The White Wines of Friuli

Tucked into the northeastern corner of Italy, Friuli is a land of green rolling hills and enchanting landscapes. In the 1990s, its Burgundian-style white wines were highly sought after in Europe and beyond, a popularity that has waned in more recent years. Today, the most-discussed wines are perhaps the orange wines made by pioneers like Radikon and Gravner. Unfortunately, the full spectrum of Friuli’s wines remains relatively unknown.

Friuli, or Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, is beloved in certain industry circles for its white wines, and the orange wine innovators get consistent press. The regional culture is well defined, unique, and compelling. Master Sommelier  has been an effective champion by way of Frasca Food and Wine, his Boulder, Colorado, restaurant where Friuli serves as the central inspiration.

Most of the key ingredients for success are present: examples of excellent wine, a regional narrative, industry enthusiasm. So why isn’t Friuli on the radar of the broader wine world?

Looking to the treasure of the region, its white wines, the answer seems clear: identity. Friuli’s winemaking culture has never stopped evolving. Some change, certainly, is healthy, even necessary, but this is species-to-species evolution, not the interspecies sort. Friuli has never settled on a winemaking identity, one with a clear, coherent definition that can be understood and expressed far beyond its borders.

Since the wine industry began taking a more commercial, modern shape in the 1960s, there have been three waves of white wine-making in Friuli (generalizing somewhat, of course), each one resulting in a disparate style. But rather than one style giving way to the next, with each shift, some producers moved ahead, embracing the new trend, while others stayed with their old methods, and still others reverted to an earlier style. While these transitions have left Friuli with interesting, diverse wines—something for everyone, one could argue—it has also left the region without a clear, recognizable style, essential to claiming an identity in the world of wine. And that leaves the future uncertain as well.

A Brief Overview

Of the 10 DOCs and 4 DOCGs of Friuli, we’ll focus on three that are crucial for understanding the region: Carso DOC, Collio Goriziano DOC (often referred to as Collio), and Colli Orientali DOC.

DOC Carso is shared with Slovenia, where it is known as the Kras. It is a small area, with strict DOC regulations. A number of producers, however, have moved away from the DOC. The macerated wine movement was born in the Oslavia region of Collio but is also strong here, on both sides of the border.

The adjacent regions of Collio and Colli Orientali have much in common, with the tiny DOC of Collio distinguished by its slightly hillier landscape (colle means hill), as the DOC opted to include only hilly areas. Colli Orientali, however, includes many vineyards in the flatlands. Though there are some great red wines in Collio, it is known primarily for its whites. Colli Orientali, on the other hand, is somewhat better known for its reds, particularly Merlot, Bordeaux blends, and Schioppettino—which, some say, is mastered here.

Many in Friuli consider the Collio a model appellation, with borders determined by history and geography and quality upheld by producers. As such, there is a slightly stronger market for these wines.

Friuli has an abundance of grapes. Friulano, known as Tocai Friulano until a successful challenge from Hungary’s Tokaj, is perhaps the most significant. Ribolla Gialla has the longest history in the region. Other white grapes include Malvasia (Malvasia Istriana), Verduzzo, Vitovska, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Grigio. The key red grapes are Merlot, Schioppettino, Refosco, Terrano, Pignolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc.

Early History

People have been making wine in Friuli for centuries. When asked about the origin of their estates, winemakers tend to look puzzled, replying, “My family has always made wine!” (They are also likely to assure you that their style is the most traditional one.) Early winemaking, of course, was on a very small scale, carried out without much science or strategy. People made wine for consumption at home, or to sell by the jug in larger cities if they were truly industrious. All of this is typical of many winemaking regions but worth recalling. When winemaking begins with ordinary people making wine for simple, at-home consumption, the journey toward commercial winemaking is inevitably longer and more nuanced.

