Skerk, In-the-skin Malvasia (1): The Interview
The approach to the port of the fortified Byzantine city of Monemvasia, a trading hub for products from the many surrounding islands in the southeast Peloponnesus, was narrow and difficult. For this reason the Greek prince who wanted to reconquer the city asked help from the Venetians. While diligently carrying out their mission, the Venetians found they liked the wine that was imported there very much and decided to go to the city where it came from, Candia on the island of Crete, and bring back to Venice both the wine and the vines that made its grapes. This was back in the 16th century when the Republic of Venice was at its height and had expanded to include the whole Adriatic region and Greece. Today in Venice you can still find streets named Calle della Malvasia or bridges called Ponte della Malvasia and in in local slang taverns are called ‘malvasie’. Thus before becoming a generic name for a family of grapes, both white and red, which are very different from each other, ‘Malvasia’ indicated a place, a city that was then called ‘Monemvasia’. From then on all the grapes and all the wines from there that were brought to the Dalmatian coast or the upper Adriatic were given that name. A common denominator exists among all the different variations of Malvasia grapes in Italy, those in Tuscany and Candia, Casorzo and Bosa and all the others: a distinct color and significant amounts of sugar, two characteristics that are usually ideal for making sweet wines. But, as we will see, not just sweet wines, at least not in Carso (Karst).
Situated along the border between Italy and Slovenia, and a 100 or so kilometers from Venice as the crow flies, Carso is a cold plateau that surrounds the city of Trieste. It is border region with extreme geographic characteristics. It is here, in fact, that the Mediterranean reaches its most northern point, a factor that may seem obvious but that is often overlooked when examining wines from this northern area.
Looking at a map of vineyards in the Friuli region another reality emerges: Carso is at the southernmost point of a continuous vineyard that stretches down from the Colli Orientali and through Collio and Isonzo. And while the whites of Colli Orientali, Collio and Isonzo have a wrapping mouthfeel as a common denominator, while in Carso this trait get drier and the white wines become more angular and their taste acquires flavor. And this is perhaps not only due to the unique ampelographic base common to the Vitoska, Glera and Malvasia grapes. The impression is that the particular terroir of Carso created by its vicinity to the sea, ample sunlight, low temperatures, a rocky terrain and the northeast Bora wind, unequivocally determines the physiognomy of its products.
The Bora, for example, due to the significant temperature differences between the Carso plateau and the sea, can become furious and turbulent and this, in turn, keeps the grapes healthy and dry.
With names full of ‘k’s and ‘z’, which have little to do with the Italian language, wineries in Carso have achieved major and justified success in recent years thanks to their original organoleptic profile. The wines have robust yet dry structures, autumnal colors, an acidity that is more marked in the reds than the whites, along with recognizable characteristics of the local grapes and many whites are also fermented in the skin.
Skerk are unanimously recognized as fine wines. I first encountered one ten or so years ago when I tasted Terrano, a typical Carso red. It was like an electric shock to the tongue. Umberto Sala, a poet from Trieste, said of his city: ‘’Trieste has a surly grace. If you like it, then it is like a tart, greedy brat with blue eyes and hands that are too big to offer a flower: like a jealous love’’. This is perhaps also the best description possible for Terrano.
Since then my personal esteem for the estate’s wines has only grown, especially for their Malvasia, perhaps the most relevant dry version of this wine in Italy. Sandi Skerk has followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps in both the vineyard and the cellar.
Sandi Skert: The wine estates here in Carso are very small and aside from wine are also involved in other farm activities. We used to also raised cows and only in the past few decades have we specialized in making wine. I took over from my father in 2000, after working for two years as an engineer, and began to do what my grandfather did. I eliminated all use of chemicals, except sulfur and modest amounts of copper, and I do not use pesticides or herbicides, even though this makes manual work much more difficult. However, this way you are free from adverse seasonal conditions like drought and too much rain. Thanks to the Bora the climate here is very well ventilated and thus there is little humidity.
Doctor Wine: What can you tell us about your Malvasia?
