For the Love of Friuli Wine

 


Friuli (or more properly Friuli Venezia Giulia) lies in Italy’s northeastern corner. Protected from the northern winds by the Austrian and Slovenian Alps, Friuli’s climate is tempered by the Adriatic. The winemakers of this area have a reputation of being forward thinking and producing excellent white wines -- reds account for just under 40%. Tradition remains very important to the culture of the region as most properties are still largely owned by individual families. The best wines of this region are a mix of brawn and grace. They are masculine in structure, yet feminine in style. It’s not that the region or its wines have an identity crisis; rather they transcend categories. The Austrian writer Friedrich Halm once said “Two hearts with but a single thought, two hearts that beat as one”. While he was referring to romantic relationships, this really does speak to the best wines of Friuli.
To understand the duality of these wines, one must first understand their origin. While many producers in the area have helped to revolutionize Friulian wine, I’d like to highlight three producers who I feel have led the charge: Schiopetto, Livio Felluga, and Jermann. 
 
Schiopetto 
The story of Schiopetto began in 1965 when Mario Schiopetto rented a property in the hills of Capriva del Friuli. The first vineyards were planted in 1954 with Friulano vines, and it was from these grapes that Mario produced the first varietal wine in the area. His philosophy was not to reinvent tradition, but rather to understand the land, the climate, the character of the hills, and the cycles of nature. He shunned old wooden containers, reduced the number of vines, introduced temperature control to Friuli, and invested in the most innovative equipment available.  Designed by Mario, the cellar was completed in 1992 and constructed to follow the winemaking process from start to finish. It truly is a winemaker’s dream. There is a movable arm which allows for the gravity flow of grapes, two Willmes presses -- the Mercedes Benz of presses -- row upon row of immaculate stainless steel tanks (all with temperature control), and micro oxygenation for each tank. But the pièce de résistance, located in the heart of the cellar, is the yeast room. Here, for each harvest, indigenous yeast are grown and starter cultures are created to inoculate each type of wine and initiate fermentation. There are less than a handful of rooms with this purpose in the world. With a modest total production of 200,000 bottles (90% white, 10% red) the level of capital investment is truly astounding. One of the features that makes the Collio area of Friuli (where Schiopetto is located) so special is the ponca (or Flysch) soil. Rich in calcium, ponca is a composite of sandstone and calcareous clay. The clay component of the soil facilitates water retention, which is particularly beneficial for these hillside sites where water has a tendency to run downhill, away from the vines. Also, the light colour of the soil works to reflect heat rather than absorb it. This acts to keep vine vigour down, thus allowing the fruit to ripen slowly, in turn enabling complex flavour development while retaining the characteristic acidity. Finally, peculiar to the soil is its ability to shrink and swell with the ebb and flow of water. When the water evaporates during periods of dryness, small cracks are formed in the soil, which allow the roots to penetrate further. The peculiar characteristics of this soil and its ability to release micronutrients are some of the main reasons why the winemakers in this region are able to achieve such an incredible balance between muscle and refinement. The wines of Schiopetto definitely achieve this harmony. They are the archetype for the marriage of power and elegance. As all of the wines are aged on their lees (or dead yeast), they all display incredible back palate structure, full rich mouthfeel, and salinity. These attributes are synonymous with the style of Schiopetto. Recently the winery changed ownership, but remains family run after being purchased by the Rotolo family (who also own the highly acclaimed Volpe Pasini estate). 
 
Livio Felluga 
The Felluga family has a long winemaking tradition, dating back five generations to when the family was producing Refosco and Malvasia in their home of Isola d’Istria. Livio first arrived in Collio when he moved to Friuli in the late 1930s. As his knowledge of the area continued to grow, he became more and more convinced that premium quality wine had to begin in the vineyard and that the hills of Collio were just the place to achieve this quality. However, as was the case for many European winemakers, his plans came to a halt with World War II. He was drafted in 1940 and spent time in Africa, Libya, as a Prisoner of War at Cap Bon, and finally another three years in Scotland before returning home. As a result of the war and the industrialization which followed, the hillsides had been abandoned and were no longer productive. But Livio’s passion and love for the hills of Friuli was so well entrenched that, against the current trends, he returned to set up his cellar in Brazzano, and purchased his first vineyards at Rosazzo. It was his unwavering devotion to the land which was so remarkable and also what enabled his success. This past year, Livio celebrated his 100th birthday. Livio’s love of the land is reflected not just in the wine but also in the packaging. The distinctive Felluga label, conceived in 1956, is an illustrated map portraying the geography of the area, and was designed to represent the topography of the land. Today the property is comprised of more than 160 hectares in the Collio and Collio Orientali del Friuli. The production consists of 14 different wines and a volume of approximately 800,000 bottles. Together with Schiopetto, Livio introduced the use of stainless steel tanks to Friuli. These producers were pioneers in the reductive style of winemaking, a process which has led to the clean style now common in the area. And this truly is the hallmark of the Felluga wines – very clean wines with pure linear expressions of fruit and terroir. 
 
