With sea and mountain vistas and diverse local foods, this north- eastern corner of Italy makes an ideal spot for relaxed, uncrowded wine touring, says Carla Capalbo. Read her Friuli travel guide here, first published in the Decanter April 2012 issue.
Friuli fact file:
DOC vineyard areas: Collio: 1,319ha; Isonzo: 1,164ha; Carso: 58ha
Collio: Pinot Grigio (330ha); Sauvignon (251ha); Friulano (206ha); Chardonnay (122ha); Merlot (103ha); Ribolla Gialla (81ha).
Isonzo: Pinot Grigio (210ha); Friulano (178ha); Sauvignon (154ha); Merlot (153ha); Chardonnay (121ha); Cabernet Franc (100ha).
Carso: Malvasia Istriana (16ha); Cabernet Sauvignon (9ha); Vitovska (8ha).
Walking down Gorzia’s tree-lined avenues, flanked by period villas and attractive gardens, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re in Vienna or Paris rather than a provincial city in north-east Italy. Considered the ‘Austrian Nice’ of the Habsburg empire, Gorizia’s mild climate and multicultural atmosphere have always made it an eclectic, lively trading centre. Ever a frontier town, Gorizia was divided in the 20th century between Yugoslavia, Italy and Slovenia. After Slovenia joined the EU in 2004, the border guards finally left a few years later. The area’s wines were well known to the Austrians, who had them shipped, along with cherries and other fruits, to Vienna in the 19th century. Several great winemaking areas fan out from the town. Gorizia sits nestled under the Julian Alps in the Collio hills, which have long been recognised for their fine wines on both sides of the border. The Isonzo river plain and plateau, a special terroir for wines, stretches from Gorizia towards the Adriatic Sea, while the Carso hills, extending south from Gorizia to Trieste, provide another distinct area for their uniquely rocky, limestone soils.
Gorizia and Collio
Gorizia makes a great starting point for a wine holiday in eastern Friuli-Venezia Giulia. This area is full of interest yet still quite untouristy, and you can get there easily by car from Venice airport in less than 90 minutes, and from Trieste airport in 45 minutes. Gorizia is readily walkable, with a colourful market at its heart and many European style cafés and restaurants. Then it’s just a short drive out of town to the heart of wine country, where it’s easy to visit small, family-run wineries and their vineyards. Many offer agriturismo, with B&B or meals; most welcome visits if pre-arranged.
The wines in this area don’t conform to any house style. Friuli is known particularly for its fine whites, yet they vary from pale, steely, dry styles through more structured barrel-aged wines, to the ‘orange’ wines made through long macerations that are now popular. This freedom of interpretation has created a dynamic range that rewards tasters and travellers alike. Red wine enthusiasts will find plenty, too, whether from well-known French varieties that have been cultivated here for more than a century, or from local varieties such as Pignolo, Refosco or Carso’s intense Terrano.
The Collio, on the Italian side of the border, is easy to explore (the corresponding wine area in Slovenia is called Brda). It’s a crescent of soft hills whose slopes lend themselves to viticulture. Small estates are interspersed with woods, villages, castles and occasional olive groves. The northerly climate is mitigated by the sea. Close to Gorizia, the village of Oslavia was at the heart of both 20th century world wars, as its monumental ossuary attests. Oslavia has become a centre for strong- stanced winemakers: Josko Gravner pioneered wines in amphorae using native grapes Ribolla Gialla and Pignolo; Stanko Radikon is committed to sulphite-free winemaking. Other producers in this vein include La Castellada, Damijan Podversic, Dario Princic and Paraschos.
Halfway along the Collio crescent sits the handsome town of Cormòns, surrounded by the wine crus of Zegla, Pradis, Plessiva and Brazzano. Here terrific wines are made from Pinot Grigio, Malvasia Istriana and Sauvignon Blanc, as well as Friulano (formerly known as Tocai). It’s worth meandering along the wine roads here, with the mountains of Slovenia and the higher Alps as an impressive backdrop.
The valley of the Isonzo river, which flows past Gorizia on its way from Slovenia to the sea, appears flat to the eye. Yet a slight rise is enough to differentiate its terroirs: the best is on a low plateau with soils as pebble studded as the Médoc’s. The minerality they confer can be read in the wines of its top producers, from Lis Neris to Borgo San Daniele, Vie di Romans, Bressan, Ronco del Gelso and Drius. Don’t miss a trip to Gradisca d’Isonzo, a lovely small town built by the Venetians as a bastion against the Ottomans. Its ancient castle is just a block from the area’s largest wine store.
Take a local map when you go up into the narrow strip of Carso hills that follows the coast down to Trieste. This is a wilder, thickly wooded area studded with boulders of white and rust-veined limestone. Here vineyards are enclosed by sturdy stone walls to keep animals out. Restaurant food features game and Slovenian mountain dishes as well as distinctive Carso cheeses. The local grape, Vitovska, is gaining notoriety thanks to a handful of producers, notably Vodopivec, Skerk, Kante and Zidarich. In their hands, this wonderful grape produces mineral, amber-tinged whites with perfumes of figs, honey and dates.
