On the Virtual Road to a Storied Wine Region With Geopolitical Influences
By Nick Antonaccio
Italy has 20 unique wine regions, each with its own macro and microclimate.
We’ve traveled through three regions so far in this reprised series on lesser-known Italian grapes: Campania, Sicily and the Veneto.
For this week’s virtual tour, we are in the north for a region that is one of the most diverse areas in all of Italy. It is dominated by small towns, bucolic country settings, small wineries and a rather simple, although diverse, cuisine.
Paradoxically for Italian wines, it is a wine region known predominantly for its white, not red, wines. Here at the foothills of the Austrian Alps is a land seemingly created from natural geology and geography for the express purpose of producing stellar, complex white wines.
This region in the northeast corner of Italy is Friuli-Venezia Giulia, bordering with Austria to its north, Slovenia to its east and the Adriatic Sea to its south. It may be one of Italy’s least appreciated wine regions – outside Italy. Within Italy it is recognized as the gemstone for fine white winemaking. The local winemakers have taken God’s gift of a unique land and climate and have elevated Friulian white wines to a revered position.
First, a bit of history. The compound-word designation reflects centuries of historic tugs of war. From the early Romans who ceded it to northern European marauders, to 10th century Austrian influences, to several border changes with Slovenia, the region called Friuli – its name is a reference to a local Roman Forum built in 568 – has undergone significant, if gradual, cultural morphing. The cuisine is multinational, as are the dialects spoken and the traditions upheld.
The most recent change was the annexation of the Venezia Giulia area by Italy in 1954, under a World War II treaty with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today the region is commonly referred to by its ancestral name of Friuli.
Throughout the region, winemakers have honed their skills at plying the symbiotic relationship of the land and climate to produce crisp, balanced wines. Geography is the key. Much of the region benefits from a unique combination of cool breezes wafting down from the Alps, intermixed with air currents coming up from the Adriatic Sea. These ideal growing conditions allow the grapes to mature slowly, producing wines with a perfect balance between fruit sugars and acidity.
- Friulano. Formerly called Tocai Friulano, this is the most famous and highly respected wine in the region. It starts out with aromas of peaches, almonds and pears and then finishes with a crisp minerality that clears the palate. Think Sauvignon Blanc on steroids.
- Pinot Bianco. Not to be confused with the Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris grape, this wine is crisp, very clean on the palate and satisfies with balanced acidity. Aromas of apricot and bananas are very distinct.
- Dessert Wines. Verduzzo has peach and nut flavors that evolve into honey as the wine ages. Picolit has the alluring components of a complex Sauternes.
- I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another stellar wine from this region: Pinot Grigio.
Although wildly popular for its appeal as an innocuous quaffer produced in other wine regions around the world, the Pinot Grigio of Friuli is a sophisticated wine. Complex, full-bodied, with flavors of peaches, green apples and almonds, it outshines the rest. Try it and be pleasantly surprised.
There are several red indigenous grapes that are gaining international recognition.
- Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso, with blackberry notes and high acidity.
- Pignolo, a dense wine whose aroma and flavor profile are compared to the Sangiovese Grosso of Brunello di Montalcino.
- Schioppettino, comparable to a Rhone Syrah, which evolves and gains complexity with several years of cellaring.
Friulian winemakers are beginning to export more wines to the United States. Look for these hidden gems that seemingly sparkle in the glass, reminding us of the unique history and terroir of the region.
Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and Program Director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.