Pride and Tradition: The Friulian Way


Have the wines of Friuli-Venezia Giulia ever been as good as they are today? I ask myself this question every year while tasting through the 400+ wines that fill this report. The region has struggled to define its identity for decades, driven by the international success of a few big names, some of which are still in the game and others that have fallen astray. Friuli-Venezia Giulia’s producers have adapted and experimented to arrive at a style that could be considered Friulian. Many will tell you that they have succeeded. This region is a mix of culture, tradition and modern-day tastes, with many producers, locals and tourists happy with the current winemaking standard. Even so, there are significant challenges to overcome if the region is going to continue to succeed internationally.

The Borgo del Tiglio vineyards.

A Little Geography 

Friuli-Venezia Giulia (which I will refer to as FVG going forward) is located in the extreme northeast of the Italian peninsula. This melting pot of cultures was formed over thousands of years as ruling parties and borders changed repeatedly. As a result, its people, architecture, foods, languages, grape varieties and wine culture are incredibly diverse and unique. To the north is Austria, with the Julian Alps dominating its borders. To the east lies Slovenia, with a landscape and culture that often feels like a natural progression from Friuli. In fact, you could easily walk across this border without even knowing you have crossed into another country. To the south is the Adriatic Sea, and its Mediterranean influence. Friuli’s wine landscapes are defined by their proximity to the Julian Alps and the Adriatic Sea, which creates a push and pull of cooling and warming currants, along with the cold north-easterly Bora winds. 

The major wine-growing regions of FVG are Collio, Colli Orientali, Carso, Isonzo and Grave. Collio is one of Italy’s most renowned sources of high-quality white wine. The area forms like a crescent moon around Slovenia’s Brda. From space, one would never assume that these two regions were separated by political borders instead of natural ones. These are all hillside vineyards with Ponca soils as elevations increase. Ponca is a rocky mix of chalky clay and sandstone that dominates the hillsides and valleys of the region. Collio is a hotbed of winemaking activity where both reds and whites thrive. It is also home to the skin-contact (orange) wines that are made in the Oslavia district. Moving closer to the foothills of the Julian Alps is Friuli Colli Orientali, which runs south toward Collio. Here we find Friuli's Ponca soils again. The Colli Orientali is home to many of the region's most famous names and subzones. Carso runs like a shelf of shear limestone cliffs along the Adriatic Sea and into the heart of Slovenia. Trieste, the capital of FVG and its largest city, is located on the coast at its most southern tip. The wines of the Carso are wildly unique, as these are barren lands made of stone. Visiting many wineries here is like delving into a dwarven city or mine. Skin-contact (orange) wine dominates, and its producers are masters of their craft. The Vitovska grape is also unique to Carso. Isonzo and Grave are defined by large plains formed by glacial movements, rivers and floods that carried dolomite rocks and pebbles while heading out to the Adriatic Sea. In some places, these rocks and gravel exist just below the surface of sandy marls and travel deep into the earth. Today, the Isonzo winemakers have established that great wines are indeed possible. The Grave remains the region’s largest denomination in hectares and volume of wine produced.

The subterranean Georgian Amphorae (locally known as Qvevri) at Gravner.

Bringing Friuli-Venezia Giulia Back to the International Stage

The evolution and progress in the wines I’ve witnessed throughout FVG is a positive sign. I find more character, precision and polish each year. Thankfully, the days of the super-stylized whites have ended and have been replaced with wines made with a more regional approach. However, several things are holding FVG back, some of which will be easier to remedy than others. 

For the longest time, FVG was known as the source of Italy's best whites. To this day, many of Italy’s most exciting and characterful whites from indigenous and international varieties are found here. However, over the years, even while quality has risen as a whole, several other regions in Italy have also worked hard to improve and promote their native varieties, and with great success. Today, Sicily’s Carricante strives to compete with white Burgundy. Trebbiano Abruzzese in Abruzzo has reached new heights. Fiano in Campania is finally getting the respect it deserves. Verdicchio from Marche has been brought to a whole new level, and Soave (Garganega) in Veneto is enjoying a modern-day renaissance. And finally, the whites from Alto Adige represent direct competition for the best producers here.

