Stanko Radikon is a maverick in a land of mavericks. The town of Oslavia, on a relatively tiny stretch of hills north of the border town of Gorizia in the Isonzo zone of Friuli, is home to a number of talented and individualistic wine makers. From Radikon’s home, you can carry a plate of freshly cooked polenta to Edi Kante and Jasko Gravner, two other world-renowned winemakers, and still eat it piping hot.
Joe Dressner and I showed up on a bright, chilly morning in April at 7AM. It was hard to recognize Stanko in his vignaiolo duds. We had recently seen him wearing a natty suit and white button-down shirt at a counter-Vinitaly winetasting a few days before. Stanko was standing on the road watching for us because the sign for the winery had been removed years ago. Anonymity was the only way to get some work done and avoid waves of wine tourists.
Joe and I had an 11 AM flight from the nearby Trieste airport and it had been a long week, so we were hurried and tired, but excited to be at the winery. We had had a few memorable encounters with Radikon’s wines stateside. They were interesting, complex examples of what had come to be known, in reference to the ancestral origins of the winemaker’s working in this style and their geographic proximity to the neighboring country, as the “Slovenian” style of Friuli wines – namely hand-harvesting, extended skin maceration, large, older barrel fermentations without temperature control, no added yeasts or enzymes, and little or no use of sulfur.
The vineyards were originally planted by Stankos grandfather Franz Mikulus with the local favorite, the Ribolla Gialla grape. In 1948, Stanko’s parents, who had inherited the property from his mother’s father, planted Merlot, (Tocai) Friulano and Pinot Grigio. Today, Stanko, his wife, Suzana and son, Sasa maintain their family’s land.
We asked Stanko how he came to make the wines we had tasted earlier that week.-- these golden wines, rich with complex fruit aromas, notable for their length in palate and ability to age. Stanko simply said, “It’s how my grandfather made wine in the 30’s”, and shrugged.
That made sense to us. Radikon explains on their website:
“The winery’s philosophy is to always make a natural, organic wine with the least human intervention possible and with the maximum respect for the soils and nature.Radikon, while extreme, has never thought much of the use of anfora, or buried terra cotta jars, for vinification. His idea of wine is an ideal taste of recent memory, not a renaissance of ancient winemaking arts. But not one to avoid controversy, Radikon, along with Kante, have initiated a new discourse on the ideal vessel for wine with the 2002 vintage releases.
In the vineyard, the vines are planted extremely tight (between 6. 500 to 10,000 plants per hectare). We do not use any chemicals or synthetics and the treatments using absolutely innocuous, non-harmful products are minimized. Through careful pruning and selection at the time of harvest, the hand harvested yields are kept well below 2.25 tons per acre.
In the cellar, the grapes are de-stemmed and then macerated on the skins for 30 days more, with experimentation of 6/7 months for the whites, and 35 days for the reds. The pressing is done softly using a pneumatic press. All phases of the vinifications are in Slavonian oak barrels, first in wood vats and then in large barrels in which the wines are aged for about 3 years before bottling. The vinifications are done using only the natural yeasts present on the grapes. There is no sulfur added at vinification or bottling.”
First, Stanko believes that the 750 ml size does not really provide the right amount of wine for 2 people to share at dinner – an argument not easily rebutted. Therefore, he wanted to bottle all of his wines in liters and half-liters (because 2 people could then have a half liter of white and a half liter of red).
Following from this, in studies that he and Kante conducted with a cork manufacturer, they have devised what they think is the proper size of cork for these two bottle measures that gives the optimal surface-to-air permeability ratio for aging their wines. It is a narrower, smaller cork than the classic model. In deference to this cork, Stanko himself created a prototype bottle from silicon for the new liters and half-liters, and then had them manufactured at a local bottle factory. They are graceful, elegantly-necked bottles that were designed to fit in to most spaces where a 750ml bottle would.
It took us another year and some debate to convince Stanko that he should appoint us his new importer for the United States, but we are very happy to include these very interesting and distinctive wines in our portfolio.
This interview with Saša Radikon took place in Los Angeles in March 2011.
Tell us about Radikon as an estate.
We are in Friuli, which is in the North-East of Italy. Our village is called Oslavia. and we live 300m away from the Slovenian border. My grandfather planted our first vineyards after the World War 2 and my father started bottling wine in 1979.
How did you personally get involved working at the winery?
I studied viticulture in high school and oenology in university. But I grew up around vines and in the cellar and that's where I really learned how to work. When you study something you learn how things happen, and this inspired me to confirm if what I'd learned was true when applied to my vineyards. And I appreciate having that knowledge, but for me wine isn't just chemical compounds; it's experience, it's our hearts, our hands.
Are you certified organic or biodynamic?
We don't have a certification because we don't feel that it proves anything and that nowadays it's too easy to get one. I work this way because I want to, not because some people want to drink organic or biodynamic wine.
