Friuli’s Super Whites

By Andrew Stevenson, 07/06
Friuli lies in the north east corner of Italy, with borders to Slovenia and Austria. Although the vineyards are all in the south and east of the region, the climate is determined by the mountains to the north and east, which protect Friuli from the cold north winds. The Adriatic sea to the south, together with relatively high rainfall, limits the range of temperature variation.

The history of winemaking in Friuli goes back to the Roman Empire and the Roman army’s practice of founding colonia of retired legionaries to help control less settled territories. Although the Romans had friendly relations with the Illyrian tribe of the Veneti, the colony of Aquileia was founded in 181BC at the start of the second century BC to control passage through the passes through the Julian and Carnic Alps. The retiring legionaries and their families settled in Aquileia, with grants of land, money and vines. The Roman settlers gradually converted Friuli into an integral part of Italy, and in time the colonia of Aquileia became an important city, eventually gaining the status of a second city to Rome herself; and more importantly for our purposes, a thriving wine culture and industry developed around the city.

xFriuli’s importance as a wine producing region continued, in no small way due to its geographical location, at an important crossroads and as an important gateway for eastern and western Christianity. More recently, Friuli was an important vineyard for the Austro-Hungarian empire.A defining characteristic of Friuli is the large number of varieties grown, many of which are indigenous, and the dominance of white varieties. Blended wines are common, the result of the large number of varieties. Vines are grown across the Friulan plain and cover as much of the hillsides as the aspect, climate and soil types will allow.

Today, white varieties account for more than 70% of production from hillside vineyards, while on the plains, there are more or less equal plantings of white and red varieties.

Until the 1970s, much of the wines produced were made in quite an old fashioned style, but then a few producers, including the redoubtable Josko Gravner introduced modern winemaking techniques, making much use of stainless steel and temperature-control to retain the freshness of the fruit, and the use of new oak barriques rather than old botti. More recently, Gravner has moved back to more old-fashioned techniques, but the modern style still holds sway for most producers.

The Super Whites project was inspired by Slow Food’s wish to bring to wider attention the quality of the white wines made in Friuli by the large number of small, almost artisinal producers

The large number of varieties means that blends are common. Are blended wines better than those made from a single grape variety? That’s a difficult question to answer: I attended a workshop which sought to provide some answers. The workshop took us through a number of single varieties and then some blending practice.

Varietal and blending workshop

Single varietal wines can have more purity and can well be compared to the work of a modern composer; while blended wines can be better compared to the work of a classical composer, with greater texture and complexity. Single varieties emphasise the unique characteristics of the grape variety and the variations in climate and vintage. There are also international benchmarks for single varietal wines, at least those from the more international varieties. Blended wines, by contrast, show more consistency from year to year, and emphasise the characteristics of the producing region and the house style of a particular winery (the latter are all particularly important in Champagne!). The grapes we were playing with in this workshop were:

Ribolla Gialla

Ribolla has been grown in Friuli since the 13th century and is now widely regarded as one of the indigenous varieties. It is late-ripening and has a delicate flavour and can contribute good acidity to a blend.

Tocai Friulano

Tocai Friulano is probably Friuli’s flagship variety, although it was imported from France (where it is known as sauvignonasse) in the early 20th Century. Apparently, it is a difficult variety for producers: its acidity decreases sharply when ripe and there are many oxidising compounds in the skin. A bitter almond aftertaste is a characteristic of Tocai Friulano. In the same way that the Tokay Pinot Gris/Tokay d’Alsace wines of Alsace will have to change their name with the accession of Hungary to the EU to protect the Tokaji name, so also Tocai Friulano will have to change its name on the bottle to just Friulano.

Pinot Blanc/Pinot Bianco

Pinot Blanc, a genetic mutation of pinot noir, has been grown in Friuli since the second half of the 19th Century and lends elegance, richness and harmony to blends. Worldwide, pinot blanc/pinot bianco plantings are declining. By contrast, pinot grigio has seen the biggest growth in Friuli in recent decades: all new plantings funded by the EU are of pinot grigio.

