The Carso: Stone and Sea

Posted on Posted in Producer Spotlight, Vodopivec, Zidarich

Benjamin Zidarich and Paolo Vodopivec

Terroir, of course, is more than the soil beneath our feet. It is the air around us, and the sky above us. It is the people who work the land, and the cellars in which the wines come to life. It is the distinct soul of a distinct place—a spirit, summoned by man and made manifest through liquid.

It is this transmission of spirit that we at Rosenthal Wine Merchant have always restlessly sought—that which we have always prized above all else. Trends in wine come and go; bandwagons fill to capacity and empty out just as quickly; but great terroir persists. It is etched into the very Earth we inhabit, imprinted through generations of accumulated knowledge and experience into our collective consciousness. It may not be directly provable by science, but it is as real as anything in our world.

There are plenty of well-made, delicious wines in the market—more now than ever before, given the technological progress of the past few decades and the robust proliferation of distribution channels. Whether one favors juicy, jammy reds, clean and racy whites, or scruffily charming carbonic quaffers, there are scores of wines out there to please any palate.

However, a true wine of terroir pulls one out of time and place—rather than rushing to impress something upon the taster, it summons her to approach it, to apprehend its mysteries on their own terms. To drink a transparent wine from a great terroir is, above all, an arresting experience. It is less about simple gustatory satisfaction than it is about a sense of awe—a visceral reminder of Earth’s inscrutable beauty, and of man’s uncanny ability to shepherd it. In that sense, great wine is art, it is sculpture. And it is the holy grail of our industry to discover, share, and revel in wines like this.

During our foray into the Carso—a narrow and astonishingly picturesque stretch of far-southeastern Friuli hugging the gulf of Trieste, and situated at the interzone of Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia—the spirit of the place confronted us with the subtlety of a gale-force wind.

Even just visually, the Carso brims with character—one of those places that simply feels alive, whose essence is strong and bold and memorable: a quality of sunlight both ripplingly cool and brilliant; a busily meandering coastline framing the great Adriatic Sea; brisk, spiky winds that blow frequently and enthusiastically; huge swaths of white and grey limestone glinting under the intense sun; rich-looking and strikingly red soil; serpentine back roads dotted with rust-pocked traffic signs in multiple languages. It is a place undeniably rural, yet somehow not quite purely bucolic—it hums too loudly for that.

Geologically speaking, the Carso—or Karst, or Kras, depending on the language—is a plateau of limestone perched above the Adriatic at about 350 meters above sea level. Historically, many of its winegrowers have actually transported and spread truckloads of soil from other areas simply to have something in which to plant vines, as there is literally no topsoil in much of the area—just bedrock. (That aforementioned red soil may look rich, but it is in fact no more than a few centimeters deep in most places.) The visual and climatic juxtaposition of the limestone’s imposing solidity with the fluid maritime beauty of the Adriatic is striking, and it is a defining characteristic of both the terroir and the wines.

Compared to Oslavia to the north, where Gravner plies his trade, the Carso is both poorer of topsoil and cooler, its wines tending to weigh in at several degrees of alcohol lower than those of its northern neighbor. However, in terms of the populace and the culture of wine, there are many parallels. In both areas, people tend to identify as Slovenian; they are of Slovenian ethnicity, and they speak primarily Slovene with each other. The indigenous grape varieties of both areas—Ribolla in Oslavia, and Vitovska in the Carso—are also found across the border in Slovenia. Furthermore, the ancient technique of skin maceration for white wines has been employed steadfastly in both places for quite some time, as has aging in buried Georgian amphorae.

Also, as suggested by the early and earnest revival of extended skin contact, both areas have a remarkably high concentration of non-commercially-minded, idiosyncratic, fiercely independent winegrowers. There are no large producers in the Carso, which itself encompasses a mere 57 hectares of vineyards, and the poor topsoil and hard limestone bedrock there make for slow, difficult vineyard work. In such a place, one who lacks determination and passion simply cannot make wine.

Our dive into the Carso back in March was one of the most galvanizing and exciting legs of any wine trip in recent memory. That day, we made the fortunate acquaintance of two men of uncommon vision, skill, intensity, and thoughtfulness—men creating wines of incredible character and complexity that positively vibrate with the hum of a distinctive terroir in the hands of a master. Their offerings have been in the US market here and there in the past, but they are still far too little-known. The first week of June, we will welcome the new releases from Benjamin Zidarich and Paolo Vodopivec, and we cannot wait to share these profound wines with those who, like us, live for such electrifying conduits of terroir.

