Sandi Skerk must have one of the most idyllically sited vineyards in Friuli, if not the world. Grassed terraces curve gently around the contours of the Carso hills, and lead your eye out towards the Adriatic coast. I’m profoundly happy to be standing by his albarello-pruned Vitovska vines, almost four years to the day after a previous eye-opening visit in 2011. Sandi is of course the same as ever – gentle, rather shy, yet somehow dogmatic and politely forceful when he needs to be.
When I raise the issue of nomenclature, Skerk isn’t keen on the term “orange wine”, saying disarmingly “my wine isn’t orange – and it doesn’t get its colour from the skin maceration, rather from the Pinot Grigio which has a red hue anyway”. For Skerk, the term feels more appropriate for the super long macerated Ribolla Giallas from producers like Radikon, Dario Prinčič or Josko Gravner.
Whilst I understand the issue with this or any other seemingly arbitrary categorisation, I also tend to side with Saša Radikon, who put it to me last summer that “these wines need their own category. If a customer orders a white wine in a restaurant, and they get this instead, they might be a bit confused”. Skerk’s wines all have between 7-10 days of skin contact, part of a whole range of traditional practices adopted here in 2000, to get closer to the methods his grandfather used. The wines have a flavour profile and texture that’s totally distinct from the more modern young, fruit-driven style that has made Friuli so famous.
The skin contact turbo-charges the varietal character, making the Vitovska more perfumed, the Malvasia (Istriana) more apricoty, the Pinot Grigio more spicy and the Sauvignon Blanc more tangy. Put all of these together in equal parts and you have the Ograde blend – Skerk’s signature wine. I’ve been drinking Ograde through 4 vintages and I’m continually amazed by its consistency.
The 2012 Ograde is no slouch compared to its predecessors. Sauvignon leads the aromatic charge, with ripe grapefuit, followed by jasmin and fresh herbs. This is a full bodied wine, but with quite a bit of grip, lending freshness and texture which slices through the fatness of the Malvasia. It’s hard to unravel the composite parts of Ograde, such is its harmony and balance. That said, this still feels young, despite several months in wood, a year in steel and another in bottle.
Skerk’s varietal wines are also superb, the Malvasia my clear favourite from the 2012s. I’ve never really been convinced by Carso expressions of Teran, which tend to be excessively lean, but Skerk’s 2012 is as good as it gets – rosemary infused, with wild cherry fruit, and a sinewy, meaty character beginning to evolve.
As we sit in the evening Carso sun and discuss the importance of tradition, I realise I’m wrong to highlight skin maceration as the key technique. Skerk reminds me “That’s only one small step, in a number of changes that we made back in 2000 – including the move to organic farming. The hardest and most important work we do is in the vineyard”. I’m also taken politely but firmly to task when I suggest that perhaps previous generations were making rustic, poor quality wines. Skerk asks rhetorically “What makes you think that our ancestors made bad wine?”. He does however admit that “these days we take much more care to avoid oxidation”.
Skerk remains organically certified, as he has been for 10 years, but still refuses to mention it on the bottle, due to his dissatisfaction with the weak standards allowed by the certifying bodies. I admire the integrity, whilst knowing that those who follow this peerless Carso estate need no other reassurance than Skerk’s name on the label.