Malvasia Istriana

Malvasia Istriana is a very ancient variety from the Mediterranean that came to Friuli through Venice in the 16th Century. It is not widely grown now, and the clone in the Villa Russiz example is particularly rare. The grape has good acidity even when ripe and is important for its spectrum of aromas, with lots of tropical fruits and flowers.

mix n’ match

wine 1: 2004 Ribolla Gialla Turian, Collavini
A mid green straw. Slightly vegetal gooseberry and green apple nose, rather reminiscent of sauvignon blanc. The palate is rich and full, and clearly not sauvignon. Quite direct, with really good concentration. Lovely fresh acidity. Very good finish. Immense length. Very Good Indeed. 91/100

wine 2: 2005 Tocai Friulano, Ronco del Gelso
A deepish bright gold. This is just a touch dull on the nose: quite butter with some fresh, unripe peaches and green banana skin notes. Very easy, round, open palate with nice interesting flavours. The wine has a good weight to balance the freshness. There’s a spicy, bitter nuttiness on the finish. Very Good Indeed. 89/100

We then blended these wines in roughly equal quantities. The result was a wine with a more complex nose, and a palate that was much better than the sum of its parts. The Ribolla lacks the acidity of the Tocai, but adds richness, producing a more robust wine. I’d probably give it 91-92/100

xwine 3: 2005 Bianco Sesto, La Tunella
A commercial 50:50 blend of Ribolla Gialla and Tocai Friulano, fermented in large oak barrels, without any malolactic fermentation. A bright, lemony straw colour. On the nose there are some apple notes from the ribolla and some peach from the tocai along with just a hint of honey: very attractive and fairly rich. The attack is lovely and fresh. This is very clean on the palate with a good body. Very smooth and easy, but with complex and elegant layers. There is some lovely fruit on the palate. Excellent. 93/100

The wine made as a blend exhibits much of the character of mixing the glass of ribolla and the glass of tocai friulano, but is altogether more integrated and together, with better balance than the hand-made version.

wine 4: 2005 Pinot Bianco, Princic Doro
This has a pale yellow straw appearance. The nose is creamy with floral blossom and agrumes. Rich on the palate. A bit simple overall, but very attractive and floral. Very Good Indeed. 89/100

wine 5: 2005 Malvasia Istriana, Villa Russiz
This has a very bright straw colour. The nose is fabulous with loads and loads of superb highly aromatic floral notes and some talcy minerality. There are fresh, delicate flavours on the palate, but with a creamy backbone alongside fine acidity. Very elegant, characterful finish with great length. Excellent. 95/100

We then constructed a more or less equal blend of wines 2, 4 and 5 (Tocai Friulano, Pinot Bianco and Malvasia). The nose seemed slightly muted with lots of elegant honeysuckle and citrus. Very interesting and complex on the palate with lots of layers. Rich and spicy on the finish. This was nowhere near as smooth, silky and integrated as Wine six (a commercial blend of these three varieties) and seems slightly less successful than the ‘handmade’ ribolla-tocai mix. Call it 89/100.

xwine 6: 2005 Fossarin, Ronco dei Tassi
The pinot bianco was fermented in oak, while the tocai and the malvasia were fermented in stainless steel. It has an oaky peachy nose, just a bit too heavy on the oak. Super palate: full, combining elegance and power. Silky smooth and very integrated for a wine so young. Lovely flavours combine fruit, richness and acidity. Very balanced. Utterly enormous length. Excellent. 94/100

This was a very interesting workshop, and it was quite exciting to see how the character of the blends reflected, and then built on the component wines – and also how small variations of the quantities could change the style of the resulting blend quite dramatically.

It would have been nice to have had much more time (and more wine and more glasses) to do further experimentation, and to have been able to do it with a more scientific approach.

The quality of the single varietal wines stood out as very high indeed, though the wines made as blends were not merely a useful control to my own efforts, but also showed for me that the blends are one of the real strengths of Friulan winemaking.

