Even well travelled wine lovers often aren’t familiar with the Collio, on the extreme north-eastern edge of Italy. This showcase region for Italian white wines lies right at the border with Slovenia. Here is where some of the greatest upheavals in the recent history of wine occurred. Twelve approved grape varieties give the winegrowers plenty of scope - and plenty to discuss.
“As a child, my father used to take me in the car with him and drive over the border”, explains Matteo Bellotto as he points to the road, “that was already on the other side of the barrier pole”. The valley which spreads out in front of the terraces of the Livonia winery is in neighbouring Slovenia. His father only explained later that he was also able to inconspicuously smuggle in cigarettes. Everyone in Collio has similar cold war era stories to those of this consorzio manager to tell.
Friuli was often used as political bargaining power throughout history, whether as a transition to the Balkans for Julius Caesar or as an outpost with a Mediterranean port for Joseph Stalin. The power politicians however failed to recognise the unique wine potential of the region between today's Austria, Slovenia and the Adriatic.
The best soils in the Collio, as well as the neighbouring regions Colli Orientali, Isonzo and Carso consist of decomposed limestone, which unfolded as compressed seabeds 50 million years ago to the foothills of the Alps here. Since then, the ancient moraines disintegrated slowly to a loose, mineral-rich soil with few nutrients, in which the vines must root themselves deeply.
The growers call the soil layers "Ponca". They develop red and blue fault-lines from deposits such as iron and manganese, and erode so quickly that the winemakers planted grass in-between their vines long before it became common practice.
Connecting towards the west is a wide plain of alluvial land. In the extremely compacted soils, researchers found remains of Bronze Age posts and grape seeds. The first winemakers had clearly chosen these easier cultivation conditions. Today, the land of endless Pinot Grigio and Prosecco begins here for the world’s supermarkets.
"It’s the perfect combination of sea and mountains," says Gianni Menotti, consultant oenologist to the consorzio for the slopes of the Collio. He refers to the cold downpours of the Alps and the warm sea breezes from the lagoon of Venice. They ensure long, undisturbed ripening and may be more important than discussing whether potash or magnesium is lying latent in the soil. Three times more rain falls over the region than in rainy Germany, mostly in winter and spring. In the hot summer months, the warm winds provide dry conditions. "Nevertheless, the grapes store too much water without a green harvest," explains winemaker Marco Primosic. The winemakers harvest relatively early and “about twenty days earlier than in the eighties," confirms his colleague Angelo Pradis.
Wine trading, grappa and stumbling citizens
By the end of the Middle Ages at the latest, wine trade was a flourishing business model. Gorizia, today still the capital of the Collio, raised a wine tax in 1307. As an instrument of social control, the measure seems to have been rather ineffective. An administrative document soon complained about the many drunks stumbling through the streets of the city.
A century or more later, landless grape growers were allowed to keep the wine-press residue by their masters. They consoled themselves over their fate on cold winter evenings, with a distillate made from the skins called grappa.
The famous manufacturer Nonino established their distillery from the 1970s, with much concentration on the optimal manufacturing processes and smart marketing as a fashionable product. The Nonino distillery releases one million bottles every year, including vintages of barrique-aged single variety grappa.
On trade routes such as the Mediterranean spice route, grape varieties from the Balkans and Asia Minor came to Friuli and enriched a gene pool from which the growing region benefits to this day. Austrian rulers later introduced popular French varieties such as Chardonnay, which today shines with mineral notes. Sauvignon blanc often shows tones of ripe grapefruit and wild flowers. Pinot Grigio, grown on the western plains for mass consumption, has plenty of power, spices and minerals in the Collio, flavours of ripe bananas and exotic fruits in the warmer Isonzo. Pinot Bianco shows fragrant finesse.
The conflicts of the 20th century hit the region incomparably hard. From 1915 to 1917 some of the most brutal battles of the First World War raged over the mountains. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers died pitifully by artillery fire, mines, artificially induced avalanches and typhoid fever. The Grappa rations issued by the army command must have looked like mockery.
