Molto passione vino

Sandi Skerk

This week, my favourite mild-mannered winemaking genius Sandi Skerk  was in London, at a stellar tasting organised by Italian specialist importer Passione Vino. I’d previously tasted many of the Skerk wines at the vineyard as barrel samples, so it was great to compare that with the final bottlings – in this case all from the 2009 vintage. The Vitovska has a richness that I associate with the long period spent macerating on the skins. It’s got lively acidity, appealing nutty/apricot hints and an almost briney consistency that’s much more appealing than it might sound.

The Malvasia had a particularly wild aroma of rubber tyres, something I’d normally associate with aged Rieslings. Again, this is a rich, long and fascinating wine, with a panopoly of floral and nutty flavours sitting happily in the mix.

“Ograde” is probably Skerk’s magnum opus: A white blend of Malvasia, Vitovska, Sauvignon blanc and Pinot Grigio. The 2009 appears to be dryer and more savoury than its individual component wines, enormously complex, and with an appealing grapefruit hint presumably contributed by the Sauvignon. This wine can sometimes be rather funky on the nose, but today it was pure and focused all the way.

I have often been less than enamoured by examples of Terrano from Friuli Carso, but I hadn’t tried Sandi Skerk’s 2009 bottling (I did try an experimental bottle-fermented version back in October 2011). It still suffers from a slight hollowness – a lack of heft if you will – but I have to say this convinced me far more than any other examples I’ve had to date. It’s a nervy wine, with racing acidity, attractive candied peel and dried fruit characters. As a light bodied wine, it’s refreshing, but still somehow feels complex and whole.

Eugenio Rosi

Sometimes just one sip of a wine seems enough to transmit the winemaker’s entire philosophy and passion. This is how I felt when I tasted Eugenio Rosi’s “Anisos” Vallagarina IGT white blend (Pinot Bianco, Nosiola, Chardonnay). As we didn’t share a language, I started tasting without assumptions, and wow, what a wine. There is a bready, unctous texture underpinning all kinds of citrus fruit, acacia blossom and nutty flavours, and a palate-cleansing bitter finish. This wine is alive, full of personality and originality. I wasn’t surprised at all to discover that Rosi’s regime is to macerate on the skins, use natural yeasts, organic farming methods and no sulphur (apart from a minute dose at bottling). These are techniques which in the right hands seem to allow the grapes to “sing” in the glass (As Alice Feiring might put it).

Eugenio is not comfortable with the “natural wine” moniker – a not uncommon situation. He remarked that it should merely be called “normal winemaking – because this is the traditional way, where you don’t do anything else, and you intervene as little as possible”. I understand his frustration – that because industrial methods of wine making have become the new “norm”, this can force the traditional methods into a ghetto – or worse, attribute them to the vagaries of fashion.

Rosi is not afraid to experiment, and many of the wine-making techniques are individual to say the least – the “Poiema” Vallagarina IGT, made from Rosi’s cherished local Marzemino variety, is aged not in oak, but cherry and chestnut barrels. This gives a subtler influence, more in tune with the cherry-fruit character that’s already present in Marzemino. The “7 Otto 9″ is a blend of Cabernet Franc across three vintages (’07, ’08 and ’09). The result is a rich, balanced and gorgeously mineral wine. Thank goodness for the Italian IGT category, which is flexible enough to allow all of these innovations.

Thank goodness also for wine importers like Luca Dusi, whose impressive list is entirely made up of small, “artisanal” wine producers like Sandi Skerk and Eugenio Rosi. These are craftsmen who consistently disarm and change our whole notion of what can be achieved with dedication and skill in wine making.

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All the wines mentioned in this post can be ordered direct from Passione Vino in the UK.
Tel: 0203 487 0600
Email: orders@passionevino.co.uk

 

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Hotel du Teran

dimitri brecevic

If it's Thursday, this must be Trumpington Street . . .

Winemakers can be a tricksy bunch. There are the natural showmen and marketeers, keen to show you their “icon” wines and boast about how much new oak is used for the premium cuvees. Then there are the quiet taciturn types who, you suspect, would rather be out in the fields than talking to you. Somewhere in between are the true artisans, proud of their craft but also eager to share their knowledge and passion.

Dimitri Brečević is one of those – a budding talent from French and Istrian parentage who returned to the fatherland after learning his craft in France and Australasia. In the few years since he’s returned to Istria (Northern coastal Croatia), Brečević has started making a name for producing outstanding natural wines, using only the region’s indigenous grape varieties: Teran, Refošk and Malvazija Istarska.

I caught up with Dimitri at Cambridge’s Hotel du Vin, where he was due to host a dinner showcasing locally sourced cuisine with Istrian wines and olive oil. We tasted the “Piquentum” range (Piquentum is the latin name for the village of Buzet, Dimitri’s home in Croatia) and talked about the comparison between winemaking in France and Istria.

piquentum blanc“When I came back to Croatia”, Dimitri told me, “it was almost too much – too many new ideas”. In reality many of these ideas were just old traditions that are no longer in vogue or much talked about in the twin wine capitals of Bordeaux or Burgundy, like vinifying in concrete or large old wooden barrels, or using indigenous yeasts rather than inoculating with cultured strains.