We found ourselves in the Carso for the first time quite suddenly and through happy chance last November, having been in the general area to visit the iconic Josko Gravner, with whom we recently began a relationship. Urged last-minute by a mutual friend to visit the cantina of Benjamin Zidarich, who was seeking a new avenue of exportation to the US, we arrived well after dark, greeted by a vibrant-eyed man who exuded a gentle confidence.

Though it was pitch-black outside and the breathtaking view of the Adriatic from the back porch would have to wait until our next visit, we entered a spacious, warm tasting room equipped with a large wooden table occupied by laughing, sipping, snacking locals, and descended into the cellar through a modest doorway behind the bar area. Nothing could have prepared us for the shocking beauty and scale of the Zidarich cave. Dug a full five stories down into the pure Karst limestone, it took Benjamin and his team ten years to build, construction having finished in 2009. Much of the exposed walls and ceilings were left untouched, and the stonework is minimal, tasteful, and naturalistic—an attempt to preserve the visual power and spiritual thrust of the mother rock. And indeed, the sensation of being completely surrounded by stone is almost overwhelming—here, jagged and craggy; there, slick and smooth and cleanly cleft; in another corner, moist from a nearby subterranean water source; but everywhere, stone. This cellar is Benjamin’s love letter to the Carso, and there could be no more fitting environment in which such profoundly, almost impossibly mineral wines come into being.

Following his father, Benjamin began in 1988 with just one hectare and has since grown his holdings to eight hectares, all of which he farms without the use of chemicals. 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- and calcium-rich red soils of the area, extending deep into the limestone that looms just below the surface. Benjamin works primarily with Vitovska, the classic local variety of the Carso, but he also has plantings of Malvasia and Sauvignon—as well as small amounts of Teran (another local variety) and Merlot for his reds. Harvest is done entirely by hand, and Zidarich’s modest yields typically hover around 30 hectoliters per hectare.

In the cellar, 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. Aging takes place in Slavonian barrels of varying sizes, and the employment of skin contact allows Benjamin to use the barest minimum of added sulfur. The wines are bottled without fining or filtration, typically two years after the vintage, and allowed to rest for a spell before being put up for sale.

Running through all of Zidarich’s wines is a driving, dancing, powerful yet balletic minerality—an essence of pure stone. Even in those wines made from more assertive and aromatic varieties like Malvasia and Sauvignon, it is the limestone that takes center stage. They combine invigorating liveliness and profound, contemplative mineral heft like few other wines on Earth, capturing both the gleaming sunshine of his high-altitude vineyards and the cool depth of his cellar. Benjamin is quick to open older bottles—a testament to his confidence as well as his generosity—and it is frankly astonishing to see how well his wines develop with age. We invite you to take this dive into the Carso with us, and we hope that you will get on board with the minute quantities of the wines below, as they are truly among the most exciting testaments of terroir we have encountered in quite some time.

2014 Vitovska: Aged for two years in large Slavonian casks, Zidarich’s 2014 Vitovska is a seamless and deeply stony wine. Its fruit character veers toward apricot and peach, yet in a subtle way—the limestone is doing the heavy lifting here, with the Vitovska serving as a mere vessel for the unfettered expression of rock. The wine finishes clean and long, with a sensation of almost mentholated coolness ringing on the palate long after swallowing. Whatever subtle tannins are present are melded beautifully with the palate-staining minerality, and the overall impression is one of freshness, complexity, and drive. A bold, uplifting, utterly delicious wine.

2009 Vitovska “Collezione”: In certain exceptional vintages, Benjamin vinifies his oldest vines of Vitovska separately, aging them for longer in cask and holding them in bottle before release. In keeping with its age, the 2009 “Collezione” is a bit less immediately forward and exuberant than the above, yet it expresses even more viscerally the stony power of its underlying terroir. Gentle in character yet extremely concentrated, all of its elements hang together just-so, and the broad, long palate features a fascinating interplay of chamomile, cinnamon, and menthol. It is a testament to Benjamin’s patience and pride—his dedication to revealing all the dimensions of this great and relatively unknown viticultural area—that he is just now releasing the 2009 version of this wine, and we are fortunate to have access to a mere 16 six-packs for the US market.

