The Wines of Central Friuli

An in-depth report by Daniel Bjugstad of Pizzeria Locale in Boulder, CO.

Friuli Venezia Giulia, the border region between Italy’s Veneto and the neighboring countries of Slovenia and Austria, has been divided amongst empires for nearly two thousand years. The Romans, Huns, Goths, Lombards, Venetians, French, Austrians, Italians and Yugoslavs have all laid claim to the region at some point in history, and each culture has left its mark. For this reason one cannot exactly describe Friulians as Italians—Italy is simply the current flag flying overhead. Trieste, Friuli’s capital city and province, wasn’t officially part of Italy until the Treaty of Osimo was ratified in 1977!

Italy and its predecessors have each impacted the development of wine culture in Friuli. The Republic of Venice deforested much of the western plain of Friuli (modern-day Friuli Grave DOC) and exploited local farms to fund wars in the 18th century, but the region prospered under Austria. Trieste became an important 19th-century Austrian port and vacation destination for the wealthy, and the city saw demand for quality local wines increase by leaps and bounds. There were delays to progress in the early 20th century, as the twin disasters of phylloxera and World War One set Friuli and its winemakers back decades. Turnaround occurred in the 1960s and 1970s when several young winemakers—namely Mario Schiopetto, Livio Felluga, and Josko Gravner—adopted then-modern German winemaking techniques like refrigerated stainless steel tanks, cultivated yeasts, and the pneumatic press. These new technologies allowed for clean, precise, fruity wines that resonated globally. International tastes and trends in the next decades continued to benefit Friuli. Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay, marked by low yields and new oak, found worldwide demand in the 1980s and 1990s. At the time their presence was ubiquitous, “rather like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is today,” in the words of wine writer Walter Speller.

Today's producers continue to shape Friuli’s identity. Some consider it the best white wine region in Italy, but Friuli’s wine culture is too diverse for blanket statements. Well-made red wines (and orange ones, too) are as much a part of Friuli’s modern identity as the whites for which it first became famous. Even more, its identity as Italian is tenuous: Friuli is more aligned with Austrian, German, and Slovenian traditions than those of its Italian neighbors.

Like all great Old World wine regions, Friuli has unique soil and climatic conditions coupled with the history, tradition, and necessary practices to fulfill the potential of its raw material. Wine-growing in Friuli is marked by the meeting of mountain and sea, rain and wind. From one side of Monte Quarin in Cormons, the glimmer of the Adriatic Sea is visible, while the other side reveals snowcapped Julian Alps. The warm, humid winds from the sea are balanced by the Alps’ dry, cool tramontana wind.

Friuli exists on the edge of the Mediterranean climate—it’s one of the most northern climes in Italy to grow olive trees, though they rarely ripen—but the most prestigious wine-growing occurs in Friuli's continental center, where summers are warm, springs threaten frost, fall is typically rainy, and vintage variation can be considerable.

Like all of Italy, Friuli possesses a glut of DOCs and DOCGs requiring study and experience to navigate. Some are less important for the sommelier. Friuli Grave DOC, for example, accounts for a large swath of flat, sandy land in central Friuli and accounts for nearly 52% of wine production in the entire region. There are quality-focused producers in Grave, but much of the region is devoted to bulk wines.

The neighboring Friuli Colli Orientali DOC (Colli Orientali) and Collio Goriziano DOC (Collio) are Friuli’s most recognizable and quality-driven regions, responsible for 15% and 11% of wine production, respectively. Both names derive from the Italian colline (hills), and their landscapes likewise turn hilly amidst the foothills of the Julian Alps. They share similar soils and climates, separated only by the tiny Judiro River, which once marked the border between the Austrian and Venetian Empires.