While most regions of Italy focus on one, two or three white varieties to market, FVG produces a litany of indigenous and international grapes, and many producers insist on bottling them all. Excluding some of the more regional varieties, most wineries will have at least a Friulano (Tocai Friulano or Sauvignonasse), Ribolla Gialla and Malvasia Istriana, possibly a Picolit or Verduzzo, but also international grapes like Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. Moreover, it isn’t rare that the same producer will have multiple Friulanos, one fresh and one richer and oak-influenced, or multiple Ribollas, one fresh, one with skin contact and one sparkling. Lest we forget, there’s always a Bianco that mixes any number of these grapes in either a clean, rich or international style. The lack of focus and specialization create questions in the minds of consumers:

“What do I look to FVG for?”

“What do they specialize in?” 

“What should I expect from the wines?”

Vie di Romans' cavernous aging cellars.

This is no secret, as many winemakers lament in conversation. One insightful comment from my last trip was from Mario Zanusso of i Clivi, who questioned how a winemaker could grow 15 to 20 varieties in a vineyard (including reds) and fully understand how to tend to each of them properly to understand each of their unique needs. This same logic can also be applied in the winery when considering fermentation, maceration and aging. Most wineries in FVG easily make a dozen wines or more. While many regional producers understand this is a problem, few seem willing to part with any of their varieties, almost like picking a favorite child. That said, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that the most successful wineries tend to be the ones that are more specialized and sharply focused on what they do best. 

Lastly, for the most significant wine-producing regions of the world, the delineation of terroir and the differences from place to place are described through labels so that consumers can more easily understand what to expect from bottle to bottle. This is, unfortunately, not always the case in FVG. Granted, there are exceptions. FVG is broken down into DOCs and DOCGs, the best guides a consumer has to understand what’s in a bottle. However, within each location, there are various terroirs that show unique attributes. In rare cases, this has been remedied, such as the subzones of Ribolla Gialla Rosazzo, Pignolo di Rosazzo, Schioppettino di Prepotto and Cialla formed within the Friuli Colli Orientali DOC. However, I’m not sure why Buttrio has not been further defined in a similar fashion, considering it is a hotbed of new activity and interests, not to mention the home of several of the region's top wineries. The Collio DOC, one of Italy’s most prestigious denominations, is a large area of extreme diversity. It would be foolish to think that the wines from the high elevations and cooler expositions of San Floriano would be easily comparable to the white wines of Cormòns or even Capriva, where classic red varieties also excel. To a further extreme, Oslavia is a village where producers specialize in skin-contact wines. Here, steep hillside vineyards hug international borders, and the culture feels more Slovenian than Friulian. 

Granted, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, as minds are open to change. Making it happen is the hard part. Already there is the thought of creating a Ribolla di Oslavia DOC, which would allow producers to market their skin-contact Ribolla wines to the world. Moreover, talks are underway to see if orange wines can be integrated into the Collio DOC. However, getting parties on all sides to agree to a set of production regulations will be a tremendous challenge. Even the idea of cross-border collaborations is being discussed. (It’s important to note that prior to 1947, following World War II, Collio in Italy and Brda in Slovenia were a united territory.) Combining the two would feel natural to the region's inhabitants, but that’s a can of worms.

Left: The sheer limestone and red clay that define the Carso. Right: A dwarven mine or the cellars of Skerk?

