Summer is approaching and like many wine buffs, my thoughts turn to refreshing white wines. My wife and I love to drink them on the front porch watching the sun descend after a day of work and continue with them at the dinner table. There is a wide variety of wonderful whites made all over the world. Some of the best values and best white wines in general hail from the northern regions of Italy. Some of the best of the best of those come from the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia.
In the northwest corner of Italy, along the border of Slovenia, sits the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia (hereinafter referred to simply as Friuli). About 2.5% of all wine produced in Italy is created here. The influence of centuries of rule by the Romans, the Byzantines, the Venetians and Hapsburgs (Austria) has left telltale signs in the cuisine of the region. The gastronomy of Friuli reflects these various cultures and retains a more international style than much of the rest of Italy. Of course, viticulture has been important part of that food culture for centuries. Possibly due to this continual socio-economic turmoil, this area seems adept at change. Even in the last 40 years, Friuli has been a leader in Italy for incorporating modern winemaking techniques while not losing sight of the past (something the whole world has struggled with). Friulian white wines were re-invented again in the 1960’s and 1970’s with an early (for the Italian wine scene) push toward quality. In many ways, these wines and their winemakers were and still are the trendsetters in the rebirth of Italian wines as quality wines on the international wine scene.
Friuli is blessed with a climate and geology that is beneficial for white wines. It is bordered on the north and east by the Alps. The Adriatic Sea and its breezes are not far off to the southeast. The vines tend to get a lot of sun along with cooling breezes that keep the grapes from over ripening as well as free from mold and rot. Friuli has ten recognized wine sub regions known as DOC’s (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), which make red, white and dessert wines. There is also one DOCG (the highest level of wine classification in Italy) called Ramondolo that makes a wonderful dessert wine. White wine varietals often include a mixture of international and indigenous grape vines including Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon, Tocai Friulano, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Blanc, Vitovska, Picolit, Malvasia Istriana, and Ribolla Gialla.
While there are many good Friulian whites in the marketplace, the three varietals I tend to purchase are Tocai Friulano, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon. That does not mean that there are not many others out there worth buying. Ribolla Giallas are not seen as often on our store shelves, but can be quite good. There are a bevy of producers and price ranges to choose from at the market. Here is a quick primer on three of the more common varietals.
Perhaps because of the name but Tocai Friulano has become the emblem of Friulian white wines. These are silky textured wines with great noses. Look for aromas of peaches and floral tones with some almonds. On the palate, these have lots of minerals and finish with a delicious bitter almond quality to them. They should be drunk young. They should not be expensive. The 2005 Di Lenardo is on the shelves now and quite good. Plozner and Forchir also make some very tasty and inexpensive ones. Lis Neris makes a very good one albeit a step up in price.
Perhaps I should not have referred to it as Tocai Friulano. Over the centuries the word Tocai has been used in many areas and created some confusion. In Alsace, France, Tokay is used to describe their Pinot Gris. In Hungary, Tokaji is world-renowned dessert wine known as for its combination of sweetness and ripeness while maintaining an acidic backbone. And in Friuli, Tocai Friulano had been consumed for centuries. The multiple uses of the word and the resulting confusion will all be eliminated by European edict. Only the wines from Hungary will now be called Tokaji. Interesting, as there is no grape varietal called Tokaji, rather it is made from the Furmint grape. The wines from Friuli will start showing up in our stores marked simply as Friulano.
Don’t be scared off by the vast amounts of mass marketed Pinot Grigio plonk in the marketplace. There are some good ones out there. They are fuller in texture and flavors. Often there is a nutty quality to them. The best ones have a refreshing lemony quality. Compared to their new world counterparts, they are perhaps a bit more complex yet still leaner and the fruit less ripe. They also have a bit more acidity to them making them delightful on the dinner (or lunch) table. Meant to be drunk young, they should be inexpensive to buy. Di Lenardo makes an easy to drink bottling under $15.
Sauvignon is also called Sauvignon Blanc and Fume Blanc in other parts of the world. The ones in Friuli tend to be more mineral and loaded with tropical fruits than the grassier new world examples. They also tend to be a bit leaner than the better French examples. Look for aromas of guavas and pineapples and other tropical fruits. On the palate, they have flavors that are mineral driven with tropical fruits and even some yellow peppers. I have enjoyed Fofani’s in the past for under $20. Venica’s Ronco del Cero is one of the best Sauvignons I have had from anywhere and it is available for just a little bit more than $20.