We only applied for organic certification once. My father showed the inspectors the vineyards and they told him they looked fine. He then asked them to follow him to the cellar they told him that that wouldn't be necessary, that the cellar had nothing to do with certification. Stanko insisted that the bulk of the production was in the cellar and they should inspect his work there, but they still refused. He then asked them how often they'd pass by for controls and they replied that once you've gotten your certification, they didn't really need to check up on you anymore.
We want to work this way. Chemicals are not good for us. We know what we can and cannot do and a certification isn't going to help us make these decisions. The only thing you're tasting in our wines is grapes; it's that simple.
What's the work like in the vines?
Our biggest work is in the vines. If you want to make wines with no sulfur and long skin contact you need excellent grapes. We don't use herbicides or pesticides. Everything is done manually. We've cut the vines so that we only get four bunches per vine, and these produce less than a kilo of fruit each year, so the yields are very low.
What about the cellar?
In 1995 we started making white wines with lengthy periods of skin contact. This was a technique that my grandfather used because he wanted to preserve his wine for a whole year. Before my father started selling our wines, my grandfather would make wine for the whole family from our vines, but this was for personal consumption only and it had to last an entire year until the next vintage.
In 1995 it was a week of skin contact, and it was also around this time that we realized we could make wine without sulfur. Our first non sulfur bottling was in 1999. By 2002 we'd decided that all of our wines would be bottled unsulfured. This is rarely the case with white wine, and the only reason we are able to successfully make these wines sulfur free is because of the contact with the skins.
Over the years we've experimented with the length of the skin contact: 3 months, 6 months, even a year. At this point we've settled at three months. In the first month the alcoholic fermentation and malolactic fermentation occurs in Slovenian oak vats. They have a lid that we can open at our disposal because during fermentation and we crush the hat four times a day. They are rather large and can hold up to 3000 liters.
We then transfer the juice into 3000 liter barrels and leave the skins in there for another two months. The wines then stay in barrel for 3 1/2 years. We only rack twice a year, and we don't filter. We then bottle and hold the wine a year before releasing it.
We don't use wood for tannic structure: we've already gotten that from the skin contact. Instead we use it for micro-oxydization and aging. Wine is alive and in this type of wood it can breathe. For the red we use barriques but they are very old: the youngest is 50 years old, and we age the red for five years in these before release.
What's your take on the whole natural wine debate?
Natural wines are being made by good people. We've been making natural wine for many years; I was very young when my father decided not to use any chemicals in the vineyard or in the cellar. For me this is the normal way to make wine. Sometimes it makes life more difficult: you lose some of your production and you have to work manually because otherwise you're drinking herbicide.
I think that in the last few years people have invented a model for how natural wine should be made. But for me natural wine is not a model, it's a philosophy. If you speak of natural wine, you also have to live a natural life.
Can you explain the atypical size of your bottles?
We originally found a cork with a smaller diameter that was being grown on our hills where there is less humidity. It's also more compact, so it interacts less with everything outside of the bottle. Because we started using these corks we had to reduce the neck, which ultimately led to smaller bottles. The proportion of cork to wine to bottle is the same as a magnum. Magnums are the best bottle format for aging. Unfortunately, selling magnums of white wine is easier said than done. A smaller size is easier to sell and easier to drink, but our bottles permit the wine to age the way we want to. Those are our half liter bottles: it's not a half bottle, and the proportions are the same as a 750.
We then make liter bottles because again this is better for aging but also because we feel those extra 250 ml help carry you though a meal.
Your wines are very unique in flavor and structure so what would you recommend eating with your wines?
I think everyone agrees these wines are meant to accompany food. A local pork ragu instantly comes to mind, but any type of meat or fish works well with our whites. Because of the tannic structure you can drink them like a red wine but you also get the elegance of a white wine. Another example is raw fish: I think that with raw fish you need to be drinking champagne or wines like ours.
What do like to drink?
I like wines from my region. It's home! I like orange wines with extended skin contact and most importantly I like wines with very low quantities of sulfur! I wouldn't be making these wines if I didn't like them, right?
This visit at Radikon took place in April, 2013.
Words by Jules Dressner, photos by Maya Pedersen.
After spending a day in Venice (where, according to Maya's step-calculator thingy, we walked 7.5 miles!!!), we drove to Oslavia to hang with Stanko and Saša Radikon.
The family's main parcel is located right under the Stanko and Suzanna's house.
Standing next to the Merlot vines, Saša explained that finding large vineyards in this area is very hard, and that a parcel of this size (3 h) is uncommon. Along with the Merlot, Ribolla Gialla and Pinot Grigio are planted on the lower slopes of this hill, which is 190m in altitude and exposed full South.
