Friuli Venezia Giulia: The New Releases

BY IAN D'AGATA | JANUARY 08, 2020

Friuli Venezia Giulia (FVG) offers wine lovers the best of all possible worlds. This northeastern corner of Italy, bordering Slovenia to the east and Austria to the north, is a fantastic place to hunt for world-class whites and sweet wines. But, because of climate change and increased producer knowledge and experience, the reds have improved by leaps and bounds over the years and are now some of Italy’s most interesting, exciting wines.


The Collio's striking vineyards

It All Starts with the Grape Varieties

A feature that renders FVG absolutely unique in the panorama of Italian wine is that the region successfully grows both native and international grapes, and producers are very adept at making important wines with all of them. This is not true of every Italian region. Forgettable Merlots and Chardonnays (at least by world-class standards) are legion throughout Italy. In fact, the likes of Cabernet Franc, Pinot Grigio (known elsewhere as Pinot Gris), Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc), Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot have been grown in significant quantities in FVG for roughly 300 years, and are rightfully considered traditional varieties here (by definition, a traditional grape variety is one that has been cultivated locally for 300 to 500 years). Not so with Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, which are later arrivals to FVG and are true internationals (though many producers, not just from FVG, refer to them as native, as the words “native grapes” help sell nowadays). In any case, it’s very common to walk into an FVG osteria and hear one of the locals ask for a tajut (small glass) of Cabernèt or Merlòt (in Friuli-speak, resolutely accented on the final “e” and “o”), as these varieties have been hanging around the FVG vineyards for centuries. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, FVG boasts some of Italy’s best wines made with traditional/international varieties, especially Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc.

The stratified look of the compacted sands is a typical characteristic of Friuli Venezia Giulia's soils

Taking a Look at the Reds

Without doubt, the advent of climate change has greatly helped spur FVG’s success with late-ripening varieties such as the two Cabernets, which have never been as good as they are today. FVG’s version of these two wines is, for the most part, medium-bodied and perfumed, much more like Bordeaux than Napa, for example. However, annual rainfall can be quite high in most of FVG, and that clearly impinges on the likelihood of making a great wine with the Cabernet varieties. By contrast, Merlot ripens early and does not usually pose the problems that the two Cabernets might, and so FVG Merlot wines have long ranked with the country’s best wines made from non-native grapes. For example, Miani has for some time made a Merlot that is arguably one of Italy’s 20 or 30 greatest red wines, but other producers (Radikon, Toros, Villa Russiz) have also excelled with the variety over the years. Pinot Noir is also grown in FVG, but this finicky variety has given FVG producers headaches just as it has others all over the world, and there are still no truly world-class Pinot Noir wines made in the region.

Difficult weather (meaning cool and rainy) is also a big problem for FVG’s native red grape varieties, the most important of which are Refosco del Peduncolo Rosso, Refosco di Faedis, Schioppettino, Pignolo, Tazzelenghe and Terrano. Fairly late-ripening, like the Cabernets, these varieties need long hang times and relatively warm and dry growing seasons to allow their inherently tough and potentially green tannins to ripen completely. That recognized, one of the most exciting developments in Italian wine of late is just how good these wines of can be. Years ago, there simply weren’t that many wines worth hanging your hat on. Schioppettino was well made by only a handful of producers, Pignolos were mostly horribly tannic and undrinkable despite everyone’s best intentions, Refoscos were mainly rustic, and Tazzelenghe was little-known. That has all changed today. Schioppettino has emerged as a truly noble variety with many outstanding wines to choose from. The establishment of Pignolos as very ageworthy, full-bodied reds is nothing short of spectacular (though absolutely all need at least 7-8 years of cellaring from the vintage date due to some of the toughest tannins of any Italian red grape). Many (not all) Terranos and Refoscos are more refined than ever before. And Tazzelenghe in particular has shown its true colors as a potential superstar. This last variety remains rare; to the best of my knowledge, only six or seven FVG producers are making wine with Tazzelenghe, and only four or five of these are reportedly monovarietals. It fell out of favor in the 1990s and early 2000s because of its very high natural acidity and strong tannins. Tazzelenghe is not unlike a medium-bodied Cabernet Franc, but with higher acidity and a more peppery and less aromatically floral personality. It is pretty clear from the handful of superb Tazzelenghes being made today that estates should be planting more of it in the future. Tasting older vintages of Tazzelenghes made by the better producers (such as Dorigo) is also an eye-opening experience, as those wines clearly attest to the cultivar’s potential greatness.


Old vines of the Colli Orientali

And For the White Grapes and Wines

Malvasia Istriana, Ribolla Gialla, Tocai Friulano and Vitovska are the most important FVG white grapes with which outstanding, commercially relevant, classically dry whites are made, while Picolit and Verduzzo Friulano are the natives used to make mostly world-class sweet wines (though highly interesting, delicious dry versions of both exist). Malvasia Istriana gives Italy’s most mineral and slightly aromatic wines. Ribolla Gialla is used to make just about anything that can be bottled, from sparkling Prosecco-like wines to orange macerated heavies; however, the best examples are made in the traditional white wine style, and especially so when very old hillside vineyards are the source of the grapes. Friulano (also known as Sauvignonasse) gives lovely lemony and delicately herbal whites that can be surprisingly deep and rich when made from old vines, and can take a gentle oaking that helps deliver startlingly large amounts of complexity. Vitovska gives lemony and floral white wines but is all too often macerated and oxidated beyond redemption. Most importantly, along with Alto Adige, FVG is where you’ll find Italy’s best Pinot Grigios, Pinot Biancos and Sauvignon Blancs. (Pinot Grigio’s popularity pushes some less quality-oriented producers to increase yields and bottle just about anything sporting that name, such that there are quite a few uninteresting Pinot Grigios wines to be had here, as from elsewhere in Italy). In fact, producer skill in the region is such that this is also where you’ll find the country’s best Chardonnays – a variety Italy does not excel with.