In Friuli, there were several large estates making wine with simple methods by the mid-20th century. But it wasn’t until the early 1960s that the modern industry truly began taking shape, starting with the first small growers who bottled their own wine. The Consorzio di Tutela Vini del Collio, one of Italy’s first wine associations, was established in 1964. Soon after, in 1968, Collio received DOC status.

Producers’ methods were fairly straightforward: the grapes would spend one or two days on the skins, until fermentation started. Grapes were pressed, often by foot, then aged in concrete or old wooden casks (not oak). Very little technology was available, and winemakers weren’t yet putting a great deal of thought into the intricacies of their processes.

The First Wave: Looking North

The first revolution in winemaking in Friuli began, most say, with the Schiopetto family. While working as a fireman, Mario Schiopetto and his wife ran the Fireman’s Hostelry, a small osteria Mario inherited from his parents. Interested in making his own wine, he arranged a deal with the church in Gorzia and started his estate there, with a first vintage in 1965.

Schiopetto studied German winemaking, and he began making his wine in the German and Austrian style (mention of German influence throughout this article refers to this general cultural and winemaking influence of both Germany and Austria). He took advantage of new technological advancements and innovations such as cold fermentation and selected yeasts, kept his cellars clean, and aged his wines in stainless steel. Both temperature and oxygen were carefully controlled during each step of the process. The resulting wines were elegant and precise.

At first, people balked at the differences, and higher prices Schiopetto stamped on his wines. But after just six or seven years, others adopted the clean, precise, enologist school of thought; quite quickly, this became the “classic” style of Friuli, as agreed upon by a reasonable majority. With an unsurprising emphasis on acidity, those of this perspective encouraged early picking of Friulano, a grape low in acidity.

A slightly more refined version of this style is exemplified by i Clivi. Father and son Ferdinando and Mario Zanusso founded their estate decades later than Schiopetto, in the mid-1990s. By that time, their wines stood in stark contrast to what had become popular in the market, yet they didn’t quite match the enology-minded style of the 1970s either. It’s possible that the Zanussos’ outsider status gave them the freedom needed to forge a new path: though Ferdinando’s wife was from Friuli, he was from the Veneto, and they had spent years elsewhere prior to starting the estate. The subtlety and purity of their wines comes not from an enthusiasm about technology—Ferdinando had an enologist for 10 years, but they were always fighting—but from a desire to capture the essence of either grape or vineyard, without distractions.

The Zanussos have two properties, one in Colli Orientale DOC and another just across the border in Collio DOC. They are certified organic in the vineyard and cellar, use only wild yeast, and ferment in stainless steel. They find it essential to keep the juice on the lees for at least six months and up to two years. With their “Rosapina” wines, they focus on indigenous or regionally significant grapes, offering incredibly pure representations of Ribolla Gialla, Friulano, Verduzzo, and Malvasia. The “Crus” demonstrate another excellent point, offering two different expressions of Friulano, the grapes grown in close proximity but in different zones: the Brazan Vineyard is located in Collio DOC, the Galea Vineyard in Colli Orientale DOC. Tasting the two side-by-side is an interesting and worthwhile exercise, a rare opportunity to truly compare different terroir. I find the Galea to be somewhat more expressive and earthy, while the Brazan is fuller and has a faint saltiness. Aged longer on the lees than the Rosapina wines, these are more contemplative and age beautifully.

The Rosaspina wines handily achieve the purity the Zanussos pursue, and tasting them provides an excellent introduction to these grapes. The 2015 Ribolla Gialla has both salinity and acidity, depth and freshness. The 2015 Friulano is herbal, with notes of peach, and the Malvasia is more aromatic, floral, round, and delicate. Though hard to find in the US, the Verduzzo is a treat, with glycerine, full body, and notes of purple flowers and licorice. Historically an important grape in Friuli, Verduzzo was pushed aside by enthusiasm for French grape varietals. Today, it is almost always fermented sweet; i Clivi is one of only three producers making a dry version.

