Stretching from the Alps to the Adriatic, Friuli is home to rolling hills, picturesque villages and a wealth of boutique wine producers. Simon Woolf shares tips on how best to plan a trip...
I suspect it can be a bit slow if you’re a news reporter in Friuli. One of last year’s bigger stories was a scandal alleging the presence of illegal additives in Sauvignon Blanc. Friuli-Venezia Giulia, to use the full and rather confusing name (Venice is not part of the region), is a peaceful, genteel corner of Italy, lacking big-ticket tourist attractions and generally more concerned with agriculture and viticulture.
It wasn’t ever thus. Modern-day Italy’s most northeasterly quarter has been disputed and fought over since antiquity – by Romans, Byzantines, Venetians and Habsburgs. Although most visible scars have healed, the region remains noticeably cross-cultural: Slavic influences permeate the easterly areas, while the northerly Alpine part bordering Austria is decidedly Germanic.
For visitors seeking outstanding food and wine, and beautiful countryside, the region is a paradise. Friuli doesn’t get overrun with indiscriminate tourists, which has helped preserve a sense of authenticity and character that is harder to find in Tuscany or Piedmont. It also offers an unbeatable combination of dramatic mountain scenery, rolling vineyard vistas and idyllic Adriatic coastline.
The best wine areas are concentrated around the southeastern part of the region, especially in the hilly sub-regions of Collio and Colli Orientali (collio means hill in Italian). Neighbouring Isonzo valley and Friuli Carso are also important. Udine, Cormons and Gorizia are attractive bases for a wine-themed trip. All have a certain mitteleuropa elegance, and plenty of diversions beyond wine.
Planning a hypothetical north-to-south tour, you’d start in the northerly DOCG area of Ramandolo, a set of dramatic hills which starts to feel increasingly Alpine as it approaches neighbouring Austria. Centred around the Roman town of Nimis, the DOCG is solely for sweet wines, made from indigenous variety, Verduzzo Friulano.
A perfect food match
Just as the Bordelais prefer to drink Sauternes as an aperitif, so Friulians know that the honeyed, mildly tannic, high-acid Ramandolo goes best with the local Prosciutto di San Daniele (similar to Prosciutto di Parma) or with Montasio cheese. I Comelli is one of the 30 producers in the Consorzio Tutela Vini Ramandolo with excellent wines and a peaceful agriturismo near the winery (email@example.com).
Ramandolo DOCG is contained within the dog-leg-shaped Colli Orientali DOC, which stretches down to the plains around Cormons. Colli Orientali’s green, sweeping valleys are home to myriad small, quality-focused wineries and several different wine styles. Around the village of Prepotto, the rediscovered red variety Schioppettino is king. Ronchi di Cialla (firstname.lastname@example.org) produces elegant, refined wines from this fascinating peppery variety, not to mention a standout white blend. Antico Broilo (email@example.com) and La Viarte (firstname.lastname@example.org) also produce excellent Schioppettino. The latter has an attractively located tasting room overlooking vineyards.
Two cult producers not to be forgotten are Le Due Terre (email@example.com), just outside Prepotto, and I Clivi (firstname.lastname@example.org). Le Due Terre’s Schioppettino/Refosco blend Sacrisassi would surely be a first growth if it were in Bordeaux. I Clivi has vineyards in both Colli Orientali and Collio, and specialises in stunning, long-aged white wines, made mainly from Friulano.
Many of these wineries are family estates where you’ll be tasting at the winemaker’s kitchen table. Most are happy to receive a small number of guests, provided that you make arrangements in advance – so do be sure to email or phone ahead.
The bucolic rolling hills of Collio are not only some of the region’s most beautiful – they also harbour some of its most iconic winemakers. Fierce independence is characteristic here, as cultural identity must transcend the nonsensical border drawn after World War II. This has left families and vineyards artificially parcellated between Friuli Collio on one side and Slovenian Goriška Brda on the other.
The hillsides surrounding San Floriano and Oslavia provide the perfect terroir for Ribolla Gialla, a thick-skinned white variety that can be very neutral when vinified as a fresh, young wine, but becomes complex, regal and thrilling when made as a vino bianco macerato – an orange wine, to use the now-popular term for white wines made with long skin contact. The Oslavia area is a hotbed for this style, and you’ll find seminal producers such as Radikon (email@example.com), Gravner (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Dario Prinˇciˇc dotted around its twisting lanes. These are all Slovenian families, fluent in Italian and Slovene but not necessarily English.
For a reminder of why Friuli rose to fame as the go-to region for pure, varietal white wines, head to Borgo del Tiglio (email@example.com), where Nicola Manferrari produces refined, delicate expressions of the important local varieties Friulano and Malvasia Istriana, in addition to Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
While the Collio is primarily famous for its whites, the Isonzo valley provides alluvial plains and clay soils that are perfect for the region’s red grapes. Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are popular, and with good reason as they can be very successful. Easy-going, herbaceous Refosco, and the fierce, rather wild Pignol are indigenous varieties to seek out. Fulvio Bressan’s (firstname.lastname@example.org) Pignol is one of the most characterful and ageworthy around.
Heading south from the Collio down the tiny strip of Adriatic coastline towards Trieste brings you to another different landscape, and the region’s only formal wine route. The limestone hills that form the Carso plateau are heavily wooded, and everything feels a little bit wilder here.
Enclave of individuals
Friuli’s second Prepotto – the one in Carso rather than the one in Colli Orientali – is home to a clutch of highly individual and accomplished winemakers. Sandi Skerk (email@example.com) and Benjamin Zidarich (firstname.lastname@example.org) are masters of low-intervention winemaking. Both produce highly accomplished white blends made with long skin macerations, and individual expressions of the local Terrano – a nervy red variety with tannins and acid that need a skilled winemaker to tame them. Skerk, Zidarich and their illustrious neighbour Edi Kante (email@example.com) all have extraordinary cellars cut into the limestone rock.
The mild climate, moderated both by the Alps and the Adriatic, isn’t just beneficial for grapes, but also for visitors. Friuli is particularly beautiful in October – and visitors at this time can pencil in Ein Prosit, a major wine and gastronomy festival set in the jaw-droppingly beautiful alpine village of Malborghetto.
If you prefer the summer sun, and you’re not a vegetarian, consider visiting San Daniele for Aria di Festa at the end of June, an entire festival dedicated to the town’s lip-smacking, eponymous ham.
There couldn’t be a better demonstration of the priorities in Friuli – if Slow Food celebrates all that is traditional and regional, slow tourism would appear to sum up the visiting experience perfectly.
Writer, columnist and natural wine specialist, Simon Woolf won the 2015 Born Digital Award for work on his blog, www.themorningclaret.com.