Tre Bicchieri — three glasses. Those are important words if you are interested in Italian wine. The Michelin Guide gives up to three stars to the top restaurants in France and around the world and perhaps for that reason Gambero Rosso magazine’s Vini d”Italia gives up to three glasses to Italy’s finest wines.
For the 2015 edition the editors surveyed 2042 wineries and evaluated 20,000 wines. Just 423 (about 2 percent) received the tre bicchieri rating.
Friuli Venezia Giulia punches above its weight in the Gambero Rosso rankings with 27 tre bicchieri awards listed in the 2015 league table including wines from three wineries that I mentioned in my last column: the Rosso Sacrisassi 2012 from Le Due Terre, the Sauvignon 2013 from Tiare, and the Sauvignon Ronco delle Mele 2013 from Venica & Venica.
The quality of the Friuli wines is high and rising and deserves greater attention. We visited three wineries (the “three glasses” of this column’s title) that impressed us both for the three glasses-worthy wines and also for the different ways they are advancing the reputation of the wines of this region.
Rooted in Nature: Borgo San Daniele
We first learned the story of Borgo San Daniele in my dog-eared copy of Slow Wine 2014, which awarded the winery its “snail” designation for giving particular attention to the values of the Slow Food movement (I wrote about Slow Food in my Globaloney books).
It is the philosophy of Slow Food that tradition and nature are best preserved if they are valued in the marketplace and so the Slow Food and Slow Wine movements seek to identify producers of traditional and natural products and then draw wider attention to them. There was a special room set aside for Slow Wine producers at the Italian Trade Commission’s Vino 2015 symposium in New York City earlier this year, for example, and it was always buzzing.
Borgo San Daniele fits right into the Slow Wine philosophy. Mauro Mauri and his sister Alessandra inherited vineyards from their grandfather in 1990 and have spent the last 25 years renewing the land and the vineyards and developing wines with a quite distinct local identity that reflects their own gentle but determined personalities. We were fortunate to be able to stay at the winery, meet Alessandra, and taste the wines with Mauro.
The Borgo San Daniele wines have an extraordinary reputation in Friuli — restaurants and wine shops that are lucky enough to get a few bottles display them proudly. Only a few different wines are made, each from specific varieties or blends and each from a particular place. The land, not demand, limits production and when it is gone it’s gone. Vineyards are 18 hectares in total, according to Slow Wine, and about 14,000 cases are produced.
Each of the wines we tasted was distinctive and memorable, but the Arbis Blanc and Arbis Ròs stand out. Arbis Blanc, from the grassy San Leonardo site in Cormons, is considered a defining Friulian white. It is a field blend of Sauvngnon, Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco and Friuliano, with subtly integrated Slovenian oak. Arbis Ròs is 100% Pignolo from the Ziris site in Cormons. It was one of the two best Pignolo wines (along with Rodaro Paolo) that we tasted. Mauro served us the 2009 Arbis Ròs from magnum and it was simply stunning.
I desperately wanted bring home a bottle of Arbus Ròs to lay down and see if Maruo was right that it would continue to evolve and start to develop Asian spice notes in 8-10 years. But the standard bottles of this wine were long sold out and I didn’t think I could get one of the few remaining magnums home successfully. So there is just the memory of Mauro, Alessandra and the Arbis and other Borgo San Daniele wines. Their personalities (which I think come out in the video at the end of this column) are so distinct that I am sure the memories will last.
Tradition and Innovation at Rodaro Paolo
Slow Wine brought us next to Rodaro Paolo and to meet the very intense and focused Paolo Rodaro himself, the 6th generation of his family to make wine in this region since 1847. The current winery makes about 16,000 cases of wine from the 57 hectares of estate vineyards (40 hectares on the hillsides). The vines are split 50/50 between red and white grapes, an increase on the red side (Pignolo, Schioppettino, Reofsco) over the years as climate change has improved the ability to ripen these grapes.
Slow Wine told us that the entry-level wines are a bargain for the quality (and we tried them a few days later over dinner at a simple country trattoria across the street from the winery). But we came to learn about the Romain wines.
Paolo Rodaro is committed to bringing out the very best of the traditional local wines that he produces and he intensely channels this desire through experimentation and innovation (evolution, not revolution), with some quite spectacular results. The flagship Romain wines, for example, are the result of an experiment in drying red wine grapes before pressing and fermentation. Paolo observed the beneficial effects of “appassimento” air-drying of Picolit and Verduzzo Friulano grapes for sweet wines. Would air-drying also bring out intensity and character of some of the red wines?