Other key, historic producers in this category are Venica & Venica, Edi Keber, Princic, Raccaro, and Toros. After adopting this more Germanic style, these producers maintained it, not following the trends that were to come.

The Second Wave: Looking West

The next shift began in the mid-1980s. Small estates like Radikon and Gravner were on the rise—though not with the style they’re known for today—transitioning from selling their grapes to large producers to making and selling their own wines. Some of these producers began eyeing the steep prices being fetched by French wines. Consumer preferences seemed to be leaning toward oak. Was the Burgundian style one they could replicate?

The answer was yes. Three families working a church-owned estate, Abbazia di Rosazzo, introduced the first wines in barrique, beginning with their Ronco della Acacie 1981. The experiment was a success. By the late 1980s, there was a tremendous explosion of the usage of oak. French grapes became more popular, and alcohol levels rose.

These were the wines that put Friuli on wine lists around the world for the first time. Reflecting a distinct regional personality, they received high scores and other critical recognition. Producers had earned a place at the table in the winemaking world with what many would call these “modern” wines. Others, however, were less impressed. Ferdinando Zanusso of i Clivi feels that producers swept up in this movement are too taken with France and have lost sight of what their own region has to offer.

Nicola Manferrari of Borgo del Tiglio was among the winemakers who adopted the Burgundian school of thought. His family sold grapes from five hectares for bulk winemaking. Manferrari studied pharmacology and was working at the family’s pharmacy when his father died suddenly in 1981. Harvest was approaching, so Nicola stepped in. He fell in love with winemaking and wanted to bottle his own wines rather than selling the grapes. Yet he was unimpressed with the German-influenced wines around him. He wanted to make wine that would age and soon realized that his aims and intuition matched French ideology. He began borrowing from that school of thought, even teaching himself French so that he could study French winemaking texts, beginning with François Champagnol’s Physiologie de la Vigne. Manferrari bottled his first Collio wine in 1982. He works meticulously in the vineyard, ferments mostly in barrique, and thoughtfully experiments with blends, once uncommon and unpopular in Friuli.

Today, Borgo del Tiglio makes several single-variety white wines, including Chardonnay, Malvasia, Friulano, and Sauvignon Blanc. Its Ronco della Chiesa is 100% Friulano as well. Manferrari’s Studio di Bianco is a blend of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Friulano (the Collio is a more basic version). He also grows Merlot, bottled both as a single variety wine and a blend with Cabernet Sauvignon.

The blends are interesting and widely praised. Personally, however, I’m most impressed by Borgo del Tiglio’s single-variety wines. The 2013 Ronco della Chiesa makes an excellent case for oak-aged Friulano. It is rich and expressive, with notes of apple and white flowers on both the nose and palate and a saline, flinty quality. It has a gentle bitterness and is, as Manferrari intends, reminiscent of Chablis, offering another excellent pairing option for oysters.

The Miani wines of Colli Orientali express a similar style. Like Manferrari, Enzo Pontoni inherited vineyards from his father in the 1980s and was the first in his family to bottle wines rather than sell the grapes. The wines are concentrated and dense, with full body. Though cult wines in the US, they are less coveted by some within Friuli.

Ronchi di Cialla is another important producer, not only for strong examples of this style but also for Paolo and Dina Rapuzzi’s work to revive the Schioppettino grape during the 1970s and 1980s. Other producers worth seeking out include Edi Kante, Ronco del Gnemiz, and Vignai da Duline.

The Third Wave: Looking Back

The most recent revolution came more recently, and with a twist: the producers of the mid-1990s were not looking around so much as behind. Most had been successfully making rich, oak-influenced wines, but they were unsatisfied.

