Colli Orientali del Friuli
Location: Italy, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia
Grape(s): White- Friulano (Tai, Tocai Friulano), Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Sauvignon Blanc, Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia, Picolit, Chardonnay
Red: Refosco (Refosco dal Pecundolo), Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pignolo
Soil(s): compressed clay, alluvial rocks, marl, limestone
Climate: Warm, Very rainy with high humidity.
After the wonderful evening at La Subida di Cacciatore, we were eager to discover the wines of this region. Friuli sits in the extreme northeast part of Italy bordering both Austria and Slovenia to the north and northeast, respectively, and Veneto to the west. Over the course of its history, it has been inhabited by many different empires and nations. In ancient times, the area was under the rule of Julius Caesar. Later, was part of the Venetian Empire as well as the Celtic. Trieste, in the southeast corner of the region, was the only Mediterranean port, (or any sea port for that matter) of the Austro-Hungarian empire leading up to the Napoleonic wars. Napoleon did come through here and left behind a legacy of French wine grape growing along with quite a few troops. Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc have been planted on these hills since the 1820s. While there is a clear sense you are still in Italy, in the eastern parts of Friuli, the surroundings take on a more Eastern European feel. Here, the border between Slovenia and Italy is purely a political one. One language is listed first, the other underneath it. The culture in Collio is mirrored in Goriska Brda across the border. All of these influences meld together here in Friuli with a cosmopolitan culture of acceptance and inclusion. We found many French speakers along with Serbo-Croatian, German, even Russian and Spanish.
While there are similarities between the two Italian neighbors in terms of grapes grown and the influence of the Adriatic to the south, Friuli wines are a different animal from the Veneto. While Veneto is staunchly Italian, Friuli wines feel more like a blend of many different traditions for the reasons listed above. The region is also unique in its climate. Friuli-Venezia-Giulia receives the most rain of any region in Italy. This is due to the west to east flow of moisture that straddles the Alps. Piedmont, Lombardy, and Alto Adige are fairly dry due to the elevation of the Alps in those parts, while in Friuli the mountains are slightly lower. Storms form over the Atlantic and traverse over France, reaching the foothills of the Alps either to the west or to the north of Piedmont. If the storms are not intense enough to pass over the Graian Alps where Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain stands at 4810m (15,780ft) they continue to travel east, picking up extra moisture, until they find a gap or elevation low enough to pass over. This usually happens in Friuli where the Carnic and Julian Alps are slightly lower at around 2,800m (9,186 ft) in elevation. A quote from Giovanni Abrigo of Orlando Abrigo “if it is dry in Piedmont, it is probably raining in Friuli”. The region also receives moisture due to the Scirocco winds which blow in from the south and the Adriatic Sea. When the warmer, saturated air here combines with cold mountain air blowing in from Austria, some of the most intense storms in Italy occur. Hail is more of an issue further into Slovenia, as we will discuss in a later post, but it does rain here about 200 days out of the year, with over 130 inches of rain falling in the pre-Alps per year.
The two wineries we visited in Friuli could not have been any more different. Think Barbara Streisand vs. Lady Gaga. Or better yet, Helen Mirren vs. Runi Mara- both are great actresses that have been nominated for Oscars, but well… you can probably see where I’m going with this. First up on the docket was Livio Felluga. The namesake and creator was born in Istria (now in Croatia) during the early 1930s. This family owned winery began in humble fashion with Livio making wine alongside his father and brothers. He sold the wine door to door in demijohns until he came up with enough money to buy his first vineyard in Rosazzo in 1956. He wanted to be sure that his wine spoke of the land it was cultivated from, so on his first label he mapped out the tiny village of Rosazzo amongst other villages in the hills of the Collio. That label is still in use today and is a classic icon of Livio Felluga. The family now owns 155 hectares of vineyard space in many parts of Friuli. They are widely regarded as one of the top producers in the region. The style of winemaking they practice is one that was also trumpeted by the late Mario Schiopetto, a clean, purity-of-variety driven style utilizing stainless steel and temperature controlled fermentation. It is the first of three main schools of winemaking practiced in Friuli today.
