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The devolution will not be televised

Part 12 of a 2007 Italian travelogue

by Thor Iverson

Border patrol

Up the road. Down the road. Back up the road. And down the road again.

Below the quiet hilltop town of Oslavia, Slovenia constantly within sight on our left, we’ve worn a pair of parallel tracks on an otherwise quiet rural byway. It’s a beautiful, sunny day – our first since Venice – but the full light of morning isn’t helping us find our destination.

We’re pretty sure we’re on the right road, despite the halting email communication that set up our rendezvous in which neither party was writing in their first or second language, but I’ll be damned if we can find what we’re looking for. Even our usual trick of getting out and examining mailboxes isn’t helping.

But then, slowed to a crawl while Theresa peers at a gate, I see it: a courtyard littered with large clay amphorae. No, this isn’t not our destination. But it is a sign that we’re in the right place. And in fact, just a little bit farther along, we find the gate we’re looking for by number rather than name, marked in such a way to repel (through invisibility) all but the most dedicated visitor.

And inside, there’s only one amphora.

[bilingual signs]

Slo signs

Grape trees

Active culture

I suppose it can be irritating when your name is constantly associated with your neighbor’s. It’s probably even more irritating when it’s fairly clear that you and said neighbor don’t exactly see eye-to-eye on everything. But when oenophiles who might not know the name of any other Friulian producer talk of the region, it’s almost always in pairs. Radikon and Gravner. Gravner and Radikon.

It makes a certain amount of sense to associate the two. For most, they’re the progenitors of what’s occasionally known as the “orange wine” movement, which refers to often-cloudy white wines that have all the structural and some of the visual cues formerly restricted to reds. There’s a growing cluster of such producers straddling the Italian/Slovenian border that has a spotlight effect on these forever-linked producers, as it was their philosophical cover that allowed so many others to explore both the techniques and the market for such wines. But the movement has spread to Sicily, California, and elsewhere, and shows few signs of slowing down.

Why here? Blame the border. Or rather, blame the people on either side of it. Homogenous regions, whether near borders or not, adhere strongly to tradition and identity. But in places where that identity is in constant conflict – I don’t mean active hostility, though that can sometimes occur as well, but where it’s not always quite clear who is what, and why – creative energies find some of their most exciting applications. In Cataluńa and the Basque region, for instance, it’s food; chefs and diners around the world agree that these have, for some time now, been dynamic engines of innovation and excitement in the culinary world. Here, it’s wine.

It’s not that there aren’t traditions – for the most part, the region’s varietal palette hasn’t changed – or good producers sticking to the tried-and-true, but rather that there’s a lot of restlessness in the region’s cellars. Some push relentlessly into the future, and that impulse seems to be the dominant movement across the border in Slovenia. Others look to the future by recalling the past (in Gravner’s case, the distant past). And still others are on the lookout for ways to disengage, to embrace the paradox of becoming more invested by being less involved. That’s Radikon’s script.

This is a region where identity is a fluid thing. The multi-lingual signs and placards one sees everywhere aren’t necessarily Italian and Slovenian; the many Slovene-influenced Friulian dialects make their appearance too. Neighboring restaurants feature menus with only minor shifts in foundation, but which are identified as obviously different by locals…one Italian, the other Friulian. Names within the same family drift back and forth between the two languages, and it’s rarely clear until a discussion starts which language will be spoken at any gathering of locals. It’s not that a given individual is unclear about his or her identity – in fact, that’s decidedly not the case – but rather that the contrasts, contradictions, traditions, and tensions coexist on a daily basis, and are as prosaic as breathing to those who inhabit this land.

In this environment, “orange wines” make perfect sense. They’re not white wines as we know them, though similarities to their more conventionally-produced brethren are usually identifiable. But they’re not red wines either, despite the structural suggestions. They’re wines that play multiple roles simultaneously, and do it with neither fear nor overt confidence, but rather under the assumption that do be otherwise is to be untrue to themselves. Here, in this place, such wines seem almost normal.

