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the wines of Villa Russiz, Friuili

by Tom Cannavan, 05/05

Villa Russiz is one of the leading lights of the northern Italian region of Friuili, and is also part of a charitable Institution called the Fondazione Cerruti, so its profits are ploughed back into the local community. But under the direction of winemaker and M.D. Gianni Menotti, Villa Russiz has earned a global reputation for the quality of its wines purely on merit.

It is for white wines that Villa Russiz is most renowned (indeed Gambero Rossi has awarded the estate "starred grower" status, signifying that it has won a minimum of ten of the coveted Tre Bicchieri awards), but its Merlot, made from a single vineyard of 30-year-old vines was a real eye-opener too.

Gianni Menotti came to London recently and presented the top wines of his current portfolio at a fabulous wine-matching dinner in Fiore restaurant in St James's organised by Villa Russiz UK Agency, Bibendum.
 

I sat with Gianni, and though he had limited English and I had non-existent Italian, we did discuss in particular the extraordinary richness and concentration of his white wines. Largely this is down the terroir, he insists, but a lot of work goes into keeping yields very low in the vineyard, and careful winemaking, including extended lees ageing - for the best part of a year in most cases.

These are remarkable wines, with immense character but real finesse, that Gianni says will also have real staying power in the cellar. Prices are given in pounds sterling from Bibendum, but see all stockists of Villa Russiz on wine-searcher.com.

the wines

Villa Russiz (Italy) Sauvignon de La Tour 2003
With 14.5% alcohol there's nothing shy or retiring about Villa Russiz multi-award-winning Sauvignon Blanc, with its huge, leesy, richly fruited nose of succulent pear skins and passionfruit, with a big back-stop of gooseberry and green, asparagus and herbal notes. On the palate that richness and subtle depth of stone-fruit flavour persists, with fabulous weight and texture that makes it quite different from either Loire of Marlborough examples, and an oily, waxy lemon weight on the finish. This is a fairly low acid style (not surprising given the vintage), but there is sufficient mineral and citrus cut to check and balance in an arresting style of Sauvignon Blanc. Quite something. £97.26 for six bottles.

Villa Russiz (Italy) Tocai Friulano 2003
Tocai is the most widely planted white grape of Friuili, but has no relation to either Tokay d'Alsace, or Furmint, the main grape of Hungary's Tokaji wines. This pale coloured wine has a very fine pear and apple fruit on the nose, with a melon and melon skin intensity and little nuances of almond. On the palate it has a very rich texture - even oily and thick - with a sense of opulence and unctuous, juicy fruit on the mid-palate, before a fairly heady sweep of alcohol and a freshening acidity comes through on the finish. Again, the weight and richness of this wine may be atypical given the vintage, and perhaps another vintage would have given a touch more crispness, but extremely impressive wine nevertheless. £59.94 for six bottles.

Villa Russiz (Italy) Pinot Grigio 2003
Pinot Grigio is a very hot ticket at the moment, with consumption having soared amongst the ABCers of the United States in particular. Whilst lots of pleasant, inexpensive, off-dry Pinot Grigio is going down a storm, there are also producers trying to do something altogether more serious with the grape, including Villa Russiz. There is a beautiful ripeness here, with peach blossom, ripe pear and even touches of spices on the nose. There's a definite floral lift to this wine, but plenty of ripe fruit too. On the palate there is a hint of juicy sweetness, like fresh pear juice, in a medium- to full-bodied wine that has lots of elegance and a nice limpid sense of clean, pure fruit and acidity. A delicious wine that is commercial, yet retains a lot of character and savoury appeal. £59.94 for six bottles.

Villa Russiz (Italy) Merlot Graf de La Tour 2001
I confess that my notes on this wine are more sketchy than I'd like, as by this point in the meal food, wine and conversation were flowing in a pretty unstoppable stream (Fiore had created a special twelve course tasting menu for this dinner). This top red wine of the estate is aged 24-months in French oak barriques, and struck me for its beautifully refined pencil-shaving and cedarwood nose, and its sumptuous quality of ripe, yet deep and plummy merlot fruit, with no sign of either underripeness or jamminess. On the palate it is another very intense, concentrated wine, but with a generosity of dark plum and berry fruits and a broad, mouthfilling texture. Fine tannins, and elegant, background acidity give excellent balance too in a hugely impressive northern Italian merlot. £132.90 for six bottles.