Vitovska, the Queen of the Carso-Kras

Vitovska di Castello di Rubbia
Vitovska di Castillo di Rubbia

Recently I wrote an article about my beloved Ribolla Gialla/Rebula. I said it was my favorite grape varietal. I love it as I explained in that article. Close behind comes the Vitovska, especially when it is about white wines macerated on the skins. The Ribolla is a very versatile variety as we can find it in many vinification styles: fresh, aged, macerated, sparkling and even sweet. The Vitovska, on the other hand, is not that versatile. So far I have only tasted it in the fresh and macerated version. I only know of two wineries producing a non-macerated Vitovska wine, but hey! That’s the good thing about wine! I need to keep on doing my research!

The Vitovska grape grows in a tiny strip of land located between Slovenia and Friuli-Venezia Giulia in Italy. This geographical area is called the Karst Plateau, going from sea level to up to 650 meters, though the average altitude is around 330 meters. The plateau has an extension a shade over 400 square kilometers that goes from the outskirts of Trieste all the way to Gradisca d’Isonzo, running parallel to the Adriatic Sea coast. From the Gulf of Trieste it goes inland towards the Alps until reaching the limits of the Vipavska Dolina DO (Vipava River Valley) in Slovenia. In the Italian side it comprises two provinces, Trieste and Gorizia. The Karts Plateau is part of a greater geological area called Karst that extends from here all the way to Croatia and Kosovo, but we will stay within the Plateau.

The Karst is a very particular piece of land. Originated in the Eocene period, the movement of the tectonic plaques pushed from the bottom to the top a rocky substrate with marly-sandstone lithology soil rich in marine sediments. It also contains high levels of iron oxides and minerals, which mixed with the limestone and carbonate soil creates what the locals call Terra Rossa, a fertile soil with a bright red color. The Karts is also famous for its caves, with more than 10,000 making pleasure for speleologists. Grotta Gigante is the most famous one in Italy while Velinica Cave is its counterpart in Slovenia.

The breeze coming from the Adriatic Sea keeps the vineyards fresh and dry, helping them staying healthy and avoiding the use of fungicides. In the back, the Pre-Julian Alps offer their protection against the currents blowing from the continent. A third factor that makes this land special is the Bora wind, one of the most brutal winds in the continent, which sometimes gusts up to 200 kilometers per hour.

The Vitovska grape is a crossing between Prosecco and Malvasia Bianco. It is not an ancient variety such as the Ribolla, which dates back from the XII Century, but rather it was recently when local producers started using it in the 1980s. Some families, though, has been using it for up to 200 years. It wasn’t until 1996 when the Carso-Kras DOC region was established in Italy and later on the Kras Wine District was established in Slovenia. As with the Ribolla/Rebula, this variety also has two names: in Italy is known as Vitovska whereas across the Slovenian border is recognized as Vitovska Grganja. Two different grapes for many researchers but more commonly accepted as one single variety. A particular characteristic of the Vitovska is its thick skin, which suits it perfect for longer maceration periods. The cultivated land extends to around 60 hectares summing both countries.

Coming to talk about wine, the Italian Carso counts with an association of producers called Associazione Dei Viticoltori Carso-Kras with a membership of a score of wineries. In general, they produce Malvasia Istriana and Vitovska in the whites and Refosco in the reds, with some blends in many cases. My heart has room for many of these producers whose wines I have tasted, enjoyed and loved. There are two producers doing a non-macerated version of the Vitovska, Edi Kante and Matej Lupinc. Matej is a master. I can’t forget a 2008 Malvasia that I absolutely loved (I tasted it two years ago). His Vitovksa is incredible, as well as his white blend with Vitovksa, Malvasia Istriana and FriulanoStara Brajda. Delicious. And this one, by the way, is a macerated wine.

Lupinc is nested at Prepotto, Trieste, as there is another village sharing the name in Gorizia. The other two famous inhabitants of Prepotto are Benjamino Zidarich (Azienda Agricola Zidarich) and Sandi Škerk (Azienda Agricola Škerk). Now we are entering maceration country. Both Benjamino and Sandi produce unbelievable wines using the two aforementioned varieties, but especially Vitovska. The stellar Vitovska of Benjamino is Kamen, with 22 months of oak after fermentation and maceration in a stone tank he especially built for this. Kamen in Slovenian means stone

Not far from Prepotto we find Azienda Agricola Skerlj, where Matej Skerlj also produces great Malvasia, Vitovska and Terrano (Refosco subvariety).

