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Wines of Friuli-Venezia Giulia

Cultural Crossroads

Wine is almost always heavily influenced by the the history and culture of the lands from which it is created. This is particularly true in Italy’s Friuli-Venezia Giulia, which not only makes up part of the current border with Slovenia and Austria but has strategically changed hands between ancient Rome, Byzantines, Franks, Austrio-Hungarians, and the Catholic Church for over 2000 years.

To understand the wines of the region, a little knowledge of its shared history goes a long way.

The “Triveneto”

In 1863, during the early years of independent and united Italy, Friulian linguist Graziadio Isaia Ascoli coined the term “Tre Venezie,” today more commonly known as “Triveneto,” to describe the three Northeastern provinces of Italy comprising the modern borders of Alto Adige, Veneto, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia.  

triveneto friuli            Original borders described by "Tre Venezie," wherein Veneto and Friuli shared some of the same lands.

The first map shown above displays the “Triveneto” with its modern borders; the map on the right shows the original borders of the provinces of the “Tre Venezie” as they were in the 1860s.

At the inception of this term, Italy was at once ancient and brand new.  The vast majority of the Italian Peninsula had gained its independence from Austria (in the north) and Spain (in the south) in 1860 and had been united into one sovereign country.  Friuli-Venezia Giulia in particular had been at the center of international conflict and changed hands many times throughout the previous 2000 years, and the small province of Gorizia would not return to Italian control from Austria-Hungary until the empire fell at the end of The Great War.

Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1913.  Trieste in yellow.

Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1913. Trieste in yellow.

Prior to this, Friuli and its all-important port at Trieste had been crucial assets to whoever wished to wield geopolitical power in Central and Western Europe.  Trieste, more so than even Venice (since Venice was its own independent Republic), was the port responsible for Central and Northern Europe’s trade with Asia.  

The general area of Friuli-Venezia Giulia was part of the Roman Empire until its decline in the mid-5th century, giving way to brief Byzantine rule (after Attila the Hun sacked the area in 452 AD).  The Lombards, a Germanic tribe from the North, conquered Friuli and much of the peninsula in the 560s but ruled the area loosely, leading much of Northern Italy to practically rule itself.  The Catholic Church had the Lombards ousted with help from the Franks in the 700s and gave way to the rule by the Frankish Empire in exchange for territories, the Papal States, which would form a border between the Northern and Southern parts of the Italian Peninsula.  Loose rule of the southern portion of the Frankish Empire continued until German King Otto I conquered the area as the first Holy Roman Emperor.  Friuli would be a part of the Holy Roman Empire until its decline when it was annexed by an expansion of the Republic of Venice in the first decade of the 1500s.  It would stay as part of Venice (which also controlled much of the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea) until Napoleon‘s conquest of the Italian Peninsula in 1797.  In 1815, Friuli, with the rest of Northern Italy down through Tuscany, again became part of Austria, until decades of revolution finally yielded an independent, united Italy in 1860.  At the end of World War I, the small province of Gorizia along the modern Slovenia-Italy border (which changed hands during the war a couple times) was yielded by the soon-to-be-former Austro-Hungarian empire.  At that point, the modern borders of Italy and Friuli-Venezia Giulia became what they are today.

All this to say, Friuli has had a LOT of influences other than Italian!  The Italian dialects, food, and number of people speaking neighboring languages are as diverse as anywhere else in the country.  Many residents of Friuli even speak “Friulian,” a language all their own, in addition to Italian and perhaps even German and/or Slovenian.  In addition to cultural wealth, the pivotal position between all these countries and empires and the important Trieste port have given Friuli one of the stronger economies in Italy for many years.

So How About the Wine??

Most Italian wines are indelibly Italian in style.  There are hundreds if not over 1000 unique Italian wine grapes that, with some exceptions, are only grown in Italy.  Many of the wines of Friuli, however, are as internationally diverse as its shared cultural heritage.  The juxtaposition of the Austrian and Julian Alps to the North and East, with sunny, south-facing hillsides and cool plains giving way to the Adriatic Sea in the South make Friuli-Venezia Giulia a world-class wine region for all types of grapes.

friuli vineyard 1colli orientale  

World-Renowned Whites…

Friuli is famous for its diverse, high-quality white wines.  Friulian Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris), Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Pinot Blanc are well-known international styles made here, and indigenous whites made with Glera (for Prosecco), Friulano (formerly “Tocai Friulano” or “Tai” and sometimes known as “sauvignon vert”), Malvasia Istriana, Verduzzo, Picolit, and Ribolla Gialla fil out Friuli’s sense of place and reputation.  Thanks to German, Austrian and French influences and proximity to high-altitude, cool-climate terroir, Friuli is an appropriate region to represent other old-world grapes like (Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc) and Italian originals alike.

Native Friulian whites are generally dry, fresh, acidic, but with good weight and texture.  Pinot Grigio is probably its best known product internationally, but the following local grapes also deserve your attention:

Friulano- a medium-to-full-bodied dry white wine with mouth-watering acidity, delicate fruit flavors with light saline minerality and a common note of almonds.  This grape was formerly known as “Tocai Friulano” or “Tai” until European regulations took away the “Tocai” to avoid confusion with the noble “Tokaji” wines of Hungary, which are pronounced the same way but are not related grapes.  Friulano is also known as “Sauvignon Vert” in some parts of the world, including Chile, where it was often confused for Sauvignon Blanc, which is also not directly related to Friulano.

