Vodopivec: A Path Beyond

Posted on Posted in Articles, RWM Contributor, Vodopivec

We have lived with Paolo Vodopivec’s wines in our portfolio for over a year now. Each bottle opened, each glass consumed, solidifies something we sensed in our very first encounters: there is nothing on earth quite like these. It’s not just that the wines are outstanding—which, indisputably, they are—but they seem to operate on an existential plane of their very own. Certain wines bellow for recognition; Vodopivec’s draw the taster into a state of meditative bliss. Through their pristine and introspective beauty, they all but eclipse the world beyond the plane of the glasses in which they rest. Through his own admission, Paolo strives for a style of wine in which the ego of the grower is completely absent. Not only does he achieve that goal, but his wines seem to dissolve the ego of the taster as well.

It’s not as if Paolo is new to the scene. His father worked the same brutal, wind-battered terrain in the Carso (that plateau of pure limestone in far-eastern Friuli, hugging the Adriatic Sea) and Paolo achieved early notoriety for making wine in the heavily macerated style of local trailblazer Josko Gravner, long before skin contact became the market-approved phenomenon it is today. Paolo has never been one to take the easy path. However, those who have familiarity with only his early-2000s vintages and feel they have a handle on his style should consider an updated review; it would be like watching Stanley Kubrick’s early films and thinking one understands the legendary director’s breadth. Sure, those first few movies make for captivating film noir, full of promise, but they are clearly the products of a formidable talent still trying to find his path (and working within an established idiom to do so). Paolo’s offerings since the 2011 vintage are his own 2001: A Space Odyssey—the work of a bona fide genius who has forged a craft-language of his very own, one which fusses not with the desire for broad appeal but with expanding the very vocabulary of his medium into uncharted territory.

For his wines, all of which are pure Vitovska (the reigning local variety to which he is steadfastly devoted), Vodopivec has notably backed off the intense extraction that marked his earliest efforts. He found, over time, that Vitovska’s inherent capacity for fineness of mineral expression can be compromised through an abundance of tannin, and the newfound gentleness in his wines allows them to speak with shocking clarity and subtlety, like a stereo system that still renders full detail at near-silent volume. Yes, all the wines are skin-macerated, but these are adamantly not “orange wines.” In their resonance they make a mockery of such process-obsessed technical concerns. Paolo employs skin contact not as virtuous pedagogy, but because it best expresses the limestone into which his Vitvoska plumbs, and because it better allows him to work without the manipulations of temperature control, outside yeasts, sulfur, and filtration which to him are anathema.

Furthermore, some years back, Vodopivec embraced with total confidence the buried amphora as an ideal vessel for fermenting his variety of choice. Witnessing the way these ancient subterranean pots stabilized fermentation and improved clarity of fruit expression, he converted his entire cellar to accommodate them. And indeed, the solemn, eternal tranquility evoked by the sight of these buried amphorae mirrors that very same essence in his wines. All of Paolo’s wines ferment here, below the earth’s surface, spending a full year in this primitive earthenware before their two-year passage in the large old Slavonian oak casks his father also employed. There is no stainless steel in Paolo’s cellar; no high-tech pneumatic pressoir (just a cantankerous old vertical basket press); no method of manipulating temperature. The man doesn’t even like having his photograph taken. But, again, these are technical details—details which may satisfy our craving for authenticity and rectitude, but things which feel a bit trite to dwell on in the face of such singular, awe-inspiring wines.

The scale of real wine is always on a finite, human one. From Paolo’s densely-planted six hectares of limited-yielding Vitovska, we at Rosenthal Wine Merchant have access to a mere 2,400 bottles for the entire US each year. To put it in perspective: if a mere six percent of the population of my small northern-Brooklyn neighborhood bought a single bottle of Vodopivec per vintage, we would have nothing more to offer the rest of the country. We are just beginning to build a broad and dedicated audience. But, as with all great human endeavors, such inspiring works of single-minded genius will find their advocates over time and through effort. Yet, isn’t it always more satisfying to be an early advocate?

We are poised to receive the 2014s from Paolo, a vintage in which he produced only two wines: his basic Vitovska and his single-vineyard “Solo.” We cannot encourage you strongly enough to stake a claim to these unique creations—wines that, all hyperbole aside, represent a sort of haunting perfection rare not only in the world of wine but in any aesthetic endeavor.

2014 Vitovska
Vitovska at its most naked and expressive can give Chablis a run for its money in its unabashed expression of pure limestone, and Vodopivec’s 2014 qualifies in flamboyant fashion. The high concentration of quartz in Paolo’s sub-zone of the Carso imbues his wines with a palpable smokiness, one which he harnesses with impressive authority. This 2014 embodies Paolo’s ideal of an egoless wine, yet it could have been made by nobody else—a delicious conundrum. This wine forces the taster to engage with it on its own terms, drawing down a curtain of vibrant minerality that completely envelops and intoxicates—a Rothko-like exploration of pure texture that asks nothing but to be beheld and adored.

2014 Vitovska “Solo”
Each vintage, Paolo isolates a certain optimally-exposed 1.3-hectare parcel of Vitovska planted in pure unforgiving Carso limestone and vinifies it separately. And, each vintage, his “Solo” ratchets up what is already an unbelievable level of mineral rawness into realms yet unmapped. This 2014 is a static-free transmission from the bowels of the earth, both smokier and more refined than the basic Vitovska above, and even more difficult to wrap one’s head around. One of the most rapturous aspects of Vodopivec’s wines, however, is their ability to be both endlessly complex and compulsively drinkable; theirs is a complexity not to be admired from afar but to be relished while consuming hungrily. A truly great, eternal work of art beckons thoughtful contemplation yet could be happily encountered every single day; likewise, a Vodopivec brims with ravenous drinkability but evokes a depth that amply rewards the most probing intellectual engagement. As a curious side-note, this 2014 “Solo” offers a briny, musky intensity akin to the Platonic ideal of a just-plucked sea urchin—an uncanny evocation of marine life that is both bizarre and irresistibly sexy.

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