Nowhere among the pantheon of third-way wines is this as true as it is at Radikon, who achieves this relaxed tension with a remarkable serenity and clarity, and who achieves purpose by practicing an unstudied lack of purpose.

[vines & mountains]

[new vineyards]

Snow, job

Bottle envy

Radikon’s wines can be difficult to understand, especially for the uninitiated. So, too, can the Radikons themselves. Not because they mumble or are otherwise incomprehensible, but because their native language is not Italian. They speak it to us out of courtesy (like many Europeans, they appear to understand enough English to get by, yet are loathe to speak it), but it slows down our conversation as we engage in a triangular, and sometimes even rhomboid, dance of translation and re-translation, trying to get at finer points of meaning. I doubt we’re entirely successful, but thankfully the dialect of wine remains fairly comprehensible across multiple languages.

Nonetheless, the first thing with which we’re presented as we pull into the courtyard and greet our hosts, Stanko and his wife Suzana, is a manifesto. Not a verbal diatribe, or a wine as its own flag-planting statement, but a handout in which Stanko and another regional iconoclast, Edi Kante, defend their bottles.

That’s right: they defend their bottles. Radikon explains that the standard 750 ml bottle is a little shy of the ideal quantity for two people and a meal (with which I agree, though I sense some pushback from Theresa), and thus the standard 375 ml half-bottle is too small for a single-diner’s consumption. So, Radikon (and Kante) have gone up a size, to 1000 ml and 500 ml, respectively. Of course, the problem was then finding corks that fit. But no more. The solution, unique to these wineries, is also claimed to address issues of in-bottle oxygen exposure to ensure proper ageability, though I can’t imagine how this can be any more than conjecture in the absence of long-term research.

As I’m puzzling through the Italian version of this call to slightly-more-intoxicated arms, we’re led into the cellar…which doesn’t look like some mad scientist’s laboratory. Rather, it looks like any other traditionalist’s cellar: large, neutral barrels, some cages for bottled wines, and very little else. It’s this that, more than anything else, separates Radikon from the more radical elements in his region, for there are no amphorae anywhere to be seen (except for that one somewhat suspicious interloper in the courtyard). The recipe, as such, is that of any “natural” winemaker, but less so. Except, that is, for the skins.

Gimme some skin

There are a number of little reasons that add up to the established eccentricity of the “orange wines,” but the one with the most obvious effect is extended skin contact. It’s not just about the resultant tannin, though that is obviously a major factor in their unusual structural impact, but about everything else that goes on while the wine’s sitting there on its skins. And, it must also be said, everything that doesn’t; the other significant influence on the wines is certain studied inattention to preservation and control.

The result is a wine that tastes alive in a primordial-ooze sort of way, but in fact has a surplus of more naturally-derived stabilizing elements that make up for a deficiency in the usual recipe of introduced stabilizers like sulfur, fining, and filtration.


Let sleeping dogs lie

Looney spitoons

seton gnitsaT

We wander the perimeter of the courtyard for a moment, staring down the rather steep pitch of vineyards directly below the house, and then at their rise and undulation back into the Italian horizon. Though we can’t see them, there are vines in the other direction as well: across the road, across the border. These wines that straddle genres come from grapes that straddle arbitrary political divisions. It seems fitting, somehow.

One thing that surprises: the youth of the vines, some of which aren’t even a decade old. When they’re mature, will the wines be even more concentrated and rich? And it must be asked: in this case, is that a good? For now, there are no answers. Only tasting, in a chilly room full of serene casks. (Which, actually, isn’t to the benefit of all of the wines; Radikon recommends his whites be tasted at red-wine temperature, and this cellar is considerably cooler than that, which brings out their tannin a little more than would be the case in the course of ordinary drinking.)

