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Orange Crush

A legendary extreme winery in Friuli, Radikon, passes from father to son
Saša Radikon finished his first solo harvest following the death of his father, Stanko, in September.

Posted: Nov 21, 2016 10:30am ET

At the end of this summer, a weakened Stanislao “Stanko” Radikon reflected with his son, Saša, about their family estate and the long, controversial run of his edgy, dark-hued wines made from white grapes.

In the cellar of the family’s hilltop house in Oslavia, Italy, a town of 600 nestled on the Slovenian border, the men talked about how after struggling for years, “The wines are selling. We have no problems. Everything is OK,” recalls Saša, 34.

Then, on Sept. 11, just days before harvest, Stanko Radikon died after a long battle with cancer.

“We never talked about my taking over,” explains Saša, an enologist who worked side by side with his self-taught father for a decade. “In the cellar, it was just me and him. We did everything together, and we spoke about wine all the time.”

Radikon’s death at 62 closed a colorful chapter in the Collio hills of northeastern Italy’s Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, where Radikon was an iconic pioneer of modern skin-contact “orange wines,” a champion of local varieties like Ribolla Gialla, and a leader in winemaking without added sulfur.

“For me, he was an artist, like Picasso,” says Kristian Keber, 28, of the Edi Keber winery. “He was also important for our terroir.”

Radikon’s work was alternatively perceived as weird or wonderful. It took years for the wines to find a stable audience, and their premier market developed in Japan.

The Radikon family, ethnic Slovenians, has farmed in Oslavia for more than two centuries. Stanko took over the property in his teens, and began bottling estate wines—which the family had previously sold in bulk—with the 1979 vintage.

Radikon modernized the cellars beneath his family’s house and achieved commercial success in the 1980s for his wines fermented in stainless steel and aged in French oak barrels.

Then in 1995, his personal revolution started when he made his first vintage of Ribolla Gialla macerated on its skins, for more than a week. Recalling the rustic Slovenian-style wines made by his father, Radikon initially wanted to extract more flavors from his Ribolla.

“It started with the idea of ‘Why is Ribolla such a good grape that makes wines so light?’” says Saša.

Along with a handful of kindred winemakers, including neighbor Josko Gravner, Radikon pioneered the orange style. He extended macerations for up to four months in conical oak vats, followed by aging for four years in large casks and more than two years in bottle prior to release.

Starting with only ripe grapes, the results of this long aging were brick-colored wines with softened, elegant tannins. “My father saw it as the future of white wine,” Saša says. “The wines had more aromas, more flavors, more grapeness.”

Getting the public to see it that way was another matter. “No one was prepared to drink these wines,” explains Gravner’s daughter Mateja. “Orange wines have big fans and big haters.”

Radikon and Gravner had their differences as well. Radikon believed that extended skin contact could naturally preserve wine without having to add sulfur. Gravner, who pioneered fermentations in amphorae, disagreed with the idea of eliminating sulfites.

After some experiments, Radikon stopped adding sulfur with the 2002 vintage. To limit air contact with his wines, he designed narrow-neck bottles in 1-liter and half-liter sizes.

Saša explains: “My father always said, ‘If you are convinced of something, it is best to go all the way in. Staying in the middle is not success.’”

Shunning sulfur, he adds, “was an idea, not a religion. If we see the wine needs it, we can add sulfur.” Such was the case in the 2014 vintage, in which the spread of botrytis mold in the vineyards prompted them to add sulfur after fermentation.

Radikon winery currently produces about 2,500 cases per year from 30 acres of terraced vineyards on marl soils in Oslavia and across the Slovenian border in the hamlet of Hum. Release dates for the wines can be unpredictable: A 100 percent Merlot is aged at least 10 years (five in barrel and five in bottle) and released only when the Radikons deem it “ready.”

The main lineup of whites, from the current-release 2009 vintage, includes a pure Ribolla Gialla, a Friulano called Jakot and a blend called Oslavje that contains Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and sometimes Pinot Grigio.

Beginning with the 2009 vintage, Radikon has released two “S” range wines, made with shorter macerations of eight to 14 days, 18 months of aging in wood casks and the addition of sulfur just before bottling.

Saša conceived these paler-orange wines—one a pure Pinot Grigio and the other a Chardonnay–Tocai Friulano blend called Slatnik—as “an introduction to orange wines.”

“The idea,” he says, “was to make something my father never made.”

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