The answer we found in our glasses is a clear yes. Drying very ripe red grapes for 3-4 weeks through the “surmaturazione” process (versus 3-4 months for the white grapes) achieved maturity, concentration, and balance. The resulting wines are dry and therefore high in alcohol but extraordinarily balanced and capable of significant aging. These were some of the best red wines we have ever tasted and it was an honor to discuss them with the man who made them.
The discussion was very personal — as when we tasted with Mauro at Borgo San Daniele. Both men make a statement about themselves and their idea of Friuli through the wines they put in a bottle. Both limit the production of the wines that make the strongest statements — Paolo released just a few hundred bottles of some wines each year and makes them only in years where conditions are ideal. We felt fortunate to leave with a bottle of 2009 Refosco Romain. My tasting notes rave about the depth and elegance of this wine and I can’t wait to taste it again in eight or ten years (a timetable we negotiated with Paolo, who encouraged us to wait even longer).
The personal touch extends to the label design shown here, which was created by Paolo’s daughter Giulia when she was 5 years old. It looks like a curling vine, but it is really an abstract representation of the family home’s wrought-iron gate.
Returning to Roots: Bastianich
It would be easy to dismiss Bastianich as just another celebrity winery. Lidia Bastianich and her husband Felix fled their home in Istria (just across the Adriatic from Venice) during the dark days after the Second World War, eventually making their way to the United States where they slowly worked their way up in the world using food as their ladder. A restaurant (Bounavia) arrived the same year as a son, Joseph.
Lidia Bastianich is now a celebrity chef with cookbooks and a PBS cooking series to her credit. Joseph is a celebrity in his own right — business partner of Mario Battali in several famous restaurants, former judge on MasterChef USA and now host and judge on MasterChef Italia. It would be easy to say that the Bastianich winery in Friuli is just another example of a celebrity using wine to cash in on transitory fame.
But it isn’t true. In fact, against all odds, I think the first sentence you find on the Bastianich website holds true: “The Bastianich winery, founded in 1997, strives to understand the history and culture of Friuli-Venezia Giulia and take it to a new level.” Sue and I toured the vineyards and winery with Wayne Young, an American who has been with the project since the first vintage in 1998 and is very much part of Friulian wine society (he sits on the board of the Coli Orientali Consorzio, for example).
It was clear in talking with Wayne that although the Bastianich owners are American, the winery and its wines are not just Italian but Friulian through and through and that to the degree that celebrity comes into play, it is an asset that is used to try to draw attention to the region.
Take the wines, which is the right place to begin. Vespa Bianco and Vespa Rosso are the flagship “tre bichiere-class” products (Vespa is Italian for “wasp,” inspired by the swarms of wasps that descend at harvest time) and they are authentic blends of local grapes that will introduce many wine drinkers to the wine styles of this region. We’ve enjoyed Vespa Bianco many times over the years, but never the single-variety Plus (from old vine Friuliano planted near Buttrio) and the Calabrone (Italian for “hornet”), a blend of Refosco, Schioppetino, Pignolo and a bit of Merlot. All the Schioppettino and some of the Refosco are air-dried before vinification.
Celebrity creates barriers that can only be overcome by performance. These are authentic wines and the intent is to take them to the next level while respecting tradition. Celebrity also opens some doors for the wines and the region. This is literally true with Orsone, the Bastianich restaurant, taverna and B&B down the hill from the winery which is worth a trip even if you (gasp!) do not care about wine. The menu at Orsone gives respect to local culture while also giving an occasional nod to New York.
We asked the chefs to choose our meal and the sommelier to pair Bastianich wines with each course with a predictably delicious result. My primo course was a burnt wheat orecchiette that honored the tradition of Italian peasants making one final pass through the fields after they have been burnt in the fall, looking for every last bit of wheat, no matter how scorched. Quite an experience.
So what do these three wineries have in common? A commitment to authenticity, which they have developed in distinctly different circumstances. The three families approach Friulian wine from very different angles and tell its story if very different ways. Tasting these wines and learning about the makers gives a sense of the journey that Friulian wine has taken and the road that lies ahead to greater global appreciation in the future.
Many thanks to Alessandra, Mauro, Paolo and Wayne.
I found videos of the three wineries featured here and I thought I would share them to give you a taste of Friuli wine. Enjoy!
Borgo San Daniele