Jermann 
While the Jermann family first made wine in Friuli in 1881, it was in 1971 that Silvio Jermann produced his first vintage of Vintage Tunina and changed the face of white wine. The wine is a true field blend (meaning the various varietals of vines are co-planted and blended in the vineyard). Harvested late, it is comprised of approximately 30% Sauvignon Blanc, 20% Chardonnay, 5% Picolit, with the remaining 45% a mix of Ribolla Gialla and Malvasia. There is a great deal of selection made in the vineyards, resulting in very low yields. As if created to personify Silvio himself, the wine is not only a testament to great winemaking but also the incredible artistic vision of a true renaissance man. Named in honour of Casanova`s poorest lover Antonia, a Venetian governess and the former owner of the original vineyard, the wine revolutionized the way people thought of white wine. Vintage Tunina was the original super white, or blend of international and indigenous varietals. Intensely aromatic, it is incredibly concentrated and complex, with great weight and structure. The winery now includes two production facilities (the original property of Villanova and the more recently added Ruttars). The new winery, first conceived and designed by Silvio in 1999, was created solely for the vinification of Capo Martino, Vignatruss, Dreams and Tunina -- the winery’s most successful products. The cellar is truly a marriage of innovation and art. As Silvio explained when the foundation stone was laid in 2007, Ruttars was built in the tradition of a 16th or 17th century rural village with entirely natural and local materials. There is a special piping system for transporting must and wine as gently as possible. Made of a special local stone, the floors function to help regulate temperature without any energy input. In 2012 the winery was ClimaHouse Wine certified, which is one of the most rigorous environmental certifications. There is a separate barrel room for each of the four flagship wines. These rooms all meet in a central room which houses several significant pieces of art. During my visit to the winery, I was presented with two wines blind. They were both 2007 Dreams Chardonnays, the difference being one was under screw cap and one under natural cork closure. The wine under cork was well evolved with the fruit beginning to desiccate. In contrast, the wine under screw cap had incredibly vibrant fruit but the backbone of the wine had a harmony and softening of the oak that only comes with age. It was as though it had gained the grace which comes with age but without any signs of the fruit tiring. When screw caps entered the scene, the winery chose to age some of their wines under each of the closures. They wanted to explore the technology but wanted their decisions to be well informed for their particular wines. The family has since made the decision to move towards screw cap as they feel it is the best closure for their wines. I believe the evidence certainly supports this.
 
While there are many elements of climate and topography which can define this area, it is the balance between depth and refinement that so typifies Friulian wine. And it is the people who exemplify it. Personified by a love of their land and an enthusiasm for innovation, the winemakers of this area are the philosophers of wine. They are inspired pioneers who likely have not finished revolutionizing the world of wine. 

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Comments

  • Castelvecchio is another fantastic producer since 1750 at very reasonable prices. Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Griogio.

    May 07, 2015 at 3:07 PM


  • Snooth User: Zmon
    1793276 9

    Where do I find these wines in the US?
    I buy wines all the time, and I have never seen wines from Friuli.
    I would love to try one of these bottles, but don't know what labels to look for.
    Does anyone know?
    Thanks,
    Tom Z, Florida, USA

    May 07, 2015 at 9:54 PM


  • Currently only in Chicago. I am the distributor and could probably have a retailer ship to you.

    May 07, 2015 at 10:19 PM


  • WIne.com has the Livio Felluga, which is one of my favorites, Tom Z. THey ship to FL

    May 08, 2015 at 1:41 AM


  • Dear Tom Z. Regarding Friulian wines, they're somewhat hard to find in regular liquor stores and grocery stores. You sound like you know your wine and shop at wine shops. You might speak with a local wine merchant, they've got good connections. If you have an Italian deli - grocery store near you, try there. I've found many little known wines from obscure regions of Italy in my local Italian markets. Also, do a Google search, you might get lucky. Awhile ago I was looking for a dessert wine from Liguria, Cinque Terre Schiaccetra. Many people have never heard of this wine much less Liguria. I did a Google Search and came up with one local distributor. This wine is rather rare in that they don't make huge quantities, thus it's a bit expensive. Also, there is a fine wine shop in Santa Monica California called "WINE EXPO", on Santa Monica Blvd. I've been shopping there for many years when I'm looking for little known Italian wines that only travellers to Italy have tasted or full fledged wine geeks!. Good luck in your search! Bill M, San Francisco, CA

    May 08, 2015 at 3:48 AM


  • Snooth User: Zmon
    1793276 9

    Thank you everyone for your responses and ideas.
    I am just learning about all the uncommon wines available. I will def. ask my local wine shop, (BnT Liquors) in Placida Florida, if they can order some. They do have connections and sell some really nice wines. I will also.check wine.com and check out that Livio Felluga label- I also buy from WineExpress.com sometimes, which I will check as well. I remember reading about these wines and seeing a show about the northeast part of Italy that talked about the food and wines of the region. I have been to Italy 3 times, but never to the northeast corner, Venice was as far as I got. Italy has some really nice wines. Ciao!

    May 08, 2015 at 10:35 PM


  • Snooth User: Zmon
    1793276 9

    Update:
    I did find a bottle of Friuli wine in my local wine shop. It is a 2013 Pinot Grigio.
    The label is Pighin, Friuli Grave. The House/Importer is Kobrand. Going to try it with our next fish dinner! Thanks.

    May 09, 2015 at 3:04 PM


  • Snooth User: friuliamor
    1056856 11

    Friulian wines are an undiscovered gem and the northeast corner of Italy even more so. Friulians have a very deep connection to their land and they love their wine. I'm so happy to see Friulian wines being discussed more and more in wine blogs and magazines, and even happier when people are willing to explore new regions to add to their palate. I'm a first generation Friulian-Canadian. All four sets of my grandparents can trace their roots in San Daniele del Friuli (where the prosciutto comes from) back to the 1600s and I go back almost every year. The area is far removed from the chaotic crowds of Venezia so if you're looking for a more relaxed Italian vacation, I highly recommend the northeast region.

    May 13, 2015 at 11:53 PM


  • Snooth User: pypop
    1887263 12

    I like to travel. I really like this place. I will absolutely be again to learn more, thanks to that information.
    http://www.mafagames.info

    Jun 10, 2015 at 5:47 AM


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