I have always been an Italian "wine preacher”, advocating my Country’s wines wherever in the world I would find myself as a result of my travels or my profession.
As a native of Friuli, the region where I am from in the North-Easternmost Italy, I am pretty much knowledgeable about our autochthonous wines, particularly those from Colli Orientali and Collio, both D.O.C. districts bordering Slovenia. Naturally, I started recommending Friuli’s wines right after I got my first level Sommelier certificate in 1983, long before taking my Italian wine vows as a specialist …
So what does a wine missionary do? He preaches wines of course, in my case, Italian wines. But, is there really a need for an Italian wine preacher in Manila?
Absolutely! I would say that there is a need for not only of 1 but 10, 100, 1,000 Italian wine missionaries in order to spread our wine culture in the Philippines, promote our wines, educate Filipino’s wine mind sets and palates and convert young wine lovers into the Italian wine paradise!
Until few months ago, even at the main high-end super market chain in Metro Manila there were very few bottles of Italian wines for sale on the shelves, if nothing at all. If you think that Italy has been challenging France in wine production since the 19th Century, that since 2010 Italy has consistently been the no. 1 producer of wine in the world, that again in 2018 Italian wines have conquered no. 1 positions in the “100 world best wines lists” according to both Wine Enthusiast and Wine Decanter specialized magazines, that Sassicaia and Masseto are among the 10 top best-performing wine labels in the world, that the no. 1 imported wine in USA, Germany, Great Britain is Italian, that even France massively imports Italian wines and - last but not least - that 1 wine bottle out of 5 exported in the world is Italian… ask yourself: how could that be possible?
Given that wine is also knowledge, how could you decide to purchase and taste an Italian bottle of wine if you know nothing, or little, about it? It's safe to say that you have to try as many different Italian wines as possible in order to build your subjective/objective drinking options. But which ones? Googling “best Italian wines”? Using your favorite wine App? No matter what, in the end you really have to personally taste Italian wines in order to make up your palate and your mind…
Eventually, you could use the help of an Italian Wine Specialist who would preach you his wines, encourage you to pick a grape you've never tasted before among the 480 (!) officially registered Italian varietals and the almost 1,500 (!!) Italian grapes recorded but not produced in commercially meaningful quantities…
So, since I am here to tend my Filipino wine lovers flock, in today’s wine sermon I will talk about the native grapes of my hometown region: Friuli Venezia Giulia, one of the best Italian wine region you have – but seldom - heard of…
Friuli Venezia Giulia borders Veneto, Austria, Slovenia and the Adriatic Sea benefiting from both maritime and continental climates. The white wines from the Friuli region are widely regarded as some of the best in Italy. However, Friuli recently made the top 10 of the most coveted Italian red wines as well… It might help you knowing that the best – most recent - vintages in Friuli are: 2010, 2012 and 2015. So, which particular wines should you look for?
White wine oration
Friulano - Formerly known as Tocai – this white wine is one of the symbols of the regional oeno-gastronomy. It can take on many different styles: it can be crisp, light, and aromatic in the Friuli Grave, or big and structured in the Colli Orientali. In fact, while it can be produced as a simple, pleasant and easy drinking wine, Friulano made from well-sourced grapes with lower yields and attentive handling can age surprisingly well, developing complexity and intensity over time. Friulano is a tasty white that mixes light, palatable green apple, nectarine flavors with hints of minerals and citrus. A classic food pair of Friulano is the world famous Prosciutto San Daniele ham but also light pasta dishes and soft cheeses. To have an idea of the different wine making approaches, you could try a Friulano by Collavini and a Friulano by La Viarte, two wine estates located only a few miles from each other but with very different wine philosophies.
Pinot Grigio - Citrus, pear and acacia blossom, a full flavored, pleasantly bitter white wine… This Pinot Grigio’s calling card, however, hardly reflects the bulk of the Grigio exported in Europe and the U.S. which may come from over cropping industrial production resulting sometimes in characterless products. In Friuli, however, you would find a creamier, denser Pinot Grigio with passion fruit, honeysuckle and bright lemon flavor that would pair nicely with Tandoori chicken or spinach and ricotta Ravioli. An interesting style of Pinot Grigio is the Ramato (auburn), exceptional the one by Specogna. If you want to appreciate authentic Pinot Grigios friulani you should try those by Jermann, Zaglia and Le Vigne di Zamo’ wine estates.