2014 Malvasia: Zidarich’s Malvasia is the more gregarious, talkative, eager younger brother to the more inward and contemplative Vitovska, yet both express the powerfully stony essence of the Carso in their own delicious way. This 2014 presents notes of crunchy mango, white pepper, and lemon verbena, with a subtle honey undertone emerging on the driving, mineral-drenched finish. A 2006 version of this wine offered amazing depth and freshness, proving that its relative youthful exuberance does not preclude an equally impressive age-ability.

2014 Teran: This indigenous red grape variety has existed in the Carso since Roman times, and it is an addictively delicious, vibrant, exuberant, and light-on-its-feet counterpart to the strikingly mineral white wines of the area. Benjamin explained that Teran has the most anthocyanins of any red grape variety in the world, and its alcohol levels rarely broach 12% (this 2014 is only 11.5%). There is a certain Barbera-like quality to the crunchy, earth-tinged red fruits and the bright, appetizing acid profile of this 2014, yet there is more finesse and purity here. Fresh herbs and red licorice on the palate add complexity, and the concentration and energy of this wine is surprising given its exceedingly modest alcohol level. Aged entirely in large Slavonian botti.

2010 “Ruje”: Merlot has a long history in this part of Friuli, and the variety can take on an incredibly distinctive, satisfying character in the right hands—tasting nothing like its distant cousins in the Medoc, nor like any of the multitude of more varietally marked New World iterations. Zidarich’s “Ruje” combines 80% Merlot and 20% Teran, and it is aged for four years in a combination of large botti and smaller barrels (all of which are well-used)—then for another two full years before it hits the market. This 2010 is fascinating, with an intoxicating nose of savory spice, dried tobacco, dark fruits, and smoke. The still-energetic palate is supple and long, with a coiled mineral presence that rears its head from beneath the web of secondary complexity. As evidenced by a vertical Benjamin opened for us, this wine can go far longer in bottle as well.

2009 “Ruje”: The 2009 “Ruje” is deeper and darker in its fruit character than the 2010, revealing more structure on the palate, as well as a far more pronounced savory streak. It is perhaps a shade less elegant than the 2010, but chewier and more gutsy—an equally fascinating wine.

We made the acquaintance of Paolo Vodopivec through none other than our mutual friend Giampiero Bea, who met us at dinner in Foligno with a bottle of Paolo’s Vitovska “Solo” in tow and urged us to pay him a visit. Giampiero is a difficult man to say “no” to, sure—but the wine was indeed utterly spellbinding. Even after a particularly long and strenuous day of visiting and driving, in a garishly lit restaurant, we were captivated by the meditative beauty of the Vodopivec, and so Giampiero arranged a visit for us for the penultimate day of our trip.

In person, Vodopivec exudes physical robustness and strength, but he simultaneously possesses a thoughtful and quiet intensity that mirrors the personality of his wines almost eerily—a certain gravitas and solidity that echo the terroir of the Carso itself, in fact. He is friendly without being at all ingratiating, and he speaks clearly and precisely, without a great deal of flourish. Like Zidarich, Paolo brims with an intelligence and thoughtfulness that becomes apparent even after only a few minutes of meeting him.

In comparison with the range of wines produced at Zidarich, Vodopivec works solely with Vitovska in his six hectares of vineyards. Having experimented with other varieties in the past, Paolo believes that Vitovska is the true voice of the Carso, and—in an almost monastic dedication of purpose—he has made it his life’s mission to channel the spirit of the Carso through the vehicle of its local variety. He also works entirely organically, and—although it is a historic practice—he rejects the transportation of topsoil, working only with vineyards that have a naturally occurring layer of soil, no matter how thin or poor. Furthermore, he employs incredibly dense plantings (10,000 plants per hectare), and never irrigates his soil. In comparison to Zidarich’s higher-altitude vineyards in full view of the Adriatic Sea, Vodopivec’s holdings are tucked away slightly further inland, flanking the quaint, rugged backroads, and melding gently into the stark pastoral beauty of the area.