Everything had to be replanted in 1997 after a devastating mudslide in 1994. Besides horse manure, the only thing added to the vines are copper and sulfur treatments, which Saša is trying to reduce by incorporating propolis, a bee based product effective against mildew.
The training is similar to Albarello. Three cuts, two buds per cane, 4 to 6 clusters per vine.
Prior to the 97 replanting, everything was trained in double guyot. Only a few rows at the bottom of the hill survived.
As you can see in the photo below, they had recently plowed every other row, effectively letting the other have "the year off".
The soils consist of heavy clay with a strong presence of shale.
The subsoils here absorb the region's large amount of annual rainfall, and this natural water reserve is instrumental in conserving minerality and acidity in the grapes.
Oslavia is host to a handful of famous winemakers, and from the Radikons' vineyards, you can spot -among others- some of Gravner's vines.
After visiting the vines, we walked back to the house to taste in the cellar. Before we could make it, Stanko distracted us with this big fish.
It had been caught that morning, and would serve as our main course for lunch.
Cooling off from the hot sun, we ventured into the cellar.
The winemaking at Radikon has been covered extensively in the past, but it never hurts to reiterate. There is no temperature control for fermentations, with punchdowns in the first 48 hours to get fermentations going. Along with their old school, hand-held "punchdown stick", their is a one-of-a-kind mechanic one designed by Stanko himself!
The grapes are de-stemmed. The juice then ferments and macerates on its skins -which amount to 20 to 30% of a full tank- for 2.5 to 4 months. After a racking of the skins and gross lees, the wine is aged in large barriques for up to 36 months. The first big attempts with skin contact took place in 1995, with Stanko producing half of the Ribolla Gialla this way.
"Ribolla has very thick skins. My father realized that the skin contact with Merlot made the wine better, so why not try it with Ribolla? It brought more structure and complexity."
Prior to this decision, the wines were fermented in stainless steel and aged in barrique. In the early years, maceration times were much shorter.
"This was a big inspiration for the S line. It has permitted me to understand what my father was doing in the early days."
For those unfamiliar with the S line, S stands for Saša; the wines see 2 to 3 weeks on the skins, are aged in barrel only one year and are immediately released.
Fun cellar factoid: the cellar's walls are the subsoils of the vines we'd just visited, and because of all the water they constantly hold, they sweat out this cold, wet mineral slime.
We tasted a bunch of 09's. They were really good.
To celebrate our successful tasting, Stanko popped open a bottle of 2010 Ribolla Gialla PET' NAT!
That's right, both François Pinon and the Radikons have produced petillant naturel: get with the times people! This experiment started because Suzanna Radikon, who loves bubbles, complained there was never enough in the house. 2010 was a bit of a disaster; there was way too much sugar left, and over half of them exploded during the re-fermentation. But what's left of it is delicious!
Lunch was as good an opportunity as any to taste the recently bottled 07's Radikons and the 10' S wines, as well as some back vintages.
One of those was a 99 Ribolla Gialla, labeled as a DOC Collio. In 2000, Stanko asked that the DOC modify its rules for color so it could allow skin contact wines in the Collio DOC. They declined, so he intentionally declassified everything in 2001.
Another unexpected treat was to taste a pre-skin contact, 1993 Pinot Grigio!
It was bright and mineral, but not exactly memorable. Whatever sulfur was used at the time had completely blown off.
After finishing up lunch with Suzanna's "Best Apple Strudel Ever Made" (Denyse Louis quote), Stanko had to run to an orange wine festival taking place in Croatia. After saying our goodbyes, Sasa drove us to a newly acquired parcel just across the Slovenian border.
This vineyard was planted in 2004 in selection massale, with Ribolla on top, Pignollo in the middle and Tokaj on bottom.
"We always get good wind here from the proximity to the sea."
We ended our visit by climbing up this funky watch tower, getting a bird's eye view of the local surroundings.
That night, we ate at La Subida, which many consider one of the best restaurants in Italy. The all local/organic food and wine program follows seasonal menus, so we got to eat a lot of dishes based on spring herbs and wild asparagus, accompanied by an all-star cast of Friulian and Slovenian wines.
Radikon "S" Slatnik
Grapes: 80% Chardonnay, 20% Tocai
Vinification: 3 weeks of skin maceration. Aged in barrel one year, then bottled and released.
Vinification: 2 weeks of skin maceration. Aged in barrel one year, then bottled and released.
All whites are vinified the same way. After destemming, the grapes are put in oak vats, where they macerate on the skins without temperature control. Maceration continues until the sugars are exhausted (typically more than 30 days). The juice is then racked and left on the lees in 25 to 35 hl casks for about 36 months. Additional rackings occur if necessary.
Grapes: 30% Pinot Grigio, 40% Chardonnay, 30% Sauvignon Blanc
Grape: Ribolla Gialla