Carso’s indigenous white variety is capable of expressing the full mineral roundhouse-kick of the underlying terroir, but with a fruit character almost dizzying in its loveliness. It’s similar in that combination to, say, German Riesling, but Vitovska’s minerality is more ferocious, its fruit less archly pretty and insistent. Skin maceration, an ancient practice here which Zidarich employs for two weeks, does nothing to blunt the impact of that profound Karst limestone, and the fruit—primarily apricot in character, but with notes of preserved lemon and mandarin orange—caresses the palate tenderly yet lets the stone take the lead. Spices and citrus flowers encircle the action in an energetic dance. Zidarich conducts fermentation in open-top wooden tini (he disapproves of stainless steel for anything but assemblage), and ages his Vitovska for two solid years in large old Slavonian casks, bottling them without any fining or filtering. The results bellow their origins and mesmerize with their purity.

2016 Malvazija Venezia-Giulia
With its assertive floral elements and voluptuous tropical-fruit character, Malvazija—Greek of origin and planted here for centuries—puts up a stronger fight with the Carso’s limestone than Vitovska, but it still ultimately loses. If Vitovska is a seamless conduit of the rock in which it grows, however, Malvazija shows its battle scars, and while it is less profoundly mineral it is perhaps more dynamic on the surface. Zidarich’s Malvazija—vinified and aged identically to his Vitovska—is staggering in its perfume, with potpourri, white pepper, and dried pit fruits exploding nose-ward, unfettered by temperature control or excessive sulfur. A glimmer of textural hedonism is reined in by the ever-present limestone, a harsh master who gives his Malvazija slightly more leash than his Vitovska.

2015 Malvazija “Lehte” Venezia-Giulia
In 2015, Benjamin vinified his oldest Malvazija—35-year-old vines in a southwest-exposed site called “Lehte”—separately and allowed it an additional year in cask, and the result represents unquestionably the finest example of the variety we have ever encountered. Though no richer than its brother above, “Lehte” is significantly more chiseled, offering a minerality equivalent to the Vitovska, albeit one more pugilistic and less Zen-like. It is more profoundly layered than the basic Malvazija, with a longer finish of tighter focus and intensity, and one senses that it will age well past a decade with ease. This wine represents an apex, and is a must-try for those intrigued by the Carso and its treasures.

2016 Teran Venezia-Giulia
It is rare to find a red wine that combines extremely low alcohol (around 11.5% in this case) with such dynamic intensity of fruit, but then there is nothing else quite like Teran from the Carso out there. Teran, a member of the Refosco family, thrives in the indigenous iron-rich red soils of the area, and that expression of iron is unmistakable—when combined with the saline character imparted by the limestone, it’s almost like taking a bite of a perfectly seasoned rare steak. Zidarich creates a downright succulent Teran, with scrumptious red fruits (cherries, raspberries), eye-opening acidity, musky flowers, and a layer of chalk that spread-eagles itself across the palate and hangs on for dear life. This, like the whites, is aged in large Slavonian botti, and bottled without interference. We have been blown away in our tastings with Benjamin at how well this variety ages when made skillfully—a 2006 in February stopped us in our tracks with its vibrancy and presence—and we encourage you to sock away a few bottles to see for yourself. (Though, we admit, it is so brazenly delicious when young that that’s asking a lot.)

Also available:

2015 Vitovska “Kamen” Venezia-Giulia
Such is Benjamin’s passion for the Carso that he recently commissioned a local stone mason to construct a fermentation vessel [pictured left] especially for him out the local Karst. Now, with “Kamen,” both the fruit and the wine are born in stone, and it is striking how different “Kamen”—aged identically to the basic Vitovska otherwise—expresses itself. One immediately notices an element of smoke, of gunflint, which melds with the chalk aromatically and further masks the Vitovska’s varietal fruit elements vainly attempting to push through. The palate is far more intense as well; if the basic Vitovska’s minerality is a firm handshake, “Kamen” is the determined grasp of an arm wrestler about to duel. This, the first vintage for this wine, represents a new paradigm in the Carso—an outer limit of what this obscure but incomparable variety can achieve—and we have but a handful of cases remaining in stock.