Friuli Revisited: Surveying Collio’s Changing Winescape

It has been more than  a dozen years since our last visit to Friuli. Friuli-Venezia Guilia is tucked up in Italy’s upper right-hand corner, north-east of Venice, north-west of Trieste, bordered by the Adriatic Sea to the south, Austria to the north and Slovenia to the east. It is sometimes awkwardly lumped together with Trentino and Alto Adige as the Italian Northeast.

Friuli is a cultural mixing bowl with influences from all its sides. It is also a beautiful region with great wines. Why did it take us to long to return?

Lucky Day: Cantina Aperte

Our last visit was memorable. We happened to arrive at  Venica & Venica, well-known both for its wines and its hospitality, on Cantine Aperte Day, which is the one day of the year when many otherwise private cellars throw open their doors and welcome swarms of enthusiasts. It was a lucky day for us because we met so many wonderful people and tasted some memorable wines. Later we moved from the Venica B&B to to La Subida close by the Slovenian border and used it as a base to visit Udine, Cividale, San Daniele, Gorizia, Trieste and Aquileia.

As much as we enjoyed our visit to Friuli I wondered if we would ever return. There are so many interesting regions in Italy and the world, so many distinctive wines. But the pull of Friuli was strong and so we pointed our rented Fiat 500 in the direction of Cormons. We wanted to revisit some friends and wines, but “what’s new, what’s changed” were the questions on our minds.

We spent half a week at  Borgo San Daniele in Cormons, one of the best wineries in the region and a comfortable base of operations, before following the recommendation of our friends Zari and Greg and shifting to another wine estate,  Il Roncal, just outside of Cividale del Friuli for the final few days. (See below for some wine tourism notes.)

Super White: Tiare Sauvignon Blanc

When we visited before we were struck by the stunning white wines of the region and later attended some “SuperWhites” events in the U.S. designed to inform American wine enthusiasts about this under-appreciated part of Italy and draw attention to the stunning wines. We enjoyed many wonderful wines on this trip, too, including the memorable Ronco delle Cime Friuliano at the expanded and updated Venica & Venica.

But the highlight on the white side of the wine ledger was probably an impromptu visit to Tiare and the opportunity to taste a wine that had been named the best Sauvignon Blanc in the world. Best in the world? Those are big words and I don’t really know if it is even possible to settle such a claim with certainty, but the Sauvignon Blanc that we sampled (from the following and possibly even better vintage) was unquestionably excellent.

And it might not even be the best wine that Tiare makes. Roberto Snidarcig, the owner and winemaker, was even prouder of another Sauuvignon Blanc called Empìre that showed subtle oak, channeling France more than New Zealand.  And he smiled when Sue and I tasted his Pinot Noir, a pet project that showed real character and finesse.

Pinot Noir? Well, yes, as I said Friuli is a mix of influences from France and Austria and of course the indigenous Italian  grapes like Refosco, Friuliano and Ribolla Gialla.  The ebb and flow of global and local influences shows itself in many ways.

Bastianich, for example, is a project that American “Del Posto” and “Eataly” entrepreneur-restaurateur Joseph Bastianich (son of the remarkable chef and cookbook author Lidia Bastianich and business partner of the irrepressible Mario Batali) launched in 1997 to make the wines of the region and to introduce them to the U.S. and other markets.  The wines are good enough that Italy is today an important market, too. You may think of Bastanich as a showman — he was until this season a host/judge along with Gordon Ramsey on the U.S. Masterchef (he hosts Masterchef Italia now), but I can assure you that the wines are the real deal and not just a show.

Market Forces: A Region in Transition

White wines no longer steal the show in Friuli. It isn’t that they have declined in quality, only that winemakers have turned their attention to sparkling wines and back to reds, too. There have always been good reds made in Friuli, as we were reminded at Venica & Venica when we were served a stunning Merlot from the 2001 vintage that had been lost in the cellar and recently rediscovered. Clearly the best Collio reds can age! Climate change is partly responsible for the increased interest in red wines. Red wine grapes are a more reliable bet today than they were 50 years ago, I was told. The rising interest in indigenous red grape varieties such as Refosco, Schioppettino, and Pignolo is also a factor.