Brečević was adamant that he would continue to farm organically, or preferably biodynamically, as he had originally been taught in Irouléguy, South-West France. He is also passionate about minimising the use of sulphur or other interventions in the winery – “if you wash the juice, you kill everything”.

Piquentum Blanc is 100% Malvazija Istarska, and is at once simple, pure and focused. piquentum refoskThere’s an appetising nutty quality, and a refined mineral finish. Dimitri has plans to try aging it partly in acacia barrels in the future, to achieve more weight and complexity but without the heavy-handedness of oak. This sounds utterly fascinating.

Like all the Piquentum wines, the Rouge is a single varietal – Teran (also found in nearby Friuli as Terrano). This is Dimitri’s wildest wine, with a dark fig and burnt chocolate character, earthy and graphite-like on the nose. Piquentum Terre 9 is Dimitri’s second red wine, and one that I’ve now tried a few times. It confounds me, sometimes I find it truly exceptional and sometimes merely good. I’ve got a theory that it really needs a decant to show its best. Today, the slightly chocolately dark fruit came across well, but the nose had an overly savoury almost marmite-like note which seemed out of balance. Piquentum TerreFor Brečević, Refošk (the Terre 9’s grape) is “the fancy guy” – a more easy drinking, suave wine, compared to the uncompromising character of Teran.

You sense when talking to Dimitri that his ambition stretches far into the future – this is someone just at the beginning of their career. I for one am already looking forward to the acacia-aged whites, the red blends (Teran and Refošk ought to pair really well together) and even the planned experiments with non-indigenous varieties.

I haven’t mentioned the wonderful labels on these bottles – look out for a guest post here in January, where I’ll tell their story.

 

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The Piquentum range are available in the UK via Pacta Connect

 

 

Rock the Carso (Friuli Part 1)

carso vineyards

Typical vistas in Carso

Friuli-Venezia Giulia is Italy’s most North-Easterly region. Like many European border areas, Friuli has a composite identity made up of Italian, Slovenian and Teutonic cultures. Those borders, which can seem so trivial now (on our visit, we drifted into Slovenia and back, with nary a battered sign to remind us), have been hard fought over during the past century. Everything from churches to vines was desecrated during the first world war, although there is little clue from the beauty and tranquility that now pervades the hills. The landscapes are frequently jaw dropping, with dramatic rolling hills, glimpses of the Adriatic and primeval bands of limestone extruded from the ground.

It’s rare for wines outside the two “big ticket” DOCs (Friuli Collio and Colli Orientali) to make it to the UK. There is much to say about these fine sub-regions, but let us detour instead to Friuli Carso DOC. This hidden gem is located in the South-East corner of Friuli, on the Istrian peninsula bordering Slovenia.  Carso (“Karst” or “Kras” in Slavic dialects) is the calcareous limestone rock.

kante cellars + art

Edi Kante's artwork amidst Karst and Oak

It’s not easy to grow grapes here – the rocky outcrop has a scant covering of earth, and most producers have historically shipped in red iron-enriched soil from closer to Trieste, building high terraces upon their land. The vicious Bora wind is apt to whip through the vineyards, removing anything that’s not strapped down, and chilling anything that is to the bone (or branch). But having said that, there are many hours of sun, and a moderating maritime influence from the nearby Adriatic.

Kante

Carso is home to some 40 small and often uncompromising producers. We visited three pivotal wineries, all within walking distance of each other: Edi Kante is unquestionably the reason that Friuli Carso is enjoying a renaissance today – in the 1980s, Edi began the drive towards quality. Fast forward and his wines are now available all over the world, including the UK and the US. Edi was in the States during our visit, but his nephew Goran related how techniques such as Guyot vine-training (the classic method used in Bordeaux and Burgundy) and Green Harvesting (stripping excess fruit from the vines, to reduce yields and increase quality) were introduced in the 1980s and 90s. Apparently Edi’s father was practically in tears during the first few green harvests, unable to understand how throwing away 25% of the crop was going to help the Kante business.

kante old bottle mould

Kante KK maturing in the cellars

The Kante winery is something to behold, with three sizable underground cellars, one below the other, hollowed out of the rock. Edi is also an artist, and his modernist canvases are littered in every corner and crevice of the winery – and on the bottles themselves. The Kante philosphy is very much about freshness and fruit purity, something that was evident as we tasted the white wines. The 2009 Vitovska has attractive green melon notes, while the 2009 Malvasija has more florality, an almost salty savouriness plus a fine almond finish. The “KK” traditional method sparkler (A blend of Chardonnay and Malvasija) is very elegant, with some toasty depth and a mineral finish. Finally, we tasted an impressive 2001 Chardonnay (“La Bora di Kante”), its weighty spiced apple and vanilla character reflecting rather tasteful oak treatment.