From here it’s just a hop to Trieste, the capital of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, the grand city at the gateway between Italy and the east. It’s still easy to imagine Trieste’s lively cultural milieu that attracted the great minds of the 19th century.
How to get there:
Fly to Trieste: (Ronchi dei Legionari Airport), then it’s a 45-minute drive to the vineyards.
By plane to Venice: (Marco Polo Airport), then it’s a 90-minute drive to the vineyards.
Written by Decanter
Friuli: Six of the best wineries to visit
Take a look at Decanter’s pick of the best six wineries to visit in Friuli.
☆ Paolo Caccese
Paolo and Veronica Caccese run a model, rose-covered winery at Pradis, surrounded by sloping vineyards of the Collio’s best white varieties. The Caccese style is pure and mineral – make sure you try the terrific Malvasia Istriana. paolocaccese.it
A pioneer of natural, sulphite-free winemaking, Stanko Radikon is one of Oslavia’s great characters and has a great following among connoisseurs. His small cellar is always full of unusual wines. Try his long-macerated whites and fantastic Merlot. radikon.it
☆ Ronco del Gelso
Fifth-generation farmers, the Badìn family produces some of Isonzo’s most interesting Pinot Grigio and Malvasia from its welcoming winery, on the road from Cormòns to Gorizia. roncodelgelso.com
☆ Lis Neris
Alvaro Pecorari has been a pioneer of Isonzo wines, as his lovely estate at San Lorenzo Isontino attests. His pure wines cover a range of varieties from the plateau – Gris, his oaked Pinot Grigio, was a four-star recommendation in Decanter (March 2011). lisneris.it
☆ Benjamin Zidarich
Zidarich is one of the leading lights on the Carso winemaking scene, and uses a spectacular cellar hewed from the limestone mountain for ageing his fine wines. Try his Vitovska, Malvasia and local red Terrano. zidarich.it
The Vodopivec brothers can be thanked for putting Vitovska (especially as an orange wine) securely on Italy’s map of wonderful varieties. Their walled vineyards are testament to the difficulty of working the rugged Carso terrain. vodopivec.it
Friuli: Where to stay, shop, eat and relax
Winery hotels, local and traditional foods – and a fairytale castle, see Decanter’s recommendations for the best places to sleep, dine, drink and shop in Friuli.
Borgo San Daniele
Centrally located in Cormòns, this lovely winery has beautifully appointed rooms. Its attractive indoor and outdoor spaces will make you want to stay home as much as go travelling. borgosandaniele.it
Grand Hotel Entourage
In central Gorizia, this elegant hotel is in a noble 16th-century palazzo whose former guests included the Bourbon royal family. The wine bar, Il Vinattiere, is excellent. entouragegorizia.com
Urban Hotel Design
To explore Trieste on foot, spend a few nights at this central hotel. The modern décor is cleverly fitted into a handsome 18th century palazzo. urbanhotel.it
Roberto Felluga has recently opened a luxurious six-room relais at his classic winery in the heart of the Collio. It’s surrounded by vineyards with views of the Julian Alps. marcofelluga.it
Bars and Restaurants
Sample authentic Slovenian and Carso dishes at this characterful, family-run restaurant in the woods of the Carso hills. There are also eight rooms for those wanting to stay over. devetak.com
Enoteca la Serenissima
In Gradisca d’Isonzo’s elegant central piazza, this wine bar and shop features the region’s top wines in a palazzo built in 1485. Go for a drink or to buy wine and artisan foods from the area. enotecalaserenissima.it
Gorizia’s favourite restaurant. Have a drink before or after dinner at the lounge-style wine bar, then cross the courtyard to the cosy trattoria where Majda Cicigoj and daughter Katiusa excel at mittel-European, Italian and Slovenian food. Via Duca d’Aosta, 71; Tel: +39 0481 30871
Perched high on a Trieste hill in a quiet street, Scabar is the place for pairing the freshest local seafood with the area’s most distinctive wines. Just a short cab ride from the town centre. scabar.it
Trattoria al Cacciatore de la Subida
Josko Sirk’s great restaurant near Cormòns is a must for top-quality traditional and local food. The homey atmosphere, family service, excellent ingredients and attention to detail will make this a highpoint. A fabulous wine list complete this very pretty picture. You can also stay here, in the well-appointed agriturismo. lasubida.it
Dario Zidarich cheese
The Carso’s limestone mountains are riddled with grottos that make perfect ageing cellars for cheese. Zidarich uses mountain-climbing gear to get to his, made from the milk of cows fed on local grasses. Prepotto 36; Tel: +39 0402 01178
This Trieste ice cream shop is a must for gelatophiles. It’s a little hard to find (take a map with you and check the opening hours before going), but it’s well worth the trip for up to 60 flavours of handmade, seasonal, artisanal gelati. udevalla.com
This magnificent castle, on the sea near Trieste, was the private abode of Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke began his famous elegies there in 1912. The castle interior and park can be visited, and there is even an apartment for rent on the property. www.castellodiduino.it
Gorizia’s elegant covered market in the centre of town is worth a visit to either wander or pick up supplies. Open Monday to Friday mornings and Saturday all day. Corso Verdi