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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.

Friuli'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

wine 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.

wine 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.
     

go to part II: a tasting of 27 Friuli wines



  A classicist and ancient historian by training, Andrew graduated with first class honours from King's College London before completing his PhD on Aulus Gellius and Roman Antiquarian Writing. Andrew let's his favourite fridge-magnet sum up his vinous philosophy: "Life is too short to drink bad wine". His other great passion is food and cooking. For this piece, Andrew reports on a tasting and workshop on 'Friuli's great white wines' selected by the Slow Food movement, held in London in July 2006.


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