Exploring the Best of Northern Italy

By Antonio Galloni


Getting a full grasp on the oenological landscape in Friuli is no easy task. Few, if any, regions can boast such an extraordinary array of varieties, both white and red. Widely planted indigenous white varieties include Tocai Friulano (more on that later), Ribolla Gialla, Picolit and Vitovska. The reds include Refosco, Tazzelenghe, Schiopettino, Terrano and Pignolo, the last of which has recently been resurrected from a period of obscurity. International varieties such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are also found.

Traditionally the Collio has been regarded as the most prestigious sub-zone in Friuli. These hillside vineyards and their cool microclimates are ideally suited to the cultivation of whites. In recent years much progress has been made by high quality producers with the reds as well. The Colli Orientali del Friuli has generally been more highly regarded for reds, although a few producers are also turning out superb whites as well.

One of the regions that continues to surprise is the Carso, whose top growers are producing noteworthy wines. This poor, desolate stretch of mountains runs above Trieste and is one of the least traveled places in Friuli. Most of the terrain is rock, but in a few small, isolated spots vineyards can be planted. The high plain looks out onto the Adriatic and its microclimate is influenced by the violent, cold winds known as bora, although in places that are protected by the winds, the climate is almost Mediterranean. The views can be spectacular, and so too the wines.

Because its vineyards are in the plains, the Isonzo district as a whole has never been as highly regarded as the adjacent Collio. That notwithstanding, a small handful of producers have been making terrific wines for years. Friuli is a region that has a lot to offer although significant challenges remain. Unfortunately the traditional mindset is extremely closed. There is still far too much poor wine being made. It is not uncommon to see heavily loaded plants and irrigation systems being used with the sole objective of producing quantity rather than quality.

Lastly there is the Tocai Friulano soap opera, which has dragged on for years and become nearly impossible to follow. The name “Friulano” was to have replaced “Tocai Friulano” after the region lost the most recent of a series of rulings in which Hungary claimed the exclusive right to the name “Tocai” and its variants. The new law applies to wines bottled after March 2007 (2006 vintage). However, readers will find 2006 wines labeled both “Tocai Friulano” and “Friulano” labels on the market. I have simply used the wines’ labels as they appear by producer.

Perhaps most importantly though, the region lacks a visible, high-quality producer like an Angelo Gaja or Piero Antinori who could lead by example and serve as an ambassador for the region with this generation’s global consumer.

Readers should be aware that members of my wife’s family own three estates in Friuli; Jermann, Vie di Romans and Lis Neris. I have always viewed education as an important component of wine criticism. An article on Friuli without these properties would have been incomplete and ultimately the consumer would have been poorer for their exclusion. For those reasons I have chosen to include these estates in this report. I have no financial or other interest, direct or indirect, in any of these properties.


Veneto is another region that doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves, probably because of the industrial quantities of insipid wines that are made each year. That notwithstanding, plenty of high-quality wines are also being produced, most notably in the Soave and Valpolicella districts. The best Soave vineyards are considered to be those in the original Classico zone which encompasses the hills between Soave and Monteforte d’Alpone. As the zone expanded over time it has come to include less favorably positioned sites, especially those in the plains. The main grape variety in Soave is Garganega. Although much of the production is commercial in nature, there are a few small estates making noteworthy wines that are well worth discovering. Taste a great Soave and your opinion of what these wines can be is sure to change.

The Valpolicella zone is located on the northern outskirts of Verona. This series of valleys is home to Valpolicella, Amarone and Recioto. Traditionally the area has been divided into two regions. The Classic part of the zone includes the five communes of Negrar, Fumane, Marano, Sant’Ambrogio and San Pietro in Cariano while the extended portion of the region lies to the east and encompasses Grezzana, Mezzane, Tregnago and Illasi. The main varieties used to produce Amarone are Corvina and Rondinella. An assortment of other varieties can be used to round out the blend, including Corvinone, Molinara and Croatina. Amarone is made from grapes that have been air-dried for several months prior to being vinified. At its best, Amarone is a rich, sensual wine unlike any other, except perhaps Recioto, whose fame dates back to Roman times. Recioto from Valpolicella is also made from dried grapes, but in this case the grapes are given an additional several weeks to two months’ additional air-drying to intensify the sugars. The best Reciotos are mind-blowing wines that make a terrific accompaniment to fully-flavored cheeses at the end of a meal. In recent years ripasso-style Valpolicellas have also become very popular. These Valpolicellas undergo a secondary fermentation on the skins and stems left over from the fermentation of the Amarone, which gives the wines more sweetness as well as body. As appealing as this concept sounds, the praise these wines garner seems to be more the result of shrewd marketing rather than real quality. The number of noteworthy ripasso wines turns out to be pretty small.

