Friuli Venezia-Giulia: In Search of an Identity 


In the initial stages of the fellowship process with Vinous, I had composed a list of regions I was interested in writing about. In addition to my top areas of interest, I offered a supplemental shortlist of honorable mentions. One of those was Friuli Venezia-Giulia. I had casually included it with the potential to discuss skin contact. After some research, it became clear that a piece about the area was long overdue. Widespread opinions on land usage, farming practices, grape selection and cultural issues fueled by a war-torn past eclipsed the world-class production happening in the area. The closer I looked at Friuli, the more interesting it became. Despite being a professional wine buyer, I realized that my perception of the region was narrow and inaccurate. A place I once understood as a Pinot Grigio and orange wine haven is a patchwork of fine wine producers struggling to form an identity on a global stage. 

To gain a well-rounded perspective, I visited sixteen wineries over a week spent in the region. I ensured I spoke with producers whose production ranged from 2,000 bottles yearly to 2,000,000. I met with winemakers on the hills, plains and on the Slovenian side of the border to truly understand the fabric of the landscape. I tried to find a common thread that could be used as a basis for readers to understand and digest the region's wines.

Over time, a common thread never became crystal clear. Producers of differing mindsets had fallen into silos, with many acknowledging that cliques demarcated the various types of production. Focusing on the wines when met with a dizzying amount of discussion about personalities admittedly became a challenge. While navigating the social fragility in the area, two significant discussions were the most pressing: varietal selection and skin contact. Without taking sides, I hope to provide a valuable perspective on the wines and their quality, sifting through the tension while outlining and acknowledging some rather important conversations that warrant attention.

A view of the Collio region from Dolegna del Collio. 

Contextualizing the Landscape

Modern-day Friuli Venezia-Giulia has exchanged hands many times over multiple centuries. This Italian region, profoundly influenced by Austria and the Slavic nations, suffered immensely during the 20th century. 

The territory, which included the area across the Italian and Slovenian border, when part of Austria, was the most southern and one of the only areas warm enough for fruit production. After WWI, Friuli Venezia-Giulia, in its entirety, became part of Italy. Within a span of just a few years, the context of the region changed. Once prized for its agriculturally hospitable landscape, the Italian territory of Friuli Venezia-Giulia was now a relatively tricky wet and cold area compared to its newfound southern siblings. Friuli Venezia-Giulia's edge came from its ability to produce still white wines, a task warmer regions struggled with. 

The wars left more than just physical damage to the land in the region. Emerging from recently settled rubble, Friuli Venezia-Giulia has found itself, in essence, a part of the New World: with no collective historical roots and a future that is undefined. As a result, the region faces challenges I often notice plaguing areas in their infancy; it is like starting from zero after each new invasion. Very few maps demarcating soil patterns exist. In Collio, the heart and most well-known of Friuli Venezia-Giulia appellations, a staggering 18 different grape varieties are eligible to be labeled DOC. In other areas where production is cheaper, the land is sellout plantings of Glera (today, 4,528 hectares are allowed for production under the Prosecco DOC) for neighbor's more affordable Prosecco production. Lack of educational materials, no clear variety focus and commercialized flooding of easily farmable land have proven to be a recipe for market confusion.

The lack of identity on its surface seems easily solvable. Numerous success stories of winemakers joining forces to brand an undefined region exist. Willamette Valley (responsible for 1.4% of the wine produced in the United States) has quickly solidified itself as one of the top Pinot Noir-producing regions in the world. In 2023, the aggregate value of Oregon’s sales across all channels increased by 13.3%. In 2022, despite only accounting for 1% of global wine production, New Zealand was the world's sixth-largest wine exporter due to hyper-distinguishable Sauvignon Blancs produced in the country. But for Friuli Venezia-Giulia, it's more complex. Unlike the New World, producers here are not painting on a blank canvas. 

