ANDREW DUFFY visits Friuli, a border region renowned for its food and wine but suffering a minor identity crisis.
I have in my possession a copy of a document from 1632 which proves beyond doubt that when the Friulan beauty Aurora Formentini married the Hungarian Count Adam Batthyany of Nemet-Utjar, she brought with her as part of her dowry 300 tocai vines. These vines may have subsequently flourished so well in Hungary that part of the country was named after them, but the fact remains that tocai is a Friulan – and, therefore, an Italian – wine. Anything the Hungarians may say otherwise is moonshine and madness. Except, just how Italian is Friuli? Certainly there is a very Italian perfectionism in Friuli. The winemakers want to make the best wines regardless of what anyone else thinks; the famous prosciutto-makers of San Daniele want to make the best prosciutto, even though that may mean some people don’t like it – ‘It isn’t Coca-Cola,’ I was told at the Morgante prosciutto factory. Passions run high in Friuli, but then this is Italy and you’d expect them to.
Friuli has all the classic Italian motifs. Tall, square, golden-stone bell-towers rise up above vineyards in the afternoon heat-haze; terracotta roofs on white houses dot the landscape; the dark spikes of cypresses punctuate the hillsides; and in the city of Udine, women in large sunglasses with big leather shoulder bags, mobile phones and cigarettes, shop and have coffee. It’s gloriously Italian.
But Friuli is a border province, hidden up in the northeast corner above Venice, below the Austrian Alps and to the west of Slovenia. A clue to its identity lies in the town of Gorizia, where the towers of Sant’Ignazio have distinctly Slavic, onion-shaped domes. The splendidly dark and brooding castle shows its strategic importance as a crossroads in Europe, and there are plenty of medieval siege machines, suits of armour and halberds. Down below, the streets are broad, Austro-Hungarian imperial boulevards – and the border with Slovenia cuts the town in half. Then again, pass through the checkpoint into Nova Gorizia in Slovenia, which still has that old Eastern Bloc Tito style, and you may decide that Friuli is more Italian than you’d thought. Just to keep you guessing, the un-Italianness shows in the food – I ate smoked pork with rosti, and gnocchi di susine, a cinnamon-spiced bread dumpling with a plum in the middle.
Austrian influences are found in the Friulan language, Ladino, too: the Italian is sometimes amended and turned into Ladino by, for example, the addition of a tail to ’Santa Maria’ to give ‘Santa Marja’ – a small but very Slavic difference. But above all, the difference is in the wine. Friuli is the only part of Italy that works with the Tocai Friulano grape and every vineyard makes its own version of the wine. However, it’s nothing like its Hungarian namesake; instead it’s a crisp, full white, usually with floral overtones, which is often drunk as an aperitif.
There are a couple of other unique grapes and wines, too. The Picolit grape makes a heady dessert wine, best tasted at Rocca Bernarda, Livio Felluga, Le Vigne di Zamò and Walter Filiputti at l’Abazzia di Rosazzo. Again among the whites, Ribolla Gialla, which you should taste particularly at Collavini and Ronco delle Betulle, is crisp with hints of flowers and wall fruits, and from the light oaking that part of the blend receives. One of the most well-known local reds, Refosco dal Pedunculo Rosso, is at its best at Venica & Venica, Livon and Livio Felluga. The latter establishment has 160ha (hectares) of vineyards and its Terre Alte is a must-try wine, a big yeasty blend of three grapes. ‘It’s like alchemy,’ Elda Felluga told me. ‘The Tocai Friulano is the baddie; the Pinot Bianco is the elegance; and the Sauvignon Blanc gives it perfume.’ Elda knows her wine: apart from being a fifth-generation winemaker, she is the regional president of the Movimento Turismo del Vino, an organisation which is spreading the word about Italian wines and their place right at the heart of Italian history, culture and civilisation.
