Italy's Best White Wine Region
Located in Italy’s northeastern Friuli Venezia Giulia region, Collio hugs the border with Slovenia. A small, hilly area that is a fusion of Italian, Slovenian and Austrian cultures, it’s like no other place in Italy. And neither are its full-bodied whites, made from international and native grapes. The varieties, which often feature prominently on the label, make Collio an easy stepping-stone for anyone looking to broaden their vinous horizons.
Collio’s growing conditions, including hillside vineyards with sharp day-night temperature changes that generate complexity and aromas, are ideal for producing structured, ageworthy whites. Located between the Julian Alps and the Adriatic Sea, the mountains protect it from harsh winter storms while the Adriatic’s warm breezes encourage ripening.
But perhaps the most important factor behind Collio’s superb whites is the soil. Made up of layers of marl and sandstone, this flysch, known locally as ponca, gives the wines their hallmark mineral energy and salinity.
The area is home to some of Italy’s greatest white-wine producers, like Russiz Superiore, Borgo del Tiglio and Jermann (which also has significant holdings in nearby Isonzo) as well as cult “orange wine” pioneers Radikon and Gravner.
Producer experience proved pivotal for the disastrous 2014 vintage. Marred by little sunshine and abundant rain throughout Italy, average quality for the 2014s in Collio is a cut above other areas, ranging from good to very good. The 2015 bottlings, slated to hit the U.S. this summer, should be extraordinary.
Known as Tocai Friulano until 2007, when the European Union forced Italy to relinquish the Tocai name in order to avoid confusion with Tokaj from Hungary, this is the most widely planted native grape in Collio, and the third most planted variety overall. Boasting full-bodied elegance and hints of pear and almond, not long ago Friulano was a rustic wine made in large quantities, very little of which made it out of the region.
This noble native took a backseat to international varieties that dominated the area in the 1970s, and it didn’t respond well to the same winemaking methods, either.
“The Friulano grape doesn’t have particularly elevated acidity levels,” says Nicola Manferrari, owner of Borgo del Tiglio, one of Collio’s leading estates. “But in the 1980s, enologists were obsessed with high acidity, so they encouraged Friulano growers to harvest very early, when acidity levels were at their highest.”
Manferrari says the resulting wines were coarse and oxidized quickly due to unstable acidity.
“To make Friulano with body and elegance, you have to lower grape yields and pick at peak maturity,” he says. “To obtain plants that produce wines with natural balance, I began to leave grass between the rows and eliminate fertilizer. In the cellars, Friulano must remain for longer periods with its yeasts.”
Manferrari leaves Friulano on its lees for 10 months.
His elegantly structured, complex Friulano became a benchmark for the wine, and today, the variety makes some of the most interesting whites in Italy. While many producers vinify only in steel, some estates, like Borgo del Tiglio, ferment and age in wood to add complexity.
Radikon 2008 Jakot; $90, 93 points. Made entirely from Friulano, this stunning winedelivers dried apricot, candied nectarine zest, baked apple, almond and dried herb sensations. A mineral vein weaves through the elegantly structured palate, adding depth and complexity. Drink through 2023. Cellar Selection. Louis/Dressner Selections.
Borgo del Tiglio 2013 Ronco della Chiesa Friulano; $80, 90 points. This opens with subtle aromas of white stone fruit, yellow flower and crushed rock. The structured, savory palate offers tangerine zest, yellow apple, lime and mineral. Toasted almond marks the close. Grand Cru Selections.
Tenuta La Ponca 2014 Friulano; $18, 90 points. Aromas of nut, apple skin, pear and chopped sage lead the nose while the fresh, inviting palate shows citrus zest, yellow apple and crystallized ginger. A blast of tangerine and a mineral note back up the finish. Tradizione Imports.
No other grape divides Collio’s producers like Ribolla Gialla. Some say the grape can only make quaffing wines with little flavor or structure, while others are convinced it’s the most important grape in Collio, yielding wines with depth and complexity.
Stanislao Radikon and Josko Gravner, both from the hamlet of Oslavia—Ribolla’s spiritual home—fall into the latter camp.
“Ribolla isn’t rich in sugars and alcohol,” says Radikon. “But the skins are thick and the grapes are good to eat, so I realized that the best part of the Ribolla grape lies in the skin.”