Market forces are another reason for the shift in direction and economics is a powerful factor in Italy, which cannot seem to extract itself from a long-term recession. Back in the old days the Bank of Italy could devalue the lira and temporarily restore competitiveness when the economy slowed down. But now Italy is a euro country and competitiveness must come the hard way — though internal reforms — rather than from exchange rate adjustment. These are difficult times for everyone including wine and we heard through the grapevine that many vineyard properties are for sale. Financial security is in short supply.

Hence a shift toward fast-selling sparkling wines because the Prosecco production zone extends into Friuli. The town of Prosecco is actually a suburb of Trieste although  the zone of DOCG production is in the Veneto, south-west in Conegliano-Valdobbiadene. Pinot Grigio is a reliable money-maker, too. Costco’s Kirkland Signature Pinot Grigio, its best-selling white wine, is from the Friuli Grave zone. Follow the money in times like these.

The marketability of Prosecco and Pinot Grigio put pressure on the indigenous wines that I am always keen to discover.  Some wine makers we met with were concerned about the region’s identity slipping away a bit, especially the very high quality Collio and Colli Orientali zones where we spent most of our time. The marketplace for wines (Italian wines, wines in general) is crowded and very competitive. Tough to get and hold consumer attention! Difficult, too, to earn that all important quality premium. A strong regional identity isn’t the solution to this problem, but it can be part of it. Need to make a statement.

My next column will profile three wineries that are making such statements in very different ways. Circle back for details.

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gatto

I can’t end this overview of our Friuli expedition without a few comments on the wine tourism experience. Sue and I just love this region for its physical beauty and cultural importance, great food and wine, and the warm hospitality of the people. It is an exceptional wine tourism destination, well-known to Italians, Germans, Austrians and the Swiss, but mainly undiscovered by Americans. Put it on your list.

We were the only guests at Borgo San Daniele in Cormons (they have three nice rooms in the winery compound), so we had the place all to ourselves at times and enjoyed our stay very much. We had breakfast in the kitchen each morning and came back at one point to discover the sleepy cat shown here who may have come in through the window and obviously made himself as comfortable as we did.

Il Roncal was a different experience but one that we would also recommend.  More rooms, more visitors, lots of activity on this hilltop estate overlooking the vines. A group of German bicyclists passed through one day and several family groups took full advantage of the outdoor meeting areas. Our room was elegant. The private tasting featured local delicacies paired with each wine, which was a real treat.

There are many exceptional restaurants in the area including a homey new osteria at La Subida with great food and wine. The staff built a fire in the outdoor fireplace for us one night when thunder, lightening, and a heavy rainstorm chased all the other diners inside. What atmosphere! trota

We had to return to Al Giardinetto in Cormons and it was as spectacular as we remembered. The food is wonderful, but the wine stands out in my memory. Our host pulled many corks, showcasing limited and unusual wines that we would not otherwise have been able to taste. A glass of this, a half glass of that, you might find this interesting, it was great as he shared treasures of the cellar with the guests.  And the total cost was much less than we might have paid for a single bottle of wine in other circumstances. A real wine lover’s restaurant.

Two other meals stand out among many. We stopped for lunch Alla Trota in the little village of Pulfero near the Slovenian border in the beautiful Natisone valley. We sat out on the patio overlooking the Natisone river that produced the trout on our plates. I went over the top with tagliatelle with a smoked trout ragu followed by  roasted whole trout and then apple strudel along with this jug of local wine.

salepepeThe next day we found ourselves in an even tinier town at lunchtime. Not many dining options in little hillside Stregna and when we asked at the door we discovered that Sale e Pepe‘s kitchen was closed for a thorough cleaning. What to do? Well, the chef said, just because we can’t use the stove doesn’t mean we can’t fix you lunch. And so we enjoyed the rather spectacular salad, cheese, charcuterie and dessert shown here accompanied by one of the region’s best red wines from Le Due Terre.

Did I mention warm hospitality before? Now you know what I’m talking about. Obviously we need to return when the kitchen is cooking on all its burners. Must be spectacular!

Circle back for a profile of three wineries that really caught our attention. Cheers!

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Thanks to everyone who hosted and helped us during our week in Friuli. Special thanks to Michelangelo Tagliente for his advice.

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