The weight was palpable throughout my time in Friuli Venezia-Giulia. Almost all estates I visited admitted that an effort to focus would benefit the region but paradoxically felt it paramount to cling to their individual paths. Of course, we should not blame them. When you are Austrian one moment, Slavic the next and Italian the moment after, an uneasiness to form a collective identity when your family's has always been uncertain is natural and should not be undermined.

Regardless of the confusing array of wines being produced, what remains clear is that production in premier areas is world-class and shamefully underappreciated. I strongly feel the underappreciation does not reflect the region's production quality. It is a symptom of the war-fueled balkanization dividing producers. The division cannot be fully explained or solved in one or two articles like I foolishly hoped it might. Narrowing the conversations to variety selection and skin contact will hopefully scratch the surface of this multilayered and textured wine culture enough to provide guidance on what to drink and who to watch. 

A warm welcome at i Clivi, where I was brought into the tasting room of Mario Zanusso to learn about the importance of indigenous varieties.

Variety Selection

A discussion about varietal selection can only occur after communicating the land first. Friuli Venezia-Giulia is, and I state this without exaggeration, one of the world's most climatically unique wine regions. The Mediterranean and alpine climates seamlessly fold into one another, providing an ideal landscape for producing mainly white but also red wines with gusto and grace. The region is also very wet, receiving nearly the same rainfall as Bordeaux. Moisture in the area is a consistent battle, creating a habitable space for mildew, pests and botrytis. The variation in climate, with its positives and negatives from north to south, does provide a space primed for experimentation of variety selection.

The Mediterranean-Alpine space that producers collectively inhabit is special because of the weather and the unique soil throughout the area. Ponca, found mainly in the Collio (about 1,500 hectares) and Colli Orientali (about 2,000 hectares) sub-regions of Friuli Venezia-Giulia, is a mixture of marl and sandstone. The somewhat rocky soil, prized for its high levels of calcium carbonate, is claimed by many producers to contribute distinctive minerality to wines. The soil at almost every producer I visited was highlighted and praised as a significant factor in communicating the region's terroir. 

At each interview, I was pleasantly surprised by the camaraderie surrounding the love for the region's terroir. However, each producer had a differing perspective on which grapes are best suited to showcase that terroir to the world. There is, of course, a consensus that no single variety could fully express itself in every area. The hills offer a much different growing environment than the plains. Even within the hills, the drastic shifts in climate from north to south make it clear there is no cure-all champion grape, like in Northern Rhône, Napa Valley or Mendoza. Armed with this understanding, I still pressed producers. "If you could only pick three grape varieties to be grown in Friuli Venezia-Giulia, what would they be?" Two schools of thought emerged.  

Christian Patat at Ronco del Gnemiz explains the future of Friuli on a global scale.

Indigenous vs. International Grapes

One side embraces indigenous varieties relatively native to the region, grapes with minimal to no significant presence in other fine wine-producing areas. These include Friulano, Schioppettino, Picolit, Ribolla Gialla, Verduzzo and Malvasia. The opposing side embraces what many producers acknowledge as international varieties. A grouping defined by grapes that have a noteworthy existence in other premier wine appellations. This includes but is not limited to Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Riesling.

It is important to clarify how the two groupings are generally defined due to the various perspectives regarding the definition of ‘indigenous’. Many producers believe that the historical presence of international varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon in Friuli Venezia-Giulia qualify them to be regarded as indigenous or typical. While I understand and appreciate the perspective, I will be segmenting varieties into the two categories mentioned above for the sake of this conversation. The case for both sides is compelling, and I encountered an equal number of producers on either side of the aisle. A handful of producers were also actively bottling wines made from both groupings.

The first half of my trip focused on indigenous varieties. I had encountered some, but not all, of these grapes in my work as a sommelier. It was a unique experience exploring what felt like an undiscovered world of wine. The adoration for the indigenous grapes was romantic. All producers who embraced the grapes felt like seasoned historians who were fighting to preserve what identity Friuli Venezia-Giulia had left. While the story of the grapes and their production was captivating, I struggled to enjoy the monovariety expressions of many white indigenous varieties. 

