Day 3: Carso through Vitovska

Scott Luetgenau is director of operations and beverage director for The Urban Food Group restaurant company in Raleigh & Charlotte, North Carolina

More excitement wasn’t possible. Though our trip was too quickly moving toward its end, we were eagerly readying ourselves for our final day in Italy and the beginning of our Slovenian adventure. In one day we were visiting three producers who had redefined for me the possibilities in wine making: Paolo Vodopivec, Josko Gravner and Aleš Kristančič. Paolo Vodopivec was the winemaker I was least familiar with and the first stop on our day’s itinerary. I had tasted his Vitovska Classica prior to our visit and was taken aback by its freshness and minerality. It was the kind of wine that caused you to pause and take careful note of what you are drinking. There is a particular joy in discovering these unexpected bottles – a connection to something unique and otherwise intangible.

The terrain on the way to Carso was more engrossing than I could have imagined. The brittle, calcareous soil we’d observed in Valpolicella during our previous day’s excursion had gradually given way to bright red, iron-rich landscapes of the Collio. By the time we were making the ascent to Sgonico we found ourselves surrounded by formations of limestone and noticeably cooler weather. By late morning we arrived at Paolo’s parents’ house located just over 2 miles from the Gulf of Trieste. Paolo is a winemaker who obviously spends a tremendous amount of time in his vineyards, evidenced by his red, sun-burnished skin and substantial build. The winery’s original cellar was located beneath the home. Paolo had recently blasted a new cellar from the native bedrock with dynamite so that his wines could rest in amphorae while experiencing the same natural ambient temperature changes of the earth. “Carso is this” – Paolo explained, gesturing to the solid rock that surrounded us in his cellar. After exploring the new cellar, we walked the short distance to his vineyards, less than 300 yards from his parents’ house.

While walking Paolo explained his reasons for only raising Vitovska vines. Vitovska was reputed to be a grape never aspiring to much. From Vitovska came wines that would accompany a casual lunch. They were characterized by higher levels of acid and loose structure. Vitovska was never seen as a grape that produced age-worthy wines. Paolo recalled tasting grapes in 1994 from a particular vine whose roots had managed to actually penetrate the dense bedrock. The grapes showed concentrated flavors of minerality punctuated with acidic nerve. This tasting inspired him to focus on the humble variety for the next three years. Pleased with his results, Paolo decided to produce only Vitovska in 1997. He quickly began breaking up the hard surface of the solid bedrock in the vineyards and replanted Vitovska on the rock. Paolo’s tasting of the surprising grapes in 1994 informed his actions. By assisting the roots in their penetration of the rugged surface, he reasoned that their uptake of nutrients could be accelerated, resulting in a wine very aptly displaying the singular characteristics of its native, but arduously achieved terroir. Paolo’s short, robust vines are now well-established in the bedrock hidden beneath the shallow iron-rich layer of red topsoil.

We then returned to the winery for a lunch prepared by Paolo’s mother and a tasting of six wines from Vodopivec. Sitting at the dining room table I noticed the doilies very carefully arranged beneath each picture frame and tchotchke. The eyes of two very realistic baby dolls witnessed each movement in the room. I was momentarily transported to my grandma’s house in Anderson, Indiana, the wonderful details of our present visit that much more distinctly recorded in my memory. A plate of cured pork was presented to us. Each of our meals had begun with a sampling of a different cured meat. This was the most incredible of them all. Beautifully hand-cut and more thickly sliced than the others, it achieved an incredible spectrum ranging from dry, lean pork to a cap of fat that melted away in your mouth. We began tasting the wines and each seemed as remarkable as the previous. They glowed in our glasses with a gorgeous slightly orange and auburn tint and day-bright brilliance. The Vitovska Classica is aged for 30 months in large Slavonian oak barrels. It tastes of indigenous minerals and echoes of stonefruit while maintaining an invigorating freshness. The wines that had spent time in amphora were more austere but never hard or cold. They resumed their freshness while displaying yet another profound level of complexity. Both were stunning and truly impressive with the food. We were then served a course of fresh eggs, softly-scrambled with asparagus and the 2004 MM4. This wine was produced from a small plot of land singled-out for its high quality. It brought to mind dried stonefruits, rainwater and displayed incredible length.

