Carso is a small DOC situated in Friuli bordering Slovenia, in the far North East of Italy. It takes its name from the hilly plateau of calcareous rock formation of “Karst” that crosses Italy, Slovenia and Croatia, the greatest part being in Slovenia. This plateau boasts a number of world famous caves (grotta) thought to be created by underground rivers, and is a popular tourist destination. The climate is continental with arid summers and cold winters (the chilly Bora wind blasting at speeds of up to 90 miles per hour). Meanwhile milder Mediterranean influences are evident nearer the coast. Also noteworthy is the rugged red mineral-rich terra rossa soil, perfect for growing the local variety Teran (otherwise known as Refosk).
We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to spend the morning with Benjamin Zidarich, one of Carso’s most interesting producers. We wound our way up into the hills towards the village of Prepotto, the quaint roads scarcely wide enough to fit our compact fiat, making any wrong turns pretty amusing. We entered the reception building which has spectacular views of the Gulf of Trieste and the vineyard. “Welcome to the office,” I thought with a smidgin of envy.
A very cloudy view from the office
Benjamin arrived to show us around. We quickly remarked that Benjamin and his wines had a strong identity with Carso, the borders of which have changed frequently over the years, switching between Italy and Slovenia. Benjamin’s origins are Slovenian, although like many in Carso, he is fluent in both languages.
Benjamin is faithful to Carso tradition, growing local varieties such as Teran, Vitovska and Malvasia Istriana, and even produces his own prosciutto ham (another regional speciality). Planting vines here, by the way, is no mean feat; the shallowness of the soils makes it necessary to dig deep down into the almost impermeable rocky ground.
The Zidarich Cellar. The carving on the pillar represents spring
Talking about digging deep, by far the most spectacular part of our day was a visit to the cellars, which took Benjamin the best part of ten years – with the help of local stone masons- to construct his own version of the grotta gigante. Excavated hundreds of metres into the local rock, naturally humid with an ambient temperature of around 10 degrees, this special cave provides the perfect home to vinify and age Zidarich’s small 30,000 bottle production. We hadn’t seen cellars this beautiful since visiting Domaine de Chevalerie in the Loire Valley, though this had much more style and architectural flair, with Romanesque pillars and a beautiful tasting table all carved from Carso rock.
If you fancy a bit of Benjamin-baiting, then bring up the subject of amphora (clay fermentation vessels). He is firm in his belief that this is not a local tradition. We dared not ask about the tradition of fermenting Vitovska for two weeks on the skins in specially-made Carso stone vats, a tradition he may have helped create himself.
The man himself with one of his Carso Vats
No visit is complete without a tasting. We had already tried two vintages of his famed Vitovska straight from the Slavonian oak botti, so we were excited to assay the finished article.
The 2009 was simply stunning–perfumed and honeyed with a saline minerality–the magic of Carso captured in our glasses! The 2010 was more austere with a slightly tauter structure, but still delicious. The Prulke 2011, a blend of Sauvignon/Vitovska and Malvasia, was much more herby, fruity and fresh, whilst the 2010 Malvasia was welcoming with ripe fruits, generous texture; a delight with the local cheese topped with fennel seeds. I have to admit to having a soft spot for the last wine we tasted, the racy 2010 Teran. It teeters between characterful and slightly rustic, with piercing berry-fresh acidity and a gentle spritz on the tongue. Interestingly, Teran used to be prescribed by doctors here for anaemia due to its high iron content absorbed from the terra rossa soils…. what a fantastic excuse.