Edi Kante is innovating with a variety of non-standard bottle and cork sizes, in an attempt to solve two issues: first, that the standard 75ml bottle is a little too large for two to share over a meal (hence the introduction of a 50ml bottle for some of the wines), and second, that the proportions of the magnum (rather than the size) are what results in superior maturation of the wine – so a 75ml bottle with a smaller neck and cork should produce the same result, but without the unwieldy size.

sandi skerk

Sandi Skerk, clutching his "unfinished" Terrano

Skerk

Sandi Skerk, president of the local Consorzio Tutela Vini Collio e Carso, is a softly spoken yet clearly passionate winemaker. Sandi and his father Boris farm biodynamically, and their wines are made with a very light hand – there are no cultured yeasts, filtering or fining chez Skerk. We tasted fascinating barrel samples of the Skerk whites – Malvasija Istriana, Vitovska (of which more later), Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. These are wild wines in every sense, with long periods of skin contact lending them unusual hues. The scents and tastes are exotic and complex – none more so than the Pinot Grigio, a sludge-pink colour, almost tannic with a vast range of ripe stone fruit, wet stone and bready flavours.

We also tried Skerk’s youthful Terrano, bottled mid-fermentation as an experiment. I didn’t take to the relatively high residual sugar, but liked the attractive prickle and almost chewy red-fruit texture.

skerk pinot grigio barrel sample

Pinot Grigio after a few weeks on the skins

Sandi has organically certified the family’s vineyards, but not the final product, as he remains unhappy with the lax standards that the certification permits in the winery. I admire his commitment – many are the vineyard owners who claim that they farm organically or biodynamically, but have all manner of excuses up their sleeves if the tricky matter of certification is raised. Skerk understands that in order to improve standards, it is essential to work within a system rather than throwing rocks at it.

Zidarich

Like Skerk, the Zidarich modus operandi is very much on the natural winemaking tip – farming is largely biodynamic, white grapes mostly spend some time on the skins, and fermentation is in open-topped vats with indigenous yeasts.

Benjamin Zidarich’s winery and cellars were built in 1996, entirely from local “found” materials, and are impressive to say the least. Benjamin based the cellar around a natural grotto buried deep in the Carso, and like the other wineries we visited, temperature control is achieved elementally rather than with technology.

Over lunch in Zidarich’s gorgeously aspected and airy tasting room, we enjoyed a wide selection of wines from all three producers. Both Skerk and Zidarich produce signature white blends. Zidarich’s Prulke 2009

Benjamin Zidarich (or - further evidence that Italian is 90% hand movements)

Benjamin Zidarich and some very Italian hand movements

(60% Sauvignon Blanc, 20% Malvasija and 20% Vitovska) opens with grapefruit marmalade, giving way to a full, creamy texture and an array of stone fruit and floral notes. It’s rather marvellous. Skerk’s orange Ograde 2009 (Vitovska 50%, Malvasia 20%, Sauvignon 20% and Pinot Grigio 10%) is yet more single minded, with (on this showing at least) an overtly funky and rather reductive nose which leads to a complex, opulent and peachy palate. Zidarich’s varietal Vitovska 2009 was also outstanding, with nervy acidity and a profound apricot character.

benjamin zidarich pours the terrano

Ben pours a glass or 12 of the terrano

Terrano

I’ll admit I was largely disappointed by the Terrano-based reds – The Zidarich 2009 Terrano (a clone of Refosk/Refosco) had good morello cherry fruit and structure, yet seemed somewhat lean. Edi Kante’s 1991 Terranum was even leaner – this had promising barnyard/animal hints at first smell, but although there was some bright red fruit, I felt that Terranum had become almost terminal, with acetic overdose just around the corner.

Vitovska

Vines at Skerk, showing the now preferred training method

Vines at Skerk, showing the now preferred Alberello training method

Like any self-respecting Italian region, Friuli Carso has one grape which is pretty much unique to the area. Vitovska turns out to be a cross of  Prosecco Tondo and Malvasia Bianca Lunga, and probably originated in Slovenia (where it is also known as Vitouska or Vitovska Garganja). It’s characterised by thick skins, and thus an ability to withstand the Bora wind, powerful acidity, floral notes and considerable versatility depending on the treatment in the winery. Vitovska has been saved from near-extinction by winemarkers like Sandi Skerk, Edi Kante and Benjamin Zidarich.

Conclusion

The Carso is truly fascinating – respect for tradition and the environment mixes effortlessly with a desire to innovate and push the boundaries. The wine-making here is ambitious, daring and yet utterly rooted in the “terroir”.  I urge readers to seek out these wines (especially the whites). Here are some UK links:

http://www.vivinum.co.uk/italien/friaul/kante.html

http://www.wine-searcher.com/find/skerk/1/uk

http://www.slurp.co.uk/search/?search=Zidarich

There appear to be a number Italian distributors who will ship Europe-wide as well.