Friuli-Venezia Giulia: Both Sides of the Spectrum


Whenever I return to Friuli-Venezia Giulia, a wave of calm immediately sweeps over me. Something about this region and its producers puts me at ease, whether it’s the food, the wine, the people or the architecture. Everyone moves at a steady pace with purpose and pride. Cultures combine between Italian, Austrian and Eastern European in a way that creates a society that holds their heads high, confident and sincere, yet warm and welcoming. This doesn’t quite feel like Italy, especially walking the streets of Gorizia or Trieste. With that in mind, I suppose it makes sense that the wines, just like the cuisine, vary significantly from what consumers might expect.

Hillside Collio vineyards overlooking the town of Cormòns.

The Friulian Conundrum

The past success of Friuli-Venezia Giulia (which I will refer to as FVG going forward) was built on the acclaim the region received many years ago for wines made in a highly international style. The Super Whites and Reds of the region were a massive success in the American market. I recall many rich and stylized Chardonnays and Bordeaux blends from the area that were undoubtedly well-made yet lacked regional character or flair. Some producers, such as Borgo del Tiglio, were able to achieve a perfect blending of both, taking indigenous and international varieties that showed a distinct stamp of terroir. But in the end, the majority of these wines could have come from anywhere in the world. 

Over time, fads changed, as did consumer palates, and in many cases, along with generational shifts, the wines of FVG changed with them. With the exception of a few stalwarts, when visiting the area today, I find it hard to believe that the region ever preferred this high-impact, international style. Yes, it has left its mark, and I often come across heavily oak-inflected blends with a sheen of new wood that can act like human catnip if properly applied. Yet, beneath the surface, these wines lack depth and complexity. The Friulians' preferred style appeals to their palates and the palates of local tourists who regularly travel down from Austria and Germany. Whether blended or mono-varietal, it’s a style that focuses more on indigenous grapes and a combination of stern minerality, acidity and a small dose of residual sugar. This mix throws off many international palates yet has secured export markets to the north and in Asia.  

Most forward-thinking and world-traveling producers realize this is different from current market trends in the West. Instead, FVG producers gear their practices toward the styles of modern-day Burgundy. So, when tasting in FVG, I find a great divide between one portfolio and another. Making it so that when buying a bottle of wine from Friuli, a consumer must now look to the producer before the region itself. This creates confusion over what the world can expect from Friuli and what Friuli can provide to the world. 

Limestone infused with iron-rich clay in Carso.

That said, FVG winemakers and industry leaders care significantly about what the outside world thinks of the region and its wines. The most common question I receive while visiting relates to blends versus mono-varietal wines, such as the iconic Collio Bianco and how international markets perceive them. A traditional Collio Bianco blends Malvasia Istriana, Friulano and Ribolla Gialla. Yet, it can also include Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Riesling, Sauvignon and Müller Thurgau. I see this expanded list of varieties as part of the bigger problem. If the blending rules of this category were more strict, Collio Bianco might be able to stand out and become a brand for the region. I’ve witnessed how incredible a traditional Collio Bianco can be in the right hands. The Edi Keber Vino da Uve Autoctone is a perfect example and a polarizing wine throughout the region. Many winemakers and Sommeliers question the bold move that Kristian Keber made when he decided to stop bottling mono-varietal wines and focus entirely on an indigenous blend. However, the wine has shown many others what is possible from the category over time. 

This calls to mind the biggest hurdle FVG must still overcome: the massive amount of forgettable mono-varietal wines bottled throughout the region. I’ve gone into great depth on this topic in the past, and it remains an issue in FVG. I’m not saying there isn’t a place for them, but a sharper focus on making the best wines possible, not the most wines possible, would help push the region's perception of quality to all new levels. Look at the iconic wineries of FVG, the names we talk about year after year, and what you find in their portfolio is a short list of varieties they excel with. If you were to visit FVG and stop at the most important estates, the insights you would leave with would be distorted regarding the overall reality of the region. Estates like Vie di Romans, Miani, Borgo del Tiglio, Ronco del Gnemiz, Russiz Superiore, Venica & Venica and Meroi all create incredible wines using varieties like Chardonnay and Sauvignon. However, they are the outliers in a region littered with forgettable Chardonnays and weedy, one-dimensional Sauvignons. I encountered a similar issue when traveling to Slovenia, just across the border, where Chardonnay is the second most planted white variety. 

While confusing to the average consumer, the good news, and what FVG does have going for it, is variety. However, as mentioned previously, the trick is that you must look to the producer before the region. I can not recommend Ribolla Gialla as the best interpretation of Friuli, nor can I recommend Friulano, Malvasia, Merlot, Refosco dal Peduncolo or Schioppettino. However, I can easily recommend the best interpretations of each of these varieties after tasting around 400 wines each year. I also assure readers that there are experiences from each that are genuinely noteworthy or even remarkable. A mature Ronchi di Cialla Schioppettino can be mind-blowing. A Malvasia from I Clivi can force you to fall in love with the variety, while the Gris from Lis Neris can totally change preconceptions about what Pinot Grigio can offer. I could go on and on, but in the end, it’s all in the tasting notes. 