Ponca, Friuli’s signature soil for wine-growing, is found throughout Colli Orientali and Collio Goriziano (and over the border in Slovenia’s Brda region, where the locals call it opoka). Ponca is composed of marl and sandstone, and it contains marine fossils originating at the bottom of what is now the Adriatic Sea. This rock was brought to the surface by the same tectonic movement that created the Alps. Friuli’s premier wines today are the product of ponca soils, but there is a downside—it's prone to landslides, which can slough off entire sections of a vineyard in rainier years. Giampaolo Venica at Venica e Venica faced such distresses in 2014 as a large tract of his Ronco delle Mele washed down the hill. To prevent this, he plants apple trees to hold the soil together, which lend the vineyard its name: the “terrace of apples.” Similarly, Josko Gravner works for eight to ten years to prepare a vineyard for planting, installing elaborate systems of underground drainage pipes to prevent them from washing away.

So why do producers prize this difficult soil? It produces a wine unique to the region: powerfully textured, concentrated, typically high in alcohol, yet still balanced by cutting acidity. “High alcohol is inherent to Friuli,” says Christian Patat from Ronco del Gnemiz. He notes that it was easier to make balanced wines in the past, before the effects of climate change, but for winemakers to consistently produce quality wine in Friuli they must “ lean toward consistently higher alcohol.” To counter this, ponca soil’s high pH and cool temperature produces grapes that retain a high amount of malic acid. The forceful malic acid cuts through the concentration and extract and can balance the typically high-alcohol wines.

In the flatter plains to the west are alluvial sands that produce less chiseled wines. The Carso peninsula, near Trieste, sits on mere centimeters of iron-rich terra rossa over hard limestone. With its own history of winemaking, native grapes, climate and soil, Carso is completely different from the rest of Friuli. Its drastic, craggy land and exciting, mineral-laden wines deserve their own article!

Collio Goriziano DOC
Collio, on the (formerly) Austrian side of the Judiro, has a longer history of quality wine production than Colli Orientali. The Austrians held a high standard for wine historically, and in Collio in the 1960s Mario Schiopetto was among the first vanguard to modernize winemaking techniques. Many of Friuli’s most historic houses are located in Collio: Mario Schiopetto, Josko Gravner, and Villa Russiz—where, according to some accounts, Count Theodore Karl Leopold Anton de la Tour first brought French grapes to Friuli in the late 19th century—are all located here.

When compared to Colli Orientali, Collio wines typically possess more weight and extract. The regional difference is distinct enough that Livio Felluga bottles Sauvignon and Friulano from Collio to sell to the American market while his wines for the European market come from Colli Orientali. In 2013, his “American market” wine is marked by overt and fleshy fruit while the “European market” bottling is greener and more herbaceous.

Collio wines can be varietally labeled or a blend of multiple grapes. For white wines, the most important grapes are Friulano, Malvasia Istriana, Ribolla Gialla, Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Bianco. Red wines come from Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Nero and Merlot. The region’s name implies a hilly terrain, and grapes must be grown at a minimum of 85 meters above sea level.

Within Collio there are eleven communes. Kristian Keber of Edi Keber in Cormons is a true spokesman for the wines of Collio, and he groups the communes into three distinct (if unofficial) subzones:

Oslavia: Oslavia and the neighboring San Floriano del Collio are the Collio’s easternmost communes, where vineyards sit at the appellation’s highest elevations, about 180 meters above sea level. This is also the sunniest part of Collio, impacted by dry winds from the Adriatic and Slovenia. As a result, harvests are typically later than other areas in the DOC. Oslavia’s signature grape is Ribolla Gialla.

Cormons: Where the plains meet the foothills lie the communes of Brazzano, Cormons, Plessiva, Pradis, and Carpiva: the lowest and warmest areas in the Collio. Cormons’ defining geographical characteristic is Monte Quarin, one of Collio’s first hills, which rises to 275 meters and divides vineyards and climate into northern and southern sectors. The south side is warmed by Adriatic winds and the north side is cooled by Tramontana winds. Kristian Keber, who harvests Malvasia from vineyards on both sides of the hill, notes that grapes from the south side typically reach an additional degree of potential alcohol. The lower elevations in Cormons contain alluvial, “fatter” soils with more clay; these soils are best suited to Friulano and Pinot Bianco.

