By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 7 April 2018
One of the least known regions in Italy is making some of the country’s finest white wines.
The tiny borderland of Friuli Venezia Giulia overlooking the Adriatic sea in Italy’s north-east corner might be a powerhouse of top quality white wines, but it is a strangely forgotten region.
It is a tourist haven with lush green hills and lakes surrounded by the sharp high peaks of the Dolomites, with coastal lagoons, sandy beaches and rocky promontories just two hours from Venice. It is a land which once inspired Hemingway and Joyce – yet today few seem to have heard of it.
This is partly due to Friuli’s turbulent history. Owned in C14 by the powerful Venetians, it was ceded to Austria-Hungary in 1797 and known as Austria’s coastal region. Brought into Italy after the independence war, it suffered bitter fighting in the World Wars when Friuli’s vineyards were devastated. Many winemakers abandoned the region, like Leonardo Specogna who emigrated to Switzerland, only to return in the 1960s to start from scratch. Just as they began again, the devastating 1976 earthquake destroyed Friuli’s villages and vineyards.
Today this small region bordering Austria and Slovenia, has a thriving wine industry run by small family wineries (rather than co-operatives which dominate neighbouring Trentino-Alto Adige), focusing on grapes which suit Friuli’s climate and soil.
The focus in Friuli is on both local and international grapes. The most important are Friulano, Vitovska, Ribolla Gialla, Picolit and Malvasia for white and Refosco and Schioppettino for red – but Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot are increasingly popular. Pinot Grigio has now sadly overtaken historic Friulano, grown here since C11, as the most planted variety.
The white wine focus is influenced by Friuli’s climate. The Alps shelters vines from cold Siberian currents, but fresh dry Bora winds blow in from upland Slovenia and mild sea breezes from the Adriatic. Marl and limestone dominates which suits white grapes, but on the windswept Carso near Trieste, on land formerly in Slovenia, pure limestone bedrock has an iron-rich topsoil adding intense minerality.
Friuli’s best sub-regions hug the Slovenian border around the town of Gorizia, some winemakers have vineyards in both Italy and Slovenia. Colli Orientali to the north is more Alpine, whilst southerly Collio is warmer, influenced by the Adriatic where the historic C19 Silvio Jermann and Eugenio Collavini estates are based. In lower Isonzo, north of Isonzo river, producers like Vie de Romans and Lis Neris make increasingly stylish wines. In Grave, fertile flat vineyards make less concentrated Pinot Grigio.
About one third of Colli Orientali’s vineyards are red – with Merlot and Carmenere increasingly fashionable, but the most interesting reds are from local Refosco. The Carso near Trieste is well known for minerally styles of Refosco, called Terrano.
With a difficult past, it has made the local Friuli wine families even more determined to succeed. Livio Felluga (pictured right), who came from Istria and established in Brazzano in the 1950s, is one of the best known pioneers in Fruili along with Leonardo Specogna who returned to Colli Orientali in Friuli in 1963.
Newer estates to watch are Vie de Romans, run by Gianfranco Gallo who began bottling his own in 1978 focusing on single vineyards. Benjamin Zidarich on the emerging Carso region near Trieste, who started tending his family’s single hectare in 1988 and dug his own new cellar out of limestone rock – and in Collio, Patrizia Felluga with her son Antonio and daughter Caterina focus on stylish blends of local and international grapes.
Friuli is well known for ‘natural’ wines, the best orange wines made in terracotta amphora by local cult star Josko Gravner, whose family have grown vines in Oslavia since 1901.
Now is a great time to discover Friuli with three quality vintages: 2015, 2016 and 2017. As in much of Italy, 2017 was dramatically reduced, as vineyards were affected by April frost, June hail and severe August winds.
Collio: ZUANI VIGNE 2016 Patrizia Felluga (£18.50 Woodwinters, Edinburgh, Bridge of Allan & Inverness www.woodwinters.com)
Unusual unoaked blend of Friulano, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon and Chardonnay demonstrates the region’s vivid fresh whites. Zippy acidity with fruit-rich character: 13.5%
Collio: FRIULANO 2015 Marco Felluga (£19 www.winedirect.co.uk)
Early ripening Friulano grown on limestone here gives floral bouquet, lemony flavours, soft silky creamy leesy; fresh and fruity: 13.5%
Colli Orientali: FRIULANO 2016 Livio Felluga (£24.99 St Andrews Wine Co www.standrewswine.co.uk)
Almond and herb, rich apricot fruit flavours, creamy leesy palate with vibrant length - serve with prosciutto or fish dishes.
Colli Orientali: SHARIS 2016 Livio Felluga (£19.50 Fine Wine Musselburgh www.thefinewinecompany.co.uk)
Nutty herby blend of 60% local Ribolla Gialla and 40% Chardonnay with appealing hazelnut and orange peel notes, distinct herbiness; serve with asparagus: 12.5%
Isonzo: PIERE SAUVIGNON BLANC 2015 Vie de Romans (£30 www.laithwaites.co.uk) ***STAR BUY***
If you thought the Italians could not make good Sauvignon Blanc, try this single vineyard example; piercing minerality, rich nectarine fruits and complex flavours: 13.5%
Colli Orientale: REFOSCO 2015 Specogna (£20-£21.99 Valvona & Crolla, Edinburgh www.valvonacrolla.co.uk; Lockett Bros, N Berwick www.lockettbros.co.uk; St Andrews Wine www.standrewswine.co.uk)
Cherry and spice character, fresh acidity with some tannins from 40 year old vines grown in eastern Friuli hills. Delicious served with charcuterie: 13%
Join Rose’s Croatia, Slovenia & Friuli wine tasting in Edinburgh on 7 June £42 www.rosemurraybrown.com