Friuli is also a region that has its share of “superstar” winemakers. Some of the best-known wines from the area are from Silvio Jermann. He has been making a white blend known as Vintage Tunnina since 1975. This blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Tocai Friulano has gained a cult reputation around the world and is not inexpensive. It is however a well crafted wine that merges the traditional with the modern. Fermented in stainless steel tanks, it is slightly sweet (from ripe grapes) and quite easy to drink. Jermann’s other wines often come in interesting bottles with interesting names. His basic bottlings are very good including his Ribolla Giala that may be one of his best. It can usually be found for around $25. His Pinot Noir is entitled Red Angel in the Moonlight. The very good chardonnay is called Were Dreams, Now its just Wine. Jermann’s better wines sell for upwards of $60 and more. They are internationally styled and have many a devoted fan. Personally, while I can enjoy these wines, his lower end wines such as the Vinnae (a white blend) serve my purposes just as well if not better.
Two other superstar winemakers in Friuli with a cult reputation are Josko Gravner and his disciple Stanko Radikon. One might be inclined to call them geniuses bordering on quirky. These two, after reaching the top of their profession with modern winemaking techniques, are delving back into history to make traditional wines, yet still judged to be great wines by modern standards. Their whites are some of the most unusual white wines you could encounter anywhere on the planet. They make their wines without the excessive use of chemicals. Gravner utilizes terra-cotta amphorae lined with bees wax that are imported from the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia. The wines ferment for six months in these containers before being transferred to large Slovenian oak barrels. The wines tend to be orange in color and quite cloudy, showing a slight level of oxidization. These drink better when served at red wine temperatures. A bit of caution, do not serve these to people who are expecting a nice crisp Friulano. They are complex, interesting and stand-alone in the wine world. Fans, however, pay big bucks for these wines often costing more than $60 a bottle. Perhaps the best wine and food match I ever had was a 1998 Radikon Ribolla Gialla and a honey-cinnamon risotto. The synergistic affect of these on each other was truly amazing.
Edi Kante is another winemaker with a superstar reputation. He makes wine near the Slovenian border and in fact, uses grapes from either side of it. In fact, he first constructed his wine caves deep in the ground and then had tons of soil brought in and placed on top of the caves for his vineyards. Kante’s wines are usually barrel fermented and often take advantage of grape varietals not frequently known. His Vitovska features lots of nice grapefruit and peach aromas. It is a minimalist wine that begs for seafood to enhance it. His Malvasia is an excellent example of what can be done with a varietal that is often dismissed as a white table wine. These wines are often priced nearer to $40. At that price I have a harder time finding the right point to open one. There is no denying his talent though.
Finally, maybe the man most responsible for starting it all is Mario Schiopetto. He opened his winery back in 1964. When he started, the wines of Friuli were still made in the traditional way. That is to say, putting the entire grape into open top wooden vats and allowing them to ferment naturally. The extra amount of air created oxidized wines. The over ripe skins gave the wines a lot of sugar and sweetness and swell as higher alcohol levels. Schiopetto advocated the use of stainless steel tanks to control the process. Both the air that the grapes saw and the temperatures were controlled allowing crisper, fresher wines that revealed the grapes natural flavors. The fragrant components on the nose began to emerge. But that was not all. His winery was kept spotless. Any chance to infect a wine was carefully controlled. He put in state of the art winery techniques such as gravity fed flows of the juice. He minimized the use of sulfur in the vineyard and in the winery. Sulfur is often used to control for disease. By removing the sources of the infections, he reduced the need for the sulfur. In short, the style of clean crisp aromatic wines that are now taken for granted in this region owes itself to Mario Schiopetto.
But even when drinking wines from these iconoclastic winemakers, like everywhere else in Italy, it is important to remember, Italian wines are made for food. These wines developed over centuries because they combined the natural resources of the regions with the cultures. Wine is drunk at virtually all meals in Friuli. So when enjoying these wines at home, the easiest food matches involve the typical northern Italian cuisine. For those fans of Lydia Bastianich and her PBS television show, this is her home turf. Her recipes often provide great suggestions. In fact her son, Joseph Bastianich owns a winery that makes very nice whites in Friuli. And while the whites go with other cuisines including Pacific Rim dishes, there is not doubt that they go well with the traditional Friulian/Slovenian dishes.
There are lots of choices here. Just one more reason to look forward to summer. I hope you all go out and try a bottle or two and let me know what you think.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.