Dolegna: With Slovenia to the east, the Colli Orientali to the west and the Alps to the north, Dolegna is the coolest and wettest of the Collio subzones. Elevation ranges from 50 to 90 meters, yet it is closest in proximity to the mountains, swept by the tramontana wind. The region is surrounded by forests, and its cool, wet climate is best suited to aromatic white grapes like Sauvignon. Giampaolo Venica’s Sauvignon is a singular expression of the grape, showing weight and body countered by an exotic primacy of fruit. It exists in its own world, leaning neither toward France or New Zealand—it never tries to be anything but Friulian.

Map courtesy of La Castellada

Ribolla Gialla in Oslavia
Ribolla Gialla (“yellow Ribolla,” with no genetic relation to Ribolla Verde) is a grape native to Collio and Slovenia’s Brda. In Slovenia the grape is called Rebula. A wine called Rabola or Rabiola appears in texts from the 13th century, but only after phylloxera did a specific Ribolla Gialla grape appear. 

As a wine Ribolla Gialla can be cruelly tart with mild flavors of white flowers and salt. These wines are typically forgettable and innocuous—unless they are made in dramatic places. The grape needs poor, rocky soils to curb its vigor, so it must be planted on hilltops. It also needs copious sunlight and a long growing season to develop real flavors. These specific needs make Oslavia the greatest region in Friuli for Ribolla Gialla. Its high elevation and dry climate delay harvests until October, and growers typically harvest Ribolla Gialla after the region’s red grapes.

Autumn rains in Friuli can cause rot, especially for late-harvested Ribolla Gialla. Botrytis cinerea can take hold, but many actually choose to work with the botrytized grapes. The less-benign Peronospora requires greater work in the vineyard. Top producers often employ a vine-training system called Albarello Modificato. Two cordons, three canes, and one bud per cane allow growers to separate the grape bunches, providing even maturation, air flow, and defense against mold.

Despite these challenges, the people here have a great fondness for the grape. For Stefano Bensa at La Castellada, Ribolla Gialla is a “flag for Osalvia.” And Stanko Radikon inherited his father’s estate on the condition that he keep the Ribolla Gialla. “They are the best grapes we have,” confirms his son, Saša. Josko Gravner went so far as to discontinue his flagship wine (“Breg,” a blend of Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon, and Pinot Grigio ) to focus solely on Ribolla Gialla.

Vini Macerati
This regional pride for Ribolla Gialla may have fueled Oslavia’s production of vini macerati—skin-macerated white wines. In the US, these wines ignited sensation-turned-scorn in a few short years, but these “orange wines” today are very much entrenched in Oslavia’s wine identity.

The movement, as it has been called, began in the 1990s with Josko Gravner. Gravner has made some of the Collio’s most famous wines: starting in 1973, he fitted his cellars with stainless steel tanks and a pneumatic press, and the 1980s saw him expand his use of new oak barriques to produce famously long-lived, extracted Chardonnay. So what led the region’s benchmark producer to turn radical? Perhaps Gravner’s obsession with ancient methods of winemaking predicated his shift in style: he cites a 1st-century Roman agricultural writer, Columella, as a source for inspiration. Or perhaps a fateful trip to California in 1987 revealed how reliant modern winemaking had become on chemicals and artificial products? Either way, he began working toward older and more natural winemaking practices.