Ribolla Gialla by itself was mostly characterless and watery in non-macerated style, at least among the wines I tasted.

Malvasia was bitter, thick and, in some instances, so intensely perfumed it was difficult to enjoy. Despite my general dislike of the Malvasias from the area, one from nearby Vipava was breathtaking: the 2013 Hedele Malvazija Goce. It is a serious and impactful wine made in what can best be described as a modest garage, an unexpected and age-worthy stunner. 

Friulano was the native variety with the most grace. Some of the wines were similarly disappointing to Malvasia, but when produced with restraint, they were delicate, with a surprising amount of verve and fresh citrus. Stand-out bottlings of Friulano included 2021 Ronco del Gnemiz Buri Bellaria, 2021 Borgo del Tiglio Ronco della Chiesa, 2019 Livio Felluga Sigar and 2022 Venica & Venica Ronco delle Cime.

All of the wines from Friuli were relatively high in alcohol—a characteristic I found difficult to swallow when paired with such strong floral varieties. Coming from a culinary background, I consider a wine's paring capabilities when assessing its quality. Without acidity, with too much bitterness, too much alcohol and overly dramatic aromas, a wine becomes inhospitable to support food. Which, in my somewhat controversial opinion, is its primary purpose. While I was mainly disappointed in the singular representations, indigenous white varieties came to life in blends.

The 2020 Ronchi di Cialla Ciallabianco, a blend of Ribolla Gialla, Picolit and Verduzzo, is a pace-setting wine. The Rapuzzi brothers mentioned the blend was made in the image of a 'recipe' extracted from a newspaper from the Middle Ages. The wine was as fascinating as its supposed historical roots. Herbal and toasted with a strong core of yellow and green pomaceous fruit. Although I tried an example in its youth, the aging potential was apparent, given the firm acidity and structure of the wine. 

Another incredible example of an indigenous blend was i Clivi’s 2019 Brazan. A blend of Friulano and Malvasia, the wine was aromatic but humble. If one sat with a glass for an uninterrupted five minutes, they could extract dozens of aromas: grapefruit, acacia, apricot peel, salty earth. While the wine offers complexity, it is not distracting from the overall quality. The wine allows for both a pleasurable and cerebral experience. A drinker could choose their adventure. 

One of the most memorable wines of the entire trip was Edi Keber's 2020 Collio Bianco—another blend rooted in a tradition of Ribolla Gialla, Friulano and Malvasia. The Keber family believed so strongly in indigenous variety blends they began to limit their production to only Collio Bianco. Given the tension surrounding indigenous varieties, it is a strong statement. One that must be backed up by a wine worthy of focusing all of one's resources. The wine is more than deserving. The nose is flooded with fresh, soft green, almost grassy-like herbs, velvety sage, tender tarragon leaves, lemon verbena and dandelion stems. The wine’s aromatics smell precisely like the tall, untamed grass we had walked through only an hour prior. Layered amongst the herbaceous notes are tinges of underripe tropical fruits, matchbook and lime oil. If tasting the wine blind, placing it anywhere would be a near-impossible challenge. The use of historical blending practices to guide the winery's actions in the present had created something special. This is a singular white wine in a sea of clones and dupes. 

Looking to the Past to See the Future

Focusing on the past seemed to be these producers' formula for the future. A general sentiment arose that producing international varieties was a means of kowtowing to the market and ultimately doing a disservice to the region's story. The passion these producers had for their culture was something I so desperately wanted to feel from all of the wineries. 

I was quickly swept up in the romance of their perspectives. Enchanted by their speeches, Malvasia started to smell less like a car air freshener and more like a counterculture middle finger sticking it to impassioned capitalists. But it was not that black and white, as things never are.

Deeper into my trip, I visited many producers focused solely on international varieties. And unlike what I was told, they were not commerce-driven winemakers ravaging the land every five years in the name of trends. They were equally passionate about the region but had a different approach.

