Vodopivec

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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.

“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.
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.
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, “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.
“Solo”: Paolo produces “Solo” from what he considers his greatest vineyard, a 1.3-hectare parcel of pure limestone. Aged like the basic Vitovska —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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