Another winery in the Italian Carso that owns a piece of my heart is Azienda Agricola Castello di Rubbia of Nataša Černic. Nataša works incredibly well with the same varietals (her Malvasia is an outstanding wine), but her Vitovskas are a masterpiece. Trubar is the name used by her for some vintages while in others she uses just the name Vitovska. In some vintages, where the grapes are of top quality, she produces Bianco Della Bora, a blend of Malvasia and Vitovska. Her 2002 is one of the best white wines I have ever tasted. Besides the wine, Nataša is a classical musician and she loves to mix both music and wine, and also art and dance. Her jam sessions make a great experience for those in attendance.

Finally, secluded in his winery in Carso lives Paolo Vodopivec, for me the head magician when it comes to the Vitovska and also to Orange Wines. In his winery, Paolo only works with the Vitovska. He produces two or three wines depending on the vintage called VitovskaVitovska TOrigine (with a black label) or Solo. Some vintages he produces all of them, some other times he only produces one. The basic one has a short period of maceration (around 15 days) and close to 36 months of ageing in big Slavonian botti. His most especial wine is Solo: a six-month maceration-on-the-skins wine, fermented in underground amphorae and then two years in oak.

I love Paolo’s wines. I have tasted a few vintages of Origine, Vitovska and Solo. I believe they are some of the best wines I’ve ever tasted when it comes to Orange Wines. He is a very close-to-himself guy. I have tried to visit him three times to no avail and you can barely find any information or pictures on him in the net. Or everywhere, for that matter.

We will cross now the border to Slovenia. In the backcountry there are just a handful of wineries, family business all of them with a short production. Branko and Vasja Čotar are father and son. Their business started with a restaurant where they made wine for their customers. Then they expanded to making wine in a bigger scale. They are natural winemakers, not adding anything to the wine because in the old days of the Iron Curtain, everyone was so poor they didn’t have money for buying enological or chemical products. Therefore, macerating the white wines as they did with the reds was the solution for protecting their wines. Nowadays they also use Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and their Vitovska is brilliant.

Joško Renčel is another Vitovska producer in the Kras District. Small winery, buried amphora in the backyard, amazing wines. He is very worth paying a visit. Now he is helped by his son-in-law Žiga Ferlež. Their work is wonderful, as it is their Amfora wine or the white blend Vincent.

I remember one time visiting my beloved friend Jean Michel Morel from Kabaj in Goriska Brda. We were talking about other local wineries and he said I should visit two of them: Sebastijan Stemberger and Marko Tavčar. I haven’t been able yet to visit them but they are at the top of my to-do list. If Jean says they are good winemakers, they must be great winemakers for sure. Both of them work with the Vitovska, so that for me is a must. Sebastijan also works with the Malvasia, Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot. Also with Zelen, which is a variety most found in Vipavska Dolina, not far from here. Marko works with the usual Kras varieties: Malvasia, Vitovska and Terrano under the label of Vina Pietra. Both are high quality winemakers. I was able to get some bottles of Sebastijan’s. Marko’s will have to wait a bit.

The word in the wind says there is another producer in the area whose wines are amazing. His name is Marko Fon and he is the Slovenian version of Paolo Vodopivec. Hard to find wines, hard to find winemaker. He mainly works with Vitovska and Malvasia producing only a handful of thousand bottles per year (7,000 bottles in the 2015 vintage). He also produces a Terrano called Lui with around 1,000 bottles. If you are able to get of them, you will be a lucky son of a gun. Wonderful wines with no added anything. I have his Vitovska Selekzija 2016 that was a great example of his work with this variety.

Something else remains to be said. This article is devoted to Vitovska from Carso-Kras, which is the native place where the Vitovksa is religion. But my beloved Kristina Mervič from JNK is also producing a Vitovska wine in recent vintages. In fact, I was surfing the Facebook during last year’s harvest time and I saw a post of hers saying her Vitovska was ready to go. I almost fell from my chair to the ground!! If I already was in love with Kristina’s wines, especially her Rebula, now a Vitovska!! I can hardly wait to taste it. She is not in Kras, but in Šempas in Vipavska Dolina. In a straight line she must be not over 30 kilometers from the villages the other guys are. Being as they are windy roads running around so many small hills, it takes a bit longer to reach her place from the others. But no road is long enough to keep you from visiting anyone of them if you love this kind of wines.

The Vitovska is a highly interesting grape if you like Orange wines. It grows in this tiny piece of land. Outside here you cannot find it. Its character, its personality, the wines it produces, all of it are reasons worth for giving it a try. These wine producers, as well as others I still have to know, have mastered working with it, obtaining a great result that will please any winelover.

Photos © Castello di Rubbia