Tasting notes

Borgo San Daniele

Borgo San Daniele is based at Cormòns on the border of the DOC areas of Collio and Isonzo. In the vineyard, the vines are densely planted and yields are kept low; they encourage grass cover in the vineyards and carry out thorough green harvesting. In the winery, all their wines (red and white) are macerated on the skins, then undergo malolactic fermentation, followed by long periods on the lees and micro-oxygenation with ageing in various sizes of vats and barrels, before being bottled unfiltered. They release only four wines: three whites and one red: a Tocai Friulano, a Pinot Grigio, a white blend Arbis Blanc and a red Cabernet Sauvignon-Pignolo blend, Arbis Ros.

2004 Arbis Blanc, Mauri Vignaioli
This is a ‘Vin di Territori’ IGT Venezia Giulia, with 13.5% alcohol. A blend of tocai friulano, chardonnay, pinot bianco and sauvignon. In Friulan arbis means grass, and the name picks up on the grass growing between the rows of vines, which they believe helps to mitigate the negative effects on the soil of the modern monoculture of the vineyard, and also to reduce the vigour of the vine. The four varieties are crushed and fermented together. The wine has quite a scented, open, floral nose with some melony notes. Rich and pure on the palate. It has very good depth and loads of character. Very Good Indeed/Excellent 92/100


Tenuta Ca’ Bolani

2003 Opimio, Tenuta Ca’ Bolani, IGT Venezia Giulia
This is a 50:50 blend of chardonnay and tocai friulano. The chardonnay vines are on average 9 years old, the tocai friulano around 10 years old. The grapes are cold macerated at 5ºC in an inert atmosphere for 24 hours, followed by long, slow fermentation in temperature-controlled stainless steel. The wine is then matured on its lees for seven months in stainless steel. It has a lovely spicy nose with rich, elegant citrussy fruit and a hint of rolling tobacco. Lovely palate with great balance and finesse and lots of excellent character. There is good acidity to balance the palate, but it comes to the fore on the finish, helping to keep it very refreshing. Excellent. 94/100

Azienda Agricola Ca’ Ronesca

The Ca’ Ronesca estates extend to more than 250 acres between the villages of Lonzano and Ipplis, the 140 acres of vineyards falling into the DOC regions of Collio and Colli Orientali del Friuli.

2005 Tocai Friulano, Ca’Ronesca, DOC Collio
Yields are kept low. The grapes undergo a short maceration before fermentation in stainless steel, followed by five months maturing on its lees. Drink to 2008/9. This has a whiff of cloves and lemon on the nose. Fairly light on the palate. A bit dull and uninteresting, with a touch of harshness after. Good. 83/100

2004 Sauvignon Podere di Ipplis, Ca’ Ronesca, DOC Collio
The grapes, grown around Ipplis of course, are harvested in the early morning away from the heat of the day and vinified with as limited an exposure to oxygen as possible. Drink to 2008/9. A rather muted sauvignon blanc nose, fairly fruity. Fresh and crisp palate with good green fruits. This is a fairly typical Friui version of sauvignon blanc. Very Good+. 88/100

2005 Ribolla Gialla, Ca’ Romesca, DOC Collio
The vineyard for this ribolla gialla is situated in Cime, on a site exposed to the wind. The vineyard is terraced to cope with the steep hillside. After a short maceration, the grapes are fermented in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks, and then the wine matures on its lees for five months. Drink to 2008/9 Unfortunately, this was a bit over-chilled, but a floral, minty nose was evident, with some rather zesty lemon notes. Fresh and full on the palate with good balance and nice acidity. Very pleasant. Very Good. 88/100

Azienda Agricola Muzic

The Azienda Agricola Muzic, currently owned by Giovanni Muzic, is based in San Floriano del Collio, about 5km from Gorizia. The Muzic family have been producing wine since 1960 from hillside vineyards: they have ten hectares in the DOC Collio region and a further two hectares in the neighbouring DOC Friuli Isonzo. Giovanni personally manages all stages of production. The winery is equipped with stainless steel tanks with a fixed cooling system, cement tanks and barriques.