Radikon effectively makes white wine as if it were red. “Vinifying Ribolla like other whites—without contact between the skins and the juice—produced light-bodied wines, so I started carrying out lengthy skin maceration to extract more aromas and flavors.”
After spontaneous fermentation with wild yeasts in large wooden vats, followed by two to four months of skin maceration, Radikon and his son, Saša, age their wines in large Slavonian casks. They add no sulfites. For this extreme winemaking, grapes have to be perfectly healthy and, to this end, Radikon has banned all chemicals in the vineyards since 1995.
Thanks to the prolonged skin contact, the resulting wines are deeply colored, and have been dubbed “orange wines.”
Gravner, another orange winemaker, prefers the term “amber wines.” He uses no chemicals in the vineyard and ferments with wild yeasts in clay amphorae. One of Ribolla’s biggest supporters, he’s phasing out other grapes to focus solely on Ribolla.
After six months of skin maceration in amphora, Gravner ages his Ribolla for six to seven years in casks. Unlike most other orange wine producers, he adds a tiny amount of sulfur to avoid oxidation.
Radikon and Gravner’s full-bodied, complex wines are extreme, boasting dried apricot, honey, nut and mineral sensations. They have a cult following, but they aren’t for everyone. When made using traditional white-wine techniques, Ribolla offers delicate floral aromas, peach and citrus flavors alongside crisp acidity.
Gravner 2007 Ribolla; $115, 93 points. This amber-hued wine is Josko Gravner’s calling card. It not only helped kick off Italy’s orange wine movement, it put native grape Ribolla Gialla on the map. Delivering dried apricot, orange zest, saline, resin, ginger, anise, dried herb, nut and a blast of smoky mineral, it has an extreme character. While it’s not for everyone, it’s an impressive effort that combines structure, restraint, depth and complexity. Serve only slightly chilled. Drink through 2027. Domaine Select Wine Estates. Cellar Selection.
La Castellada 2009 Ribolla Gialla; $65, 90 points. The nose on this amber-colored wine is initially shy, but it eventually reveals ripe stone fruit, crushed rock, spice and a balsamic note. The mature palate offers tangerine zest, dried apricot, anise, vanilla and mineral along with bright acidity. It boasts complexity and depth. Domaine Select Wine Estates.
Primosic 2011 Ribolla di Oslavia Riserva; $32, 90 points. Almost amber in color, this boasts aromas of candied tangerine zest, ginger, mineral and a balsamic note. The aromas carry over to the palate along with white pepper, berry, apricot and anise, all offset by bright acidity. It’s still fresh. Drink through 2021. Morgan Import LLC.
Collio’s Pinot Grigio is a far cry from much of what can be found throughout Italy. In the region since the mid-19th century, when the grape was known as Rülander, it’s the most-planted grape in the denomination.
Pinot Grigio excels in the area’s combination of soil and hillside vineyards, yielding balanced, medium- to full-bodied wines that are generally rich and structured. They’re fresh and chock-full of flavor, including notes of pear, apple, peach and apricot. The best pair well with white meats and risottos. Many of Collio’s Pinot Grigios boast copper highlights, the natural color of the juice, according to producers.
“Among the many aspects of Pinot Grigio from Collio, including a touch of salinity from the soil, is the unique coppery color that shows the true nature of the grape,” says Giampaolo Venica, of Venica & Venica.
Although most producers say the copper reflections are a result of skin maceration, Venica says it isn’t that simple.
“We don’t achieve the copper color of our wine through skin maceration, because you risk losing freshness and drinkability,” he says. “The color originates from the brief contact between the juice and the naturally dark grape skins while they’re in the press. But to maintain the copper-colored juice, we use as little sulfites as possible, because they lighten the color. To avoid oxidation, we press Pinot Grigio under CO2 recycled from the fermentation process.”
To add complexity and flavor, many producers leave the wine on its lees for several months. Even though the majority of winemakers use only steel, some producers ferment and age part of the wine in wood for added complexity, like Livon’s Braide Grande.
Livon 2014 Braide Grande Pinot Grigio; $26, 88 points. You’ll find aromas of beeswax, white flower and a whiff of orchard fruit on this fragrant white. The lively palate offers crisp apple, nectarine, toasted almond and mineral alongside bracing acidity. Angelini Wine.
