The compact region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, commanding the northern Adriatic Sea with borders on Austria and Slovenia, continues to set the pace with modern Italian white wine. Drawing from worthy native varieties and the choicest of the international array, Friulians have applied studied vineyard techniques and avant-garde enology to the production of highly distinctive whites, as well as some eminently attractive reds.
Friuli has two DOC zones of exceptional status in Collio Goriziano, or simply Collio, and Colli Orientali del Friuli. The exchange of air currents between the Alps and the Adriatic has created a highly favorable habitat for vines on the terraced slopes called ronchi. Carso is a unique zone in the hills above the seaport and regional capital of Trieste. The other six DOC zones cover low hills or plains, but quality there can be convincing, most notably from Isonzo, which rivals Collio and Colli Orientali for the class of certain wines.
Varietal wines dominate the multitude of types included in Friuli-Venezia Giulia’s nine DOC categories. Friuli has built a glowing reputation in Italy and abroad for white wines made by relatively small wineries and estates. The whites had long been dominated by Tocai Friulano, a variety related to Sauvignon Vert or Sauvignonasse. Friuli’s Malvasia Istriana, Ribolla Gialla and Verduzzo also can be intriguing, as can Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco and the ever popular Pinot Grigio.
The Friulian style in whites favors the exquisitely fresh and fruity, with delicate fragrance and flavor that express clear varietal character. Many producers consider their whites to be too pure and linear to benefit from wood aging. But there are a growing number of exceptions to the rule, in white wines that gain depth and complexity from blending, oak aging and other artistic touches. Friulian reds were traditionally light and fruity, best to drink within two to five years of the harvest. That style applied to the predominant Merlot and Cabernet Franc, as well as to Pinot Nero and the worthy native variety of Refosco. But certain winemakers have heightened structure and nuance by blending Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and other varieties and aging the wine in small oak barrels.
Friulians have shown an encouraging tendency to revive varieties that had been neglected. Foremost among the legends is Picolit. So is Verduzzo, which makes refined dessert wines in a place called Ramandolo in the Colli Orientali. Ribolla Gialla, a native of Collio, has benefited from new methods that make it into a dry white of character. Among the reds are Refosco, also known as Terrano, which can be made either light and fruity or into a durable wine for aging. Though rare and odd, Franconia and Tazzelenghe make distinctive reds, but perhaps the Pignolo and Schioppettino varieties have the most intriguing potential. Sparkling wines represent a growing field, as producers bring not only choice Pinot and Chardonnay grapes into their cuves but also Ribolla for fine spumante by the classical and charmat methods.