Borgo del Tiglio Rosso Riserva: The Road Less Traveled


I’ve been visiting Mattia Manferrari and his father, Nicola, for several years. Borgo del Tiglio is one of the first appointments I secure when planning a trip to Friuli because they are a benchmark. The Studio di Bianco and Ronco della Chiesa are the wines that come to mind when collectors hear Borgo del Tiglio and with good reason. Nicola Manferrari, a master of Tocai Friulano, spent the last four decades perfecting his craft and creating what could be considered Friuli’s greatest white wines. But many people don’t realize that Manferrari also spent that time perfecting what he believed to be the best red grape to grow in the region, Merlot, even when it was far from fashionable. Amazingly, it only took him four years to begin producing the red wine that started turning heads amongst consumers and critics, the 1985 Rosso della Centa, but that didn’t stop Manferrari from making continued improvements. Those improvements resulted in a second wine that often drinks and ages just as well as the first, the Rosso Riserva, which is the focus of this vertical. 

The Borgo del Tiglio hamlet and winery.

This should come as no surprise to the fans of the estate. Nicola Manferrari came to winemaking without any formal education as an enologist or an agronomist. Instead, Manferrari studied both chemistry and biology while training to be a pharmacist. However, after Manferrari’s father died in 1981, he found himself tending to three hectares of vines that had been in the family for generations. Manferrari quickly fell in love with farming and winemaking but wasn’t satisfied with his earliest efforts. This inspired him to begin following the lessons of French winemakers, looking to Champagne and Bordeaux, and even studying the language to help him traverse any material he could find on the topic. Manferrari’s scientific mind guided him to constantly experiment and look beyond the ideas of the local winemakers of the time. 

Today, Mattia Manferrari is leading the charge, with Nicola still heavily involved in the day-to-day operations. Mattia Manferrari officially started at the winery, working initially on the commercial side in 2016, yet recalls an entire childhood of working amongst the vines and in the winery.

Mattia Manferrari, the current generation running the winery, and his father, Nicola Manferrari.

The Rosso Riserva (Collio Merlot and Collio Rosso)

The story of the Collio Rosso Riserva is intimately entwined with Rosso della Centa (100% Merlot), Borgo del Tiglio’s top red. Upon taking over his family vineyards, Nicola Manferrari heavily focused on the development of his Friulano, yet he also owned a one-hectare parcel of old vine Merlot on the San Giorgio hills in Brazzano. This was a perfect location for the variety, with marl and sandstone soils, steep inclines and terraced dry-stone walls. However, Manferrari wasn’t happy with the result of his Merlot in the first vintage, so he began studying Bordeaux techniques. In those first years, Borgo del Tiglio produced a Collio Merlot in 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1987, 1988 and 1989. In 1991, Cabernet Sauvignon, planted in the San Giorgio vineyard in 1987, was introduced in the blend with the Merlot. Starting with the 1996 vintage, Manferrari named this wine Rosso Riserva. Manferrari came to this decision to differentiate this wine from the new Collio Rosso (white label) made with young vines and recently purchased vineyards or fruit not deemed suitable for the Riserva or Rosso della Centa. The Rosso della Centa, instead, debuted in 1988 with the 1985 vintage and has always hailed from a Merlot plot within the San Giorgio vineyard. Rosso della Centa, one of Italy’s most iconic reds, is only bottled in the very best years. So far, it has been produced only 12 times: 1985, 1986, 1990, 1995, 1996, 1999, 2001, 2006, 2010, 2011, 2015 and 2018.

The 1985 was a huge success despite a commonly held belief that Friuli could not make great red wines. However, Manferrari only wanted to produce Rosso della Centa in vintages that he believed were of the highest quality. He decided that the Collio Merlot, or Collio Rosso Riserva, would be made in the years that his vines did not achieve the special qualities to warrant the higher-end bottling. Local beliefs about red varieties were also focused more on Cabernet than Merlot at the time. Yet even today, Manferrari will tell you that the soils are too compact, and the region's climate doesn’t favor Cabernet Sauvignon. Even so, Manferrari decided to plant a small Cabernet Sauvignon parcel in 1987, which was first added to the Rosso in 1990 (a vintage that is no longer available to taste at the winery). With the inclusion of Cabernet Sauvignon, the Collio Merlot then became the Collio Rosso and, over time, when the DOC rules changed in 1995, the Collio Rosso Riserva. 

Overlooking Brazzano di Cormons from the Borgo di Tiglio vineyards.

The percentage of Merlot to Cabernet can vary from vintage to vintage, depending on the character of the vintage, with Merlot usually taking the lead from 60 to 90%. The 2001 vintage is an outlier. It produced a fantastic crop of Cabernet Sauvignon, resulting in a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot. By the same token, in a year like 2007, the Rosso was made entirely from Merlot as the Cabernet couldn’t achieve ideal ripeness and added harsh tannins. Manferrari was never truly satisfied with the performance of his Cabernet, and in 2017, decided to tear up the vines, once again making the Collio Rosso Riserva a varietal Merlot. 

Today, depending on the quality of the vintage, Borgo del Tiglio can produce both the Rosso Riserva and Rosso della Centa, or one or the other, which I notated whenever possible in the following notes. If a vintage doesn’t warrant a Rosso della Centa, that juice can be used to bolster the Rosso Riserva. When neither wine is made, Borgo del Tiglio declassifies the wine down to their “White Label” range or sells it in bulk.

From a winemaking standpoint, very little has changed over the years, starting with the second vintage of Collio Merlot, which aged in two brand-new French barriques. To this day, the average amount of French oak used for the Rosso Riserva is about 75%. The grapes for the Rosso Riserva are fully destemmed and fed by gravity into twelve-hectoliter conical steel vats. Before 1990, the vats were all concrete. After fermentation, the wine rests on the skins for another three weeks before being moved, by gravity, into barriques, where it completes malolactic fermentation and then rests for two years, with typically one racking.

The Collio Merlot to Collio Rosso and finally to the Rosso Riserva.

A Few Generalizations About This Tasting

First and foremost, the aging curve on the Rosso Riserva is nothing short of amazing. I was overly impressed with the freshness and energy in the wines going back to the mid-eighties. In fact, it was only the early eighties wines that showed past their peak. In the younger wines, as in 2000 and beyond, each vintage still showed an ability to improve further in bottle. Another interesting point is the quality I found in the Rosso Riserva even in years when both wines were produced, such as 1986, 1996, 2001 and 2018. This shows the tremendous potential of these vines and how the Rosso Riserva has graduated beyond being more than just a second wine. Both vineyards that produce the Rosso Riserva and the Rosso della Centa are located around the winery with a similar terroir. Yet, the former hails only from a very distinct plot at mid-slope planted in the 1970s. Having said that, I’m amazed by the small amount of attention the Rosso Riserva received over time.

The Collio Merlot original label.

I tasted through the Collio Rosso Riserva vertical along with Mattia and Nicola Manferrari at their winery in Brazzano di Cormòns in December 2023. The winery and tasting room are just meters from the vines producing the Rosso Riserva and Rosso della Centa. Due to availability and time constraints, we did not taste the Collio Merlot/Collio Rosso from 1981, 1986, 1991, 1993 and 2008. 

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