Malvasia Istriana- Malvasia is an ancient family of grape varieties that has made its way into six different regions of Italy as far south as Sicily, to Croatia and as far as Portugal, and is used to make everything from high quality white and dessert wines (such as Madeira) to table reds and as part of white blends.  Malvasia Istriana is grown in Friuli but gets its name from the Istrian Peninsula spanning over Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy (it is also grown in those countries).  In Friuli, Malvasia Istriana is crisp, lightly floral and acidic with tropical fruit flavors.  Good examples can be found in Collio DOC, Isonzo DOC, and as Venezie Giulia and “delle Venezie” IGT wines.

Ribolla Gialla- (Ree-boh-la Jyah-la) Another ancient indigenous grape grown in the eastern portion Friuli around Gorizia and the border with Slovenia.  It produces a light-bodied, deeply colored wine with high acidity and floral notes.

All three of Friuli-Venezia Giulia’s DOCG wine-growing regions are white wines: Colli Orientali del Friuli Picolit, Ramandolo, and Lison.  The first two are late-harvest, sweet dessert wines from Picolit and Verduzzo grapes, respectively.  Lison has the unique honor of being the only DOCG region in Italy that shares land with another region– in Lison’s case, Veneto (where it is also known as Lison).

There are also eleven DOC designations in Friuli: Carso, Colli Orientali del Friuli/Frili Cialla/Friuli Rosazzo (3 sub-regions), Collio Goriziano (or Collio), Friuli Annia, Friuli Aquileia, Friuli Grave (the highest quantity producer), Friuli Isonzo, Friuli Latisana, and Lison Pramaggiore (also known as Lison, the shared DOCG with Veneto).

Finally, three IGT denominations exist for white, sparkling, rosé, and red wines that can come from almost anywhere in Friuli and sometimes other parts of the Triveneto:  “Alto Livenza,” “delle Venezie,” and “Venezie Giulia.”  The latter two are actually quite well-known internationally and are good examples of an IGT wine rising above the strict hierarchy placing it between everyday table wine and DOC designation.  These whites and reds represent the positive modern connotation of IGT wines of high quality with a combination of traditional and modern techniques applied to indigenous and immigrant grape varietals and blends.

A blend of Friulano and Malvasia Istriana under Venezia Giulia IGT

A blend of Friulano and Malvasia Istriana under Venezia Giulia IGT

delle Venezie IGT is not strictly “Friulian” in that “delle Venezie” refers to the “Tre Venezie” (or “Triveneto”) and can come from any appellation among Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino (but not the Alto-Adige area), and Veneto.  The list of grapes allowed to be grown under this designation is very long, but more than half of delle Venezie wine is varietal Pinot Grigio, with other popular varietals Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Nero making up a good part of the rest.

…But Don’t Sleep on the Reds

Without question, the white wines of Friuli put them on the map, but the climate of the region is diverse enough to provide quality reds as well.  The sub-Mediterranean climate in the plains coupled with the sunny hillsides rising above the coastal fog make an ideal area to grow a great variety of reds.  Many French grapes were brought here with Napoleon’s armies, and Merlot is one of the most commonly grown grapes here.  Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are also typical of the region.  It’s a good thing these international varietals do well in Friuli, because one of the common attributes of the local red grapes such as Refosco, Schioppettino, and Pignolo is that they all tend to be fussy or difficult in some way to grow.

Refosco from Friuli Latisana DOC

Refosco from Friuli Latisana DOC

Refosco is a grape that requires a lot of warmth and sunlight to fully ripen.  It is actually a family of grapes under the name “Refosco” that can be found in different areas of Friuli, Croatia and Slovenia.  Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso is the most internationally recognized variety, some of the best examples of which come from the Colli Orientali and Latisana DOCs.  Refosco has suffered from mass production from being sold off in bulk in the past, but when carefully cultivated the grape produces structured, acidic and gripping reds with dark fruit and herbal undertones not unlike some Cabernet Franc.

Schioppettino is another local red grape with a high ceiling for aging and quality.  It is a vigorous grape variety whose bunches grow so large that the bottom half is often sliced off the allow the rest of the bunch reach full ripeness.  When properly cultivated, the highly aromatic Schioppettino has been compared to Northern-Rhône Syrah.  It is acidic and structured with some peppery, floral and ripe fruit notes and is drinkable in its youth as well as after some years of cellaring.

Pignolo is yet another difficult grape with a high ceiling for patient growers.  Pignolo literally translates to “fussy,” and is an extremely low-yielding, uneven-ripening grape to grow, but when it fully ripens creates a wine of high acidity and tannins with very dark fruit and a lot of intensity.

Orange Wine(!)

As winemakers continue advancing Friuli wines with modern techniques, many are taking a trip down memory lane to the old styles of oxidative, white wines left in contact with the skins for a longer period.  These delicious and unique wines take on a hue ranging from dark gold to copper to rusty orange, depending on the days, weeks, or even months the must is left in contact with the grape skins.  These methods also involve more oak and clay container aging, which connect the style to ancient Roman times and other Slavic influences.  Time will tell if the orange wine trend is back to stay, but for those always interested in something new, give them a try!