Friuli-Venezia Giulia: Just Try to Keep Up
BY ERIC GUIDO | APRIL 21, 2022
Friuli-Venezia Giulia never rests. It’s one of the reasons the region was able to establish itself as the epicenter for white wine production in Italy. It’s the reason why leading producers had so much success internationally with their stylized Super Whites over a decade ago, and the reason why they were able to recover so quickly as those wines fell out of favor. The only problem is that producers also never stop tinkering or trying to reinvent the wheel. As a result, there is a large amount of confusion on the part of consumers as they try to figure out what they should expect.
Keeping track of the latest in Friuli can be dizzying.
Of course, there are trends, today’s paradigm being a clean and lean selection of native and international white varieties of varying residual sugar, along with a Ramato-style (skin-contact) Pinot Grigios (to show that you’re hip), characterless Merlots, slurpable Refoscos, and blended wines, often fermented and matured in oak. The result is an ocean of wine that can oftentimes be forgettable, mixed in with a small number of producers that stand out for their uniqueness, high standards of quality and focus on terroir. The good news is that producers in the latter category are growing in number. The even better news is that the historic producers of this region continue to turn out great wine, for the most part. And the cherry on top of it all is that more and more Friulians are talking about terroir.
Borgo del Tiglio Hamlet and winery.
As the Crow Flies
One of the most interesting things about the important winemaking regions of Friuli is how astonishingly close they are to each other, while also remaining so incredibly diverse. One of my first stops on a recent trip was on the plains of Isonzo, at the Vie di Romans winery. It was here, standing with a panoramic view of the entire region, that owner and winemaker, Gianfranco Gallo, puts the entire thing into perspective while pointing with his finger. Looking north, I could see the hilly Colli Orientali, the home to the likes of Miani, Ronco del Gnemiz and Ronchi di Cialla in the Cialla Valley. These higher elevations and hilly terrain, mixed with the famous Ponca soils (a chalky clay and sandstone) produce some of the region's most famous, terroir-inspired wines. Pointing slightly further to the east, the town of Cormons, Mount Quarin behind it, and the Collio, literally a ten-minute drive away. Right beyond those hills, there is Oslavia, where the ancient styles of Gravner and skin-contact wines of Radikon are made, with the town of Gorizia, further south and the Slovenian border just a stone's throw away, home to the Damjian winery. And finally, looking southeast, the Carso, a plateau of stone that hangs like a peninsula between the Adriatic and the hills of Slovenia, with shear limestone soils strewn with rich red clay, home to many of Italy’s most experimental producers: Edi Kante, Zidarich and Vodopivec, just to name a few.
The proximity of all these regions is an amazing thing to see. From this same location, the Adriatic Sea with its warming Mediterranean influences, is only twenty-five miles away. To the North, the cooling presence of the Julian Alps, only fifty miles away, and from the east, the strong, ventilating winds of the Bora. These three factors are what create Friuli’s unique climate, a confluence of all three that form the perfect balance for viticulture, and especially for white wine.
As for the Isonzo, where I stood, it was formed by flooding waters coming down from the Julian Alps along the Isonzo river. These waters not only caused erosion but also deposited gravel and sand over the course of millennia. The fertile, well-draining soils of the area, similar to those in the Grave, further north-west, are a perfect place to create the bulk of Friuli’s wine production, but also responsible for many of the lackluster and forgettable wines produced in the region. That said, a winery like Vie di Romans is a perfect example of how world-class wine can be made here.
Looking out toward the Gravner winery from Slovenia.
To Blend or Not To Blend?
That is the most common question that I hear from producers in Friuli today. Winemakers have a host of indigenous and international varieties to choose from, including Friulano, Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia Istriana, Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Vitovska (in the Carso). Most producers have an assortment of both blended and varietal wines; it’s where they put their focus that often makes the biggest difference. The blend trend, which some see as a result of the “Super Whites” of the 1990s and 2000s, is actually a throwback to much older traditions, using field blends and co-fermentations.
The Collio producer Borgo del Tiglio, has certainly mastered the art of the blend. Their Collio Studio di Bianco, a mix of Friulano, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, continues to be one of the region's standouts. On the more extreme side of the debate, the producer Edi Keber would tell you that it’s only in the blending of indigenous varieties that he believes that proper balance can be found, which is why the winery has stopped making any mono-varietal wines and only produces a co-fermented white blend. However, when speaking with local sommeliers and wine professionals, many think that this is, to quote an anonymous source, “crazy.” However, those same locals will admit that the biggest problem with most winemakers in the region today is that they feel like they need to produce an entire range of varietal wines, yet only have the skills or sources to make one or two of them exemplary. I found these comments to be incredibly insightful while tasting through the nearly 500 wines that fill this report. I can’t tell you how often I would find myself nonplussed by a portfolio, only to then taste the one wine that really shined.