Ribolla Gialla - A medium to full-bodied pale straw yellow white – Ribolla is another autochthonous grape, known for its floral, steely acidity, fresh flavor with plenty of underlying structure supporting the fruit. The first written evidence of this grape was a 1289 notarised contract on a vineyard in Friuli where this varietal was already so popular to inspire the great poet Giovanni Boccaccio (1313 – 1385 AC) who mentioned it in a tirade against gluttony. Ribolla Gialla, genetically related to Schioppettino red grape which is also called Ribolla Nera, can make quite a full-bodied wine with great complexity. Ribolla Gialla can make wines with a sassy acidity that complicates its full texture in compelling ways; it holds delicate flavors of golden apples, sweet melon and brown sugar.
At the end of the 1970’s, Collavini wine estate was the first to use Ribolla Gialla to obtain a spumante with a method integrating both the Classico and the Charmat-Martinotti. Ribolla Gialla spumante is a well-balanced, high-quality sparkling wine with hints of nectarine, white figs, green apples and clues of minerality. This fine sparkler is perfect for dishes based on grilled fish and shellfish. As for the still, you can taste and enjoy Jermann, Gravner and Zorzettig’s - always - unoaked Ribolla Giallas.
Ramandolo – this is one of the best-known white wine in the Friuli region. The ripeness of its grapes results in a full-bodied, sweet flavor wine that has a distinctive aroma of apricots, chestnuts and honey long lasting in the palate. It's little wonder that this particular wine is produced mainly in a sweet style.
The strict code of Ramandolo’s production states, within a very limited DOCG area, that the vines should be placed in narrow terracing with a yield per hectare of a maximum of 8 tons, while the harvest should be carried out without machines. Ramandolo, gold in color of different shades, is a perfect pair with blue cheese and the typical desserts of the tradition of Friuli like the Gubana and the Cjalsons. Among the best, try La Roncaia and Roncat’s Ramandolo.
Picolit - Balanced high alcohol content, dried fruits, apricot, honey and lime blossom –Picolit is a delicate cult grape, poorly pollinating, prone to flower abortion, in the past often poised on the brink of extinction. In fact, Picolit gets its name from its low crop yields as well from its tiny berries. Grown only in two regions of Friuli, Gorizia and Udine, Picolit’s main DOCG is in the Colli Orientali. Picolit’s primary method of vinification requires the grape being partially, or fully, dried on mats. However rather than a dessert wine, Picolit must be considered a “vino da meditazione” a wine to savor as you meditate on its golden color, lychee, stone-fruit and green tea bouquet. Picolit’s cru Cialla, in particular, imposes that the produce must be 100% of the grape varietal. The perfect pairing is with blue cheese and dried confectionery. Great producers of Picolit are Livon, Ronchi di Cialla and La Roncaia.
Red wine oration
Refosco –Refosco is probably Friuli Venezia Giulia’s best-known red grape variety and its hidden gem.The higher quality Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso’s takes its name because its cluster has a red stalk holding the grape to the vine. Refosco is a wine of great complexity, hinting at dried cherries, fresh herbs, almonds and flowers such as lavender, geranium and violet. Tannins can be at time aggressive and astringent depending on the vinification styles. Note that when grapes fail to reach optimal maturity, the wines may display varying degrees of greenness and vegetal aromas and flavors. The best Refoscos to try are those of the DOC Colli Orientali del Friuli. This ancient varietal has been cultivated in Italy long enough to have appeared in the writings of Pliny the Elder (23 – 79 AC). Historically, most Refosco wines were consumed locally and very few found their way into the international markets. However, mature Asian wine market like Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore, have been appreciating this grape since the early 2000s. Food matches for Refosco include beef bourguignon, moussaka, braised beef and, you would be surprised, lechon! Wonderful Refoscos are those from La Roncaia, Coos, Livon and La Viarte Wine Estates. Perhaps you don’t know that the Refosco of Calvari Miani is one of the 10 most expensive Italian wines on the world market.
