Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France

Collio DOC: quality wines, styles, challenges

Update: in January 2023, I added additional material on the hectares of the top varieties in Friuli as a whole and in Friuli Collio Orientali, Collio’s neighbour.

Collio DOC is a small but high quality denomination in Friuli Venezia Giulia, 130 kilometres north-east of Venice.  It was the first Italian region to make fresh, clean modern white wines, using techniques learnt in Germany in the 1970s. As a result, it was the third wine area in Italy to receive its DOC, the basis of the Italian quality system.  On the back of these achievements, it became the go-to region for restaurants in Italy offering white wines. Of course, Friuli’s success led to other regions, often bigger regions, copying what they did notably Alto Adige also underneath the Alps. 

What does Collio do uniquely?

Collio DOC specialises in two categories of quality white wine. Best known perhaps are the single variety wines from local or international varieties. The local varieties are Friulano (a long-term resident even if genetically it is the same as Sauvignonasse/Sauvignon Vert from Bordeaux), the trendy Ribolla Gialla and small amounts of Malvasia Istriana. The international varieties are Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc. The second category is called simply Collio Bianco and has to be a blend of at least two white varieties.

The chart below shows at a glance that this is a region of white varieties. Most of the wine made is white with one interesting exception.  The chart also shows the importance of the much-travelled Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco, which together make up 64 per cent of the varieties planted for Collio DOC. In addition, there are red wines made from the main Bordeaux varieties and a tiny production of a sweet wine called Picolit.

What are the factors that lead to Collio DOC producing quality wine?

Collio DOC, as its name indicates is a hilly region. However, the hills here are not high, up to about 270m. Rather it is an unusual combination of factors that results in quality wine. This horseshoe crescent of a region, adjacent to Slovenia, is 30 kilometres from the sea and rather more to the Julian Alps. As a result, it has a warm and humid Mediterranean climate. The main cooling influence is the cool air coming down from the mountains at night, the Bora. It meets warm air from the Adriatic sea over Collio. As a result, the region normally has a lot of rain, especially in the spring. The annual average total is around 1,200 mm per year. (Of course, there is no ‘normal’ in recent years and the 2022 growing season saw only 400 mm of rain.) Quality viticulture in the region is made possible by the slopes and the flysch soils, locally called ponca. This soil ensures excellent drainage and a very slow release of nutrients. Without the slopes and the ponca, Collio would be just an extension of Friuli’s flat and fertile plain. It would no doubt be planted with Glera for Prosecco DOC. The high biodiversity is also an advantage. Half of the land in the hilly parts of the DOC is protected forest.

As a result of these factors, growers are producing high quality wines (and they are mostly just that) made from low yields, 35–60 hectolitres per hectare. Hot summer days with cooler nights provide good growing conditions, as long as growers can keep on top of the downy mildew, which is the most common challenge. The resulting wines are typically dry, quite high alcohol (13.5–14, even 14.5% abv), mainly moderately aromatic but well-structured. The wines are often aged on the fine lees for up to a year. Little new oak is used and most wine is aged in stainless steel, concrete or old 500-litre barrels.

Collio DOC and Friuli as a whole: the scale of plantings and the varieties planted

The two charts below show how small Collio is, with less than five per cent of all of the hectares in Friuli. Further, they show how, with the exception of Pinot Grigio, the mix of grape varieties in Collio is rather different to Friuli in general. In the latter, Glera for Prosecco is important and there are more than 2,000 hectares of Merlot. Note that the scale of the vertical axes of the charts is very different. To make the point concretely in relation to the top most grown variety in the first two charts, there are 312 hectares of Pinot Grigio in Collio and nearly 8,000 in Friuli as a whole.

Collio DOC: quality wines, styles, challenges
Collio DOC: quality wines, styles, challenges
This second chart shows how Pinot Grigio, Glera and even Merlot are widely planted in Friuli as a whole. Data from Friulian wine expert, Matteo Bellotto

To complete the picture, the chart below shows the top ten varieties grown in Friuli Collio Orientali. The noticeable difference, in contrast to the adjoining Collio, is the importance of red grape varieties. They make up more than 30 per cent of the hectares under vine. Merlot and Refosco are the most planted. Over the last decade and a half, Ribolla Gialla has increased by about 120 per cent. The biggest decreases have been the international red varieties, Merlot and especially Cabernet Franc.

Collio DOC: quality wines, styles, challenges
Source: Consorzio Tutela Vini Friuli Colli Orientali Ramandolo
Key white varieties in Collio DOC

Pinot Grigio and Pinot Blanc here are full-bodied with moderate acidity and medium-intensity aromas that range from ripe pear and apple to peach and the occasional tropical note. Similar in weight and acidity, Friulano is a like a toned-down Sauvignon Blanc, with attractive green plum and grass notes over riper white fruit.  Sauvignon Blanc, here called just Sauvignon, is rather more aromatic. However, even this is a quite a muted style by comparison with Marlborough, but with grapefruit to white peach aromatics.