However, there are producers that know their strengths well. At Ronco del Gnemiz in the Colli Orientali, the focus is primarily on varietal, single-vineyard expressions of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Friulano. Then there’s Gravner in Oslavia, focused nearly 100% on varietal Ribolla Gialla and Pignolo. In Carso, we find Paolo Vodopivec, a man who produces only three wines, but all varietal Vitovska that are refined in subterranean amphora. It should come as no surprise that all three of these portfolios are amongst the best of the region.
So, what’s the answer? In my opinion, the only way that Friuli can truly succeed as a whole is if a larger number of producers look hard at their strengths and weaknesses. To focus less on the stereotype that every Friulian producer must at least make a passable Friulano, a weedy Sauvignon or an herbal Ribolla Gialla. As for the blends, I’m sorry to say that the successful ones are far outnumbered by oak-inflected, nondescript, stylized wines that fall flat.
On the Rosazzo hill at Ronco del Gnemiz.
What About Those Orange Wines?
First things first, for the most part, producers have completely shunned the term “Orange Wine” for the term “Skin-contact” wines. For fans of the style, which I count myself among, Friuli remains a hotbed for high-quality expressions that transcend any negative expectations of the category. Touring through Oslavia, Gorizia and Carso provides a fan of skin-contact wines with plenty of compelling wines to choose from. What sets the best of these wines apart from the average is their clarity, energy and ability to be both prominent on the palate, without being aggressive. Oftentimes this style is coupled with sincere beliefs in biodynamics, low-intervention, and low sulfur (if any at all) and so, there can be variation, and bottles must be obtained through trusted sources. However, in the end, these can be magical experiences.
The Amphora aging chamber at Vodopivec.
Lest We Forget the Reds
As for the reds, well that's another story, and one that I hope more readers will be open minded to. For a moment let's forget about Merlot, because even though a small number of producers are creating some world-class examples, they are the exception, not the norm. That’s not to say that the wines should be ignored, just that readers should be selective. In my opinion, the real thing to be excited about within the topic of Friuli reds is Schioppettino (which is pronounced skee’ohp-peht-TEE-noh), Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso, and Terrano in the Carso, which is a separate variety of Refosco from Croatia.
Each time I revisit Friuli, I find more to like within these categories. In the case of Schioppettino, expect to find a slightly peppery expression with violets and zesty red fruits. The wines can be made in a vibrant and fun, yet deep style from producers like Volpe Pasini, Vigna Petrussa and Marco Sara. Or, in a much more serious and brooding manner, intended for cellaring. For the latter, check out Ronchi di Cialla (which is also the producer that reintroduced the variety to the region decades ago), Giovanni Dri and Miani. As for Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso, it produces deep, dark reds with masses of rich fruit but also stimulating acidity and minerality to balance. They can be made in a fresh and lively style where the fruit is front and center or matured in oak to create a more opulent yet also structured expression. Look for Antico Broilo, Perusini and Sturm, to name a few, but also know that many Friulian producers that excel with one red variety also tend to do well with the other. Lastly, another red to be aware of is Pignolo, a dark, intense and tannic wine that very few producers are able to tame without stripping them of their character.
When speaking of vintages in Friuli, it’s very important to keep in mind that they do not share the same conditions of neighboring regions. One exception I can think of is 2014, where it seems that nearly all of Italy (except Sicily) suffered. The reason for this has to do with its location, the close proximity to the Julian Alps, the Adriatic Sea, and the strong Bora winds from the east. That said, just like all of Italy, if there is a trend it is that vintages continue to get warmer.
Last year I spoke about the rollercoaster 2019 vintage that started with a warm and dry winter, leading to a cool and rainy spring, and then a hot and torrid summer. The only saving grace for the white wines was cooler nighttime temperatures that helped to add balance before harvest. Unfortunately for the reds, rain interrupted the harvest of later ripening varieties. While there weren't many 2019 reds sampled on this recent trip, the wines I was able to taste show the warmth of the year and difficulties of the harvest. Only a few producers were able to turn out truly successful wines. As for the whites, they show the sun-kissed nature of the vintage through their power and textural girth, but only the best of them will benefit from further cellaring.
The 2020 vintage was chaotic throughout much of the region and warm in general. The winter months were extremely dry with higher temperatures than usual which led to an uneven budbreak and early flowering. Late spring into July was generally cooler than recent vintages, yet still warm, with a higher amount of precipitation. August brought much warmer temperatures but with drastic diurnal shifts and more rain. While the rain helped to refresh the vines it also caused issues with rot and mold within the vineyards, forcing quality-minded producers to be very selective. In the end, expect the wines of 2020 to be variable from producer to producer. While the best of them are highly aromatic with vividly intense fruit profiles and the acidity to balance, others come across as simple and even flabby.
The wines for this article were tasted in Friuli-Venezia Giulia during January of 2022, and in our offices in New York City throughout February of 2022.
© 2022, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.
You Might Also Enjoy
On the Cusp of Evolution: Amarone and Valpolicella, Eric Guido, April 2022
Soave - The Long Road Home, Eric Guido, April 2022
Against all Odds: Vie di Romans Sauvignon Blanc Vieris, Eric Guido, October 2021