Exploring the wines of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, the Northeastern wine region of Italy
Friulian wines have a long history predating the Romans with indigenous varietals that flourished in this region. Long considered a peasant activity, wine in this region was produced by families strictly for personal use and sustenance. That changed with the influence of the Austro-Hungarians that looked to this region to duplicate the success of the French red wines. Many local varietals were replaced with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot in the early 20th century.
The two world wars of the 20th century close to eliminated the male population of the region and devastated the vineyards. It was the generation after World War II that replanted vines that included the usual suspects (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Grigio) as well as local varieties, Verduzzo, Pignolo, Refosco, Tazzelenghe (meaning “tongue cutting”), Schioppottino (meaning “little pop”), and Tocai Friulano from the Hungarian region that does so well in this climate. The grapes produced today are young by most vineyard standards. The vast majority are less than 40 – 50 years old.
Friuli as a winemaking region has matured. Wines of this region have a certain style and elegance all their own. No longer chasing the trends and grapes that have made other regions of the world famous, they are playing their position. The different microclimates and soils, the unique grape varietals, and modern wine making technology and techniques are turning out some extraordinary products. Best of all, its not a French style or a Tuscan style, it’s Friulian and the wines are no longer just for personal consumption but are now a major commercial offering in the International marketplace.
Over thirty different grape varieties are grown in Friuli. The microclimates and varying soil types in the region can produce white wines that range from elegant with a mineral backbone and structure to powerful with the ability to age. The wines are dry and mature. The cool nights produce a balanced acidity and aids in the development of the aromas.
As we settled in to our agritourismo, Il Roncal in Cividale, our first sip of wine was a Sauvignon Bianco, a medium bodied wine that is crisp and filled the palate without overwhelming the taste buds. My first inclination was to compare it to a French Sauvignon Blanc ,of which I am very familiar. No way. This was not a wine developed for comparison but to be enjoyed for what it is. It has been called Friuli’s “secret weapon.” It is a golden yellow with intense ripe fruit and a floral nose. A dry white wine that pairs well with risotto, soups, certain seafood, and potato dishes.
Pinot Grigio is one of the best known white wines from Italy and Friuli’s Pinot Grigio is filled with a spicy bouquet and citric notes of roasted lemon and lime peels and herbs of thyme and verbena held together with a vibrant acidity and minerality. This wine will pair well with most seafood, chicken, dishes with a salty side (like ham or Greek salad), and pesto.
Friulano is the local white wine variety that is believed to have originated in Hungary and is related to the Sauvignon Vert or Sauvignonasse grape. The wine is a pale yellow with nuances of pear and wildflower and flint. It is herbaceous with citrus notes. It has well balanced acidity and a vibrant, long, clean finish with hints of bitter almond.
We enjoyed lunch at Elliot Enoteca and Ristorantino in Manzano. We tasted a number of Bastianich wines paired with food from the restaurant. Vespa Bianco is one of our favorite Bastianich white wines. It is a wine that has depth and finesse with tropical fruit notes and lots of spice. There is a full mouth feel and a creaminess that is unmistakable, well-balanced acidity with a clean and lively finish.
Our favorite white wine produced by Bastianich winery is Plus. This single vineyard wine is made from 60-year-old vines. It is a rich and dense Friulano that shows just how powerful a wine this region can produce. This wine has a lot of limestone minerality and a vibrant acidity that shows citrus, tropical fruit, almond, peach, and pear with a little honey. The wine has a complex nose with great aromatics and a thick mouth feel because the fruit is harvested at the peak of ripeness and 10% of the fruit is then dried, one grape cluster at a time, in the drying house. They also include some late harvest and botrytized fruit when conditions are right. This was one of the most powerful and unique wines we enjoyed and gives French Alsatian wines a run for their Grand Cru status, but I’m not trying to make comparisons. 🙂