I remember my first few encounters with Friulian reds. I adored them instantly. The wines possess freshness and cheerful purpose. Brisk acidity focuses the wines and feisty, sometimes bracing tannins add a vivid crunch. Earthy, woodsy components play an important aromatic role.

By woodsy, I don’t mean they’re weirdly funky. Anzi (on the contrary), they tend to be spick-and-span clean. This allows them to clearly reveal their northern climate and soil. Consider that Austria is a hop-skip-and-a-jump away, then reconsider the vast dichotomies amongst Italian persona. Moreover, until 1919, Friuli was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hai capito? There is a technical and sometimes downright dogmatic carefulness behind the wines’ natural exuberance. Friuli’s winemaking cognoscenti are fervently dedicated to quality. Over 60 percent of their production is DOC, and their yields are amongst the lowest in Italy.

Playing word association with high quality, wine and Friuli usually conjures up white wine, yet, interestingly, red wine accounts for 40 percent of the region’s production (I wish we had more here in the U.S.). Unusually for northern Italy, it’s a non-Italian grape that absorbs a vast amount of the vineyard – Merlot! The Italians will argue – convincingly – that it’s been here for ages, so it’s now indigenous. Maybe their insistence upon pronouncing the “t” is a way to further claim it as their own. Unfortunately, a lot of this Merlot reminds me of most Bordelais Merlot. My single-syllable comment is, “Bleah”.

There is also plenty of very good juice. Hunkering down over the nitty-gritty DOC&G details, one discovers that Friuliani reds are currently G-less. So, in perfectly contradictory Italianness, there are many Friulian reds that are not only exceedingly excellent and insistent on busting wallets, but that also carry no “G”.

All the grapes for this juice grow in the southern half of the region. The Alps dominate the north. Winemakers who cultivate Friuli’s vineyards in the south escape to the high elevations up north to ski. It is these grand slopes that save their vines from harsh north winds. The more northerly vineyards of Colli Orientali (colli meaning hills) are markedly cooler and more continental than the southern vineyards of Collio Goriziano, whose temperatures are moderated by the Adriatic Sea. More red is produced in Colli Orientali than in Collio Goriziano, and it tends to be more powerful red, too.

To the west of these hills is Grave del Friuli, the region’s largest DOC. Merlot is widely planted on this large alluvial plain, which is generously strewn with gravel. These red wines tend to show a character that ranges from herbal to weedy. Moving south toward the sea, some hearty reds can be found in Lison-Pramaggiore. Traveling east to Latisana, Annia and Aquilea, the soils are more fertile. This means the wines are generally less hefty and more readily quaffable.

Back in eastern Friuli and directly south of Collio is Isonzo. The vineyard-scape here is quite different. The hills disappear, the proximity of the sea provides additional warmth and rain falls more frequently. Finally, extending south along the Adriatic is Carso. Though grown elsewhere in Friuli, Terrano – frustratingly said to be both related to and the same as Refosco – is the sub-regional specialty.From international to indigenous, here are tasting notes on some top examples of seductive Friuliano reds.

Friuli image via Shutterstock



Merlot
Merlot has been in Friuli since the 1800s, thanks to the Hapsburgs. It can be quite leafy but not in top examples. In good bottlings, there is a pleasant herbal character.

Le Due Terre 2008 Merlot
This is a powerful Merlot both in flavor and in mouthfeel. The fruit is fully ripe, yet the dominant aromas are savory with non-fruit notes. Earth, minerals and roasted coffee beans are the focus while black cherries linger in the background. There’s a pretty rosemary note, too. The moderate tannins offer some grip, but it’s the marked acidity that really wows on the palate. Drink through 2016.

Perusini 2008 Merlot Etichetta Nera
A sapid and elegant red with gentle though framing tannins and mouthwatering acidity. Aromas include peak-of-ripeness red currants, lingonberries and blueberries along with fresh tarragon and lightly roasted coffee beans. This wine exudes energy. Drink now to 2018.

Villa Russiz 2008 Merlot Graf de la Tour
This Merlot is a bit stubborn about releasing its aromas, but it responds well to decanting. I suggest two hours if you have them and can resist sipping that long. Unusual for varietal Merlot, which tends to linger in the red fruit zone, there are blackberry and black currant aromas here. The tannins caress and the acidity is quite tame for Friuli. Drink now to 2016.
 
“Cabernet”
Friuli grows a good bit of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. When blended, it’s often simply labeled “Cabernet.”

Pighin 2008 Cabernet
This is a blend of 40 percent Cabernet Franc and 60 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. The complexity of herbal notes here strikes up quite a chorus along with blackberry, underbrush and grilled game notes. There’s nice length, too. Drink now to 2015.

Pinot Nero
Friuli isn’t known for Pinot Nero, but Plozner has been making it since 1967.

Plozner 2007 Pinot Nero
This is a delicate Pinot Nero at 12.5 percent alcohol. The aromas are subtle yet invitingly complex. Red cherries, ripe field strawberries, mushrooms and truffles all play roles. The tannins glide across the palate and the bright acidity is well integrated. Worth searching for. Should drink well through 2014.

Pignolo
Pignolo means finicky, which perfectly describes how this grape grows on the vine. Its yields are poor, but what it does yield is rich in color and impressively age-worthy.

Moschioni 2003 Pignolo
This is a monstrous wine! It is dense in flavor and packed with complexity. There is a richness of fruit, given the hot vintage and the producer’s preference for this wine style and tendency to let fruit hang a long time. The fruit is still quite youthful and displays aromas of prune, fig and blackberry. Leather, fallen leaves and cigar round out the package. Drink through 2020.

Sant’Elena 2007 Quantum l'Auctoctono (Pignolo)
This is another massive wine that offers layers upon layers of intense complexity. Dried herbs, worn leather, cumin and broken branches provide the start. Super-ripe wild forest berries spread across the palate. The tannins are broad and delightfully rustic. The acidity helps the long finish hold on. Drink now to 2018.

Refosco
Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso, or Refosco with Red Stalks, is Friuli’s most-planted native red grape. It provides generous, purple color and bright acidity. Simpler styles drink well with a slight chill.

Ronchi di Cialla 2008 Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso

This bottling explodes with aromas of pomegranate, rhubarb, savory notes and dried lavender. It is joyfully youthful, pleasingly medium-bodied and quite lengthy on the finish. The tannins are slightly edgy. Drink now through 2016, though there’s no reason to wait.

Schioppettino
Schioppettino is also difficult to cultivate. In fact, it was banned from Friuli’s vineyards for a while in the last half of the 20th century. When cultivated with TLC, however, its resulting wines reward the taster. The grape possesses oodles of tannins and cracked black pepper feistiness that is not unlike Syrah.

Le Vigne di Zamò 2005 Schioppettino
This wine smells like the spice rack. Black peppercorns, coriander and poppy seed mingle together across a broad array of red and black forest fruits. There’s also an alluring musk note. The aggressive tannins are appealingly grippy and seem to be emphasized by the tingling acidity. Though it drinks well now, it can hold through 2016.

Tazzelenghe
Tazzelenghe means tongue cutter. Enough said?

Girolamo Dorigo 2007 Tazzelenghe di Butrio
Dynamic in aromas and flavors, this wine shows cassis, baked cherry pie, smoked game, lilac, earth and minerals. The smell alone is worth the price. Then, the palate unfolds with generous quantities of aggressive tannins and striking acidity. It’s a mouthful! You can enjoy this now, but it’s worth aging through 2015. It should evolve to benefit through 2020.