Ribolla Gialla, like the Pinot Grigio and Bianco, is a moderately aromatic grape variety but has higher acidity than either Pinot or Friulano. This has led to an explosion of styles: straight still wines, skin contact, orange wines and sparkling wines, with both the tank and traditional methods. It is difficult to know whether this range of styles is a strength or a weakness. Within the region, it may be a strength. Outside of the region, it means that it is difficult for wine lovers to grasp the styles.

Copper wine

The biggest surprise and a welcome addition to the world of quality wine is Pinot Grigio in the ramato (copper) style. Ripe Pinot Grigio grapes are a dusky pink. Historically, the wines would always have had this colour as the pigment from the skins would have leached into the wine on the way to the winery or when pressed. That all changed with modern, soft pressing. However, if the producer keeps the pressed juice on the skins for some time (from some hours to a few days), the resulting wine is an attractive copper colour. In addition, there is a hint of red fruit about the aroma, unlike with the conventional white wine. The other speciality of the denomination is the orange wine, particularly in Oslavia, wine made with prolonged skin contact from white grape varieties. These outstanding wines were made famous by the likes of Gravner, Radikon and Princic. These tend to grab the attention of the world’s wine press and of sommeliers.

Finally, there is the wine called simply Collio Bianco. This is a blend, historically of Friulano, Ribolla Gialla and Malvasia Istriana, but today can include the international varieties. The aspiration is that this is the top, most representative bottling of each winery. It frequently is aged for an extra year before release and can be aged for a decade or more. The advantage of a blend is that it can bring additional complexity to the wine in the glass with Ribolla or Sauvignon also contributing higher acidity. For all white wines there is a Riserva category for wines that have been aged for a minimum of 20 months from 1 November of the year of harvest.

Collio's white wines
Collio’s white wines

In sum, Collio DOC is a region of white wines where most of the wine made is of high quality. The style is mainly moderately aromatic and acidic, unoaked, full-bodied wines, which are highly versatile with food.  Ribolla Gialla in its various guises and Pinot Grigio in its copper version provide some stylish variations on these themes.

The challenges for Collio DOC

For many years, Collio DOC was very successful as the ‘first in market’ fresh and modern quality Italian white wine. As other regions copied its style, it has yet to find a way of building on that early success. The orange wine of Oslavia is from a very small sub-section of Collio, adjacent to Slovenia where it is also traditional, and is unlikely to become a mainstream style. Equally, most wine drinkers will expect Pinot Grigio to be white, not copper coloured.

More generally, this is a small region with an annual production similar to Gavi DOCG in Piemonte (around 1,500 hectares). The difference is that Gavi basically is known for one wine. By contrast, Collio has multiple grape varieties, single-varietal wines and blends. Because its original offer included the then fashionable French varieties plus its three local ones, it is not obvious what its single message should be. Many regions make Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay and because of the relative success of these wines, Collio’s focus on its unique varieties has been obscured.  

Finally, the aspiration of the Collio consortium is that Collio Bianco, the blend, should be the highest expression of a winery. But there are also issues here. First, this is just an aspiration. More importantly, initially the blend had to be the local varieties, Friulano, Ribolla Gialla and Malvasia Istriana. The growers then changed the regulation to allow the French varieties as well. This has meant that in the context of a crowded wine market, the supposedly top wines of Collio do not have a clear local identity. In the decades since Collio DOC was established, wine lovers have increasingly become interested in distinctive local wines. Lastly within Italy, the ‘bianco’ and ‘rosso’ categories are normally the entry level wines of a denomination. Here the ‘bianco’ is intended to be the top wine.

Ways forward?

It is not the purpose of this post to offer advice. However, there are some avenues Collio DOC could explore.

  • Decide which variety or blend is really going to be the emblem of the DOC and focus on it. Because of the name, Friulano (‘from Friuli’) is the obvious choice, though Ribolla Gialla might push it hard. Or, the denomination could really get behind Collio Bianco?
  • Once that has happened, perhaps seek DOCG status for the flagship wine. But note that Bolgheri and Etna, two of Italy’s most successful denominations are DOC, not DOCG.
  • Consider a collaboration with Friuli Colli Orientali DOC to the immediate north of Collio. Why? Because it has basically the same geology, climate and white varieties. They are two DOCs primarily for historical, and political reasons. Part of Collio’s challenge is that there are just not that many bottles available, nor the finances for larger-scale promotion. Joining forces with Collio Orientali would double the number of bottles in the market. Further, Collio Orientali has a subsidiary tradition of red wines from local varieties that are interesting to the highly engaged consumers around the world. Is it time to work together?

Whatever Collio DOC does in the future, it is a great source of versatile, high quality white wines which are really worth exploring and getting to know better.

With thanks to the Collio DOC and all the producers who made this a very memorable visit!

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