I was recently in Udine, which is the wine capital of this region at the north-eastern tip of Italy whose full name is Friuli-Venezia-Giulia. As this is a bit of a mouthful, I will shorten it to Friuli. On the eastern extremity of the region, one is in an attractively hilly region that borders on Slovenia. Indeed, at times, it is hard to know whether one is in Italy or in Slovenia until you see a road or other sign and the language changes. With the arrival of Europe, the border posts have disappeared and, with them, the army barracks that used to guard what was the frontier with ex-Yougoslavia. Many family names of Friuli winemakers also sound more clearly Slovenian than Italian: Gravner, Keber, Princic, for example. And, on the other side of the border and well into Croatia further south, italian is frequently spoken. So we see, once again, that political borders, even in Europe, are far from always reflecting clear cultural differences.
Two main specific appellations exist in this hilly part of the region: Colli and Colli Orientali di Friuli , respectively designated 3-11 and 4 on the above map. One could also add the appellation of Karst (2) that runs down to Trieste. Izonso also produces some very interesting wines on essentially flat land, on account of the drainage provided by the deep stony soils. Elsewhere, and moving westwards, the land is mainly a vast plain that stretches around the tip of the Adriatic, almost to Venice and moving north up to the alpine foothills. Although there are some other subdivisions into several different appellations here as shown by the various colours on this map, it is quite hard to always see the logic of these. A lot of wine, some of it very good, is also produced under the more generic IGT Friuli-Venezia-Giulia designation.
This region that contains a mixture of hills and (mainly) plains, has a total of 23,500 hectares of vines that account for just 3% of all Italian wines which are produced by something like 6,000 different producers. The tendency here has been a steep reduction in the their numbers, since there were 35,000 back in 1982. We can indeed talk about a trend towards concentration, all things being relative, as the average vineyard holding even today is just under 3 hectares, so this trend will surely continue.
The climate is warm and quite humid in the summer, with high annual rainfall: the Alps are not far (see the water in the plain vines below).
In terms of grape varieties, there is a mixture of « international » (ie French) ones and local ones. Both categories can produce, in the right hands, very interesting wines which are rarely expensive. 75% of the total production here is now white, which is a big change from the red/white equal share that lasted until the 1960s. The main explanation for this swing seems to be the expanded authorised area for producing Prosecco, which now spills over from the Veneto into Friuli, together with vast areas devoted to banal Pinot Grigio made for mass export markets but which are rarely sold locally (the locals are not stupid!). The most planted grape variety is indeed the dreaded Pinot Grigio, followed by Gléra (for Prosecco), then Merlot and the local Friulano. Apart from tasting lots of Sauvignon Blanc, which was the reason I came here, to judge in the International Sauvignon Competition (Concours Mondial de Sauvignon, to give it its official title), I focused in my spare time mainly on the local varieties, including Friulano. Of the whites, these also include Ribolla Giallo, Malvasia Istriana and Verduzzo (often vinified as a sweet wine) Picolit (also sweet), as well as the Pinots, Chardonnay and of course Sauvignon Blanc. Reds come mainly from Refosco dal Pedonculo Rosso (see photo below) and Schiopettino and a few other rarer ones like Pignolo and Tazzalenghe, alongside the ubiquitous Merlot which has been here since the 19th century at least.
Some good producers (amongst those whose wines I have tasted)
Collio: Borgo del Tiglio (Nicolo Manferrari), Villa Russiz, Marco Felluga, Ronche de Manzano, Edi Keber, Gravner.
Colli Orientale di Friuli: Ronco Severo, Gigante, Ronchi di Cialla, Zamo e Zamo
Izonzo: Jermann, Vie de Romans, Lis Neris
IGT Friuli Venezia Giulia: Renata Pizzulin (Murva), Di Leonardo
More about this very interesting region next week