SS: The Malvasia cultivated in here Carso is Malvasia Istriana and like Vitoska, Terrano and Glera it is indigenous. It is a grape that has adapted well here and is strong. In the vineyard it is easier to work with than Vitoska, although the yield is lower. And in this rocky, red and iron-rich soil it has a greater potential.
DW: What problems do the Bora, rocky soil and high rainfall create in the vineyard?
SS: The seasons vary greatly and years rarely resemble each other. But there is a constant: the spring is always very rainy and the summer very dry.
DW: How do you use yeast and sulfur when macerating your whites?
SS: I do not add yeast. Generally, I use sulfur only in the last siphoning and usually no more than 20mg (a very little amount, ed.). Sometimes I don’t use any. For example, in 2008 it was exceptionally rainy and so I did not need to add any.
DW: My experience as a taster tells me that white wines fermented in the skins are as risky as those using new wood, the risk being that wines are too similar. Your wines, especially Malvasia, don’t seem to have this problem. Can you tell me why?
SS: The truth is that when I decided to let my wines macerate in the skins what I wanted to do was make sure they were not all same. 80% of what happens occurs in the first ten days of fermentation. The fermentation vats need to be filled just over halfway, the skins will protect against oxidation, so that the temperature will remain low and the heat well-distributed, thus avoiding the risk of the aromas getting ‘burned’. We use very large vats with wide opening to facilitate stirring and pressing. Furthermore, my cellar is very deep and cold and – can I say it? – quite lovely. After alcoholic fermentation the skins have settled on the bottom of the vats, where they protect the wine. We siphon very little, using only a minimum amount of sulfur, usually just three times. We never use sulfur when fermenting in the skins because it would make the wine too uniform. In this way we preserve in the wine the aromatic characteristics of the grape. The period of maceration has changed significantly over the years and today is around ten days. In the past we experimented with fermenting in the skins for three, for months but there was no great difference. In fact, the skins began to take back what they had given the wine.
DW: Doesn’t macerating in the skin risk limiting bottle aging?
SS: The risk exists but it depends on the year. Each year is different from the other and can and should be very interesting even after many years in the bottle.
DW: Over the past ten years in Fruili more and more wines are being fermented in the skins. How much does Gravner have to do with this.
SS: Personally, what strikes me most about Gravner is how broad his vision is. He is a reference point for winemakers throughout the region, an example to follow. He uses amphoras, something which does not interest me. Nevertheless, the way he follows Nature’s rhythms makes it impossible not to consider him an example and he has certainly had a great influence on a lot of producers. Gravner has become a symbol. But I macerate on the skins because my grandfather used to do it. And even our use of wooden vats is a tradition. Did you know that we also make wine using cement vats?
DW: Are some white grapes more suited for in-skin fermentation than others?
SS: I don’t know, for me macerating in the skin is always positive. If we use natural yeasts, for sure we will obtain aromatic profiles that are much richer than in normal whites fermented without their skins.
DW: Is there a relationship between organic/biodynamic/natural farming on one side and fermenting in the skin on the other? Or is it just a coincidence that the both took off together from a media point of view?
SS: I don’t know. In order to farm naturally you have to follow a cycle from beginning to end. It is not possible to call a wine natural if the person who makes it does not follow a natural way of life. Organic certifications have been abused by big industries which cannot materially manage a vineyard and a cellar. We have been certified organic for more than ten years but we do not put this on our labels. We have also adopted organic methods in the cellar and sometimes even bio-dynamic ones. Some bio-dynamic approaches are basic concepts of agronomy. You cannot be biodynamic without being a good agronomist. But all these terms, ‘natural’, ‘organic’ and so on have been abused and are potentially misleading. Wild berries are natural. I remember a year when the Malvasia was attacked by bees and the wine produced from those grapes was compromised. Was it natural? The truth is that if you work in a certain way you have to accept that there are high risks.
DW: Is there a give-and-take with producers on the neighboring Slovenian side of Carso? And if so, on what?
SS: I would not say a give-and-take but there are some producers there who are our friends and with whom we share production and promotion initiatives.
DW: Where can your wines be found?
SS: Aside from where they come from, I’d say almost anywhere in Italy. We also export to Britain, America, Austria and a bit to the Netherlands and Japan.