In 1996, hail hit Oslavia, destroying entire vineyards. With the few grapes harvested, Gravner conducted a series of experiments with skin maceration, levels of sulfites, and different yeasts. Gravner was so intrigued by the macerated wines that he converted his entire white wine production the following year. “Josko was always a leader for the growers here,” Saša Radikon affirms, recalling a meeting between Gravner and the other growers after the 1996 harvest. At that time, there were only four producers in Oslavia; after 1997 three of them—Gravner, Radikon, and La Castellada—began making macerated wines. For them, it offered a connection to the past and their land. In their grandfathers’ time, grapes would be harvested over several days and the berries would sit, uncovered in their cellars, until harvest concluded. The breakdown and subsequent maceration of the grapes made pressing much easier.

What once served a practical function is now a matter of aesthetics: macerated white wines allow Oslavia to uniquely create a native and noble wine. Stefano Bensa recalls his father Nicola’s ambition: to create “a white wine that can age as long as a red.” To accomplish that, the wine needed more preservative phenolic material and integrated oxidation.

While the process differs slightly for each producer, the overall production techniques are similar: the grapes will be pressed (in good years, Gravner leaves the stems on) and placed into a vessel for fermentation. Juice, seeds, and skins will mingle while natural yeasts begin to ferment. Pigeage is common; Gravner punches down six to ten times a day and Radikon does punchdowns four times each day during fermentation. Gravner famously ferments in beeswax-lined Georgian clay amphorae and Radikon uses 3,000-liter Slavonian oak barrels. Bensa at La Castellada uses a mix of stainless steel tanks and oak barrels. Whatever the chosen vessel, it is left unfilled to allow oxidation during fermentation. After alcoholic fermentation, the barrels are topped off, the skins are left in contact, and malolactic fermentation occurs. The wines remain on the skins afterward for a desired period of time: around six months for Gravner, three months for Radikon, and anywhere from four days to two months for La Castellada. It's a decision that ultimately depends on the vintage and the quality of the grapes. Warmer, drier years generally produce thicker skins of higher quality and allow for longer maceration with more extract and phenolic material. There is a limit, however, as aromatics decrease with too much phenolic extraction. Once separated from their skins, the wines age for considerable time: seven years for Gravner (one in amphorae and six in Slavonian botte), five for Radikon (four in botte and one in bottle), and usually less at La Castellada.

Bottling is a defining moment for these wines as natural winemaking principles come into play. Radikon has generally not added sulfites since 2002; in his mind, if the tannins are ripe, they preserve the wines without sulfites. However, hard years (like 2014) have required small additions at bottling. “It’s not religion,” Saša explains. La Castellada and Gravner both add sulfur to their wines at bottling. For Gravner, the decision is a necessary evil; they do not filter their wines and feel obliged to provide a consistent product without bottle variation.

This winemaking style from a few producers in a small corner of Friuli has impacted the wine industry around the world. Experiments with skin-contact white wines continue in other parts of Italy, the Loire, and even California. But while sommeliers in the US became enamored-then-annoyed with the movement in a year or two, appreciation for these wines is still strong in other markets. Outside Friuli and Italy, both Radikon and La Castellada’s primary export market is Japan. “We do not have a long tradition of wine,” reflects Japanese importer Hisato Ota. “This helps so much in the acceptance of strange wines.” Ota, who brings Radikon and La Castellada into Japan, finds that natural wine resonates with Japanese culinary traditions. “The principal concept of Japanese cuisine would be to remove an element, rather than add, in order to enhance the essence of a thing. The same is true in natural wine.”

La Castellada makes the most approachable examples of macerated white wines in Oslavia. Stefano Bensa’s hand is light and soft, much like the soft, timid way he speaks. Radikon’s wines, are the most obstinately “natural” of the group. Freshly opened, the wines are sharply volatile, like mostarda, and smell of roasted nut and intensely concentrated, fleshy fruit preserves. Gravner’s wines—the benchmarks for the style—are marked by their age, oxidation, and maceration characteristics. Common elements throughout include an almost sweet-sour volatility, oxidative nutty aromas, intensely mineral flavors, and tannin. They exist in an in-between world of white and red wine and do not comfortably reside along most consumers’ preconceptions about wine. Gravner, however, aims for a different market; in one interview he sums up his stance:

There is the overweight person who eat(s) at McDonald’s and there are people who drive for 100 km to buy a kg of tomatoes and these will be my future customers.