xAnnual production is in the region of 500 to 600 hectolitres per year, accounting for around 80,000 bottles. They make a range of red and white wines. The following three whites were available for tasting today:2005 Chardonnay, Muzic, DOC Collio
A strikingly slatey chardonnary nose with fruit and lots of mineral stones. Lovely attack. Fresh and clean with very good acidity. This is a good, full, very pure chardonnay with some very interesting character. Very Good Indeed+. 93/100

2005 Pinot Grigio, Muzic, DOC Collio
A slightly muddy pinot grigio nose that’s rather muted. Good and enjoyable on the palate, this is a very good wine, but for me does not seem to be one of the best Friuli pinot grigios. Very Good. 87/100

2005 Sauvignon, Muzic, DOC Collio
Green peas and lettuce on the nose. Very good palate. Fresh and very clean with very good fruit. Not too green. Nice style and balance. Very Good Indeed. 89/100

Azienda Agricola Paraschos Evangelos

As the name suggests, this estate is owned and run by a Greek family – all the more remarkable that, as I found out when I tasted their wines, they have really embraced Friulan philosophies and techniques and make very traditional Friuli whites. The estate was founded in 1998 at the heart of the DOC Collio zone, in San Floriano del Collio. They currently have a mere 5 hectares of vineyards: the white varieties (chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, tocai friulano, pinot grigio and ribolla) are grown on the Collo hills (San Floriano, Oslavia, Gradisciutta), while they have some merlot growing around Sant’Andrea and Lucinico near Gorizia. The vineyards are cultivated biodynamically and, from 2003, no sulphur is used whatsoever.

2002 Collio Bianco Riserva, Paraschos, DOC Collio
A blend of 50% sauvignon with chardonnay, ribolla, malvasia, picolit, verduzzo and pinot bianco. The grapes underwent a 72-hour maceration followed by fermentation and then two years ageing in 5-hectolitre tonni. The wine was not clarified, but was lightly filtered and was released onto the market after a further 12 months ageing in bottle. 4000 bottles were produced in 2002. This has a very traditional, slightly oxidised feel to the nose with good fruit. Very good, silky palate. Very refined and elegant, yet with huge power. Builds and builds into a massive finish. Very Good Indeed. 91/100

2003Collo Bianco Riserva, Paraschos, DOC Collio
Again a blend of 50 sauvignon, with chardonnay, ribolla, malvasia, picolit, verduzzo and pinot bianco making up the rest of the blend. The grapes underwent a 7-day maceration, followed by fermentation and 24 months ageing in 20-25 hectolitre botti. Bottled unfiltered and unclarified and then aged for a further eight months in bottle before being released onto the market in spring 2006. 4000 bottles were produced in 2003. A lovely coppery colour, that’s clearly unfiltered. The nose is rich, drying and feels slightly oxidised, with much fruit than the 2002 – fairly tropical fruit. Really nice on the palate. Very citrussy, yet also almost marmalade-y too. Huge finesse in an odd sort of way. Excellent. 94/100

Azienda Agricola Picéch Roberto

The Picéch vineyards are located in Pradis, a small hill village near Cormons. The Picéch family have farmed the land and made wine since 1920, but only bought the land in the 1960s. They own a total of 4.5 hectares and rent a further 2.5 hectares of vineyards, all in the DOC Collio. They make seven different wines: a tocai friulano, a malvasia istriana, a pinot bianco, a blend (“Jelka”), and two Bordeaux blend reds, one of which is a riserva; finally they produce a sweet wine, a passito made from malvasia istriana. Total annual production is in the region of 28,000 bottles.

