Saša Radikon on natural wine and sustainability: “Wine should be first good, then natural”

By Tobias Webb

Right at the end of August last year I paid a visit to Saša Radikon to discuss his approach to winemaking and his views on the ever-evolving, clumsy term “sustainability”.

As with almost all winemakers, he didn’t know me from Adam, but was welcoming, charming and honest about what he does, and why he does it. His father is of course, one of the most famous names in natural and long-skin-contact winemaking and is seen as a real trail-blazer for his craft. His tragic recent early deathhas left Saša holding the reins.

Vines at Radikon

From what I could see he’s doing that well. Saša took me around the small Radikon vineyard and operation, based in the family home in Oslavia, Gorizia, in Friuli, north east Italy, and some photos of the vineyard, the cellar and winemaking operations are below.

We recorded a podcast interview, which is below, where I asked my usual bumbling questions about what they do at Radikon, his philosophy of wine, and his views on what is natural and sustainable wine.

We started off talking about the history of Radikon, which dates from around the end of World War I, in different iterations. We moved on to discuss the idea of “orange wines” which Radikon is famous for. Essentially he says, it’s white wine made with red wine techniques. Essentially long skin contact to extract maximum flavour, which they have made at Radikon since 1995.

Radikon wine

At Radikon, they farm 12 hectares of vines, mainly Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Merlot. Local grapes Ribolla Gialla (which Saša says, only grow on a few hills around Gorizia) and Tocai Friulano are an important part of their wines.

I asked him about his Merlot, which I first discovered in a tiny Italian restaurant on the French border (see previous post with tasting notes), and Saša talked about its long ageing potential and unique flavour profile. His Merlot is held in high regard by sommeliers. I had the only bottle left, at 67 Pall Mall in London recently, and the somms clustered around, fascinating. (yes we gave them a large slug of it to taste, as one should)

I ask him if he likes the term “natural wine” which is a controversial one in some wine circles. “I like the word” he says, “the thing is, we should understand what is natural. For me it is completely pure. You must be natural in your mind first. There is no certification that can say your wine is natural, if you are not natural in your mind”.

Radikon’s legendary Merlot grapes. The wine is only released when ready. That can mean years between releases.

“Wine should be first good, then natural” he says.

“Non intervention (winemaking) is not possible here” he says.

He uses copper and sulphur treatments, for six years he’s been using a derivative of beeswax for vineyard treatments. Orange skins too, seem to be showing promise as a treatment.

He describes biodynamics as a “kind of religion” and notes that good acidity (often ascribed to biodynamics) is all about grape quality.

We move onto climate change. “The problem is that the weather has changed in the last ten years, a big change. We have more intense rain, higher temperatures, that’s the big difference.”

Storms are stronger, weather is a lot less predictable, he says. This has affected yields a little bit but grape maturation volatility is his key concern with climate change. In 2017 for example the weather means an earlier harvest.

I ask him finally about whether his approach to sustainability can be scaled to bigger operations. “If you want to multiply the size, then multiply the people. If you have the right people, you can do it” (at scale), he replies.

This is what the vines have to dig into, taken in the Radikon cellar.

Of course, production would drop and costs would rise. But if any industry in agriculture can afford this, it would likely be wine. Most alas, likely could not. But the innovations used at places like Radikon shouldn’t be ignored. I remain convinced that other areas of agriculture have much to learn from sustainably-minded winemakers.

Meanwhile the wines of Radikon are to me, justifiably well known. All wine lovers should try the selection they make at some point. Whilst they are not perhaps for every day drinking, they are all the better for that.

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