Friulano (Cormons)
The namesake grape of Friuli is not actually native to the region. Genetically, the grape is identical to Sauvignonasse (Sauvignon Vert) from the Gironde. It isn’t actually related to Sauvignon Blanc; although it does exhibit grassy aromas, it is much fatter and lower in acid. Today, France records few official plantings of the grape, but it thrives in Friuli. Its name was famously shortened from Tocai Friulano to Friulano in light of EU protections for Hungary’s Tokaj.

Achieving great Friulano requires old vines and great sites, according to Christian Patat. Friulano needs wetter, richer soils in order to thrive, and rockier areas don’t benefit the grape. Friulano possesses flavors of ripe, fleshy fruits—peach, pineapple, even strawberry—balanced by herbaceousness. It can reach high alcohol content, sometimes inelegantly. Achieving fresh acidity and lift are determining factors for the quality of the wines.

Prosciutto di San Daniele: Prosciutto made in Friuli, classically paired with Friulano

A Signature Collio DOC Blend?
From his hilltop Zegla estate in Cormons, near the Slovenian border, Edi Keber’s son Kristian aims for international recognition for the name of Collio, and he believes the region’s style best resonates in the blend. DOC regulations permit a multitude of different varietal wines and blends, but Keber believes this muddies Collio’s chances for recognition: “How do you build awareness for an area? You can have a cooperative, or you can have many wineries making one product. Lots of grapes will just divide the market.” To drive his point home he has produced only one wine since 2008, a white blend of Friulano (body and texture), Malvasia Istriana (aromatics and spice), and Ribolla Gialla (acidity). Keber believes adoption of a signature Collio blend would also protect growers from the whims of the market—if Sauvignon is in fashion, it may take a grower four or five years to create a productive vineyard, but by that time interest may have already shifted to Pinot Grigio. It’s an expensive trend all too familiar to the growers of the Collio. Viticulture in this area of Collio is already an expensive endeavor, given the difficulties associated with working hillsides and ponca soils. Keber hopes to protect those growers taking a financial risk to make better wine.

The momentum behind Keber’s Collio blend, however, is stalled. Other producers (like Roncus, Picech, and Muzic) all produce a similar white blend, but they also make single-variety wines. Other producers in the region make white blends, but may use French grapes in the blend. No other producer is willing to take the commercial risk of dedicating their entire production to the blend, and there is little motivation to mandate the blend through regulations.

Friuli Colli Orientali DOC
With a quick hop over the Judiro River one lands in Friuli Colli Orientali DOC, a curved swath of land that straddles the foothills along Collio to the west and the Alps to the north. The plantings in the Colli Orientali account for about 20% of the total vineyard area in Friuli, and the region shows considerable diversity in climate, tradition, and styles.

19 communes comprise the appellation, and they largely share the climatic and soil conditions of Collio. Most of Colli Orientali is higher in elevation than Collio, but there is variation. In Buttrio, one of the warmest communes in Colli Orientali, elevation is typically around 90 meters. In Savorgnano to the north, elevations jump to 170 meters; in isolated Cialla, vineyards sit at 220 meters above sea level.

Terroir Exploration: Patat and Pontoni
The diversity of Colli Orientali and its shorter history of wine production allow new producers to create wines that highlight single varieties from single vineyards, often with less emphasis on classic Friulian grapes. The philosophy fits a Burgundian wine paradigm and plays to international tastes. Ronco del Gnemiz’s Christian Patat is a key proponent, pushing the envelope with little nostalgia for native grapes or traditions. With a sound understanding and familiarity of foreign tastes, Patat is focusing intensely on Sauvignon and prefers to make wines of “…power and concentration. Wines true to place, that adapt to their terroir.” (Coincidentally, Gnemiz is an adopted Slovenian word, meaning “foreigner.”)

