These delicious whites are just crying out for recognition. But if Friuli is to achieve wider fame, regional in-fighting must stop.
The Colli Orientali del Friuli region in northeast Italy shares grapes, terroir and vinification techniques with its neighbour to the south, Collio Goriziano. Yet for some reason Colli Orientali has traditionally suffered by comparison to its better-known neighbour.
More recently, however, there have been signs that times are changing. Respected Italian wine guide Gambero Rosso placed Colli Orientali at the top of the Friuli Venezia Giulia league in 2002, awarding it 10 tre bicchieri (‘three glasses’, the top award) against Collio’s nine, out of a total of 27 for Friuli as a whole. Meanwhile the Tocai Vigne Cinquantanni of the Vigne di Zamò estate in Colli Orientali was awarded the coveted title of ‘Best white wine of the year’. Both of which suggest a change in the hierarchy of the Friuli region.
Marco Malison, director of the Colli Orientali Producers’ Association at Cividale del Friuli, says the results are ‘confirmation, should that be necessary, that in the past the quality of Colli Orientali’s wines might have been underestimated’.
Older brother Collio Goriziano was the first of the two regions to gain its DOC (in 1968) and has long been perceived as having more glamorous wines and winemakers than Colli Orientali while continuing to command higher prices for its products. As Marco Felluga, president of the Collio Growers Consortium, puts it, ‘Collio Goriziano was born first and is better known in the world market.’ But, could the advantage actually be, as Burton Anderson wrote in his Wine Atlas of Italy, ‘that the short version of its name is easier to remember’?
The rivalry between the various Friuli region winemaking zones can be fierce, epitomising what the Italians call campanilismo – literally ‘bell towerism’ – a love of one’s local church bell and the worst sort of parochialism. The campanilismo has its roots in the conflicts between the Venetian and Austrian empires, which split eastern Friuli into two distinct zones. In 1420 the Republic of Venice conquered western Friuli region, including what is now the province of Udine and the Colli Orientali territory, leaving the Austrians to gain control of Gorizia and the east.
Today, it is fair to say that the division of viticultural eastern Friuli into two disciplines is based on historical differences rather than any great contrast in the vineyards. Some growers, such as Schiopetto, Livio Felluga, and Livon, have plots in both, and it is difficult to define the difference between them. Gianni Menotti of Villa Russiz says: ‘There aren’t great differences in soil; the differences are mainly in the rainfall and temperature.’ Marco Felluga adds: ‘The chief differences are in the respective rules of production – in Collio vineyards are recognised as DOC only on hillsides, and only at a certain height.’
The better Colli Orientali vineyards, however, are in the south of the DOC area, cheek by jowl with Collio Goriziano. Establishing the identity of either zone through the style of the wines produced is difficult, with little to choose between them. Paolo Dolce of Rocca Bernarda says that, ‘Collio Goriziano is above all a very structured and full-bodied white wine; Colli Orientali is less structured, but more elegant.’
The name Collio is derived from collina (hill), immediately evocative of the region’s rolling and picturesque landscape. Orientali is cooler and damper to the north as it gets closer to the Alpine foothills, whereas Goriziano to the south is warmer and drier, protected from cold northerly winds by the same Alpine foothills. The main soil type, in both zones, is flysch, calcareous marl with sandstone layers, which drains well and delays ripening. Such conditions are ideal for the production of the outstanding whites that Friuli is renowned for.
Both are relatively small viticultural areas, Collio Goriziano covering 1,550ha (hectares) and Colli Orientali 2,300ha. Such small regions are naturally suited to small-scale producers rather than larger cooperative wineries, hence a preponderance of estates with Azienda Agricola in their title (which means they produce wine from their own grapes rather than buying them in).
THE FRIULI STYLE
Wineries in both regions tend to be well equipped, with the emphasis on clean fruit extraction and varietal purity – a style pioneered by Mario Schiopetto – although this is moving towards a fuller, more complex style through the use of techniques such as lees ageing, skin contact and barrel maturation.
Most producers maintain that the use of wood is atypical for the region, a view supported by Dolce: ‘For most wines, wood isn’t important, except for a few products that necessitate ageing in oak. Even then you are talking about a small percentage of wine.’
The Collio Goriziano zone is centred upon the attractive town of Cormons, 13km west of Gorizia. Certain outlying villages are particularly renowned for their fine wines, especially those on the south-facing slopes of the Colle della Croce between Cormons and Capriva. Pradis (home to the Princic winery) and Spessa (Schiopetto, Castello di Spessa, and Pighin) are stand-outs.
Similarly, the Ronchi di Manzano between Buttrio and Manzano in Colli Orientali – another stretch of south-facing slopes, and a mere 8km from Cormons – is home to many of the zone’s best producers, such as Girolamo Dorigo, Abbazia di Rossazzo, Marina Danieli, and the Ronchi di Manzano estate itself.
Heading north from San Giovanni al Natisone towards Ipplis we encounter Ronco del Gnemiz, Azienda Agricola Specogna, Rocca Bernarda and, at Rosazzo (one of Colli Orientali’s three subzones), Livio Felluga’s Terre Alte vineyards.
From Corno di Rosazzo northwards towards Cividale notable estates include Adriano Gigante, Paolo Redaro, Volpe Pasini, Ivana Adami, Abbazia di Rosazzo, and – also in a subzone – Ronchi di Cialla. The only wine of any note from the far north of Colli Orientali is the sweet white Ramandolo, near Tarcento.
The three sub zones, Rosazzo, Cialla and Ramandolo, are the first such sottozone to be granted in Friuli, with tight restrictions to merit their DOC status. Marco Felluga has concerns about the new system: ‘The sub zones create confusion for consumers. We are committed to reinforce and make known the name of our territory that is Collio.’
The iconoclastic blends that contributed to the high prices fetched by Goriziano whites have never had the same cachet in Orientali, though that iconoclasm has been toned down in recent years as the DOC regulations have expanded to take into account multi-varietal blends.
Could it be that producers are beginning to have greater faith in their terroir than in the name of a blend? Dolce, for one, believes a change has occurred: ‘In the last 40 years Friuli winemaking has concentrated on monovarietal wines. I believe one can continue like this for some time, even if it is important to begin to develop wines with the name of the territorio rather than that of the variety.’
The odd rebel still persists, however, like Ivana Adami at Rosazzo and her efforts with the unclassified Franconia variety. But these days most Goriziano and Orientali growers are happy to work within the DOC framework, implying a greater collective unity among the producers of eastern Friuli.
Times are good for the Colli Orientali and Collio Goriziano, with 2003 an excellent vintage. When asked which is the best zone, following the Gambero Rosso results, most growers refuse to rise to the challenge, pledging loyalty to their own region. But although there is certainly a rivalry, there is also a strong collective belief that Friuli, as a whole, deserves greater recognition. ‘Friuli is a little-known region,’ laments Dolce. ‘It should be better known for its gastronomy, culture, landscape and people. But it can only have success if it remains united.’
Stuart George is the Circle of Wine Writers/Websters young Wine Writer of the Year 2003
Written by STUART GEORGE