2005 Malvasia Istriana, Picéch, DOC Collio
2,500 bottles were produced and released onto the market in June 2006. The vines cover some 0.6 hectares and were planted in 1975. The grapes underwent a 24-hour maceration, followed by temperature-controlled fermentation in stainless steel. The wine was aged for six months on its lees in stainless steel for about six months before bottling in May 2006. This has a really attractive nose with citrus fruit and a hint of cordite and flint. It has a smooth, velvety palate, with lovely flavours. Rich and full, this is hugely attractive stuff and a very impressive wine. This would make a good aperitif, and would also work well with a plate of the local San Daniele prosciutto and maybe even a foie gras terrine, though it’s not a sweet wine, but just has very good ripeness. Excellent. 96/100

2005 Pinot Bianco, Picéch, DOC Collio
The grapes, from vines planted in 1970 and 1993 covering just under a hectare. The grapes were harvested mid September 2005, destemmed and macerated for 18 hours. Temperature controlled fermentation follows and the wine is left on its lees for around six month in stainless steel, before being bottled in May 2006. 4,000 bottles were produced and went on sale in June 2006. A very rich gold. The nose is aromatic and elegant. Good balance on the palate. There is a bit of a feel of oxidation on the palate, but it isn’t oxidised. Has a lovely richness. Very Good Indeed. 91/100

2004 Tocai Friulano, Picéch, DOC Collio
Picéch have some 2.3 hectares planted with tocai friulano, planted in 1966 and 1997. This has a fabulous nose – minerally, tropical fruit and very aromatic. Very interesting on the palate with lots of weight. Rich, yet elegant. Very Good Indeed. 90/100.

2005 Tocai Friulano, Picéch, DOC Collio
Picéch have some 2.3 hectares planted with tocai friulano, planted in 1966 and 1997. The grapes were harvested at the end of September 2005, destemmed and macerated for 8 days before pressing. Aged in a mixture of stainless steel and botti on its lees for around six months before bottling in May 2006. 4,500 bottles were produced, released for sale in June 2006. This has a much more muted nose than the 2004. Fresh and much, much lighter than the 2004. Much more delicate than the 2004. Good. 84/100

x2004 Bianco “Jelka”, Picéch, DOC Collio
This is a blend of ribolla gialla, tocai friulano and malvasia istriana. The name Jelka refers to the winemaker’s mother, Jelka Sirk (Jelka is the Slovenian equivalent of Gabriella) to whom the wine is dedicated. The grapes were harvested at the end of September and in early October 2004. The ribolla gialla and tocai friulano were destemmed and macerated for 8 days without temperature control and left to ferment using only natural yeasts. The malvasia was macerated for only 30 hours before fermentation and ageing in old barriques and botti. After seven months the wine is blended. 6000 bottles and 3000 magnums were produced. This has a gorgeous nose with really lovely delicate fruit but with a great weight and power behind. Lovely, impressive palate. Very complex and multi-layered. Excellent. 94/100

Azienda Agricola Isidoro Polencic

2005 Pinot Grigio, Isidoro Polencic, DOC Collio
Made entirely in stainless steel. The vineyards are between 10 and 25 years old. A really nice nose that feels more Alsatian than is usual in Friuli. Rich and full, with absolutely beautiful fruit on the finish. Very Good Indeed. 92/100

2005 Tocai Friulano, Isidoro Polencic, DOC Collio
The grapes, from vineyards that are between 20 and 30 years old, are cold macerated for about 12 hours, followed by gentle pressing and temperature-controlled fermentation, before maturation, 80% in stainless steel vats and 20% in oak vats. Blossomy apple and peach on the nose. A bit hard on the palate. Rather lean and unimpressive. OK/Good. 82/100

2005 Sauvignon, Isidoro Polencic, DOC Collio
The grapes, from vines planted around 15 years ago, are cold macerated for 12 hours, followed by temperature controlled fermentation. Stainless steel only is used throughout. This has the usual Friulan rich sauvignon nose. Full on the palate with nice balance. Very good finish with great length. Very Good+. 87/100

Azienda Agricola Dario Raccaro

2005 Tocai Friulano, Raccaro, DOC Collio
A very aromatic nose. Good balanced palate. Perhaps a bit heavy-handed. Very Good. 86/100

2005 Collio Bianco, Raccaro, DOC Collio
This is a blend of tocai friulano, pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc. It has a somewhat musky nose. Much better on the apalte. Full and rounded with very good balance. Nice complexity. Very good finish. Very Good Indeed. 89/100