Patat makes three Sauvignon wines from three different plots, allowing him to explore the expression of Sauvignon in different climates and soils. Each wine is vinified in barrel, without malolactic fermentation, and aged on the lees without bâtonnage or racking. The 2013 “Serena Palazzolo e Figli,” made from a rented vineyard in warm Buttrio and sold under a separate label (to distinguish it from estate wines), is high in alcohol, with prominent fruit chiseled by malic acidity. The 2013 “Salici” from San Giovanni is the lightest and most elegant of his range. Even at 14.5% alcohol, the wine is balanced by bracing acidity, ripe-yet-focused fruit, and intense, sulfur-driven minerality. Gnemiz’s greatest expression of Sauvignon, from the Peri vineyard in San Giovanni, is an exercise in intensity coupled with balance. The vines are 45 years old, and the vineyard occupies a warm site with rocky limestone soils. The 2013 is muscular with high-wire acidity, and it is the least reductive Sauvignon in the range, which allows its flavors to unfurl fully. No doubt the true rewards in this wine are a few years ahead, but its qualities are admirable now.

And then there is Enzo Pontoni of Miani, who represents a modern pinnacle of quality in Friuli. In the US, a Miani bottle sighting will unleash a storm of social media from any sommelier in earshot, and even in Friuli the wines are rare and expensive. He is in demand and the production is miniscule: a few single-vineyard, varietal wines from plots in Buttrio, Corno di Rosazzo, and Rosazzo—enough to fill a few rows of barrels in his tiny, concrete cellar. Patat, who has sold Miani internationally since the early 1990s, cherishes the occasional barrel samples as the opportunity to drink them out of a bottle is rare!

Pontoni only speaks Italian and Friulian—and very little of either, at that—so Patat translates. “He knows vineyards very well. He knows when to pick: ripe, not overripe. Miani whites are easy to describe as big and powerful, but through Patat Pontoni counters: The wine is “fat, with natural glycerin.” And he admits the skill required to achieve balance with the style: “Achieving concentrated reds is not difficult,” he says, “Everybody can do that. Finding elegant structures and refinement is difficult. You have a much shorter time to achieve that with white wines.” Witness the struggle: His whites are almost bracingly concentrated and dense; thick extract can drag with a certain friction across the palate, yet they finish inexplicably dry, fresh, cool, mineral. Each white wine shares this characteristic, yet never loses varietal identity.

Patat and Pontoni make “sommelier wine”: wines for comparison on the world level. They are less concerned with regional identity and more interested in the voice of a specific plot of land, expressed through a single grape.

Frico Caldo. Daniel recommends a rich Friuli Sauvignon or Keber's Collio.

Malvasia Istriana
One of Friuli’s most enjoyable grapes is also its most overlooked. Malvasia Istriana (known as Malvazija Istarksa) is a unique Malvasia, distinct from Greek grapes of the same name, and likely related to Sicilia’s Malvasia di Lipari, Chianti’s Malvasia Bianca Lunga, and Puglia’s Malvasia Nera di Brindisi. Malvasia Istriana itself exhibits great variation across Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia—the grape seems easily prone to mutation. Within Italy, the grape was first cultivated in Carso, but there are now widespread plantings in both Collio and Colli Orientali.

Soil plays a key role in wine character. On lighter and rockier soils, acidity and minerality are emphasized. In Carso’s sparser and rocky soils, Malvasia Istriana tastes distinctly rocky and salty. Richer soils, like those in Collio, produce full-bodied, spicy wines. Yields are also critical to character: Malvasia Istriana is highly vigorous and tends to be neutrally flavored if cropped too high. When properly grown, the wine is semi-aromatic with apricot, peach, and coriander spice flavors. The wines can be rich, high in alcohol and mouth-filling, but the best examples still retain fresh acidity. In contrast to other Malvasia grapes, Istriana is not overly perfumed or oily.

