Every week, Simon selects an orange wine (a white wine made with extended skin contact) that grabbed his attention. View the whole series here.
“The first problem for wine producers is not oidium, it’s ego”, states Paolo Vodopivec disarmingly. “I don’t want my ego in my wines”.
When I visited Vodopivec’s extraordinary, cathedral-like cellar in Italy’s North-easterly Carso region last year, I was travelling with the photographer of my book (and good friend) Ryan Opaz.
Our main issue was getting Vodopivec’s consent to take photographs. He grumpily conceded to us snapping the cellar – “you can find pictures on the internet anyway, what do I care” – but was extremely resistant to appearing in the photos himself. In the end, Ryan brokered a cunning compromise by explaining that his photo of the qvevri cellar would lack any scale unless there was a person in it. You can see the outcome above. (the actual photo appears in my book).
Vodopivec is a stoic character, but he’s not shy. However his feeling that ego should not dominate the wine extends to a dislike of giving interviews, or receiving journalists – or having his picture taken. He makes a valid point, yet his wines are so unique – perhaps even peerless – that it is hard to separate them from their maker.
He’s also withering about being pigeonholed as a producer of ‘orange wine’ or even ‘natural wine’: “For me, skin contact is not the end result. It’s just the instrument to allow me to express the grape”, is his explanation. Tasting recent vintages – understated, elegant and pale in colour – it is not hard to understand his distancing from the orange wine category. In contrast to the structured, forthright macerated Ribolla Giallas of the Collio, or Kakheti’s pungent, tannic style, Vodopivec’s output is beguiling in its delicacy and nuance.
Carso’s indigenous Vitovska is the only variety that Vodopivec cultivates, although he makes up to three different bottlings each year. “Origine” is vinified and aged only in large, neutral oak botti. The classic Vitovska stays for between six – 12 months in Georgian qvevri with its skins, before further extended aging in botti. “Solo” is Vodopivec’s ‘Grand Cru’, hewn from his most precious vineyard parcel, with a whole year in qvevri before a final passage through the botti.
Vitovska 2014 (the current release) is a textbook example of Vodopivec’s craft. There’s a pretty and very typical jasmine aroma combined with a hint of exotic spices and cooked plum, before a ripe, concentrated fruit core kicks in. There is no lack of structure, but the tannins are fine and whispy. It’s all rather magical, and a testament to the work that Vodopivec does in the vineyards – the elegance of these wines has a huge amount to do with the quality of the fruit.
Solo 2014 is yet finer and more ethereal, with a slightly smoky note on the nose, subtle hints of lemon peel and fresh tarragon in addition to the fruit. It is so seductive, so concentrated yet restrained that the reference point might as well be Burgundy rather than any other macerated wine. The tannins have a firm, nutty character that brilliantly carries the wine to its silken finish.
Maybe Vodopivec has kept his ego out of the wines, but his keen sense of balance and single-minded character transmits loud and clear. Everything from the immaculate yet austere cellar, to starkly stylish labels chimes perfectly with the contents of the bottle. He’s probably less than thrilled to be included in my book about orange wine, but I think he got his point across.
Vodopivec’s wines are not too hard to track down in the UK. They’re not cheap, but prices around £40 – £45 still represent real value for the quality.
Sadly there’s no Dutch importer at present. You can check Wine-Searcher for availability in your part of the world.