Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Wines without borders | Čotar


Turns out the certificate in Branko Čotar's (Vina Čotar) tasting room doesn't actually say ‘Wines Without Borders’* like I thought I did when I wrote this but "\w/". It’s all about the border here. Drizzled like a maple syrup squiggle, it zigs and zags, weaves and wiggles back and forth from Italy to Slovenia, cutting cows into two without obvious rhyme or reason but for my own: triggering multiple violations of the standard car rental ‘Promise not to drive to another country’ clause. 

And it's always been about the border. Or at least since Ancient Rome, fought over between republics and empires, fascists and communists. Even now that it's been downgraded to a political technicality it remains well-remembered: memorials for the many wars' dead are everywhere, and an aggressive Facist-built mausoleum dominates Olsavia, the final resting place of 57.000 soldiers. It also lives on through stories. Visitors to the region will be slow to forget its winemakers’ accounts of having two addresses (Movia), or needing to pass through check-points and fill in forms to get to the other side of your vineyard (Gravner). 

But it’s also about the rock. The rock is inescapable here, here — now — being the Slovenian side of the Karst Plateau, Carso in Italian, Kras in Slovene, and in all languages a sparsely vegetated, wind-licked, fossil-filled, cave-riddled plateau of solid but porous limestone situated between the Vipava Valley and the Gulf of Trieste without, according to Branko Čotar, much topsoil. 

‘The Terre Rosso is very, very thin here. Mostly rock. Difficult for vines to grow. We brought in extra by truck. Broke up the limestone so they could take hold and covered it with topsoil. Many iron’. (And many, many truckloads to get it there, too: 1500 truckloads to be precise.)

Branko met us in his driveway in Gorjansko, Komen on 6 October 2016 holding a goldfish bag of mozzarella. It was windy, cold and sunny and he was not smiling. I checked the clock to see if we were late. We were usually late. We weren’t late. His son, Vasja, up all night pressing grapes, slept while Branko showed us around, ending any statement he evidently thought followed the natural order with ‘This is this’.

The Čotars’ cellar is sunk three dungeon-gloom floors down beneath the house, blasted out of the rock with the effect, Branko says, that the grapes ‘come from the limestone and stay in the limestone, going from grape to wine to bottle,’ descending deeper into the ground as they age. And where whites will rest on the deepest floor for 2-3 years and reds up to 5 before release, we had to move quick. The new harvest was in full-ferment and the damp air was full of CO2. A hodgepodge of jars and demijohns glowed in the gloom besides huge Slovenian oak barrels. Sausages dangled overhead. At the bottom he showed us the nook where the family keeps its stash of wines gifted from other makers, organised A-Z by country. The shelves were totally full, only the one labeled ‘to drink’ had any room on it. It smelled like rock and mushrooms.

Branko started making wines — one white, one red — in 1974 to supply the family’s cantina but eventually turning all his attention to winemaking. Now the restaurant is reservation only (on weekends — reserve!) and he and Vasja work the 7,5 densely planted hectares (7300 vines / hectare pruned to make 1 bottle per vine) across different parcels dotted around the village ‘like our ancestors did;’ according to organic principles, hand harvesting, long skin macerations, no industrial yeasts, enzymes or alterations. ‘We were behind the Iron Curtain: nothing modern happened here’. Including bottling. Branko tells us he only started bottling in 1980 before which, ‘No one bothered. Everyone drank from the barrel.’

One of these bottles still stands on Branko’s desk. Day trippers, like us, from Friuli; ears still full of the winemaker-as-pioneer narrative we were told there — how in 1996 Josko Gravner ‘unlocked’ the true flavour of the remaining 5% of his post-hail Ribolla Gialla harvest with extended skin contact; how Stanko Radikon realised already in 1995 that his Ribolla would benefit from longer skin contact — will appreciate that its contents is darkly orange. Turns out skin macerated whites are traditional both sides of the border. Only on one did the tradition have to be reinstated.

This is this. 

(This is also where Branko allowed himself a smile.)

//

This is an intense landscape that makes for intensely bright, mineral-loaded wines that age with elegance and drink well with severely salted charcuterie a la mamma Čotar. Here’s what we tried:


Vitovska 2014: Lush aromatics of ripe green melon spooned with summer field honey. Tastes of sun shining on burnished copper and bruised Fuji apples.

Malvasia 2014: 4-5 days skin contact. A sea breeze of candied orange peel and pear blossom aromatics. Tastes of fresh sweat minerality with exotic fruit and crunched thyme.

Malvasia 2002: 1 week skin contact, 4 years in barrel. Sunset hues and origami skin contact structure. Tastes like biting a nut-dusted caramelised apple that bites back.

Vitovska 2000: Crispy pears washed in glacial water and hung out to dry in a herbal sun on a beeline of acidity.

Črna 2010: a savoury, sparkly (Méthode Traditionelle) Teran / Refošk (the local word for Refosco). 5 years in barrel, 1 year with must, 16 months in bottle. No dosage, no filtration. A bloody Lambrusco held by an iron fist in a velvet glove. A fossil-filled forest floor. Iron blackberry sparklers. Wind slicked leather. Mountain. :)  

Teran 2012: Smells like a Madagascar vanilla pod broken over forest fruit. Tastes of wild strawberries grown in dark, rusty earth watered with blood. Whistling acidity

Merlot 2006: 6 years in barrel. Smells like old black leather and crushed brambles. Tastes like red fruit cashmere, soft and rounded, hung heavy over a mineral skeleton.  

Cabernet Sauvignon 2006: Treacle and saddle leather. Green coffee beans and grass clippings and gardening gloves.

Terre Rosso 2006: 50% Teran, 30% Merlot, 20% Cab. S. Green leather (is where I stopped).

Terre Rosso 1999: 40% Teran, 40% Merlot, 20% Cab S. Deep and warm-Nutella smooth. Concentrated dark fruit.

Cabernet Sauvignon 1998: No notes.







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