Sturm 2014 Pinot Grigio; $24, 88 points. This bright, fragrant wine offers aromas of an orchard in bloom, spring flower, peach and a hint of banana. The crisp palate shows crunchy apple, pear and mineral alongside bracing acidity. A light almond note signals the crisp close. Multiple U.S. importers.
Venica 2014 Jesera Pinot Grigio; $24, 88 points. Showing copper reflections, this vibrant wine offers enticing scents of white wildflower and orchard fruit. The savory palate doles out poached Bartlett pear, nectarine zest and a mineral note, accompanied by firm acidity. Multiple U.S. importers.
This is the second most-planted grape in Collio, and with good reason. The best Sauvignons are spectacular. They offer elegantly structured, generous wines that show classic varietal aromas and flavors of tomato vine, elderflower, gooseberry, peach and citrus alongside Mediterranean notes of thyme, oregano and sage.
“Sauvignon thrives in our unique soil—the ponca—composed of layers of ancient clay and sandstone from the Eocene epoch,” says Roberto Felluga, son of the iconic Marco Felluga and owner of the Russiz Superiore estate. “And our location between the Alps and the Adriatic generates strong nocturnal and diurnal temperature changes that permit the development of complex aromatics that blend fruit and mineral sensations.”
Generations of experience have allowed Russiz Superiore to preserve and consolidate the best viticultural techniques and old vines, says Felluga. That, along with low yields per plant, creates the estate’s unique Sauvignon.
A number of Collio producers have very old Sauvignon vines that impart natural concentration. And while most vinify entirely in steel, others ferment and age part of the wine in oak for more complexity.
Castello di Spessa 2013 Segrè Sauvignon; $37, 93 points. Aromas of elderflower, citrus, tropical fruit, crushed rock and tomato leaf take center stage in this lovely, structured wine. The fresh, delicious palate delivers juicy grapefruit, creamy peach, chopped herb and fennel alongside crisp acidity. Artisan Wines, Inc.
Sturm 2014 Sauvignon; $24, 92 points. You’ll find aromas of tomato leaf, passion fruit, crushed rock and green bell pepper on this radiant white. The bright, savory palate delivers tropical fruit, tangerine zest, dill, celery and mineral alongside tangy acidity. It’s an extremely impressive showing for this challenging vintage. Skurnik Wines, Inc. Editors’ Choice.
Russiz Superiore 2014 Sauvignon; $28, 90 points. Enticing aromas of chamomile, hay, aromatic herbs, tomato vine and stone fruit lead the way. The vibrant, elegant palate shows yellow peach, grapefruit, anise, sage and a hint of mineral alongside vibrant acidity. Dalla Terra Winery Direct.
Most producers refer to this as Collio Bianco, but it’s officially known as Collio Bianco Collio, and confusingly, as Collio Collio. It’s often touted as the wine that best expresses the Collio territory.
Unlike other Collio bottlings, which are varietal wines, Collio Bianco is a blend. But because the production code stipulates that it can be made with a mix of any locally grown varieties—and there are a lot of authorized grapes—it’s difficult to define Collio Bianco.
On top of the wide grape selection, some producers ferment only in steel, while others vinify and age in wood. For these reasons, Collio Bianco suffers from a lack of identity. It’s never really taken off, and accounts for less than 5 percent of total production.
A number of producers are trying to change this. They believe that Collio Bianco’s future depends on focusing on Collio’s native grapes, not international varieties.
Collio winemaker Edi Keber would like to see the blend associated more closely with Friulano, Ribolla Gialla and Malvasia, which he and other producers feel best represent the territory.
“Now is the time to stipulate how we want to define Collio’s territory and wines, and to set our area apart, we should focus on our native grapes,” says Keber, who runs the winery with his son, Kristian.
The Kebers make only one wine, which they refer to simply as Collio. A blend of Friulano, Malvasia Istriana and Ribolla Gialla fermented in concrete tanks, the wine boasts depth, structure and finesse.
Other producers, however, have built their reputations on blends of international grapes. They want to keep the Collio designation flexible. The Consorzio is working to resolve this issue.