We arrived on time (an incredibly rare feat, but our hotel was just 6 minutes away), but something was askew at the winery. There seemed to be a commotion of some sorts, people running around to and fro, an air of slight panic. We were met by a young lady named Giuliana, who quickly explained that the winery received a surprise inspection from the tax bureau. This meant that documents had to be quickly located, inventories rechecked, and every other tedious detail that would normally be prepared over the course of probably a week had to be done in probably an hour. Unfortunately, this meant a shift in plans. Andrea Felluga was not going to be able to meet with us, as he was busy with the situation. We did get to taste through the entire portfolio of the winery before lunch. Of the 12 wines we tried, what stood out most were the single varietal wines of the region. My favorites were the Friulano, Ribolla Gialla, and Refosco. Each had a zippy mineral quality that was reminiscent of sea salt, and Refosco smelled like violets and fern leaves. The wines were polished, with good structure, balanced oak usage, and bright fruit notes. They were exactly what we were expecting from a producer of such pedigree. Our parting gift was an overabundance of Felluga’s Picolit dessert wine, 4 bottles worth, and a fantastic lunch at Terre I Vini, the Felluga family’s fantastic osteria across the street. All in all, not too shabby!
Our afternoon appointment was 20 minutes away in a tiny village on the Slovenian border called Oslavia. Radikon is a name in the wine world that is quite divisive. The style of wine they produce is not for everyone, but to those that enjoy it (usually those who wait a few years to enjoy the current releases) absolutely rave about the skin macerated orange wines of the region. Radikon is situated on a steep south facing vineyard in Oslavje (the Slovenian spelling). We were met by Saša Radikon at the winery which is also his parents’ home. Saša, along with his mom Suzana and dad Stanko have 3 ha under vine on the property with 9 more hectares owned or rented just down the road. When I asked him what the vines on the adjacent hillside were, he replied “Oh, those are Josko’s, I’m not really sure but I think he is about to tear them out” I did a double take, Josko? Josko Gravner? That’s your neighbor! The legendary producer is literally just next door. Gravner is a magnate of a second tradition of Friuli winemaking by adding barrique aging and extended maturation in bottle (and more recently clay amphorae that are buried in the ground during aging). He is incredibly elusive and I am not sure what it takes to get that appointment. Luck, I guess…
At Radikon, the wines are made in a very traditional method that was nearly abandoned in favor of modern methods. Franz Mikulus took over this land in 1937 just prior to WWII. The first vines planted were Ribolla, and the vineyard stood until a disastrous rockslide in 1996. His grandson Stanko Radikon took over in 1976. The soils here are compressed clay, which lends itself to being prone for mudslides as it absorbs the water to a certain point. Once oversaturated, the clay breaks off in sheets from the rest of the soil and then slides off the hillside. Small rocks dot the hillside as well adding a pronounced minerality to the wines. The vineyard management is organic and sustainable. Saša spoke of spraying the vineyards with propolis, a byproduct of bee pollen, to combat peronospera. Radikon uses local trees for the production of their corks. This is a specialized cork that is much thinner and more compact than standard ones from Portugal or Spain. These Oslavje corks do not allow for as much microoxygenation and keep flavor in. They also fit perfectly the unique 500mL and 1L bottles in use at Radikon. The neck is very narrow and the cork is longer than average, all of this is for the purpose of letting the wine gain in complexity in the bottle over long periods of time, it may extend the life of the wine by years. When we asked Saša why they use the 500mL and 1L formats instead of the traditional 750mL, he replied “the regular bottles are too small. We want two people to be able to enjoy a full bottle of wine, or to get one half red and one half white. 1L is a much better amount for a couple to enjoy.” Defiant at yet another turn…
