The Slovenian town of Gorjansko is too small to need traffic signals. Nestled in the hills, just a few kilometers from the Italian border, it is the home of Branko Cotar one of the country’s foremost practitioners of organic winemaking.
Cotar, who works with his son Vasja, began making wine in 1974 for a restaurant he owned in town. Finding he had more passion for winemaking, he closed the restaurant in 1988 and turned his full attention to wine.
Cotar’s wines speak of the rocky, limestone Karst region (Kras in Slovenian, Carso on the Italian side) and its “terra rossa,” the deep red, iron-rich topsoil that has to be brought in to cover the solid limestone, which itself needs to be broken up beforehand in order to cultivate vines – a difficult, expensive and time consuming process. Cotar’s seven hectares of land average 30 centimeters of soil on top of the limestone and are certified organic. The location near the sea (5 km from the coast) and dry climate also contribute to the grape growing process – cooling winds from the sea and mountains bring down temperatures at night and, together with the fierce winter winds of the area known as “bora,” keep the vines dry.
Cotar cultivates native and international varieties, split equally between whites and reds. Local white varietals Vitovska and Malvasia Istriana are grown along with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, while reds include Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and the native Refosco, from which the best known local red Teran is made. The yield is low as well, about 3,500 to 4,000 kg per hectare (or about one bottle of wine per plant), with the winery’s total annual production in the range of 35,000 bottles.
Branko and Vasja oversee the process the way their ancestors did or, as Branko puts it, the wine is “history in a glass.” Vines are tended and harvested by hand, and the Cotars do not use herbicides or pesticides. No enzymes are used during maceration, which takes four to ten days for whites and ten to twenty days for reds. Fermentation takes place without cooling the grape solids or added sulfites, and only indigenous yeasts are used.
As the process progresses, the wine descends deeper into the cellar, which is dug into the natural rock, offering natural climate control. Whites are aged from two to three years and reds five to six years before they are released. The Cotars never filter their wines and add only a tiny amount of sulfites to some of them right before bottling, about 10 mg per liter for both whites and reds. For the past ten years, Branko has also patiently aged several barrels of vinjak brandy, which he will bottle this year. Alfonso Iaccarino, the owner of Don Alfonso 1890, a Michelin starred restaurant in Sorrento, Italy, already has his name on a case.
The Cotars’ devotion to their wines is reflected on the bottle labels, which have the father’s and son’s fingerprints on them as a sign of confidence in the quality, as well as their individuality and uniqueness – Branko’s on the reds and Vasja’s on the whites. If you can find the wines (currently available in Italy, Germany, Japan and Eastern European countries – but hope for the United States may be on the way courtesy of Joe Dressner), they exhibit incredible depth of flavor and elegance. The reds can easily age for a decade or more and the whites also do well with some age on them.
2006 Vitovska 12.5%
Indigenous varietal that’s not well known in the US, which is a shame as it is delicious and fresh with crisp elegance and minerality. Beautiful deep golden yellow. Terrific with cheese.
2004 Malvasia 12.8%
Deep golden yellow. Dry, full body, not much fruit. 2 weeks’ maceration on skins.
2007 Blend of Vitovska, Malvasia and Friulano
Deep rich golden yellow. Dry and complex. Potential to age 10 years. No sulfites added. (This wine has not been released yet.)
2004 Sauvignon 12.8%
This is no green grassy New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Intense aroma; ripe fruit develops to even more richness and toasty brioche flavors. Full, creamy, delicious. Excellent.
2007 Teran 11.5%
Made from refosco grapes. Young with bright acidity and a deep ruby with purple hues. Blueberries, cherries and violets on the nose, hints of fresh cut grass. Slightly tannic. Would complement grilled meats beautifully or the local pršut (prosciutto).
2003 Teran 11.8%
Interesting tasted alongside the fresh, racy 2007. This is all grown up with flavors of cooked red/berry fruit; mellow and soft. In the barrel for 5 years.
2001 Merlot 13%
Ripe fruit, deep and complex with hints of berries and herbs. Ripe tannins round out the minerality. Very good. 3 week maceration, 6 years in barrels.
2001 Cabernet Sauvignon 13%
Ruby color with a complex aroma of dark fruit, spices, balsamic and a faint coffee note. Plenty of freshness and tannins – amazingly young and fresh tasting for a 2001 wine. Will continue to develop for years to come. Minerality reflective of the rocky Karst terrain.
2001 Terra Rossa 13% (40% Teran, 40% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon)
Ruby with deep shades of purple. Intense fruity bouquet redolent of plums and blueberries with spicy and herbal notes and hints of coffee grounds. Warm, soft and full of ripe tannins.
2004 Crna Penina 11.5%
A dry sparkling red made from Teran. No sugar solution or yeast added for second fermentation, instead the Cotars use must from dried grapes. No dosage and no disgorgement result in an unusual but delicious dry sparkling red wine. Excellent hot weather option and good match for seafood, cheese, prosciutto and anything grilled or barbecued.
2003 Passito 14.5%
Dark and complex dessert wine made with refosco grapes. The grapes are collected in October in wooden boxes, in which they dry until the end of February, when they are pressed and fermented. The passito is aged for 5 and half years. No sulfites added.
2003 Sladkominka 14.5%
Made from several vintages of Malvasia Istriana in a method similar to Solera. Lightly oxidized notes, delicious dried fruit flavors. No sulfites added.