Italian White Wine Heaven: Friuli-Venezia Giulia
Friuli-Venezia Giulia (Free-oo-lee Ve-ne-tsyah Joo-lyah), or FVG for short, is easy to understand, even if it’s a mouthful to say.
While red wine lovers crush on Piedmont and Tuscany on the western side of Italy, some of the greatest white wines can be found in northeastern Italy.
The Wines of Friuli-Venezia Giulia
Friuli-Venezia Giulia lies in the top-right corner of Italy, between Austria, Slovenia, the Adriatic Sea, and Veneto (Venice!). Although the region is relatively small compared to the rest of Italy, it ranks among the best for producers of white wines.
Curiosity: Friuli recently made top 10 most coveted Italian red wines, thanks to cult winemaker Pontoni from winery Miani (with the local red variety Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso)
The region is divided in as many as 10 DOC and 4 DOCG areas that grow some thirty different wine varieties, often in small quantities. Thus, we’ll focus on the 4 most important regions to know, so you can be armed with knowledge and go out and bathe in them (ahem… “taste” them).
The wine regions and DOCGs of Friuli Venezia Giulia
We’ll be discussing 4 of the top regions of Friuli:
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- Friuli Grave
- Colli Orientali del Friuli
Young, cheap, fast!
Friuli Grave (Free-oo-lee Gra-veh) Center-west, it accounts for more than half of the production. Imagine a big flat valley with soils that have a lot of large stones. The stones heat up in the day and super-chill at night which effectively helps ripen grapes during the day while maintaining characteristically high acidity. Excessive temperatures (hot or cold) are moderated by the Adriatic sea (the Mediterranean).
Today, Pinot Grigio and Prosecco are the undisputed kings of Friuli-Grave (yes, they call it “Prosecco” in Friuli as well as in Veneto) and go well with sushi, veggies and light cheeses, or solo as a refreshing aperitivo. The wines are light and moderately zesty with gentle herbaceous notes (think gooseberry) and citrus-like aromas, and ought to be drunk within 2-3 years. Prices are on the lower side of the spectrum ($10 to $15) compared to other regions (such as Alto Adige), providing a good value alternative.
Colli Orientali del Friuli
As they say: “the best wine comes from the hills”
Colli Orientali del Friuli (Co-lli Oryen-tally) East of Udine (oo-den-eh) is where winemaking dates back to Roman times. Today, you can find international and local varieties growing side-by-side including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Grigio. Vines do very well when planted on the Colli (aka hills) which are protected by the Alps to the North and exposed to gentle sea breezes to the South.
White wines of Colli Orientali del Friuli feature scents of white flowers and ripe apples. On the palate you’ll taste lots of stone fruit and a long tingly finish. Despite the prevalence of international varieties in Colli Orientali, it’s the local varieties that are worthy of interest.
The most important local varieties include Friulano (free-oo-la-no), which is the region’s signature grape made from the much lessor known Sauvignon Vert variety.
Friulano wines are lean and crunchy with delicate notes of thyme, apricot, Meyer lemon, and ripe gooseberry with a bitter-almond finish. The other exciting indigenous grape you might like to explore is Ribolla Gialla (Jal-la), which is often made sparkling, like Prosecco, and has ripping high acidity, a rich structure, and flavors of apricot, tangerine, and Asian pear. Finally, Malvasia (mal-vah-see-ah) is often made in an aromatic dry style characterized by crispy floral notes and perfume.
The prices are higher in Colli, between $15 and $30, but wines also age longer and tend to be more complex. Food pairing ranges from locally produced Prosciutto di San Daniele (best seller ham in Italy with Parma) and other regional cold cuts to summer risottos with fresh vegetables or seashell.
Orientali: Serious Drinkers
Colli Orientali del Friuli is also home to 3 DOCG (the highest level of the 4-tier Italian quality system), 2 of which are devoted to sweet wines:
- Ramandolo: the variety is Verduzzo
- Picolit: the variety is Picolit
Though these wines are not cheap ($30 up to over $100 for top producers) and also difficult to find, they are something special. Rich with flavors of honey and acacia flavors, coupled with figs, dried fruits and mineral aromas with sweetness that is counterbalanced by acidity…–worthy of a blood-rush to the face. They go perfectly with hazelnut-based pastry desserts, aged cheeses or just alone, as vino da meditazione. Remember, it’s important to meditate.
Acid freaks apply here.
Continuing south, on the very border to Slovenia in the Gorizia district where the slopes become steeper and the cool Bora wind brings freshness and higher acidity into the grapes is Collio. This area accounts for little more than 5% of the vineyards but traditionally account for the highest accolades and awards. The international varieties find favorable conditions to express their potential: Sauvignon Blanc, especially Chardonnay, and Pinot Grigio are more concentrated, thicker and more powerful (can easily reach 14.5 ABV). Wines age longer thanks to commonly employed oak and barriques. The wines are fermented with little to no oxygen contact, therefore preserving fresh notes of ripe apples, apricots and pineapple. On the finish you’ll notice roasted aromas of hazelnut, smoke and vanilla.
Also worth mentioning is the Collio Bianco, a general term referring to a white wine blend entirely up to the producer. The wines of Collio make for ideal partners to savory first courses or to Frico (free-co), a cheese tart and one of the region’s signature dish. The prices are relatively high (starting from $20 up to $50) but not that high, if compared to the national level.
“OG” hippy hillbilly country.
Carso Carso is in the hills of the Trieste (tree-est-teh) area and is quite small and known for it’s orange wines.
Orange wine is a traditional method of making white wine letting the juice keep contact with the grape skins while the white wine ferments–a practice is typically reserved for red wines only. Orange wines have come into fashion due to their synergy with the slow food movement. Flavors range from dried fruit to tea-leaves and sweet spices, with a touch of sweaty-nutty oxidation. Wines from Carso, have high acidity, sapid (interesting/pleasing) mineral tones, soft tannin and a long tart, tingly finish. Again, the wines are made in an oxidative style, which means they are surprisingly stable and can age longer. At best, always decant for a couple of hours before serving.
There are no written rules to which grape varieties can be used in the orange Carso white wine, it can be Pinot Grigio (in a copper Ramato style), Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia, the rare local grape, Vitovska, or a blend of the producer’s choosing. To date, there are supposedly just 4 producers practicing this technique.
The red grape of Carso A fascinating red wine that is quite old (dating back to the first mentions of Pinot Noir) is called Terrano. This grape produces wines that taste of cherry fruit and forest floor with moderate tannin and high acidity. Many have confused this rare grape with Refosco, but it’s the local treasure of Carso and the Kras region across the border in Slovenia.
Curiosity: Friuli Venezia-Giulia is first an agriculture expert. The company Vivai Cooperativi Rauscedo, near Pordenone, produces 60 millions grafted vines a year, thus accounting for more than half of the Italian and more then 10% of the world production of vines.
Vintages in Friuli-Venezia Giulia
- 2018 good
- 2017 challenging (look for quality!)
- 2016 good
- 2015 excellent
- 2014 challenging (look for quality!)
- 2013 excellent
- 2012 good
- 2011 very good
- 2010 good
Last Word: White Wine Innovators
If there’s anything to take away from this adventure through Friuli-Venezia Giulia is the mood of the region. The people of this area are constantly pushing innovation in winemaking. What’s interesting is that innovation comes from both past and future technologies. It’s along the border here that you’ll find some of the most successful examples of orange winemaking (an ancient technique). Then, into Friuli-Grave there are winemakers using technical winemaking tools to preserve freshness that look like gigantic heat syncs.