Friuli-Venezia Giulia

Trieste is the administrative center of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, whose provinces include Gorizia, Pordenone and Udine. The region ranks 17th in size (7,855 square kilometers) and 15th in population (1,184,000).  Varietal wines dominate the multitude of types included in Friuli-Venezia Giulia’s nine DOC categories (including part of Lison-Pramaggiore, shared with Veneto). Only the Friuli Grave zone is large by national standards, producing some 30 million liters a year to stand with the top ten DOCs in volume.  Friuli has built a glowing reputation in Italy and abroad for white wines made by relatively small wineries and estates. The whites had long been dominated by Tocai Friulano, a variety related to Sauvignon Vert or Sauvignonasse. But recently the European ruled that Tocai must change its name so as not to be confused with the Tokay or Tokaji of Hungary, which is the name of a wine but not a vine.

Friuli’s Malvasia Istriana, Ribolla Gialla and Verduzzo also can be intriguing, as can such admirable foreign varieties as Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco and the ever popular Pinot Grigio. The Friulian style in whites favors the exquisitely fresh and fruity, with delicate fragrance and flavor that express clear varietal character. Many producers consider their whites to be too pure and linear to benefit from wood aging. The style has been on target for the national market, which seems to favor the flavors and names of pure varietals. But there are a growing number of exceptions to the rule, in white wines that gain depth and complexity from blending, oak aging and other artistic touches.

Friulian reds were traditionally light and fruity, best to drink within two to five years of the harvest. That style applied to the predominant Merlot and Cabernet Franc, as well as to Pinot Nero and the worthy native variety of Refosco. But certain winemakers have heightened structure and nuance by blending Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and other varieties and aging the wine in small oak barrels.

Friulians have shown an encouraging tendency to revive varieties that had been neglected. Foremost among the legends is Picolit, a white that ranked as one of Europe’s finest sweet wines around 1800, when it was favored by the Hapsburgs and other royal families. Despite low yields, Picolit has been coming back. So has Verduzzo, which makes refined dessert wines in a place called Ramandolo in the Colli Orientali. Ribolla Gialla, a native of Collio, has benefited from new methods that make it into a dry white of character.

Among the reds are Refosco, also known as Terrano, which can be made either light and fruity or into a durable wine for aging. Though rare and odd, Franconia and Tazzelenghe make distinctive reds, but perhaps the Pignolo and Schioppettino varieties have the most intriguing potential.

Sparkling wines represent a growing field, as producers bring not only choice Pinot and Chardonnay grapes into their cures but also Ribolla for fine spumante by the classical and charmat methods.