Sunrise over the town of Gorizia, looking out toward Slovenia.

Speaking of variety, I would be remiss to leave out the skin-contact wines of the region. Having spent so much time discussing the confusion of styles and varieties, FVG excels in this category. For anyone just joining the conversation, Skin-Contact is the branding that producers are working very hard to replace the phrase “Orange Wine” with. “Orange” has become a dirty word within winemaking circles as producers try to separate themselves from the natty and often faulty wines that soured worldwide opinions of the style. Globally, the category is still fraught with wines that many consumers wouldn’t appreciate, yet in Friuli, both quality and purity are remarkably high, especially along the border of Slovenia, in the regions of Carso and Oslavia, but also throughout Collio, Colli Orientali and Isonzo. While Carso and Oslavia heavily focus on using extended skin contact with a mix of indigenous varieties, outside of these areas, many producers create Pinot Grigios and Ribolla Giallas using a shorter maceration on the skins to add depth, color and texture. 

Last year, Sasa Radikon of the Radikon Winery in Oslavia discussed the ongoing work to integrate the Skin-Contact wine category into the Collio DOC. However, he sadly explained this year that their efforts were in vain due to issues with creating production regulations or settling on how to name the category for consumers. This was unsettling news and a step back. Considering that Carso and Oslavia are producing some of the most interesting non-conventional wines in FVG, this is a missed opportunity for the region as a whole. 

However, in Carso, producers seem unphased by being detached from FVGs and other winemaking regions. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Carso is geographically separated as well, jutting out from the most southeastern corner of the region like a long shelf that runs along the border of Slovenia to the north and the Adriatic Sea to the south. Just as Friuli doesn’t seem entirely Italian, Carso is like a world in itself, and its wines are just as unrelatable. The Ponca soils (sandstone and clay) of Friuli’s interior turn to solid limestone infused with thick iron-rich clay. Most varieties are the same, yet the wines are produced primarily using extended skin contact and aging in large stone vessels made from the same limestone that defines the area. One outlier is the crisp and mineral-intense Vitovska, which excels here and across Slovenia's border, yet seemingly nowhere else. For red wine lovers, Carso also specializes in Terrano, which is a woodsy, high-acid variety related to Refosco from Croatia. Each year, I spend just one day in Carso tasting with producers, and I’d be lying if I claimed that it wasn’t one of my favorite days of the year. Make sure to check out the portfolios of Zidarich, Skerlj, Skerk, Vinogradi Fon and Vodopivec in no specific order. It’s hard to go wrong here.

Tasting at the famed Enoteca di Cormòns.

Looking Forward to 2022 and Back to 2021

Continuing a succession of warm and dry seasons, the 2021s and 2022s in Friuli-Venezia Giulia still have much to offer. While most Italian regions have recently suffered through severe droughts, it's essential to recognize that Friuli’s climate is significantly different, with a higher overall average of precipitation yearly. With that said, the region is now starting to feel the effect of drought, and with it, the need for irrigation continues to be a hot topic in the region. It will be interesting to compare 2021 and 2022 over the coming years. Generally, the 2021s are richer and more powerful, while the 2022s are more harmonious, complex and light on their feet.

Lifted, floral, soft-textured and ethereal are all words that can sum up the 2022s from Friuli-Venezia Giulia. These open-knit and pretty wines trade power for grace and present up-front appeal. The season's warmth was more tolerable than in 2021, without any extreme heat spikes, yet drought through the summer months seriously stressed the vines and affected the younger vineyards. Irrigation was often necessary where available. Harvests were pushed forward from one to two weeks throughout the region without the intense sugar accumulation in 2021.

From a vintage of extremes, the 2021s are often intense and rich with lively acidity that brings balance. Soaring aromatics and vivid fruit add to the warm vintage character of these wines. Two thousand twenty-one was a dry and warm year. Spring frost reduced yields by 7% on average, yet some areas, such as the Carso, suffered significantly more. The region dried out through June and July, coupled with exceedingly warm temperatures. August continued with hot conditions and remained very dry. The saving grace was the substantial diurnal shifts that helped retain acidity in the grapes and the ventilating winds that kept the bunches healthy. Christian Patat of Ronco del Gnemiz recalled waiting for the perfect time to pick and offered that many producers were forced to take action when sugar levels drastically increased. In the end, the 2021s excel with their tangy acidity.

For a detailed explanation of the geography and soils and a deep dive into the varieties of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, check out last year's article, Pride and Tradition: The Friulian Way.

I tasted the wines in this article while in Friuli-Venezia Giulia in December 2023 and our New York City offices in January 2024. 

© 2024, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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