The wines are produced from both red and white grapes, but the star for Saša is Ribolla. “Ribolla is our local grape” he says “it survived here in Oslavje when everywhere else they were planting international grapes”. In 1995, Stanko Radikon decided that his Ribolla on its own lacked complexity when fermented in a traditional method. He decided to make his Ribolla in the same way he made his Merlot, by fermenting the wine on the skins. This is a very old method of production, originally used as a preservation technique in the days before sulfur. The wine turned out very different from what we expect out of wines today. The nose is rich, sharp, and very herbaceous. On the palate, the wine is just bizarre. Full bodied white wines sometimes have a hint of tannins, usually from oak aging. These wines we a hell of a lot more than slightly tannic. Brandon and I had just been arguing about tannin level calls in white wine. My position was firmly on the side of white wine never going above medium in the realm of tannins, that is red wine territory, and when evaluating a wine’s structure we have to keep In mind the lexicon of the entire world of wine as opposed to having a separate scale for reds and whites. I think I won the argument while having my foot in my mouth. These wines were definitely more than medium. Aging is an incredibly important part of the winemaking process. The current release white wines, except for Pinot Grigio and a blend of Chardonnay and Friulano called Slatnik, are of the 2006 vintage. These wines go through 6 months of fermentation and maceration on the skins, followed by 3.5 years in oak, and another year in bottle for good measure. The reds are made from Merlot and Pignolo and are aged even longer. Each year, Radikon tastes the reds to determine if they are ready for release. Not every vintage is release, in fact most are not. The quantities are usually tiny, about 60 cases of Merlot and even less of the Pignolo. The entire production of Radikon is around 2,500 cases per year.
After tasting from the barrels, it was time to try the bottles. The 2010 Pinot Grigio led, and it was a deep lavender color. Pinot Grigio by nature is pink skinned, and just 10 days maceration with those skins gave a wine of intense concentration of color. The nose showed fruit profile combinations I had never experienced in wine. Blood orange, strawberry (in a white wine), meyer lemon, hibiscus, and terragon were all clearly discernable and intense. The 2010 Slatnik was softer, but still had notes of ripe mandarin orange, melon, and orchid. The Oslavje blend of Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon, and Chardonnay had a distinct note of mango and honeycomb. The Jakot Friulano, the first wine Saša put out on his own, was driven by passionfruit and nectarine, on the palate it had a taste of apricot marmalade. The Ribolla was a lot more herb driven with sage, dried oregano and rosemary taking the lead, with peach pit and blood orange in the background. This wine was definitely the most herbaceous wine I recall having tasted. The last wine was the absolute gem. It was the 2000 Fuori dal Tempo, a blend of the same grapes as Oslavje, but the best selection of grapes and released “when its ready”. This wine was aged for 35 days on the skins, 3 years in barrel, and 9 in bottle. Notes of green tea, pineapple, fig, and mango blew us away. The perfect balance of body, acid, and tannin on the palate sealed the deal. I am one of those people that absolutely loved this wine. I do agree, it needs a while to come into harmony, but once there the flavor profiles are absolutely unparalleled. Yes, the wines are weird in their youth, unapproachable even to some, but with age the mellow into something beautiful. These wines are not “flawed” as some have described them, but a different take on what wine can be. Just as Chateau Musar is not for everyone, neither are skin contact wines from this region. But they are definitely not flawed, the precision and passion that Saša and his dad put into the wines can be more accurately described as flawless. If Gravner is the second method in Friuli, Radikon surely spearheads the third.
Like I said earlier, these two could not have been any more different in style. Livio Felluga’s wines are enjoyable by anyone’s standards; crisp, fresh, varietally correct wines of great structure and length. Radikon is a rebel and a staunch traditionalist; high acid, high tannin, high alcohol (sounds like Nebbiolo), but elegant, interesting, unique, balanced… my list of adjectives can keep on going. The common thread for these two family-owned and operated wineries with long traditions is that they are both successful in conveying the spirit of Friuli. This region is diverse, drawing on many influences from many different cultures. Is it a surprise that a Croatian born Italian is having great success producing wines in a modern style from both French and indigenous grapes? Or is it a surprise that a Slovenian family winery is getting international acclaim for bringing back a traditional way of winemaking that is so unique it is mostly centered around one village in the Collio? Other places, maybe. In Friuli, no. This region is a melting pot of ideas, cultures, a crossroads between western, eastern, and northern Europe. It is a world not so different from our own on the other side of the pond.
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