In Tuscany, every hilltop has a church; in Rosazzo, the hills at the heart of Friuli, wineries have pride of place instead, with vine terraces spreading out like ripples from the houses. Most of the vineyards are open to visitors and I was struck by the near-religious atmosphere that surrounds wine in Friuli. The heavy oak doors to the cellars wouldn’t look amiss on a cathedral; the tasting tables are touched with something bordering on reverence; and a holy hush descends as the wine is tasted. The cru Rosazzo sits in the DOC Colli Orientali del Friuli and is special even for Friuli, as different facing slopes allow it to grow a wider choice of grapes. In fact, Friuli as a whole is uniquely well placed to make wine. The broad plain drifts down to the Adriatic and the pre-Alps rise jagged behind, making it look curiously like South African wine country. The meeting of warm, moist sea air and cold, dry mountain air gives hot days and cool nights, which are perfect for winemaking. It also puts the visitor to Udine an hour from the ski slopes, an hour from the beaches of Grado and Trieste, and an hour from Slovenia.
While many vineyards will host tours and tastings, the essence of agriturismo is to stay at a working vineyard. Most only do bed and breakfast but there is no shortage of good restaurants in Friuli. At Volpe Pasini I swept up a crunching gravel drive and parked by a stone well and piles of oak barrels. It is obvious that this is a working vineyard. There are seven rooms, all understated elegance in dark wood and cream furnishings, with stone floors and high white walls soaring up to dark beams and terracotta roof tiles (inside as well as out). Even grander, the Castello di Spessa has five rooms – the first two overlooking the courtyard have the best view – and a deep cellar the owners didn’t even know about when they bought the castle. Rubini, near Cividale, has 10 guest rooms crammed with ancient furniture, while there’s a more family atmosphere at Venica & Venica (when I was there the daughter of the house, Serena, rollerbladed through the breakfast room), with six rooms and two apartments done in Scandinavian style, plus a swimming pool and a tennis court.
If you prefer to stay in a city, Udine is one to lose your heart to and makes a good base. The walled medieval centre has cobbled streets lined with arcaded walkways and shops, where men argue and smoke, children run and buskers play. There’s a strong Venetian influence in Piazza Libertà, and the Loggia del Lionello and the Loggia di San Giovanni virtually transport you to St Marks Square. People flock to see the Tiepolo Old Testament frescoes at Palazzo Arcivescovile and the impressive art collection in the castle.
The daily morning market in Piazza Matteotti is small but educational – knobbly pumpkins ready to be made into gnocchi adorn vegetable stalls and the fish stall has large, theatrically bloody heads of swordfish and tuna, a reminder of just how real and fresh their fish is. In the first week in October, the piazza even hosts Friuli DOC, a regional showcase of wine and food. San Daniele del Friuli is an essential visit, too. It’s a quiet town, with a small cobbled centre, an average cathedral and some lovely crumbling frescoes in Sant’ Antonio Abate, but its real point is that it makes the best prosciutto in the world. A tour of a prosciutto plant is fascinating, but only for those who can stomach a room hung with 20,000 pig legs gently drying at 4?C. A much easier place to visit is Palmanova, a perfectly preserved city-fort town, purpose-built as a defensive, symmetrical, nine-point star. However, the most intriguing and perfect Friulan town has to be Cividale del Friuli, a medieval gem and the heart of the Lombard presence in the region during the seventh and eighth centuries.
The museum here shows just how simple these barbarian invaders were, while the Lombard chapel boasts world-class frescoes, with statues of six women, probably martyrs, actually taking precedence over the male saints below. (In Lombard culture, women were unusually liberated, to the extent that they had their own money and were given cash on their engagement, marriage, first child – and when they produced a male heir.) The centrepiece, though, and the emblem of the town, is the Devil’s Bridge, which spans the opalescent green River Natisone far below. The story goes that no one could build a bridge over the river because the sides were too high. One day the devil offered to do it, in exchange for the soul of the first being to cross it, so the citizens sent a cat over. It’s the same story as elsewhere in Italy but with one difference. In Cividale even the Devil could not build the bridge, so he had to ask his mother to help him. This tale imparts two lessons: in Friuli things are a little harder so you have to be a little shrewder; and when all else fails, even in the country that values machismo like Italy does, you can always rely on your mum. No matter how like the rest of Italy it may seem, Friuli is something else.
Written by ANDREW DUFFY