Ok, sorry about the title! The Italian region, Friuli Venezia Giulia, to give it its full title and restore its dignity, is one of Italy’s politically semi-autonomous areas, in this case on the far northeast border. Its neighbour to the east is Slovenia, with Austria to the north. It suffered a great deal in the twentieth century because of its position on key transport routes, north-south and east-west, but has spent the last 64 years in Italy. Geographically, over 40% of the region is alpine, with a further nearly 40% being the coastal plain. From a wine point of view, it is the 20% hilly area which is of the greatest interest.
Personally, I have a very soft spot for Friuli as Janet and I learnt Italian in the seaside town of Grado – there is nothing like getting up at 7.30 in the morning on ‘holiday’ to go to Italian class for the first of six hours of contact time and two lots of homework per day! The enoteche, wine bars, were full of Friulian whites.
The wine scene in Friuli is very diverse because of the range of types of land, differences of winemaking and climate. In general, it benefits from weather which in turn is dominated by warm winds from the sea and cool/damp conditions from the mountains. The most important wine area of all is Collio, the twenty kilometres by four kilometre crescent of land which runs parallel, more or less, to the Slovenian border. These rather modest hills (80-200 metres) have a very particular geology, which, rather like Chablis, owe a great deal to trillions of crustacean shell forming a sea bed which over millennia has become the complex ‘flysch’ sandstone and ‘ponca’ soils of the area.
In Italy and indeed abroad, Friuli is synonymous with white wine. As such is the only Italian region to specialise in white wine. Campania has great whites, Sardinia has its Vermentino, Trentino and Alto Adige, Friuli’s neighbours, have reds and whites, but Friuli is 80% whites. Quality whites are, however, a modern phenomenon. It is only in the last 50 years that Friulian producers have learned to make white wine predominantly in a contemporary, fresh style. Before that, the wines were quite oxidised, spent a lot of time in old wood barrels and were basically cheap wine for local consumption.
How did this change of direction come about? In the late 1960s, Mario Schiopetto (pronounced in Italian without the ‘h’ sound: sci…) influenced an entire generation of growers to make a new style of wine. He started to process harvested fruit quickly with the minimum use of sulphur dioxide, kept his fermenting musts cool to preserve fruit flavours and aged wine mainly without recourse to wood. As a result, his wines brought out the fruit characteristics which in turn depended on assiduous work in the vineyard. Without oxidation and wood ageing, everything depends on the quality of the fruit and then on the lightest possible touch in the winery. The style overall is well summed up ‘freshness, clarity, purity’ – see Carla Capalbio’s excellent introduction to the region, ….It is this revolution which created the modern wines with which Friuli has made its name at home and abroad.
At dinner on Saturday, we had the chance to taste just about the whole Schiopetto range, now in the capable hands of the next generation. The picture above shows two white blends, four single varietal whites and one brave red. We are missing just one, the simpler of the two red blends. What is most striking is the family resemblance in the whites – they are all elegant, quite powerful and structured wines, with 13.5-14% alcohol, with stone fruit flavours, good mouthfeel, refreshing acidity and persistence. They are refined, full of character and mostly age-worthy, all good characteristics in a white wine.
Let’s start with the white blends, not least because the wines in this area used to be the traditional blend of Malvasia Istriana, Ribolla Gialla and Friulano grapes. The first of these is a Greek variety which has been here at least since the fourteenth century and probably much longer and is aromatic. Ribolla Gialla is perhaps the most assertive of the Friulian whites and has become a focus for some growers, eg Josko Gravner. However, here it is just used here in this blend. Friulano, on the other hand, is Friuli’s most important and distinctive grape, just about re-emerging from the debacle of losing its traditional name, Tocai Friulano in a scrape with the Hungarians over the European naming rights.
Just to make life more complicated, Collio Bianco 2007 has become a quality designation which is in effect a blank canvas. While it used to be a blend of the three local white grape varieties, you can now take your pick from any combination of the historic three varieties plus Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Traminer, etc. Schiopetto’s version is something old, something new: 45% Friulano and 55% Chardonnay. Pale in colour, it shows ripe apple, lemon and then more exotic fruit. The peaches and yellow plum fruit is probably the expression of Chardonnay in quite a warm climate.
One of my favourite wines was the other blend: Blanc de Rosis, Bianco Venezia Giulia IGT, 2008, which draws on five varieties, Friulano, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon, Malvasia and Ribolla. As an exception, the Malvasia is aged in wood. Mid lemon in colour, similar on the nose to the Bianco above but much assertive on the palate and slightly more aromatic. If you find Friulian whites rather withdrawn, you should try this one.
Most of the whites, however, are made of single grape varieties. In the tasting, we started with the Sauvignon Collio DOC 2008 as the aperitif. I am happy to admit that this is because I am not particularly fond of this grape except on the Loire, but I liked this one: not grassy or overly herbaceous, after three years the fruit here resembles melon and peaches, with some honey tones. It would be interesting to try a young bottle. All the usual Schiopetto qualities of balance and persistence were certainly present too. On the matter of age, the Pinot Grigio Collio DOC 2008 was the least successful wine. It had lost the youthful zip of this variety and not really gained anything in return. Nice mouthfeel – but for an older white you would do better with Pinot Bianco Collio DOC 2007, with its mildly exotic bouquet, and luscious but firm peach fruit. In the mouth, it was simultaneously silky and substantial. Very good – some said it was like a medium weight Burgundy. Finally, there was, of course, Friulano Collio DOC 2008. The nose here was not unlike the Pinot Bianco palate, suggesting peachy fruit and fatness. The hallmark almond flavour was not very obvious in the mouth but there was certainly all the polish and substance that all the wines showed.
The final wine was, of course, the red, Rivarossa, Rosso Venezia Giulia IGT 2001, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. The seller of the wine was anxious that it might have gone over but nothing could be further than the truth; interestingly the label specifically says it is suitable for ageing. Fine, bright fruit still with the leafy notes of Cabernet Franc to the fore, mint and eucalyptus, lively in the mouth, fresh finish and balanced. An excellent red in the region of white wine. Good work in the vineyard and the winery – as exemplified by Mario Schiopetto – will always show through in the glass.
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