We start with a vertical of what Radikon calls “the ultimate grape of the zone.” I presume tocai friuliano partisans might object, but given the style of wine Radikon makes, it’s hard to imagine him saying otherwise. In even the low-rent versions available everywhere, the grape is prone to a certain weight, oxidativeness, and skin bitterness. Here and at other motivated houses, much more is coaxed forth…but the grape isn’t easily tamed, as can be seen from the wildly divergent notes on each vintage. The result is a little like bringing something feral into the comfort of one’s home; it might work out, or one might come home to torn-up furniture and angry recrimination.

Radikon 2007 Ribolla Gialla (barrel sample) (Venezia Giulia) – Tight and yet as beautifully weird as expected; no reason not to jump in with both Dadaist feet and fight through the cobwebs. Tannin is the initial impression, followed by apricot and cream, then a sweet, brioche-like character. Very long and dense, but identifiable components are mere teases at the moment. The wine’s still hard, though its future character can be glimpsed.

Radikon 2006 Ribolla Gialla (barrel sample) (Venezia Giulia) – Matchstick, chamomile, minerals, and the light bitterness of over-steeped tea leaves.

Radikon 2005 Ribolla Gialla (barrel sample) (Venezia Giulia) – Fruit salad heavy on the pineapple, with tannin and spiky acidity. Citrusy and linear. Needs to settle down.

Radikon 2004 Ribolla Gialla (barrel sample) (Venezia Giulia) – Golden. Apples and citrus, with clean tannin.

Next, we move on to a blend of pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, and chardonnay. In lesser hands, this would rarely work.

Radikon 2005 “Oslavje” (barrel sample) (Venezia Giulia) – Tannic (big surprise), sauvignon-dominated, and full of fruity tropicality.

Radikon 2005 “Oslavje” (barrel sample) (Venezia Giulia) – Take two, from a different barrel. And, of course, completely different. Very floral, round, and full-bodied, with peaches. Also, dried honey laden with beeswax (which is also a textural impression). Huge, but complete. Rather impressive.

Radikon 2006 “Oslavje” (barrel sample) (Venezia Giulia) – Grapefruit. Big – actually, almost fat – with solidity and length. There’s a significant vinyl element (both aromatic and textural) that I don’t quite understand, though.


Bush vines

Roll out the barrel

And then, a third wine…

Radikon 2005 “Jakot” (barrel sample) (Venezia Giulia) – Fresh and light. Makrut lime poured over rocks. Simpler than the other wines, with a straightforward flavor. Already seems fairly complete. Long.

Radikon 2006 “Jakot” (barrel sample) (Venezia Giulia) – Pine, fresh bread, and papaya. Well-balanced and long. Perhaps a hint of reduction as well, which seems unlikely for this wine; perhaps I’m misidentifying something.

Until now, I’ve never questioned the name of this wine. But here, staring at it chalked onto a barrel, I have to ask. Radikon smirks at me and runs his finger backwards across the word.

Oh. Now I feel dumb. Though I wonder: will he now have to change the name of the wine to “Onailuirf”, given the grape’s legally-mandated name change? I’d like to see that marketing campaign.

And hey, Radikon makes a red, too. Well, actually more than one, but only one has, thus far, appeared in bottle. Is it also orange? Does it taste like a white wine? No on both counts. If anything, it’s the most conventional wine here, in terms of its familiarity and comprehensibility.

Radikon 2004 Merlot (barrel sample) (Venezia Giulia) – Fig, bubblegum, and some volatile acidity. There’s agreement on this latter point, and so we try again from a different container.

Radikon 2004 Merlot (barrel sample) (Venezia Giulia) – Meatier and fuller than the first sample, with no significant volatile acidity.

Radikon 2003 Merlot (barrel sample) (Venezia Giulia) – Perfumed. Black cherry, blueberry, nut skins. Big tannin, yes (in that, it’s reflective of its year), but there’s a vintage-specific sort of balance to the wine. Long. Very good.