In the course of the twelve Isonzo battles, fought across the Austro-Italian border (now Slovenia and Italy), entire mountain peaks were blown up and the town of Gorizia severely destroyed. From a military perspective, the battles ultimately brought no advantage to either side.
Nevertheless, after World War II, the border between Yugoslavia and Italy was routed right through the middle of the region, tearing apart families, friends and estates. Italian winemakers ended up with vineyards on the Slovenian side and had to pass the Iron Curtain with their tractors to do the field work – and vice versa. Successive generations often changed nationalities and had to deal successively with Austrian, Italian, Yugoslav and Slovenian administrations.
Agricultural subsidies soon secured a certain standard of production in the Italian Collio. “Maceration on the skins had been abandoned by the 1920s,” says winemaker Marco Primosic. This traditional mode of production, which is experiencing a renaissance right now, “was simply obsolete”.
The maxim was yield increase, and the main grape variety was Merlot. However, many other varieties were planted, partly in reaction to the changing weather conditions. The true potential for white wines only appeared along with temperature controlled fermentation and cultured yeasts, only to recede again with the red wine boom of the eighties. At least the winemakers were able to invest their profits into better vine clones and cellar technology.
From farmer to visionary
Financial stability stemming from countless generations of family ownership helps foster innovation. Due to this, the development of Friuli’s top region reads like a history of modern viticulture, but with everything happening earlier than elsewhere. “We saw the first steel tanks here in 1964,” reports Primosic. Silvio Cantarutti, a specialist when it comes to Sauvignon Blanc, is similarly a fan of "No wood, no malo".
Especially when it came to increased cellar hygiene “the style changed completely”. Mario Schiopetto was the first to practice cold fermentation and thus put himself at the head of a modern wine style. “He was the first to move from being a farmer to a visionary,” recalls Walter Filiputti, Lecturer in Wine Communication at the Universities of Milan and Udine.
Marco Felluga brought the idea of a quality pyramid on the basis of origin - not the grape variety - into play in the 1990s. In the spirit of the time, he also wanted to promote international varieties. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc were the era’s favourites for international success. “When I started in 1998,” says Primosic, “I really wanted barriques, because I had learned that in Burgundy” - also in retrospect a rather temporary trend.
Meanwhile, Stanko Radikon and Joško Gravner conducted idiosyncratic experiments. The prematurely deceased Radikon sought more expression in his Ribolla Gialla, and realised that the extremely thick skins of the variety needed maceration, in order to release their aromas into the must. As a side benefit, the method also allowed him to use less sulphur. The term orange wine was not yet in sight though.
Joško Gravner fermented white grapes with the skins in Georgian clay amphorae, without worrying about temperature control or oxidation. Out came wines with complex aromas of autumnal fruit and wet earth, which some found hard to understand. Gravner is today the prime reference in the orange wine category, with his wines even on the menu at The Ritz in Paris. Elsewhere, orange wine is often regarded as a rebel cause, which goes hand in hand with hipster beards, big tattoos and a superstructure of biodynamic theory. In the Collio once more, they’re one step ahead. Six winemakers have formed an association specifically to celebrate Ribolla Gialla, with a proposal for the macerated style specifying spontaneous fermentation, at least two years barrel ageing and no temperature control.
A bit of emotion can’t hurt
Even though there are representatives of almost every school today, and not everyone makes orange wine, fermentation is widespread in wooden barrels and concrete tanks. Many exercise some liberty in their choice of variety. This results in different styles such as cold fermented Sauvignon Blancs based on the New Zealand model, or heavily oaked Chardonnays. Good for some cash, but not necessarily good for the profile of the region. “With too much of everything, Collio becomes obscured," even Menotti has to admit. Like many winegrowers, the enologist believes that in the age of varietal wines and lively competition, new rules have to be developed to help the Collio create its profile. “Now is the moment. We stand between revolution and development.” A bit of emotion bridges the gap perfectly.
In addition, winegrowers like to compete with each other. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and the rediscovered Schiopettino, which was once considered extinct, are reminiscent of old red wine times.