Branzino. Perfect with Friuli Malvasia.

Friuli Colli Orientali DOC Subzones
Among the diverse climates of Colli Orientali, five official subzones exist to highlight local specialties. Cialla, detailed below, is an official subzone for both Friuli Colli Orientali DOC and Colli Orientali del Friuli Picolit DOCG. Refosco di Faedis covers the northern area of Colli Orientali and focuses on varietal wines from the uncommon Refosco Nostrano. Pignolo di Rosazzo and Ribolla Gialla di Rosazzo are wines made from 100% of their respective varieties. Both are grown in the southern communes of Corno di Rosazzo, Manzano, and San Giovanni al Natisone. Finally, the commune of Prepotto specializes in Schioppettino. Schioppettino di Prepotto must be aged two years, or four for riserva wines.

The Cialla subzone was established in 1992 as a 26-hectare monopole of the Rapuzzi family’s Ronchi di Cialla. Over 90% of its surface area is blanketed in forests, and the east-west valley it resides within is highest area in the entire DOC. At this higher elevation the ponca soils contain more limestone. The growing season is cool, but long, with some varieties harvested in October.

The Rapuzzi family of Ronchi di Cialla take pride in their region—it is the only denominazione in Friuli to feature only native grapes. Cialla bianco is made from a liberal mix of Picolit, Ribolla Gialla, and Verduzzo, inspired by historical field blends of the Middle Ages. “Blends are better than mono-varietal wines,” explains Ivan Rapuzzi. “The different grapes make up for their inherent weaknesses.” These whites are savory, earthy, and waxy, with astringent floral notes, dried stone fruit, salt, and clove spice. Cohesion of aromas is much more rewarding with extra years of bottle age. A 1997 tasted takes on the pine resin, honeycomb, and curry spice aromas of oxidation, while fresh acidity and phenolic bitterness hold the wine together.

Cialla rosso is a mix of Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso and/or Schioppettino, aged for at least one year. Varietal wines are also permitted under Cialla's disciplinare. And in addition to those allowed in the DOC wine, the estate has 45 other native Friulian grapes planted!

Friuli is undoubtedly a white wine region first, and the red Schioppettino grape is sparsely planted and undervalued. If not Friuli’s most delicious red grape, it is certainly its most elegant.

Schioppettino, from the Italian scioppettare, means “to explode,” referring either to the grape berries crackling in the mouth or the historical use of the grape for sparkling wines. In any case, the same grape has been called Ribolla Nera in Italy (though it has no relation to Ribolla Gialla) and Pokalca in Slovenia.

After phylloxera and World War II, Schioppettino was near extinction: There were a mere 70 plants in Friuli, and local regulations discouraged any more planting under penalty of a fine. Years later, Dina and Paolo Rapuzzi found and restored the few remaining vines, planting the first modern vineyard of Schioppettino at Ronchi di Cialla in 1971. Today this is the only source material for Schioppettino vines available in Italian nurseries. In 1977, the ban on planting Schioppettino was lifted, in 1981 it was declared an official grape of Udine, and in 1987 it was awarded DOC status.

Schioppettino favors cool, wet areas near forests or streams. One advocate, Lorena Tosseto of Petrussa, recalls the flood year of 1999 as disastrous for most of Friuli, but amazing for Schioppettino! Understandably, cool and forested Cialla is its modern birthplace and a top growing area, producing the most ethereal and elegant expressions of the grape. Six kilometers south of Cialla and nearer to the Judiro River, Albana is another famous site for Schioppettino, producing more structured and firm wines.