The beautiful scenery of the eastern reaches of Friuli Venezia Giulia

FVG Denominations

FVG’s best wines are theoretically those that carry the name of one of the region’s denominations, all of which are preceded by the word Friuli (except for Collio, which likes to fly solo). Therefore, you have Friuli Aquilea, Friuli Latisana, Friuli Annia, Friuli Grave, Friuli Colli Orientali, Friuli Isonzo, Friuli Carso and Collio. The first three are seaside, flatland denominations that were long the source of mostly plonk, but wine quality has improved remarkably over the last two decades and these denominations now offer some interesting Gewürztraminers, Refoscos del Peduncolo Rosso and Malvasia Istrianas. Friuli Grave is the region’s largest denomination in terms of hectares and volume of wine produced. Not surprisingly given the size and numbers involved, quality of Friuli Grave wines is all over the board. Friuli Isonzo is one of the world’s absolute best flatland wine denominations, on an alluvial riverbed (the Isonzo is FVG’s most important river) that boasts rich gravel and clay-loam soils as well as a warm mesoclimate. The best wines from the Isonzo are invariably complex, powerful, very rich and highish in alcohol. Friuli Carso makes the region’s most idiosyncratic wines, many of which are macerated or made in an oxidative style; nevertheless, producer skill levels are uniformly very high in this denomination and some of Italy’s – not just FVG’s – most interesting wines are made there. The Friuli Colli Orientali is the denomination blessed with the largest variety of grapes (Picolit, Verduzzo Friulano, Schioppettino, Tazzelenghe and Pignolo have always been associated with this specific part of FVG and not with the others), and a large number of Italy’s best white and sweet wines, as well as highly interesting reds, are born there. Last but not least, Collio has long enjoyed the loftiest reputation of all FVG denominations. The producers are undoubtedly skilled, and many outstanding wines are made there, especially with Pinot Bianco, Ribolla Gialla and Tocai Friulano. However, I believe it’s a real shame that a famous denomination such as Collio, blessed with a high diversity of quality terroirs, did not think to value and express these in a more meaningful manner. Collio towns such as San Floriano, Dolegna, Capriva and Oslavia have very different terroirs, and each excels at one or two specific varieties. For example, San Floriano and Dolegna have much cooler mesoclimates than does Capriva, and the Pinot Bianco and Friulano wines of each could not be more different. Zegla has long been associated with one of the most pungent, mineral Friulanos, quite unlike those made anywhere else in the region. San Floriano, Capriva and Dolegna are analogous to Gevrey-Chambertin or Vosne-Romanée, and Collio could easily have highlighted their names on the labels rather than the more generic and, like it or not, much less useful Collio namesake. This should also have been considered in the Friuli Colli Orientali denomination, where there exists a world of difference between the soils and mesoclimates, and thus the wines, of towns like Buttrio and Torreano. Such attention to site is in the norm Burgundy and Alsace, and it seems to me that much of FVG has missed an enormous opportunity for growth, greater wealth and visibility.


Friuli Venezia Giulia is home to some of Italy's best sweet wines

Recent Vintages and the Wines to Look For

I am not the only one who thinks the 2018 vintage in FVG was just a little too hot and dry. Most everywhere I went, from I Clivi to Miani, everyone lamented the heat, though some vignaioli were more positive than others in their belief that ultimately only the youngest vines suffered because of the drought. In 2018, daytime temperatures reached as high as 36-37 degrees Celsius in August and September. The high dose of heat meant that malic acid concentrations were especially low in the white grapes. This was a particularly big problem for Friulano, which is already a low-acid grape variety even in years with more normal weather patterns. Ribolla Gialla, a late-ripening variety that needs long growing seasons to perform best, also suffered in 2018; many producers either made a very aromatically compressed wine or chose not to make one at all. The red grapes suffered too, as many just cooked directly on the vines, but generally speaking, the reds were more successful (though gritty tannins can be a problem in some of them). As I will never get tired of saying, it helps to know exactly what each grape variety is about and what it can deliver. So, for example, Refosco del Peduncolo Rosso, a variety that likes reasonably cool weather, suffered more than the Merlot in 2018. The consequences are evident in the wines.

Unfortunately, the 2017 vintage was not much to write home about either. In contrast to the rest of Italy, where high temperatures and drought posed the biggest challenge, in FVG the vintage was marked by rain, both at the beginning of the growth cycle (which increased disease pressure) and during the harvest. In fact, it began raining halfway through the harvest and basically never let up. Thus the 2017 whites are generally better than the reds, which can be marred by green tannins. The positive about 2017 is that the vintage offers a different FVG wine style, less rich and powerful, that many wine lovers will welcome. For more information on FVG grapes, denominations and recent vintages, please see my Vinous article: Friuli Venezia Giulia: A Wine Smorgasbord (May 17, 2018). 

All the wines featured in this report were tasted during winery visits in September 2019 and in my office in Rome in August and October 2019.


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