Radikon 2003 Pignolo (barrel sample) (Venezia Giulia) – Very tannic, with dusty, dark berries. Needs a lot of time, but given the gravitational core of concentration within, it could be a stunner. Or it could fall apart under the weight of its structure. It’s difficult to say at this stage.

Radikon 2004 Pignolo (barrel sample) (Venezia Giulia) – Meat with a hint of char, herbs, and softer tannins than the 2003. Lighter and more angular. Somewhere in between this and the 2003 would seem to be the ideal range for this grape’s inherent qualities, but then again these wines aren’t (to my knowledge) being released, so who knows?

[ribolla gialla]

The grapes of wrath

Bottle opener

The fork is mightier than the pen

Our tasting seems to have run its course, since Radikon is returning his thief to a shelf, but we haven’t tasted anything from bottle. After a brief internal shrug, I start summoning up as elaborate a thank you as I can achieve in Italian, when I realize that he’s talking to my wife about lunch. I tune back in. What’s that? Why, yes, we’d be honored to stay for lunch.

We’re led though a door into a typically Italian open dining area, one in which the bustles of preparation and consumption are neither separated nor separable. People start to join us: the Radikons’ son Sasa and his wife (or girlfriend, or even just friend; it’s not made clear, and of course I don’t ask), both of whom speak English with much greater facility than Stanko and Suzana. Others drift in and out over the course of the meal, which is a richly-flavored risotto of radicchio given smoky intensity by some sort of ham (or ham remnant in the stock). It’s delicious, satisfying comfort food, and it melds beautifully with a succession of – ah, here there are! – bottled wines.

I take out my notebook, but Radikon tut-tuts me. “Now, we eat. You can take notes later.”

Thus, I’m forced to pay attention to the conversation. Eventually, I notice that aside from brief interludes of English for our benefit, it regularly drifts between Italian and Slovenian. Furthermore, there seems to be a pattern to the bipolarity: when there’s Italian being spoken, the subject is invariably food or wine. (I have no way of knowing what subject matter is being covered in Slovenian.) Theresa is intrigued enough to inquire if this is normal, but the observation seems to come as a surprise; bilingual is just what the Radikons are, and they don’t seem particularly interested in thinking about the whys and wherefores. Here, again, is found a parallel with their wines, which don’t – in contrast to some of their stylistically-similar brethren – try to be one thing or another, but simply are.

Sasa’s presence does allow us to ask a few questions of greater complexity than our earlier linguistically-stilted interchanges have allowed. I ask about philosophy, but if I’m expecting some sort of manifesto similar to the earlier one regarding bottles and closures, I’m disappointed. Radikon asserts that the best expression of his vines is just letting the wines take their own course…a phrase heard all too often from winemakers, but a little closer to true here than elsewhere. He admits that it would be “easier the other way,” but that “if it makes me happy, I’m not going to change.” The only concern he expresses is over the persistent difficulty of selling his not-inexpensive wines without strong support from Gambero Rosso or Robert Parker, though we also have a highly amusing conversation about difficult-to-like importers (Radikon has more than a few, and not all of the relationships are or have been long-lasting).

Eventually, lunch comes to an end. People return to their work, Theresa and Stanko chatter away about the history of the region and the family, and I’m finally allowed to take pen in hand.

Radikon 2002 “Oslavje” (Venezia Giulia) – Spicy and full-bodied, lush with cream , but with a contrapuntal midpalate bite. Strong and complex. Tastes more vibrant, somehow, than it does in the U.S….not that this result is much of a surprise, given the fidgety vulnerability of its chemistry, which can seem to be (but is not) belied by its brash iconoclasm.

Radikon 2003 “Jakot” (Venezia Giulia) – Explosively aromatic, though precisely what’s in the shrapnel is difficult to pin down. Dried fruit, perhaps. Lush, fun, and fulsome.

Radikon 2001 Ribolla Gialla (Venezia Giulia) – A bit shy (do these wines even have a closed period?), with a comparatively silky texture and a softer finish than has been the norm in other vintages. Lovely and balanced, but reticent.

