Wines of Friuli–Venezia Giulia
This article was originally published in 2013 on TravelLady.com.
Tucked away between mountains and sea in Italy’s northeast corner is the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Known for its unique fusion of cuisines that blends Austro-Hungarian, Slavic, Venetian, and Roman influences, Friuli offers a variety of irresistible flavors. From goulasch to gubana, there is something to entice everyone’s palate, and wine connoisseurs will be particularly delighted with the wines in this off-the-beaten-path destination.
The Collio and Colli Orientali del Friuli constitute the heart of Friuli’s wine country. These two wine zones, which are sometimes referred to collectively as the Collio Goriziano, are reminiscent of Tuscany’s rolling hills or California’s lush Napa Valley. The word colli, meaning “hills,” epitomizes this landscape where the grapes have more sun exposure than in the low-lying plains. Though the centrally located Grave del Friuli zone is the region’s largest wine producer—chiefly of Merlot—the wines from the Collio and Colli Orientali are regarded to be Friuli’s best. In fact, most experts agree that the white wines from this region are the most superb in all of Italy.
The Collio lies in Gorizia province, along the Slovenian border and separated from the Colli Orientali by the Judrio River. This zone is most famous for its white wines, Tocai Friulano in particular. Although this grape is not believed to be native to Friuli, it has been produced there for centuries. In 2005, the European Union delivered an unpopular verdict regarding the name Tocai: of the three European wines having a historical claim on the name—Tocai Friulano, Tokai-Pinot Gris from France, and Hungarian Tokaj—only the Hungarian wine would be allowed to continue using its name. Despite much local protest, Tocai Friulano is now officially called merely Friulano.
Also popular are Collio’s white wine blends, which usually contain at least two of the following: Tocai, Malvasia Istriana, and Ribolla Gialla, as well as occasionally Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Bianco, or Pinot Grigio. Perhaps the Collio’s most famous blend is the Vino della Pace, which is produced from 540 grape varieties selected from every continent. This “wine of peace” is bottled and sent to political and religious leaders around the world.
The town of Cormòns is home to one of the region’s most noted wine bars, the Enoteca di Cormòns. Also the seat of the Collio’s wine-producing consortium, this bar makes a great place to taste regional wines along with the locally smoked prosciutto D’Osvaldo. Every September, Cormòns hosts the Festa Provinciale dell’Uva, a wine festival featuring music, theater, and cultural events, along with the obligatory wine tasting.
The Colli Orientali lies to the north of the Collio in Udine province and also borders on Slovenia. Many native grapes are grown here, including the reds Refosco, Schioppettino, and Pignolo, and whites Ribolla Gialla, Verduzzo, and Picolit. While the versatile and abundant Verduzzo grapes can be vinified as either a dry or sweet wine, Picolit is one of the rarest and most precious dessert wines ever made.
Produced exclusively in the Valli del Natisone near the town of Cividale, Picolit is believed to have been cultivated since Roman times. A fragile and high maintenance variety, the grapevine is extremely low yielding due to a condition called “floral abortion,” where many buds die before maturing into grapes. With a golden color, honeyed fragrance, and subtle hints of almond, dried fruit, and spice, Picolit is what Italian experts call a “meditation wine,” meaning that it is best savored on its own without any food.
During the 18th century, winemaker Count Fabio Asquini of Fagagna developed an unrivaled appreciation for Picolit. With the idea that a diminutive package would increase the wine’s appeal, he commissioned special half-size bottles from the glassblowers in Murano. These he then exported to Venice where Picolit soon became the drink of choice for Doge Manin and his court. Asquini proved himself to be a marketing genius, able to manipulate the laws of supply and demand to his advantage. He had held back part of his inventory, thus creating the illusion of limited supply. Then, when reports of this magnificent wine reached Vienna, he was able to ship some to the emperor. Before long, Asquini was sending Picolit to the king of France, the tsar of Russia, and even the pope, but following Asquini’s death, Picolit nearly disappeared from production.
An epidemic of the phylloxera fungus ravished vineyards throughout 19th-century Europe. Then, after winemakers had successfully replanted, the two world wars caused even further devastation. Several grapes were facing extinction when they were rescued during the 1970s. A scholar named Walter Filiputti found two surviving vines of Pignolo in an abbey in Rosazzo and was able to nurse them back to health, while winemaker Paolo Rapuzzi did the same for the failing Schioppettino grape.
During these periods of revival, Friulians replanted not only native grapes—as did most of Europe—but foreign varieties as well. With a long history of intermingling cultures and openness to foreigners, it was only natural that Friuli be one of the first regions in the world to do so. During the late 19th century, Friuli became the first region in Italy to produce Merlot and was among the first to have Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and Traminer. Today, these non-natives are produced as 100 percent varietal wines, as well as mixed in Friuli’s popular blends.
Although the Collio and Colli Orientali wines are more widely recognized, the Carso wine zone must not be overlooked. High above the coastline in the province of Trieste, this narrow ribbon of limestone and dolomite produces such notable reds as Terrano and Refosco di San Dorligo, as well as the white wines Malvasia Istriana and Vitovska. The tiny Carso town of Prosecco has given its name to the native grape Glera di Prosecco, which is thought to be the source of the famed sparkling wine produced today throughout the Veneto.
For a taste of Carso wine, drive along what tourism officials have dubbed the “Terrano Wine Road,” from Opicina to Sistiana. Throughout the countryside, farmhouses open their doors to the public for wine tasting and the sale of other artisanal products. Called osmizze (or osmize) these temporary roadside taverns are indicated by a frasca—a leafy cluster of branches hung above the door. Tables are set up inside the courtyard—traditional Carsic homes had stone walls built around a central courtyard as protection from the fierce bora winds—and villagers gather to sample the local vintage and feast on homemade cheese and salumi. The custom began in 1784 with an imperial decree that allowed peasants to sell their excess wine and produce in an unlicensed restaurant for eight days each year; the word osmizza is thus derived from the Slovene word osem, meaning “eight.”
Whether you travel to Friuli solely as an oenophile or happen to stumble upon the region as an unexpected surprise, you will surely be enchanted by the beauty of its landscape, charmed by the warmth of its people—and seduced by the magic of its food and wine.
IF YOU GO:
Enoteca di Cormòns
Piazza XXIV Maggio, 21
34071 Cormòns (GO)
+39 (0481) 630371