2005 Malvasia, Raccaro, DOC Collio
Rich, yet very floral on the nose. with nice round notes. Very open, fresh palate with lots of floral flavours. Lovely fruit. Lovely balance. Very Good Indeed. 90/100

Ronco dei Pini

The Ronco dei Pini estate lies in Prepotto in Friuli’s eastern hills close to the border with Slovenia and Collio Goriziano. Angelo Novello and his three sons bought the property from Count Rieppi of Prepotto around fourty years ago. In 1990, Vito Novello bought his brothers’ shares and set up Ronco dei Pini. The new company, which derived its name from the ancient pine grove at the top of the hill, marked an initiative to improve quality. In 1997 Vito, was joined in the business by his sons, Giuseppe and Claudio. The vineyards cover 14 hectares in the hills between Prepotto and Spesso di Cividale in the Colli Orientali del Friuli. They make a full range of wines, including a Verduzzo Passito that goes under the name of Riccovino; Limes (a red Bordeaux blend); Leucos (a blend of pinot bianco, tocai friulano and verduzzo) along with single variety cabernet, merlot, tocai friulano, sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, chardonnay and pinot bianco.

x2005 Pinot Grigio, Ronco dei Pini, DOC Collio
The grapes, from a vineyard in Prepotto, are hand-harvested, crushed and macerated at 12ºC-13ºC for 12-14 hours. Fermentation takes place in temperature controlled stainless steel and in French (Alliers) oak barriques until March. A light, gently spicy tropical fruit nose. Good, fruity attack. Lots of structure on the palate with a fine acidity. Very Good Indeed. 89/100

2005 Tocai Friulano, Ronco dei Pini, DOC Collio
The grapes, from a vineyard in Prepotto, are hand-harvested, crushed and macerated at 12ºC-13ºC for 12-14 hours. Fermentation takes place in temperature controlled stainless steel and in French (Alliers) oak barriques until March. This has an elegant creamy nose with some stone fruit. Light attack, but lovely and full on the palate. Excellent length. Very Good Indeed+. 92/100

2005 Chardonnay, Ronco dei Pini, DOC Collio
The grapes, from a vineyard in Plessiva, are hand-harvested, crushed and macerated at 12ºC-13ºC for 12-14 hours. Fermentation takes place in temperature controlled stainless steel (85%) and in new French (Alliers) oak barriques (15%) until March. A muted, buttery, blossomy nose. Super palate. Very enjoyable. Very Good Indeed. 89/100

Azienda Agricola Roncús

2004 Roncús Bianco
This is a blend of tocai friulano, pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc. In the winery it has light skin contact, fermentation with native yeats at 22-24ºC in steel and wood, and then bottled after 18 months. A rich citrussy, floral nose with a touch of raisins. Quite a smoky richness on the palate with very rounded, utterly balanced flavours. So rounded and balanced that you could hardly call it fruity. Ripe and rich flavours. Very Good Indeed. 90/100

Azienda Agricola Roberto Scubla

Scubla are a small company, producing around 60,000 bottles a year, located in the DOC Colli Orientali del Friuli zone.

2004 Pomèdes, Scubla, DOC Colli Orientali del Friuli
This is a blend of 60% pinot bianco, 30% tocai friulano and 10% riesling, harvested when over-ripe and fermented in barriques. It is then aged in new barriques for 8 months, and, after assemblage, aged for 4 months in stainless steel. It has a somewhat closed nose. Lovely palate. This is made in quite an old fashioned style, but doesn’t go too far that way. Excellent balance. Very Good Indeed. 89/100

2003 Cràtis, Scubla, DOC Colli Orientali del Friuli
190 g/l residual sugar; 6.5 g/l acidity. This is made from 100% Verduzzo grapes, one of the most tannic of white grapes, that have been air dried during November and December. The grapes are then pressed and the must is fermented in wood, where it continues to mature for two years. On average, a mere 3000 half bottles are produced each year. A rich orange colour. The nose is remarkably delicate. Lovely palate; very elegant. Delicately sweet with huge acidity and gentle drying tannins which both balance the sweetness. Very Good Indeed. 89/100