The artist Hans Hofmann said, “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” The same rings true at Slovenia’s Čotar winery, in the Karst region of Slovenia. Here, Branko Čotar, and his son Vasja and daughter-in-law Andreja, tend eight hectares of vineyards, and this trio and their vines produce spellbinding natural wines that have taken the wine world by storm in recent years.
By deciding to minimise their intervention in the cellar, they have further amplified the natural aromas found within their grapes, and through patience, these aromas find an intrinsic harmony in the wines. Drinking a Čotar wine is like visiting an exhibition of your favourite artist for the first time: it might have taken a while to finally have the opportunity, but it’s well worth the wait.
Meet Andreja, Vasja and Branko
Like so many wine lovers, Branko Čotar’s wine journey began in a restaurant. In this case, it was their family restaurant, and tasting, serving (and drinking) wines inspired him to give viticulture and winemaking a go himself. The year was 1974, and making a little bit of wine for home consumption was a tradition in the village. This is an important part of the Čotar story — their winemaking journey began as a hobby. The wines have never been made with a certain market or audience in mind, nor were they made with any sort of commercial strategy or business plan. Rather, there was one simple goal: to make wines they love to drink.
That goal remains unchanged, and although it may seem simple, aren’t the simple ideas often the best ones?
Andreja, Vasja and Branko Čotar’s eight hectares are found in the Karst region of Slovenia. When they planted the vineyards, field blends featuring old indigenous varieties, such as Vitovska, Malvasia Istriana and Teran, were the norm. That was the local tradition. These varieties were then joined by Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. They were popular choices in the post-Soviet era, and also happen to thrive here. The region’s climate and soils create delightful conditions for growing vines, and this transfers to the bottle. Andeja describes,
“In our wines, you can smell our region. A lot of herbs grow here, and you find the mineral notes from the soil, too — the earth is red with a lot of iron content. We are also close to the sea, just 5km away, and you feel that in the wine. We also have a lot of sun here — very little rain, but lots of wind. All of these elements you can find in the wine. It’s difficult to put it into words. We don’t try to complicate it, but rather let the drinker experience it for themselves.”
Farming is organic, and simple: just sulphur and copper for treatments, and composting where needed. The vineyards are left in a fairly wild state, and depending on the soil type, some feature lots of grasses, whereas others are rockier, with shallow topsoil. Andreja says,
“Our focus is to achieve very ripe grapes, always harvesting when the grapes are very mature. If you have good grapes, you don’t need to add anything. The wine makes itself — we do very little in the cellar.”
Working organically is a philosophy of life. She adds,
“We work organically because we feel better when we drink organic wines — not just our wines, but wines in general. At home, we also like to eat and drink organic and natural produce. It’s healthier for us, and it tastes better, too. Like food, wine must feel good.”
For their first few years of winemaking, they made wine like so many others did at the time — with sulfites, fining them with bentonite and filtering. Until 1988, the wines were only sold at their restaurant (and drunk by themselves, of course). Then, in 1991, they began selling a little bit. It was around the same time that Branko realised that he wasn’t such a fan of the more modern winemaking methods. He says,
“My grandfather had made wines with his feet, not machines, and by using the traditional maceration period in casks. After looking around at other winemakers’ methods in the 80s and 90s, I realised that this is what is best for our terroir, so I make our wines how they used to be made. Like that, they are alive.”
Branko explained that in the old days, the white wines of the region were made with a period of skin contact (between five and seven days). Before sulfites were brought to the region, winemakers had found that this additional skin contact acted as a natural protection and antioxidant for the wines.
Next, the sulfite additions also disappeared. Andreja says,
“Vasja — Branko’s son, my husband, is allergic to sulfites, and he gets awful headaches, so we decided to make wines differently to the other winemakers. Then, they realised that the wines also tasted better: they liked them a lot more. It was always about quality, not quantity.”
At first, it was tricky to sell these wines — it was unusual at the time to return to these ancestral methods. Andreja says,
“The first few years were hard, because there’s still not that many people in the world that drink this kind of wine. We take a lot of risks working this way. But, like we always say, we don’t make wine for others.”
As it turned out, the timing corresponded with a growing movement of other winemakers who had similar ideas. The Triple A group in Italy was formed, which Čotar remains a member of, and the family met Nicolas Joly through the Rennaissance des Appellations group. Branko remembers,
“Together, we went out into the world in 2002, at the first Verona Triple A fair. Then, we met our first three importers, and began exporting our wines to Germany, Italy and the USA. Now, we export to 35 countries — 90% of our production goes overseas.”
Obviously, they were onto something. But the irony is, there’s really no secret recipe — in fact, it’s the opposite — their success came when they threw the rulebook out of the window and followed their intuition instead.
They also follow their gut feeling when it comes to ageing the wines. There’s no predictability when it comes to when a new vintage will be released, it’s simply a matter of when they feel they are ready. Andreja says,
“The wines are not high in alcohol, around 12% ABV, but they have good acidity, which means they can age for 20+ years with no problem. Every year is different. Sometimes they need three years, sometimes they need ten years.”
“Some vintages are better if they stay in the bottle for a long time, and other vintages are better if you drink them when they are younger.”
“When we like the wine, we bottle it. The wine needs to taste good to us: this is our work, our lives. We live though this process.”
These are the sort of thoughts that make us think: why don’t more people work in this way? For the Čotar family, everything is carried out through contemplation, which means following their nose in the direction of quality. Beauty lies in simplicity, and that’s the case here. Andreja muses,
“We enjoy nature, and we like to produce natural wine. We don’t have any big story, and we don’t promote much, because we believe it’s important to be modest. We don’t mind if you don’t like our wine. But we do think that when you start to drink natural wine, then you don’t tend to change and go back to conventional wine. When you drink natural wine, it’s very different. You can feel the region, you can feel the people who make the wine, and when you meet the people who make the wines, then you can feel the relationship between the person and what’s in the bottle.”
We nod; in such a simple and eloquent way, Andreja has emphasised what we so often notice when drinking natural wines — the wines reflect the character of the person who made it. We tell her this, and she smiles, nodding:
“Exactly. That’s why we have the fingerprint on our label. It’s our signature as winemakers. It’s not that we’re trying to say our wines are good wines — we don’t want to force the idea that our wines are good on anyone. That decision is for you to make! If you don’t like the wine, that’s totally fine. Rather, the fingerprint means that we believe in the ideas behind the wines.”
As wine drinkers, isn't that what we ultimately hope for? Courage, character and culture, bottled.