Ribolla Gialla, Friulano, Malvasia – the big three
The big three of the indigenous varieties are jewels, each with its own sparkle. Ribolla Gialla has more than 700 years of documented history in Friuli. The variety is tricky in terms of viticulture, “with low alcohol, high acidity and a lot of extract but tailor-made for contemporary top wines”, raves Menotti. Its accessibility also makes it interesting for sparkling wine.
Friulano came to the region in the 19th century, so it is rather less indigenous, and was originally called Tocai Friulano. Winemakers from the Tokaj region in Hungary claimed exclusive use of the term Tokaj (and its soundalikes!), and the variety thus got its present-day name.
The adjective "friulano" describes something rustic or simple for many locals, which is why some have not made friends with the newly abbreviated name. When made with low yields and not covered in oak, Friulano shows its strengths with very fragrant fruit notes.
Malvasia, “the Cinderella among the varieties” (Menotti), enjoyed little reputation for a long time. However, the cultivation is now better understood, and the high alcohol ideally mitigated by soft mineral notes in addition to exotic floral notes.
Cuvée or varietal wine?
“We have neglected the potential of indigenous varieties for too long,” says Primosic. Lost in the varietal orientation is a bit of the magic of Collio cuvées with their incomparable momentum, which is not even fully understood. The best have low acidity levels and not infrequently proportions of easy-drinking varieties such as Müller-Thurgau, yet still mature for many years. “It's hard to say why,” says Marco Simonit, a native of Friuli and a highly esteemed vine pruning consultant. “It is however certain that the grape varieties must be genetically rooted in a region.”
Until the eighties, high-yielding Friulano made up the largest proportion of land. Then came Pinot Grigio. In recent years, 2,000 hectares of Ribolla Gialla have been planted. But the reality in the vineyard still looks a bit different. Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay together account for 56 percent of the total area. Friulano, Ribolla Gialla and Malvasia lag behind with 15, 8 and 2.6 percent respectively.
A regulation change is in sight. The consorzio will probably agree on a share of at least 75 percent Ribolla Gialla / Friulano. The rest would be left up to the winemaker, along with some doubts. Chardonnay has adapted perfectly to the terroir. Why should one squeeze out an easygoing grape variety of this quality in favour of sensitive ones like Ribolla?
Behind closed doors the consorzio has also formulated the idea of a new premium blend "Gran Selezzione", which is supposed to elevate the top wines. In the vortex of many, many topics, this discussion will probably continue for some considerable time.
Visiting the winemaker by scooter
Wine tourism in Friuli has a lot to offer. Good B&Bs are scattered across the region, and around 120 wineries offer accommodation in the form of agriturismos. Winery hopping is made easier by the "Collio in Vespa" service. Travellers can ride on bright yellow scooters from winery to winery – a service which received an award from the Lonely Planet for its customer focus.
It’s a definite plus that there are few tourists in this region of rolling hills. Friuli remains authentic. The many local prosciuttos melt on the tongue and are frequently aged in the open air. The lush pastures are full of cattle whose milk has been processed into mozzarella and ricotta. No matter which village you try, it is definitely the best in Friuli. Frico, the luscious cheese pancakes, are always an intense experience with aged Montasio cheese. Joško Sirk, owner of michelin starred La Subida, ages vinegar for years in oak barrels. Like many chefs, they rely on regional products. The local scene is lively.
Gorizia is another worthwhile destination. In the provincial capital, with its sand-colored facades and pretty lanes, the occasional red-white shutters and onion domes of the church of Santo Ignazio recall the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Via the station square, the Piazza Transalpina, a line ran through the pavement until 1989 forming the border between Italy and the Warsaw pact country Yugoslavia - between Soviet and American nuclear missiles, between the whole world. Gorizia was divided, as was Berlin, but nobody noticed. Today you go a little further through an underpass and emerge in the Slovenian Nova Gorica. The soils and the climate couldn’t be separated by a border though. The Slovenian Brda produces outstanding wines that will be the subject of the next topic of the month.