Paolo works with an incredibly labor-intensive, fully manual basket press in the cellar, and—like Zidarich—employs extended skin contact during fermentation, which always happens naturally. An early disciple of Gravner, Vodopivec’s wines used to be more marked by tannin, deeper in color, and more ruggedly structured. Today, however, his wines are far more transparent, ethereal, and harmonious, with the tannins playing a background role in the service of greater textural profundity. Like Zidarich, Vodopivec employs large Slavonian casks for aging—but, importantly, Paolo is a steadfast devotee of the buried Georgian amphora as a fermentation vessel. With the exception of the “Origine,” all of his wines spend at least twelve months in these massive subterranean amphorae. Paolo rejects stainless steel entirely (there is none in his cellar), and feels that oak causes too quick and violent of a fermentation. Never one to rush, he gives the wines three years of barrel aging, plus another full year in bottle, before releasing them into the market.

There is a certain dark, almost gothic solemnity that permeates the air of an amphora cellar. Sure, quite a few growers in regions far and wide are now experimenting with these vessels, and we’ve seen above-ground amphorae tucked away in the corners of some unlikely places in our recent travels. But it is an entirely different experience to enter the cellar of a grower like Vodopivec (or like Gravner, for that matter)—someone who has fully embraced this ancient method and built their entire operation around it. Seeing the stark, circular lids at ground level, sometimes closed, sometimes open, surrounded by stones and dirt, one cannot help but think of death—of eternity. If a Burgundy cellar is like a hatchery, full of little eggs in rows waiting to come into their own, an amphora cellar is like a burial ground, quiet and beautiful and contemplative.

And indeed this feeling of solemnity and eternal beauty is echoed in Vodopivec’s wines themselves. Even more so than with Zidarich, these wines defy flowery descriptors and name-that-scent adjective-flinging—in fact, they possess such a force of spiritual potency as to seemingly mock the very idea of a traditional tasting note. They are profoundly mineral as befits the terroir of the Carso, yes, but these are primarily wines of texture—wines that go far, far beyond our linguistic capabilities and speak to us in the realm of the purely aesthetic. While they are undeniably beautiful, even gentle in their carriage, they are not exactly easy. They demand a level of attentiveness, receptivity, and concentration from the taster, and they make no obvious appeals to pure deliciousness. In the end, they must be experienced to be understood, and we trust that those among you who seek the most resonant and profound experiences of terroir out there will join us on this journey.

Toward the end of our tasting with Vodopivec, in the dim light of the cellar, Neal turned to us, his eyes glowing: “This is why I can’t stop… This is what keeps me going in this business.” We couldn’t agree more.

2012 “Origine”: The one wine in Paolo’s cellar that doesn’t spend time in amphorae, “Origine” is fermented in open-top wooden casks, and spends three years in large Slavonian botti before bottling. What it perhaps lacks in textural je ne sais quoi compared to its terra-cotta-aged brethren it makes up for in a stricter, more vividly limestone-driven mineral character—almost a Chablis-like saltiness and snap. There is an arresting purity here, reminiscent of pure mountain water, and the very long finish recedes slowly and elegantly, framed by a note of dried honey and a persistent whisper of chalk.

2012 Vitovska: Fermented in amphorae and aged two and a half years in botti, Vodopivec’s Vitovska exemplifies the murmuring, layered beauty of his style. Subtle, deeply stony, and caressing on the palate, it whispers to the taster and invites contemplation as it unfolds slowly and gracefully across the palate. It seems to occupy its own aesthetic space, a pure exploration of cool-toned texture, Rothko-like in its single-minded yet comfortingly enveloping character.

2012 Vitovska “T”: An exploration of the full capabilities of the amphora as an aging vessel, Vodopivec’s “T” is pure Vitovska that is both fermented and aged in amphorae—in this case, of slightly smaller size than his other wines. He includes a portion of stems during the fermentation, and aging takes place for two and a half years, on the lees for the entire time. Compared to the Vitovska above, “T” has an immediately more intense and expressive nose, yet still with a remarkably reflective and introspective core. Subtle notes of spice, mustard seed, and dried herbs frame the palate, which displays greater concentration, power, and vibrancy than the two wines above.

2012 “Solo”: Paolo produces “Solo” from what he considers his greatest vineyard, a 1.3-hectare parcel of pure limestone. Aged like the basic Vitovska above—fermented in amphorae and aged in large Slavonian botti—its nose is gorgeous and spellbinding, striking in its purity and unadulterated mineral essence, subtler than the “T” yet more intense and layered than the basic Vitovska. It comes across as almost weightless on the palate, an offering of pure texture and pure stone divorced from the burden of viscosity or alcohol. The finish is saline and incredibly long, fading from perception as slowly and as focused as light receding at the rear end of a tunnel.

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