The wines from Ronchi di Cialla and Petrussa are very different. At Cialla, with long skin macerations and many years of aging, the wines are made in a traditional, Italian manner and often carry the imprint of brettanomyces. Petrussa, on the other hand, makes wines of pristine, vibrant fruit and focused tertiary aromas. (Petrussa’s bottling, at around $30 wholesale, is about half the cost of the Cialla.) In both wines, however, Schioppettino’s inherent character is clear. The wines are a dark ruby color with aromas of pomegranate and raspberry, black tea and violets. The tannins are soft and unobtrusive; acidity is bright and lively. It is reminiscent of Cru Beaujolais with some of the savor and heft of Saint-Joseph Syrah.

Rosazzo DOCG
In the south-central part of Colli Orientali, Rosazzo lies just east of Buttrio. White blends from the commune were produced as Colli Orientali until garnering independent DOCG status in 2011. The denominazione mandates a minimum 50% Friulano, backed by Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay, Sauvignon, and small amounts of Ribolla Gialla and/or other native white grapes. The wines must be aged for about two years and display a minimum alcohol content of 12%.

Rosazzo DOCG is an unabashed nod to Livio Felluga’s “Terre Alte,” often cited as one of Italy’s greatest white wines. The company holds no qualms about recognizing that the DOCG was created with their wine in mind—Felluga wanted the highest distinction available for the estate’s top wine. Others now make a Rosazzo DOCG wine too, including Mario Schiopetto, Adami, Le Vigne di Zamo, and Torre Rosazza.

("Terre Alte" is a single-vineyard wine, made from an 8-ha plot in Rosazzo. The wine is made from 50% Friulano, 25% Pinot Bianco, and 25% Sauvignon, and it is now fermented and aged in 1000-hectoliter barrels—a break from the new barriques of the past.)

Colli Oriental del Friuli Picolit DOCG
One of Collli Orientali’s most famous native wines, the delicate Picolit grape once competed in price and reputation with Tokaji in Europe. Today, the wine has only a few dedicated champions.

It’s a difficult grape to grow: Much of its pollen is sterile, making reproduction difficult, and the resulting fruit set is also incredibly low, with bunches averaging about 15 berries. And it is a passito-style dried grape wine! Those who make wines from Picolit today do so out of love, not money.

Historically Cialla was the most famous region for Picolit production (and it is the only defined subzone for Colli Orientali del Friuli Picolit DOCG today). The Rapuzzi family of Ronchi di Cialla actually possesses 2 ha of Picolit grapevines in an area called Picolit; research into the shared etymology continues. Newer vineyards of Picolit are going in near Savorgnano del Torre, a more elevated area—producers there are hoping elevation will aid pollination.

There are very few examples of the DOCG wine today. Aquilla del Torre and Ronchi di Cialla both make similar versions—delicately sweet, with expected passito flavors, enough acid to finish dry, and some unexpected vegetal notes. Perhaps the transcendent examples of Picolit that Ian D’Agata describes in Native Wine Grapes of Italy exist, but I did not find them. With more than enough great sweet wines in the world to satisfy diminishing demand, the expensive and time-consuming pursuit for Picolit becomes even more perplexing.


Friuli has a culturally diverse identity, and the region is still developing its wine culture. Not quite Italian, winemakers focus inward and on their own traditions in order to navigate the future. That future may be filled with geographically specific native blends that signal a new Friulian tradition; or amber-hued, natural wine cherished by eco-conscious consumers; or single-vineyard, terroir-focused wines that can be compared and contrasted. Will this region just serve to satiate sommeliers’ academic curiosity, or can it impact our profession and the larger wine-drinking public in a more meaningful way?

The region’s quantities are modest, but white wines from Friuli stand high above an ocean of innocuous quaffers. The distinctive threads running through Friulian whites places them among characterful categories like Smaragd Grüner Veltliner, Alsatian Riesling, and Hermitage blanc. Not everyday drinkers, these wines can provide an added tool in the arsenal of a knowledgeable sommelier and a memorable food and wine experience for our guests.

All photos are courtesy of Alexander Joyce.