Over lunch Paolo reminisced about his education in Amphorae. Gravner’s wines were an inspiration to him and eventually he decided to order amphorae from Spain. Paolo’s first and last year experimenting with the Spanish vessels was in 2000. The final product was extremely disappointing which Paolo attributed to the low quality level of soil being used for the pots. He explained the belief in Georgian amphorae as overwhelmingly being the finest as it is the birthplace of grapevines and wine production. In 2004 Paolo visited several amphorae producers in Georgia to hand select the ones used for his own cellar. Paolo described how dealings with the mafia in Georgia proved almost impossible. His life was threatened on several occasions and stiff payoffs were required to transport the amphorae back to Sgonico. Paolo dedicated 3% of his production to amphorae in 2005 and was thrilled with the effort. He now leaves the juice in contact with the skin in amphorae for 6 months, citing the slow fermentation and maceration as the chief reasons the wines exhibit such elegance and complexity.

Shortly before our departure, Paolo stopped me as if he had forgotten to tell me something very important. He explained that many would consider the 30 years or so he has ahead of him as ample time to prove the value of Carso as a terroir and Vitovska as a grape. He looks at this differently – he views this as only having 30 more opportunities to get something perfectly right. This was a notion that deeply concerned him.

All of the wines we we experienced on our trip were perfect in context – the people, food, families, traditions and philosophies were so vastly different from one another but always managed to be exactly right in the moment we were experiencing them. Paolo’s simple but effective assisting of the land and vines demonstrate true stewardship and lucid devotion. His wines are a direct connection to the Carso. Isn’t this the exact reason we choose to enjoy wines from around the world? In my humble experience, natural wines have given me the most immediate connections to the individual souls of these remarkable places. For me, there can be nothing more natural or real.

Follow day by day here:

Up next: An unexpected post from Levi Dalton, or; Expectations are for load bearing walls.

~ by Cory Cartwright on June 21, 2010.

12 Responses to “Day 3: Carso through Vitovska”

  1. FREAKING AWESOME! I was there in May…Paolo wouldn’t let us take any pictures of his cellar at the time. He was no where near this far along with construction. Paolo’s mom is great! Thanks for the post I loved this!

  2. Scott, the dolls were pretty weird. Reminded me of some bad “Chucky” memories…kinda freaked me out…

  3. Jesse – thanks for the comment. The cellar was incredible and so was Paolo. We visited around a dozen producers on our trip and this was the standout. Nice website, by the way!

    Alfonso – the dolls were super freaky-deaky. I had to share sips of Vitovska with the one on the left to keep us all safe during lunch.

  4. Scott, you know how much I love and CRAVE these wines. Great piece… it SO needed to be written.

    A propos the doilies, there’s actually a very rich tradition of doilies (called merletti in Italian) that emanates from Venice (the island of Burano) and spans the entire upper Adriatic basin. Almost every home I’ve visited in that part of Italy has a collection.

    Great post and superbly written… I loved “acidic nerve” as an inversion of the overused “nervy acidity.” Great stuff… great wines…

  5. Jeremy – thanks for the kind words. We’ll need to find an excuse to share a bottle of Vodopivec in the future. Really looking forward to recreating some of the dishes that we tried at home alongside some Vitovska.

  6. Scott!

    Great great great. Vodopivec is a producer that deserves to be written about, so I was happy to read this piece.
    Regarding the 2005: you mentioned that only 3% of his production was in amphorae that year. That is much lower than what I thought. In Norway we only received the amphorae version in 2005 and I was told it equaled 40% of their production….hmmmm.

    I have a full tasting note of the 2005 amphorae as I have tasted it many times for anybody interested in comparing notes.
    Thanks for sharing such an in depth look at what the Vodopivec brother’s are doing.


  7. Joseph –

    Thank you very much for the comment. I went back and reviewed the videotape of Paolo to confirm that he did say only 3% of the harvest in 05 was held in amphorae. There could have been a language barrier at work, and I have contact his United States importer to get a confirmation. I’ll report back when I hear from them.

    Thanks again – Scott

  8. Joseph-

    It turns out that Paolo actually meant to communicate 30% instead of 3% – confirmed by Domaine Select. Thanks for the help in clarifying.

  9. Scott,


    This is great to know. I will now go back and change my tasting note to reflect 30% and not 40%. Thanks for confirming and again, thanks for this story on my favorite producer in this region :-)


  10. […] Paolo Bea — with its saltiness, crunchiness, and acidic nervousness (to borrow a phrase minted by Scott) — was brilliant with the myriad flavors that flowed like a red tide over our […]

  11. Just had the 05 anfora for dinner the other night. Beautiful stuff.
    Great post too scott, thank you.

  12. Thanks Guihaume – I’ll be drinking the 03 next Saturday and am really looking forward to it.

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