Radikon 1997 “Oslavje Riserva Ivana” (Venezia Giulia) – Smoked, sun-baked minerals (seriously) and mirabelle plum. Youthful and so, so long. Piercing, and yet prettily sweet (not, I think, from residual sugar). Brilliant.

[vineyard & wagon]

Wagon, train
[press & amphora]

Old & older

In a silent way

Thinking about these wines, in both the context of the “orange wine” cohort and the greater world of regional and worldwide styles, I’m drawn to a musical analogy. Often, wines of this type are described as being akin to improvisational jazz. For me, that’s a valid way to think about the experience of tasting such wines, which can rarely be pinned down to just one or two coherent ideas or forms, but I think the analogy is insufficient as a description of the way these wines are made. Instead, I’m reminded of Miles Davis’ pre-hiatus electric period, for several reasons. First, this was music that improvised from a theme, but the theme was not always clear (or even revealed to) the listener, depending on the way recordings were edited. The start and finish of a given take was fairly arbitrary, and the actual form and flow of the music being created often had little to do with the finished version that was committed to vinyl; what the listener heard was a snapshot, different in each iteration, and never encompassing the entirety of perspectives on the theme. So it often seems with these wines, which offer windows into their varietal composition and their terroir, but never offer the full panorama in a single bottle. Each year’s version is a different view of the same landscape, as I think it must inevitably be with the most natural of wines.

Also, Davis’ music of this period did not fit comfortably into a particular genre. There was jazz, there was rock, there was funk, and there was what we might now call New Age-y ambient. This wasn’t so much because Davis and his fellow musicians set upon a deliberate course of genre-defiance (though this was a factor), but because the music went in the directions it wished, and the musicians were more willing to follow than to divert and direct. The term “jazz fusion” was invented as an uncomfortable umbrella genre by equally uncomfortable critics, but as the ensuing decades would demonstrate, it was never more than a vague gesture in the direction of classification, and became less and less useful as it was asked to encompass ever-more-wildly-disparate works. So too with the “orange wine” designation employed here; though the wines of Gravner and Radikon, or Zidarich and Scholium Project, may occasionally demonstrate congruencies of taste and style, they are not made with the same intentions, nor (necessarily) the same materials. They’re not even all “natural wines” in the truest sense of the term; some are made with clear intention and deliberate intervention.

Ultimately, Davis had to be judged in the context of Davis alone, because almost all other perspectives proved useless or insufficient. And such, I think, is the case with Radikon. Gravner and Kante are neighbors, Zidarich, Vodopivec, and Movia aren’t far, a Cornelissen MunJebel3 Sicilia Bianco and a Radikon Ribolla Gialla have more in common than Radikon’s Ribolla Gialla with most of its neighbors’ versions, but each is not the other. These producers may draw marketing strength from common cause, but a truly natural wine must – by definition and of necessity – be singular. Radikon’s wines are so often assessed in the context of the others I’ve listed, and there’s academic and oenologic interest in that, but this is a context imposed from without, and has nothing to do with what Radikon is actually creating.

These are unique wines, but they don’t achieve this by attempting to be unique. Yet they’re also beautiful wines, and an essential part of that beauty is their singularity. There’s no question that an externally-imposed context can be most helpful during one’s first encounter with Radikon. But it’s equally unquestionable that without shedding that context, one will never actually understand them.

And so: Gravner and Radikon, Radikon and Gravner. Ever-paired in the popular imagination. Mistakenly so. Both produce compelling, magical, devolutionary wines, but they represent different philosophies and intentions, and thus achieve different ends.

With this thought in mind, I ask about the amphora in the courtyard. Radikon allows himself the tiniest of smiles.

“We use it to collect rainwater.”

Disclosures: lunch provided by winery, one bottle gifted, surgery performed by winemaker on writer’s shipping container to allow acceptance of oddly-sized bottle.

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Copyright © Thor Iverson