Friuli's First Class Whites

Complex and sophisticated, wines from this Northeastern region reflect Old World traditions with a modern spin.



The most fitting descriptor for the luminous white wines of Friuli-Venezia Giulia is “intelligent.” Italy’s northeasternmost region is the crossroads of Europe’s Latin, Germanic and Slavic cultures. “Because of our complicated history we have wines that reflect the traditions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Austria, Germany and the Eastern Adriatic,” says winemaker Andrea Felluga of the Livio Felluga winery. “In addition to Pinots, Traminer, Riesling and Malvasia, we also have a huge offering of indigenous grapes such as Ribolla Gialla and Verduzzo.”

Winemaker Josko Gravner of the Gravner winery once said he was “interested in philosophy, not enology,” and the choices he famously made—such as aging his wines in ceramic amphorae like the ancient Romans did and following biodynamic farming principles—underline that personal preference. He is from a long succession of winemaking protagonists who have helped turn around Italy’s reputation for quick, easy-drinking whites. Those efforts have established Friuli as the home of Italy’s most sophisticated and complex white wines.

“We enjoy a very strong identity here and a tight relationship with our roots,” says Bordeaux-trained vintner Fulvio Bressan of Bressan (pictured right, with Jelena Bressan). “We don’t make many wines, we make one wine: Friuli wine.”

Friuli whites are rich and creamy expressions with fragrant layers of stone and passion fruits, honeysuckle and drying mineral tones. They are complex because the region they occupy is so multifaceted. South of Udine are two territories for growing grapes. Colli Orientali del Friuli and Collio comprise the hillside areas, home to the celebrated Rosazzo and Oslavia crus where some of the best wines are made. Flatter lands have been enriched by alluvial deposits from the Tagliamento River and are home to the Isonzo, Grave and Aquileia zones.

As important, however, are the advanced techniques practiced in the cellar. Friuli remains a hotbed of white wine innovation. Late harvest fruit, extended macerations, contact with the lees and oak aging (both French and Slovenian) help reinforce creamy density and rich texture. These practices also bring out the wine’s natural acidity and delicate mineral nuances.

Another thing that distinguishes Friuli is that most of its whites are mono-variety. “We follow an Austro-Hungarian or Anglo-Saxon tradition of winemaking in which we name our wines after the variety: Friulano, Chardonnay, Sauvignon, etc.,” says Alvaro Pecorari of Lis Neris (pictured left with his wife Lorena and daughter Federica). “In the Latin tradition, wines are named after a place like Chianti, Valpolicella or Barolo.”

Here’s what you can expect from the individual grapes that make up Friuli’s rich patrimony of white wines:

Bianco (or blended wines): These wines benefit from sophisticated winemaking techniques that produce added elegance and intensity. Particularly impressive are the white blends that pair an aromatic component like Sauvignon with a richly textured partner such as Friulano or Picolit.

Friulano: The most commonly planted variety in Friuli, Friulano was once associated with easy-drinking taverna wines made to be consumed young. Careful effort has recently turned Friulano into the region’s banner grape. Work by leading winemakers such as the late Mario Schiopetto and Livio Felluga helped bring out luscious aromas of white almond, stone fruit and Cavaillon melon. Wines including and preceding the 2006 vintage were labeled Tocai Friulano. But after a long battle with Hungary’s Tokaji region, the European Union ruled that Friuli Tocai wines should be identified simply as Friulano which means “coming from Friuli.” “We fought hard to keep ‘Tocai,’ but we are better off with ‘Friulano’ because it identifies our region,” says Felluga.

Pinot Bianco: A French import, Pinot Bianco was introduced during the 19th century Habsburg domination along with international varieties Chardonnay, Sauvignon and Merlot. It is planted across Northern Italy and has found a happy home in Friuli thanks to the calcareous marl soils that enhance its aromas of mineral, apricot, pear and Golden Delicious apple. They are among the most food-friendly whites ever, thanks to their naturally creamy structure. Pair them with shellfish or white asparagus risotto.

Pinot Grigio: Much of the Grigio we see in the U.S. comes from industrial production and overcropping, resulting in watery wines that refresh a parched palate the same way a chilled Budweiser or lemon soda would. In Friuli, however, Pinot Grigio benefits from a very different image. Here, winemakers Ronco del Gelso (Sot Lis Rivis bottling), Vigneti Fantinel (Sant’Helena) and Ermacora craft creamier, denser wines with passion fruit, honeysuckle and bright lemon zest that would pair with Tandoori chicken or spinach and ricotta ravioli. An interesting new style of Pinot Grigio is Ramato, which means “copperish in color.” You could mistake it for a rosé but look close and you will indeed see that it is more amber than pink. The color comes from extended contact with the skins (that are naturally copper-gray in color, hence “Pinot Grigio”).

Ribolla Gialla: Another important indigenous grape of Friuli, Ribolla Gialla boasts a distinctive personality with a saturated golden color, light body, high acidity and fragrant aromas of exotic fruit, papaya and mango, which turn nutty with time. It has existed in these parts since the 1300s (in Slovenia it is known as Rebula) and gives its best results on hillside vineyards.

Sauvignon: We call it “Sauvignon Blanc,” but in Friuli the grape goes by its variety name “Sauvignon” (the root for Sauvignons Jaune, Noir, Rose, Gris and Vert). What distinguishes the grape in Northeast Italy is that it lacks those aggressive aromas of nettle and artichoke you sometimes find elsewhere. In the Colli Orientali del Friuli’s Collio and Grave areas it tends to showcase softer aromas of passion fruit, sage, mint and tomato leaf. Try one with Thai basil coconut curry sauce.

Verduzzo Friulano: Made as both a dry and a sweet wine, Verduzzo enjoys a long indigenous existence in Friuli. When vinified dry, it can be difficult to appreciate because of its resin and pine nut flavors and sour astringency (there’s a slight tannic bite there too). Dessert wines, such as Scubla’s Cràtis and Gigante’s version, are much more popular.  

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