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Peter McCombie MW on Friuli: Italy’s best white wine making region

With Decanter's tasting of fine wines from Fruili Venezia Giulia coming up on October 22, Italian expert Peter McCombie MW offers an insight into this fantastic winemaking region and helps identify the range of both local and imported grape varieties said to produce the country's best dry whites. For more information about the tasting and to book tickets, click here.

For someone who may not have heard of Friuli wines or the region Friuli-Venezia Giulia, can you explain a little bit about where it is in Italy and in relation to the countries bordering it?

It’s right up in the top right hand corner, bordering Austria, Slovenia and Croatia

Can you explain a bit of the history and tradition of Friuli winemaking? They’re said to have been making wine there in the Roman times…

There’s a long history, like most of Italy but its geographical position plus the influence of its neighbours means they have a lot of French grapes (brought by Napoleon’s troops) and share grapes with the Slovenes and Croats and winemaking has some Germanic and Slavic influences. It’s a merry mash-up. In the sixties they embraced hi-tech stainless steel winemaking, then had a bit of a love affair with barrels, today things have settled down a bit and they are working on gaining weight an richness – and longevity – without excessive oak.

What is the region like in terms of DOCs and DOCGs? How is it split up?

There are 10 DOCs, 4 DOCGs and 3 IGTs, but there are three that are especially important for dry whites and reds: Collio, Colli Orientali del Friuli and Isonzo. Usefully they often – but not always, use varietal labelling along with the DOC.

How do the region’s weather patterns and terroir affect the wines?

It can be quite warm, but the Mediterranean breezes have a cooling effect and the cold, dry Bora is important in ventilating the grapes especially in Isonzo. Soils on the plains are gravelly but calcareous marl is significant in the hilly Collio and Colli Orientali.

Friuli wines may not be the most well-known outside of Italy, or perhaps outside of Europe, but they’re said to be the best whites in Italy? Is this true? Why are they not more famous?

They are certainly among the best dry whites in Italy. I suspect they are not more famous because the area is not that well known in the wider world, although it should be. Because they have a lot of French grapes I suspect sometimes people dismiss them as wannabes, but the native grapes can make delicious wines.

For me, blends of several grapes are some of Friuli’s most successful wines, but they have ‘fantasy names’ that have low consumer recognition. Finally the wines really are food wines, they really shine when paired with food, so they are harder to taste and enjoy on their own

Because of the small vineyard yield, (said to be the lowest in Italy) there is a massive emphasis on the quest for high quality over quantity, is this true? Is this also why Friuli whites tend to be more costly than other Italian whites?

They are expensive, because hillside vineyard work is expensive and yields are relatively low

How would you describe a Friuli white to someone who has never tried one? What should they taste like?

It’s hard to generalise too much but they should be fresh, lightly aromatic, with good weight and a dry, textural palate.

There are also, or at least have been at one time over 150 different grape varieties in the region – can you explain the main varieties that are used today? Both native and introduced…

The local Friulano manages the third most-planted status, in a top six that otherwise consists of French Pinot Gris (AKA Grigio), Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc. Friulano is mildly aromatic, with a dry (almondy) fruit character and salty minerality. Alongside Friulano there are a number of intriguing and distinctive native varieties.

Ribolla Gialla has an 800-year history in Friuli, where it performs best in the Oslavia and Rosazzo subzones of Collio and Colli Orientali respectively. With its delicate floral aromas, high natural acidity and relatively light body it makes an attractive aperitif or partner for lighter fish and seafood. More ambitious versions are capable of aging.

Verduzzo Friulano
comes in dry and sweet versions. Dry can have a challenging edge of astringency and it can make a valuable blending component. It is mostly grown in Colli Orientali.

Ramandolo at the northern end of those hills produces the best sweet examples, attractively honeyed, if not hugely complex.

Picolit appears as a varietal wine in the Colli Orientali del Friuli DOC, along with Ribolla Gialla and Verduzzo, but it is prized locally for the quality of the dessert wine it produces and has two DOCGs dedicated to its production in Udine province. A shy yielder it has stone fruit aromas and moderate sweetness.

Carso, bordering Croatia is home to Vitovska whose enthusiasts find floral aromas, pears and sage and flavours of stone fruit and minerality.
Refosco Dal Peduncolo Rosso makes juicy reds, with blue-black fruit favours, an herbal undertone and fresh acidity.

Schioppettino (literally “little crack” or “gunshot”) is a deliciously aromatic grape, producing wines sometimes reminiscent of the northern Rhone. Tannic in youth with spice, pepper and violet notes interlaced with ripe fruit flavors, the wines need cellaring.

Pignolo (literally ‘fussy’) is a rare, low-yielding grape. With deep colour and considerable richness it has tremendous potential, both as a varietal and as a blending grape.

Tazzelenghe (literally ‘cuts the tongue’) produces a fruity yet tannic wine that will mellow with age, while retaining its fruitiness.

Like Vitovska, Terrano is only found on the limestone plateau of Carso, where it likes terra rossa soils. A sub-variety of Refosco it is normally made for early drinking.

Are most Friuli wines single varietal or blends? Is one more popular than the other?

Mostly single varietals, but some very good blends

As well as Friuli whites they region also produces red varieties? Are these also stand-out wines?

Until recently I think the Bordeaux varieties often struggled to achieve full ripeness in Friuli. Now they do achieve ripeness while retaining an attractive herb-tinged freshness. In addition the key native red grapes, mentioned above, are beginning to look very exciting.

Why should someone taste Friuli wines?

Because they taste great!

For more information about the Fruili Venezia Giulia tasting and to book tickets, click here.

See Decanter’s travel guide to Friuli
See Andrea Briccarello’s top Friuli whites

Written by Decanter

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