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The Wines of Friuli - A tale of three grape varieties
The wine producing region of Friuli lies in the north eastern Italian province of Friuli Venezia Giulia (FVG). This area shares a border and a turbulent history with Slovenia. Although not as well known as Tuscany or Piedmont, it is the third most important of Italy's wine producing regions.
One could wax long and lyrical on the wines of Friuli, as the area certainly produces some of the best white wines in Italy. More recently, however, the international acclaim for its fragrant, elegant white wines faces a new rival in the growing reputation of its red varietals and blends.
What really distinguishes Friuli from the rest of Italy is the emphasis on quality and its quirky interest in many indigenous grape varieties, virtually unheard of in other regions. To give you an idea of the numbers involved, at the end of the 19th century there were at least 150 grape varieties grown here. Viticulture here is a story of obscure grape varieties lovingly nurtured by dedicated Friuli farmers, in spite of considerable cultivation difficulties and being completely out of step with fashion.
People have been making wine making in Friuli since Roman times although the modern day winemaking industry really got started here in the 1960s, with the introduction of German wine-making techniques and temperature-controlled fermentation. These two innovations produced white wines of exceptional quality, probably Italy's finest, which put Friuli firmly on the international wine map.
The Friuli wine scene remains somewhat confusing to the uninitiated, due to the large number of sub zones and the number of grape varieties grown here. These factors make Friuli unique but also create its Achilles' heel – the production of too many varietals on many small vineyards in limited quantities. In this way Friuli resembles Burgundy; small producers growing a range of grape varieties on tiny parcels of land. Since the 1980s, renewed interest in the red varieties, which at the present time account for around 40% of total plantings, has exacerbated this issue.
It is beyond the scope of this article to catalogue all the grape varieties grown here however, there are three particular indigenous grape varieties which form an integral part of its wine history.
Tocai Friulano, Sauvignon vert and Sauvignonasse
Here we have a single grape variety with a confusing three names. This is the most widely planted grape variety in Friuli and the white wine you will generally be offered whether it be, in a rustic frasca - the place the locals go for a glass of wine - or in an elegant restaurant. It is usually drunk young when it is pale in color and with its floral nose and a slight hint of almonds, it makes a perfect aperitif. It also has the capacity to make wines worthy of aging with greater color, character and depth.
However, this great wine suffered a significant setback, which was all to do with its name. In 2007, after losing a long-running legal battle with Hungary, The European Union issued a directive stating Tocai Friulano had to change its name due to possible confusion with the Hungarian dessert wine of the same name, incidentally spelled Tokaji. Since March 2007, the Italians refer to Tocai Friulano simply as Friulano. On the Slovenian side of the border, they opted for the rather unattractive Sauvignonasse. It's much ado about nothing given that no one makes these wines from a grape called tocai. Hungarian Tokaji comes from a mixture of Furmint and Harslevelu grapes while Friulano comes from Sauvignon Vert grapes. Incidentally, Friulano as we now must call it bears no relation to the French Tokay d’Alsace derived from Pinot Gris. Are you confused yet?
Schioppettino, also known as Ribolla Nera is one of most interesting red varietals of the Friuli wine world. This indigenous grape has a fascinating history, changing from outlaw to rising star in a little over 40 years. It owes its reprieve to the efforts of one man Sig. Paolo Rapuzzi who founded his vineyard in Cialla in the late 1960s. At that time Schioppettino was virtually extinct, less than one hundred vines remained. Two factors lead to its near demise, disease in the form of phylloxera and competition from international varieties such as Cabernet and Merlot. Such was the demand for international varieties that indigenous grapes were almost abandoned. Planting Schioppettino was banned as it was classified as an illegal varietal. Sig Rapuzzi scoured Slovenia and Friuli for Schioppettino rootstock to plant a vineyard below his house. In 1978 a European Union decree authorized its cultivation in the province of Udine that saved Schioppettino from ignomy. Today it is still planted in very limited quantities around the villages of Prepotto and Albana, which is considered to be its elective home and certainly the best examples come from this sub zone.
After a shaky start it has become one of the stars of the Friuli wine scene and the future looks bright. The grapes make a perfumed, medium-bodied red with a hint of spice and the capacity to age. The wine has an alluring aromatic richness and some describe it as a feminine wine. Certainly some of the top Schioppettino is being produced by women, such as Hilde Petrussa of Vigna Petrussa. An association of producers holds a festival in Prepotto in October giving you the opportunity to try Schioppettino from a range of local producers. If you are here at other times of the year you can drop into the Enoteca dello Schioppettino in Prepotto to taste by the glass. The food is also excellent.
Last but not least is Picolit, probably the best known wine outside Friuli. Its name derives from the word piccolo meaning small. Picolit is notoriously difficult to grow, prone to disease and produces small, sparsely-berried bunches. Makers use the passito method to produce the wine. The grapes are picked in mid October and then air dried to concentrate the sugars, before being pressed and vinified. Given the small yields and the elaborate and lengthy vinification process Picolit is produced in very small quantities and commands high prices.
A variety of white blends use it but its most classic expression is as a single varietal dessert wine. In some ways dessert wine is a misnomer as vino da meditazione is a more accurate description. The wine is not luscious or rich, but rather elegant with an off dry finish and delicate floral aromas, particularly acacia flowers. The best examples are off dry rather than sweet and do not pair well with desserts, they find their true partners in blue cheese and patè.
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Gillian Arthur lives in Italy and runs Piccolo Walking Tours, guided tours to Italy, France, Scotland, and New Zealand. www.piccolotours.com
© Gillian Arthur AIWS, 2011
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