Josko Gravner and Stanislao “Stanko” Radikon, neighbors in the Oslavia region of Collio, had always been pioneers. They made German-influenced wines using cold fermentation techniques and stainless steel in the 1970s, then moved along to successful Burgundian styles in the 1980s. The oft-told story is that Gravner visited California in the late 1980s and became disillusioned after observing a high amount of chemical manipulation. Looking for the most ancient techniques he could find, he began adopting the methods used in Georgia thousands of years ago—particularly, long skin contact and, by the early 2000s, aging in amphorae.

This, of course, is the wave of orange wine, the now well-known category of skin-contact white wines that has since spread to winemaking regions across the globe. Georgia wasn’t the only influence. This was also the way wine had been made in Friuli years before, only a couple of generations ago. Without science or technology, those earlier producers were simply trying to make their wines last longer. Grape skins, it turns out, are a great preservative.

Gravner quickly convinced other producers to join his revolution, including Radikon and the Bensa brothers of La Castellada. Other winemakers soon followed, notably Paolo Vodopivec and Damijan Podversic. These producers were motivated by an earlier era, or a far-off place, when winemakers had none of the science of the modern day. Most of them employ other old-school techniques as well, farming without chemicals, hand-harvesting, and eschewing temperature control, cultivated yeasts, and sulfur.

Sommeliers recall receiving the 1997 Gravner bottlings, shocked to find wines so different than those of previous vintages. While the style soon gained traction, it would be difficult to argue that this movement had anything to do with market demand.

Even within the orange wine movement, there are varying philosophies, particularly in relation to the length of maceration. At one end of the spectrum, Josko Gravner macerates his grapes on the skins for 6 to 10 months in clay amphorae buried in his cellar. The wines are aged for years (usually 7 to 10) before release. Sasa Radikon, who has taken over for his father since Stanko’s death late last year, macerates his grapes for a more modest 30 days up to a few months, then ages the juice for about three years on the lees prior to bottling.

Sandi Skerk of his eponymous winery in the Carso has a somewhat different style. Sandi’s grandfather made skin-contact wines and cheese that he sold in nearby Trieste. Sandi’s father, however, was interested in enology and pursued a German style. When Sandi took over, he changed course again. But his take is not so extreme: he ferments his wines for 10 days with the skins, then keeps the wines on the fine lees for 10 to 12 months, with battonage during the last month. The wines age for one year off the lees, followed by one or two months in stainless steel. Sandi inoculates his wines with the prior year’s yeast and keeps his cave impeccably clean. His aim is to make “natural but elegant” wines.

To taste the wines of Skerk and Radikon or Gravner side-by-side demonstrates the point quite neatly. I recently opened a bottle of 2012 Skerk Vitovska (a rare grape found primarily in the Carso) alongside the 2006 Radikon Bianco Oslavje. A blend of Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc, the Oslavje is profoundly savory and tannic, with a deep copper color. It smells of ripe cheese, black olives, and vegetables roasted to a crisp. It is incredibly aromatic, complex, and substantial, lending renewed meaning to “long finish.” The Skerk Vitovska is savory and tannic, but less so, and its color is more mustard than orange. It is intense, but perfumed and pretty, too. On the nose, I find straw and spice. On the palate, it is savory and long, with notes of lemon peel and honey.

Looking Forward: What’s Next?

Friuli clearly has plenty to offer. As Mario Zanusso points out, this provides for a stimulating environment, a laboratory setting of sorts. Yet he’s quick to note that it also leads to confusion.

Orange wine will always inhabit its own unusual category, but there are some examples today where the first and second waves of winemaking in Friuli are converging into a more unified style. Influence is a bit more democratic these days; there’s no reason why France and Germany can’t both lend perspective, along with approaches from far-flung winemakers in our well-connected world. Furthermore, rare grapes and the idea of locality have been getting plenty of press lately, making an emphasis on regional grapes more compelling.

Some producers, such as Venica & Venica, are making wines that seem to fit into both camps. While Venica & Venica’s style certainly leans toward the style of the first wave, they also release wines partially aged in French oak casks, currently including Chardonnay, Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia, and Sauvignon Blanc. Likewise, the wines of i Clivi fit into the first category, but not perfectly, their emphasis on expressing grapes as transparently as possible not quite aligned with the goals of the enologists that preceded them.

