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Italy’s great white hope

Modern and exciting, the darlings of the 1980s restaurant scene, but how are the wines of Friuli faring now? Richard Baudains finds them as dynamic as ever
  • The renaissance of quality winemaking is a modern phenomenon.
  • Friuli has traditionally kept its whites under a bushel.
  • Winemakers are looking hard at the character and quality of their wines.
  • There is a regained confidence in Tocai.
  • Trends at top end: authentic aromas, measured fruit, potential for bottle ageing.
  • The search for a distinctive local character.

There is an enthusiastic, New World atmosphere about the winemaking scene in the tiny area of hills which back onto Italy’s northeast border with Slovenia, in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Friuli is a young wine region. Certainly, its origins belong to the Old World, but the renaissance of quality winemaking is a modern phenomenon. Decimated by phylloxera in the 1880s and largely abandoned in the troubled century that followed, specialised viticulture only really got going again in the 1970s.

The region’s white wines took off at the beginning of the 1980s as impeccably made bottles from a rapidly increasing number of small to medium scale estates established Friuli’s reputation in Italy. Recognition outside the country has been slower in coming. In the case of Friuli there is some truth in the old cliche, ‘the Italians keep their best wines to themselves’. Although Italy as a whole sells more of its wine abroad than any other country in Europe, Friuli has traditionally kept its whites under a bushel. The region probably exported more wine under the Roman Empire than it does today. Up until the mid-1990s less than 15% of the annual DOC production found its way abroad, the rest being absorbed by a voracious home market.

This situation is changing, however. Producers are getting more involved in export, which is having a wash-back effect on the region. Lining up in the big international markets has increased awareness and prompted some fairly searching who-are-we-where-are-we-going questions in the prestige DOC zones of Colli Orientali, Collio and Isonzo over the last two years.

Friuli’s reputation at home as the country’s top white wine region remains unrivalled, but as Barbara Zamò from Le Terre di Zamò points out, the hard fact is that the region has yet to produce a wine accepted by international critics as one of the world’s great whites. There is no doubt, however, that competing in the very top international bracket is part of the private mission statements of an increasing number of producers. To this end winemakers are looking hard at the character and quality of their wines.

Many producers are cutting back on the number of wines they bottle. In a region with a dozen white DOC varieties, it is not unusual for an estate to have more mono-varietals than it has hectares of vineyard. The first in the region to clear out the jumble were small producers like the excellent Edi Keber, La Castellada and Josko Gravner who now all make one varietal and assemble their other grapes in a blend under the newly revised Collio Bianco DOC.

Larger estates face the same problems on a bigger scale. ‘In the old days – which in fact weren’t all that long ago,’ says Patrizia Stekar of Castello di Spessa and La Boatina, ‘people planted a little bit of everything, with no real selection’. One of her most important jobs as the new director of these well-known estates is to review the varietal range. Pinot Bianco is a classic at Spessa, but so are half a dozen others, including rarities like Malvasia Istriana. The question is which cultivars to throw out and which to keep.

Chardonnay does well in all three top DOCs, but on the grounds that it also does well in virtually any other decent site on the planet, it is not being heavily replanted. Sauvignon Blanc, on the other hand, which is much more sensitive to soils and microclimate, looks set to stay. Locally developed clones make wines with distinctive character, with less gooseberry and cat’s pee and riper tropical fruit. Pinot Grigio from Friuli knocks the pale commercial stuff masquerading under its name in other parts of the northeast into a cocked hat. Pinot Bianco is possibly superior, certainly more complex and elegant, but apparently hard to sell, which is prompting producers to reluctantly let it go. The biggest gamble is Ribolla Gialla, a local grape with fine intensity on the palate but very discrete aromas. The hottest news is regained confidence in Tocai.

Until recently, the region’s most-planted variety had not been deemed to have much of a future, in part because its grassy fennel-and-almond flavours were considered too aggressive for international tastes, but also because of the EU ruling due to come into force in 2006, which will ban its use as a wine name. What it will be called remains an open issue but the wine itself, especially in the more elegant style which estates like Borgo San Daniele and Zamò are developing, is going to the top of many producers’ lists.

Winemaking is changing. ‘Friuli made its fortune with a style of winemaking that produced technically perfect but simplified whites’ says Barbara Zamò. ‘At the end of the 1980s two or three small producers began to react against this with big, full-bodied wines which went to the opposite extreme. Now many winemakers are trying to find a style somewhere between the two approaches.’

At Zamò, they exploit what Barbara calls ‘the goodness of the skins’ by giving many wines a short period of maceration and pressing slightly more firmly to produce a little more extract. The results are evident in the richness of texture – one of the hallmarks of this interesting Colli Orientali estate, which faithfully reflects the trends at the top end of the region’s winemaking; very authentic in the aromas, measured fruit, lots of potential for bottle ageing.

The same basic trends and attention to winemaking are evident at Conti Formentini at San Floriano. This historic winery was taken over in 1996 by Gruppo Italiano Vini. The sale did not include any vineyards, so GIV buys in from small growers in the village for its 300,000 bottles a year. The biggest investments went into vinification facilities.

Friuli has never been under-technical in its approach, but chief oenologist Marco Monchiero is breaking new ground at Formentini with, for example, the use of reductive winemaking. Vinification under gas to protect the wine from oxygen is common in the New World but is rarely used in Italy. The pay off in terms of fruit is evident in the almost luscious Ribolla Gialla – one of the great successes of 1997 – together with the Tocai. San Floriano is known for full-bodied wines. Formentini respects this character, giving a lot of attention to the texture of the whites through sur lie ageing but also gets a lot of fruit into its wines. Not surprisingly perhaps given GIV’s experience, the whites have a distinctly international feel.

Another winemaker very aware of the international scene is Walter Filiputti. After a long, successful career as a consultant, he is now putting his considerable talents and energy into making his own wines. His ‘grand cru’ is Abbazia di Rosazzo, where he once consulted and, two vintages ago, he took over the lease from former tenants Zamò. Filiputti is a seasoned, market-wise campaigner and also an intuitive winemaker with a sense of the spirit of place.

His Ronco degli Agostiniani is a classic barrel-fermented Chardonnay; rich fruit and vanilla, mature lees character, long, powerful. It would slot comfortably into any global Chardonnay tasting. Filiputti’s major commitments at Abbazia are to historic local varieties, however, like the subtle, floral Ribolla Gialla Tocai, which he ages in 25hl vats to form the base for the Ronco del Monastero, and Picolit, the grape of a rare, unpredictable but potentially exquisite sweet wine.

The key to the trends of the last few years in Friuli is the search for a distinctive local character, which comes from getting the choice of cultivars right, but does not stop at the level of variety. The new approach to winemaking – later harvesting and bottling, skin contact, lees ageing and the use of wood – produce terroir wines reflecting the clay-rich marl soils and the unique climate at the top of the Adriatic where cypress and olive trees give the hills an almost Mediterranean look. There is a feeling in the region that these round, fleshy whites could also have been great reds. It will be fascinating to see where that idea leads in the next 10 years.

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