Schioppettino - The story of Schioppettino is that of another Friulan native grape which came close to extinction. Early mentions of Schioppettino, also called Ribolla Nera, can be traced back to the 13th Century. The phylloxera epidemic of the 1860s wiped out almost all its vines in Friuli, and Schioppettino was forgotten until Ronchi di Cialla’s wine estate rediscovered it in the 70s. As a dry red wine, Schioppettino makes its mark with the refreshing aroma of violets and red berries coming together with a spicy, earthy taste. This ancient grape variety, native to Friuli, is expressed especially well in the Colli Orientali area, around the town of Prepotto, near the Slovenian border. Schioppettino wines are typically dark in color with firm tannins, pronounced acidity and moderate alcohol matching regional food like polenta and spezzatino, frico, game based dishes and cured meats. Legendary Schioppettinos are those by Ronchi di Cialla, Schiopetto and La Viarte.
Pignolo – This is said to be a red grape that has been around in Friuli since the Middle Ages. Originally, however, Pignolo wine was made only in the Udine countryside. Today, Pignolo stands tall as a super tannic, powerful full bodied red wine that contains elements of cherry flavor. The Alps foothills climate, tempered by the soft cool winds, helps to keep the grape's inherent acidity levels. By the early 1980s, it was reduced to just a handful of vines growing against the walls of the Abbey of Rosazzo. Rescued from the brink of extinction, Pignolo is now the basis for two DOC wines in Friuli’s Colli Orientali zone making a rich red wine tinged with cranberry and an explosive nose of fruit, earth and pepper and a spice-laden palate of dark fruits. What to pair with Pignolo? A ribeye steak but also other barbecue and fresh pasta with hare or wild boar ragu’. The ability to improve with age is evidence of a truly fine wine such as Pignolo’s produced by Radikon, Ronchi di Cialla and La Viarte.
Tazzelenghe – literally translates as “tongue cutter,” a reference to its sharp acidity and strong tannins – Tazzelenghe is grown only by a few small wine estates, including La Viarte and Casella, in the Colli Orientali wine zone. This is an intriguing full bodied red wine, with deep purple color and aromas of coffee, dried cherry and spices such as cumin and oregano. A red suitable for long aging, Tazzelenghe’s best food pairings include roasted meats, game, sausages and aged cheeses.
Orange wine oration
Macerati Friulani - Dubbed Orange Wines, these wines deserve a special mention because they have become one of the iconic wine styles produced in the region since the late 1990s. The term is used for white grapes left macerating in contact with their skins for weeks or even months - an ancient Georgian wine-making technique perfected by Gravner and Radikon wine estates in Friuli - which includes the use of amphora-like vessels and bottling without filtration.The result is a wine rich in color, in different shades of orange, but also intense on the nose while on the palate you would feel significant tannins.Orange wines have been described as robust and bold, with honeyed aromas of jackfruit, hazelnut, nut, ripe apple, juniper, sourdough bread and dried orange peel.
Some local white grape varieties react better to skin maceration than others. For example Ribolla Gialla, not a very aromatic white variety, has more to give in the skin contact. Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon are also used, though. Macerated white wines generally have increased longevity due to the antioxidants in the tannins acting as preservative. Due to the high phenolic content, boldness, bitterness and tartness exhibited, orange wines pair with equally bold foods, including Indian curry dishes, Korean food with kimchi and Japanese fermented soybeans.
There are many other unknown Friulan native varieties of which I will not preach because I know the amount of information I have given here is already overwhelming…
Just be aware that many autochthonous grapes have been recently rediscovered and recovered in Friuli - for instance - by Bulfon’s wine estate. Unknown grapes such as Cividin, Forgiarin, Ucelut, Piculit Neri, Sciaglin and Cjanorie represent a vault of wine treasures just awaiting to be tasted and appreciated in the decades to come.
If you are going to remember anything from my wine sermon today, hear my final exhortation: the Friuli’s wines are earth songs to the sky…