Profile: Friuli

Profile: Friuli

Region: Friuli-Venezia Giulia, North East Italy. Classification:  DOC (1970)

The Story, The Estates, their wines and where to find them in London

Area Description:  Friuli-Venezia Giulia is a wine region at the far north-eastern corner of Italy. Set in a landscape defined by coastal flat lands, mountains and plateaux, it is bordered by Austria to the north and Slovenia to the east. To the south lies the Gulf of Trieste, while the massed ranks of Veneto vines spread for miles to the west.


The Story, The Estates, their wines and where to find them in London

The landscape follows the contours of the eastern Alps. The  distinctive food and wine culture was nurtured by a melange of Italian, Slavic and Germanic influences .

The Many Facets of Friulian Fermentations:

Today the region is best known for its white wine, holding nine DOC and three of the top DOCG categorisations, however until a few decades ago reds dominated the winemaking.

In the sixties eighty per cent of production was red, predominantly Merlot. From the eighties, aided by the installation of steel tanks, cooling machines and reductive winemaking, Friuli wine makers began to concentrate on the international white varietals Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon blanc. The 1990s heralded a red wine revival, first Bordeaux blends,then increasingly Merlot (but not made in the traditional local style) and finally the almost extinct indigenous grape varietals, both red and white made a spectacular return.

The style of farming also changed during this period, from a mixed largely self-sustaining system of livestock and arable enterprises to monoculture, with many farms specialising in grape growing.

Friuli wine production has two faces, high yielding simple fermentations are produced in the Grave, Aquileia, Latisana and Annia DOC areas, while prestigious wines with international reputations are fashioned within the DOC areas along the Slovenian border.

Today the winemaking process may be high tech, new world and internationalist,  yet there has been no major selling of successful winery’s to large companies; Friuli’s top producers remain generally smallish family estates. Friuli’s entry into the world of contemporary winemaking may have occurred at the same time as South Australia, however it’s marketing approach has been completely different.

Thanks to the European appellation system, special areas have been classified; cooler sites capable of producing exceptional fermentations identified.Chief among these are the significantly cooler slopes of Colli Orientali del Friuli and Colli Goriziano in the extreme north east of the region.

It is from these two DOC areas that the top Friuli cuvees emanate.The whites are powerful, fresh, clean tasting, fruit forward fermentations.  Yields have been kept low lessening the need for heavy oaking. When oak is used the good acid content in the fruit can protect the freshness of the wine.

Top Areas: Colli Orientali del Friuli and Collio Goriziano

Translating as the ‘Eastern Hills of Friuli, Colli Orientali del Friuli along with its north-western neighbour Collio Goriziano are the most prestigious wine areas in the Friuli region. Although  the Isonzo DOC region to the south of these two has has also gained a growing reputation on the global wine scene.

Sauvignon Blanc is one of the stars, consistently offering a mineral rich full-bodied wine. While the Indigenous Friulano, Ribolla Gialla and  Verduzzo vines  often find themselves  centre  stage. However top of the bill (with wine nerds anyway) is the sweet DOCG designated Picolit dessert wine thanks to a reputation that stretches back centuries.

All are cultivated on limestone-rich soils of marl and sandstone enhanced with marine shale. Higher planting densities, older vines and the continental climate lead to lower yields producing wines of greater concentration. The Friuli-Venezia Giuila region is renowned for its white wine, however the reds too  can shine - even if they are overshadowed by the whites.

The red gems are led by Refosco, which delivers wines with incredible blackberry fruit intensity, underpinned by a linear of minerality. Next comes Pignolo, akin to Piedmont's Nebbiolo and then Bordeaux style Merlot. The best of the rest of the reds are Merlot’s counterparts Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon and the indigenous Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso, Schioppettino and Tazzelenghe.

Friuli's Top Estates

Villa Russiz 35ha - 210,000 btls png Tom Cannavan,(of who has shared a meal  with Gianni Menotti, Villa Russiz's renowned winemaker was impressed by the amount of effort that went into keeping yields very low in the vineyard. This is allied to careful winemaking, including extended lees ageing - for the best part of a year in most cases.

The same care and attention goes into the wines from Grillo Lole where Anna Muzzolini with the help of oenologist, Giuseppe Tosoratti and farm manager Ramon Persello jpg  produces only 40,000 bottles each year, yet manages to make five white (four of them from local grape varietals) and six red wines.  At a recent Decanter tasting of Friuli wines, we felt that this estate  presented the top 2010 Friulano and Sauvignon wines. David Byrne of The Wine Agency, the Grillo Lole estates UK importer credits the quality to vineyard practices, in particular the low yields. Stephen Spurrier too had considered the Grillo lole wines to be the among the best  cuvees, a beaming David revealed at the Decanter tasting.

The Schiopetto Winery 30ha - 200,000  jpg  Back in the 1970's Mario Schiopetti pionerred modern Friulian  winemaking, embracing high cost, hi-tech methods. Out went old wooden barrels, replaced by a temperature controled   cellar and stainless steel frementation tanks. Yields were reduced,reductive winemaking introduced and the dreaded oxidisation banished from his bottles for ever.

Livio Felluga Winery. 13.5 ha - 650,000 btls Founded in the 1950's by an ex prisoner of war, who  had spent three years detained in Scotland as a quest of the King of England.

Returning to  a devastated post war Friuli region where farming was being abandoned, Livio  Felluga perceived that winemaking had a future. As early as the 1950s he was embracing modernity.  Livio Felluga is recognized as the man who re-established Friuli's winemaking heritage, when, after the Second World War the rural population had moved away abandoning the crops. Convinced that only high-quality viticulture could breathe new life into the Friulian countryside, He began to restore old vineyards and plant new ones,  while introducing innovative ideas and techniques

 Zidarich 6 ha - 13,000 btls Benjamin Zidarich has no time for fashionable vines. In the winery too, modern equipment and methods are ignored. Instead of a stainless steel tank, the more traditional large wooden barrel is used.

Josko Gravner 17.5 ha - 40,000 btls   There was a time in Friuli and elsewhere when big well worn wooden barrels were new on trhe scene and  cool, replacing earthenware amphorae. The house of Josko Gravner now uses gigantic reproductions of these ancient earthenware vessels to produce untypical oxidized and concentrated wines. The German wine and food writer Andre Domine rates them "among the greatest wines of Italy.