Readers will find an assortment of vintages on the market. Given the variety of wines, microclimates and producer styles, vintage assessments are necessarily general in nature. The 2006 whites are riper and more structured than the 2005s. For Amarone, vintage characteristics are harder to describe given the extreme transformation that grapes undergo in the drying process, not to mention the differences among the region’s microclimates. In general the best 2003 Amarones are beautifully opulent and don’t seem to have quite the same issues with hard, unripe tannins that are so problematic for many other Italian reds in this vintage. I also tasted a number of outstanding 2000 and 2001 Amarones. Readers should note that my drinking windows for Amarone reflect a preference to drink the wines within a decade or so after the vintage.

In short, Veneto offers an enormous diversity of wines that are worth investigating, ranging from the refreshing Proseccos of the northern districts to the whites of Soave to the more serious reds of Verona. Visitors who want to avoid the normal Italian tourist traps will find plenty of breathtakingly beautiful small towns in Veneto with superb art, history, and of course wine.

Trentino - Alto Adige

Trentino and Alto Adige are usually grouped together for the sake of simplicity, but they are in fact two regions, each with its own distinct culture, look and feel. Trento lies just north of Verona and is one of Italy’s most picturesque cities. The whites from Trentino tend to be focused, mineral driven wines that come to life at the dinner table. The main indigenous red variety is Teroldego, which yields hearty, rustic wines although a few estates are producing wines of uncommon elegance.

Weissburgunder, Gewürztraminer, Sylvaner, Kerner. It might sound like this trip through the Northeast has taken a serious detour, but we are in fact still in Italy. Sort of. Although Alto Adige is not very well known among American consumers or tourists, northern Europeans have discovered the charms of the region they call Südtirol. Alto Adige, which was part of Austria until the First World War, offers breathtaking scenery, some of Italy’s finest restaurants (and cellars), terrific wines and, of course, world-class skiing. This is one of the most unique corners in Italy, one where you are more likely to hear German or the local Ladino dialect being spoken rather than Italian.

The wines, of course, reflect a similar aesthetic. The white varietals include those mentioned above, along with Sauvignon, Riesling, Müller Thurgau and Pinot Grigio. The main indigenous variety for high-quality red wines is Lagrein, which remains one of Italy’s best kept secrets. Believed to be a relative of Syrah, in the hands of serious producers Lagrein yields deeply-colored wines of intense richness that are ideal for the dinner table. Some of the areas that are significant include Mazzon for Pinot Noir (also known as Blauburgunder), Bolzano and its suburb Gries for Lagrein, the Valle Isarco for pure, focused whites and Tramin, the birthplace of Gewürztraminer.

Alto Adige is somewhat of an anomaly in that many of the top estates are cooperatives. Echoing a trend that is also seen elsewhere in Italy, today there seems to be a move away from the super-concentrated wines of recent years and a search for more elegant, finessed wines. Simply put, Alto Adige is the jewel of Italy. Readers owe it to themselves to check out the wines of Italy’s most underappreciated and overlooked region.

Lombardia and Valle d’Aosta

Lombardy is unquestionably best known for the méthode champenoise wines that are produced in Franciacorta. As excellent as the best wines can be, I was surprised by the poor overall quality of the wines I tasted. Only a few estates appear to merit close attention. Lombardia is also home to Valtellina, a small stretch of rugged land near the Swiss border. Valtellina is most famous for its Sforzato, a wine made with air-dried fruit using the indigenous Chiavennasca, as the local variety of Nebbiolo is known. Valle d’Aosta lies in the upper northwest corner of Italy bordering France and Switzerland. This too is a very rugged mountainous terroir, and is home to a number of indigenous as well as international varieties.