A Red Wine Revolution

The writing is on the wall for many wine-producing regions. Global warming is changing the landscape. Areas that excelled for centuries with certain varieties are now struggling to find balance. However, on the flip side, many of those same varieties are now thriving in the northeast of Italy. Going back many years, when looking for a red wine from FVG, Miani was always the first, and often the only, choice. There was a smattering of others, but Miani was the benchmark. This makes sense because, in addition to being obsessed over his vineyards, Enzo Pontoni is located in Buttrio, one of the warmest areas in the region. Yet, for that same reason, it is more difficult for Pontoni to find balance from vintage to vintage today. On the flip side, producers in the cooler parts of FVG are experiencing the exact opposite. 

FVG specializes in several red varieties, almost as many as whites, yet the reds are better defined as they are divided by the locations they excel in. The Refoscos have long been a favorite in the region, with Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso at the top of the pyramid. These are wild, peppery, floral, yet deeply fruity wines that can be made in a fresh or more serious style. They often have an alpine feel and freshness that sets them apart. Schioppettino (pronounced skee’ohp-peht-TEE-noh) continues trending in Colli Orientali. Schioppettino would have gone extinct if not for the prowess of the Rapuzzi family of Ronchi di Cialla. Today, Schioppettino has its own subzone within the region, Schioppettino di Prepotto. These are dark and earthy reds with brilliant acidity and crunchy tannins that can be made in a fresh, zesty style or serious and age-worthy. In my opinion, Schioppettino will be a very important part of FVG's future. 

These days, everyone is talking about the dark and characterful Pignolo. Many producers believe it may be one of the region's best red grapes, and it’s undoubtedly one of the most traditional, with a documented history going back hundreds of years. On the downside, Pignolo has an aggressive tannic profile that’s very difficult to tame. Some say the wines can take ten years to soften, and most producers will release them quite late. That said, what I’ve been tasting lately makes me pretty excited to see what’s possible. Terrano, related to Refosco, is found in the Carso, but it is its own biotype. This is a dark and earthy variety, so much so that it sometimes comes across as a bit rustic. The black-skinned Tazzelenghe is another native variety with strong tannins and high acidity. It’s rarer than those mentioned previously but also interesting to taste. 

Beyond the native varieties, FVG excels with many international grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Carménère, often referred to or thought to be Cabernet Franc. It’s important to note that Carménère cannot be stated on the label of any DOC or DOCG wines within FVG. Pinot Noir is gaining traction in areas like Isonzo, which is likely a positive effect of global warming. There was a time when Cabernet Sauvignon struggled to achieve physiological ripeness, but this has also changed thanks to warming trends. In contrast, Merlot has excelled here for many years.

Standing in the I Clivi vineyards looking out toward Slovenia.

The Most Recent Vintages

While tasting through the late-release 2020s, I’m reminded of just how variable this vintage is. This was a generally warm year, with rain at the worst times that caused many issues in the vineyards. As a result, the year is very producer dependent. Those who put in the right amount of work in the vines have much stronger wines. A good example is Christian Patat of Ronco del Gnemiz, who said he believed 2020 to be an “excellent vintage among the last five years.” His portfolio backs up his statement, yet this is just one producer among many. But in the end, the best wines of the vintage are worth hunting for.

The newest releases from 2021 are fascinating to taste. They marry a warm vintage character of soaring aromatics and intensely vivid fruit with juicy acidity that balances the richness beautifully. This was generally a dry and warm year that started out with moderate temperatures and rain through the winter and spring, which led to the risk of Peronospora (downy mildew). Moreover, a spring frost reduced yields by 7% across the region, yet other areas suffered significantly more. Paolo Vodopivec of the Vodopivec winery in Carso reported losing 50% of his production to a frost that settled in on April 8th. The region dried out through June and July, bringing warm temperatures. August continued with hot conditions and remained very dry, which required many estates to irrigate. The saving grace was the strong diurnal shifts that helped retain acidity in the grapes and ventilating winds that kept the bunches healthy. While the 2021s are often intense and rich, their acidity brings a lovely balance to the wines, making them highly enjoyable today, but they should also carry them through short-term cellaring. 

I tasted all of the wines included in this article in FVG in December 2022 and at our New York City office in January 2023.

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