“Collio’s entire production is DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), and the Consorzio’s members recently voted to move toward making a Collio DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita),” says Princic. “One of our ideas is to add another Collio Bianco category, one to be made exclusively with a blend of native grapes, and to have both Collio Biancos elevated to the more tightly regulated DOCG status.”
Edi Keber 2014 Collio; $32, 90 points. A blend of 70% Friulano, 15% Ribolla Gialla and 15% Malvasia, this is perfumed with scents that suggest yellow flower, apple, citrus fruit and hazelnut. The vibrant palate is loaded with verve and finesse, offering peach, Golden Delicious apple, sage, fennel and a hint of candied tangerine zest. A note of bitter almond closes the tangy finish. Jan D’Amore Wines.
Zuani 2014 Vigne Collio Bianco; $24, 90 points. Enticing scents of white spring flower, stone fruit and a whiff of nut weave throughout this blend of Friulano, Chardonnay, Sauvignon and Pinot Grigio. The vibrant palate delivers yellow apple, orange zest, almond and mineral alongside tangy acidity. Vinity Wine Company.
Muzic 2014 Collio Bianco; $22, 89 points. Made with Malvasia, Ribolla Gialla and Friulano, this offers aromas of toast, oak, white flower and almond. The linear palate delivers lemon drop, vanilla and Golden Delicious apple, accompanied by bright acidity. Artisan Wines, Inc.
Chardonnay has lost ground in much of Italy to native grapes, but it’s held steady in Collio.
“Collio Chardonnay is a guarantee of quality,” says Robert Princic, president of the Consorzio of Tutela Vini Collio and winemaker at his family’s winery, Gradis’ciutta. “It’s more structured than other Chardonnays from northern Italy, but more elegant than those from warmer areas of southern Italy.” The combination of structure, finesse, drinkability and the area’s trademark salinity on the finish make Collio Chardonnays extremely appealing. When aged in oak, the wines take on more structure and depth.
Native grape Malvasia Istriana, one of the least-planted varieties in Collio, can make radiant wines loaded with finesse. After nearly being abandoned, interest in the grape is on the rise.
“Malvasia makes elegant, mineral-driven wines with crisp acidity,” says winemaker Dario Raccaro, of his namesake firm. “Until six or seven years ago, no one wanted it. Then native grapes became trendy, and suddenly, Malvasia is in demand.”
Raccaro uses only steel to preserve vibrancy and the terroir-driven sensations.
There isn’t a lot of Pinot Bianco made in Collio, but what’s produced is superb. While Pinot Bianco is known for producing thin, nondescript wines, bottlings from Collio are elegant, with character, body and flavor.
Some of the best Pinot Biancos come from Capriva del Friuli, in the heart of Collio.
“Capriva is particularly suited for producing Pinot Bianco,” says Paolo della Rovere, managing director of Castello di Spessa. “It’s hot in the summer, but compared to other parts of Collio, we receive more refreshing sea breezes from the Adriatic.”
Lowering yields has been crucial for making fine Pinot Bianco. To add depth, most producers leave the wine on its lees for several months after fermentation. Producers generally ferment entirely in steel to retain the crisp flavors and freshness, although a few estates vinify a small amount of the wine in wood to increase depth even more.
Gradis’ciutta 2014 Chardonnay; $22, 90 points. Enticing scents of beeswax, citrus blossom and stone fruit waft out of the glass. The sleek, linear palate offers crisp yellow apple, white peach and a mineral note alongside bracing acidity. Wine Emporium.
Raccaro 2014 Malvasia; $32, 90 points. Lovely aromas of Spanish broom, white cherry, peach and light spice emerge on this radiant, elegant wine. The crisp palate offers Kaiser pear, apple, nectarine zest, white pepper and a hint of ginger. Vibrant acidity carries the flavors, while a pronounced mineral note energizes the finish. Jan D’Amore Wines.
Alois Lageder 2014 Haberle Pinot Bianco; $32, 88 points. Fragrant and fresh, this charming wine opens with enticing aromas of hawthorn, peach blossom and orchard fruit. The elegant, linear palate offers green apple, tangerine zest and mineral alongside tangy acidity. It closes crisp and clean. Dalla Terra Winery Direct.
- 2Ribolla Gialla
- 3Pinot Grigio
- 5Collio Bianco
- 6Other Wines