Sandi Skerk: Understated Elegance in Carso

Sandi Skerk is a man of few words, who makes wines with a lot to say in the windblown limestone rock of Carso on the Istrian Peninsula, a few hundred meters from the border between the northern Italian region of Friuli Venezia Giulia and Slovenia.

The family home and cellar are built around a stone courtyard with a high wall and carved double doors.

There is a fairy tale feel to the immaculately kept farmhouse, tucked away on a street in the tiny village of Prepotto.
The carefully preserved wood fired oven and cooking top are from another place in time.
The same magic can be found in the vineyards, which look out over the sea, a few hundred meters down the hill. Planted between 10 and 40 years ago, the varieties are native ones: predominately Vitovska, Malvasia Istriana and Terrano with some Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio.

The frigid bora winds blow in from the east during the winter, raking across the sea into these hills at 90 miles/hour. On this fall day, there was already a distinct chill in the air.

In this video, Sandi Skerk talks about his vines…

He replanted them, changing the vine training method from “pergola” to “alberello”. More typical of the south of Italy, alberello allows the plant to have light and air from all sides..

Skerk’s alberello vines are different from the ones in the south because of the way that Sandi prunes into straight, almost two-dimensional, rows.

In his quiet but precise way, he explained that this training method combined with the pruning he does, yields smaller grapes, meaning that there is more grape skin for any given quantity of wine. The more skin, the more he has to work with in the cellar when he macerates the wine.

He comes from a family of winegrowers but, at first, rejected the idea of being one himself. “I was hardheaded,” he told me. “I studied engineering and went off to work in an office.” By 2000, however, he had taken over his family’s 7 hectares and begun conversion to organic grape growing and natural winemaking. The cellar is unique, an enormous cave on three levels.

In this video, Sandi is punching down the cap during fermentation in one of the large, open wood containers, tini in his cellar. He does it about 5 times a day manually. Note that the level of the wine is well below the tank opening in order to allow a layer of carbon dioxide to develop that protects the wine from oxidation.

There is a grate over the entrance to the deeper part of the cave. Cool air blows up from below, a key factor in keeping Skerk wine from overheating and losing it delicate aromas and flavors during fermentation.

Once fermentation ends, Sandi fills the containers and seals them with the lees still inside to act as an antibacterial agent.

One of the signature aspects of his white wines is that they are not at all oxidized. They are as elegant and clean as they are natural. Sandi allows the grapes to ferment with indigenous yeasts only and adds a tiny bit of sulfites only at bottling.

Skerk Malvazija DOC 2014
The native variety, Malvasia Istriana, grows here on the Istrian peninsula as well as further inland in Friuli Venezia Giulia. 2014 was a rainy, cool year that was saved by sun in September just before harvest. Sandi noted that it was a more austere vintage year. The wine was crisp and dry, delicate but complex, …a skin contact wine with the transparent color that is typical of Skerk’s “not orange, orange wines”. The wine had structure (tannins from the skin contact and minerality from the limestone soil), but was still on the lighter side (12,5% alcohol). I would have liked to sit down to sip on a glass or pari it with a seafood lunch on a hot summer day.

Skerk Ograde IGT 2014
Vitovska, Malvasia, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio
Sandi’s flagship wine is a sensual white blend, predominantly from the first two varieties. It has zest and vitality with lots of complexity and elegance. It has enough structure to pair with any seafood dish, cheeses or even meats. Even though it is technically an “orange wine”, it has no oxidation. It’s fresh and clean with a blush color that comes from the Pinot Grigio.

Skerk Terlan DOC 2006
It was fun to taste this ten-year old wine, a lush and balanced red made from the native Terrano grape (in the Refosco family). This variety grown in the rocky clay-limestone soil of the Carso can make wines that are either rustic and harsh. Sandi’s is neither. He destems the grapes before fermentation. As different as it is from the white wines, the common element of well made, well balanced wine is evident.

Skerk wines sell for $25-40/bottle and can be found through Wine Searcher.

December 8, 2016

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