Yet even if the lines become more blurred, these three styles will persist. This doesn’t have to be a problem; indeed, many famed regions across Europe offer multiple styles. Those distinctions, however, are often defined by appellation, whereas in Friuli that isn’t the case. There are clues, like the fact that many winemakers from the Carso employ skin contact, and that high-priced examples typically see French oak. But moving forward, Friuli must find more ways to clarify that these different styles exist, from refreshing and crisp to weighty and oak influenced to orange—with plenty of variation in between. If this is clearly communicated to consumers, perhaps Friuli will finally step into its worthy place in the lineup of the world’s fine wine regions.

Special thanks to the producers visited in Friuli in July 2016 for sharing their perspectives and beautiful wines, and to Mitja Sirk of La Subida for his invaluable insights and hospitality.

  • Excellent article, Stacy. I made a short visit to Friuli in May and you've touched on so much of what the region faces today. I, too, believe the region is worthy of greater attention and respect. This was a great read, thanks.

  • Thank you for chiming in with this thoughtful response. It's so true that this is just one case study reflecting a variation on a common theme in the wine world...!

    It's an important point that the orange wine movement created division that went beyond difference of opinion or strategy. Today, the lack of unity on the producer front adds to the challenge of establishing a clear identity beyond the region's borders.

    Regardless, I'm with you—I think Friuli is on its way to achieving its great potential!

  • Well, maybe 4th best. Let me know when you are ready for a trip to Campagna, Marche and Alto Adige with me ;)

  • Pretty interested now to read Part 2: The Red Wines of Fruili!

    Hopefully soon.....

  •  Thank you so much for this overview of the FVG region. You are a quick study and you hit many nails on the head, most importantly, and this does not just apply to Friuli, your finishing statement about "[finding] more ways to clarify that these different [wine] styles exist" and how to communicate them effectively. This can be a problem all the way down to the winery level whether here in California, or at the far reaches of Friuli. It is incredibly hard to change culture and tradition, especially when we speak about wines, wineries and wine regions on a generational level.  Mitja Sirk and his family have done a great job in trying to rally the image of Collio as a place not only to consider its wines, but also its cuisine and being a downright fine place to visit.  And there aren't words that can describe Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Patterson's "love letter" to Friuli that they created at Frasca these many years.

    However, I will say this, the wine community is built on the backs of very proud people.  We are all proud of what we do, how we do it and why.  Sadly, this breeds equal parts competition and jealousy.  And that will sometimes damage our ability to add the sum of its parts in order to create a greater whole. For example, Gravner.  What Gravner did just after a couple decades of producing wine cast him in an alternative, and unflattering, light.  Just recently, I had a conversation with Stefano Bensa at La Castellada; he basically told me that he and his family were not content with the wines they made from Ribolla Gialla being any good.  So, they explored ways to bring out the highest potential of the grape, and for them it was maceration.  This movement has been incredibly polarizing for the community, because they were basically saying that everything they had done up until that point was garbage.  While the First two waves, as you deemed them, believed that macerating grapes on their skins was de-evolutionizing the winemaking process.  Was that true or were these just reactions to the Western world having a bit of a fling with "orange wines" ?  Either way, the chasm in the community widened. Such a fascinating case study, but nothing short of what we can expect from the wine community!  Think of it from a completely opposite perspective; the "Barolo Boys" felt that the old-guard-traditionalists were not evolving to the current flavors and tastes of the modern world.  It has taken about 30 years now for the pendulum to swing back and settle itself out in Piemonte.  Where am I going with this ?

    Friuli is relatively new on the "world stage"; and although a bit disparate at the moment, I have faith that the best white wine making region in all of Italy will come together and achieve its potential; hopefully it won't take 30 years.