Many producers of international varieties were of this mindset, fiercely defending their chosen grapes as valid to be planted in the region due to their introduction in the Napoleonic era. In fact, the same kowtowing to a market was made about indigenous producers. 

The wines produced with international grapes were far less challenging and some, in exchange, less interesting. 

The Chardonnays were all good

I struggled with which adjective to use in that sentence. No Chardonnay I tried was bad. None were unworthy of attention or undrinkable. However, none were captivating. The wide array of Chardonnays I tasted were buttoned up, handsome and kind enough to bring home to your mother. But they never made me stop, gasp or blush. It was also difficult to not immediately draw comparisons with Chardonnays from other regions around the globe. A glaring flaw with planting the world's most famous white grape is that it must immediately compete with all other iterations. If you want a version of California Chardonnay, it exists in Friuli. As does a version of Chablis or Meursault. None felt like a solely Friulian interpretation. The only producer tackling Chardonnay with a focus on place was Noue Marinic, on the Slovenian side of Collio. The winery embarked on a unique and thoughtful project using Chardonnay to understand historically demarcated 'crus' or vineyard sites. But even those wines, in their golden fruited, slightly reductive glory, felt more like an attempt to make Burgundy than to communicate Brda (Collio in Slovenian). 

I pressed many producers of international varieties about the idea of ‘global competition’. Pleasantly, the questions were often met with optimism. 

A glimpse of the ancient structure of the Hedele cellar in Vipava, Slovenia.

If Friuli were to have its own 'Judgement of Paris' moment, Sauvignon Blanc would make headlines. Unlike Chardonnay, the Sauvignon Blancs of the region do not feel like mimics of New Zealand or Sancerre. They, like Edi Keber’s Collio Bianco, feel singular. I tasted about a dozen different Sauvignon Blanc styles while on my trip. Each bottling had an intrinsic Sauvignon character, making them immediately identifiable but also bespoke. A common thread of salinity, herbaceousness and density are noticeable in many bottlings. The Sauvignon Blanc was so endearing I could have written an entire piece just about them. These were the standouts:

2019 Borgo del Tiglio Sauvignon

Restraint is a common theme of all the wines produced at Borgo del Tiglio. The Sauvignon is no exception. Fermented in neutral oak, the wine balances brightness and power. Scents of just-ripe white stone fruit topped with olive oil and fleur de sel are amplified by a quiet ensemble of marjoram, basil and celery leaf. The wine's aromatic grace and surprisingly refreshing palate distract from its staggering 15% ABV. The alcohol is virtually unnoticeable. Unlike the Malvasia I tried, Sauvignon's inherent acid structure works as a cloak covering the wine's broad shoulders. It is still visible but styled, giving the wine the appearance of a more graceful figure.

2021 Ronco del Gnemiz SOL & 2021 Ronco del Gnemiz IRIS

At Gnemiz, I was spoiled with Sauvignon Blancs that stuck with me for days after visiting. Serena Palazzolo and Christian Patat are wise and have a worldly air about them. The wines are an extension of their global perspective while still honoring their place. SOL and IRIS are both stunning representatives of Sauvignon, but more importantly, the Colli Orientali sub-region. Citrus dominates the nose of both wines. Grapefruit, lime and lemon smashed, juiced, and slightly candied. A savory yeasted dough quality supports the citrus. Minerality sticks its elbows out, poking to remind you where the wine is from. This is another bottling that is so aromatically and structurally breathtaking you would never believe it was 15.5% ABV. 

2020 Fiegl Sauvignon

One of the most inexpensive wines I tasted proved to be one of the most distinctive. The nose is budding with sage. The scent is so powerful that one might be able to use the bottling in lieu of a smudge stick to ward off negative energy. The sage prominence is far from distracting. It is exciting. I have never smelled a Sauvignon Blanc like it. Beyond fuzzy herbs, the wine offers aromas of sun-drenched mango peels, kumquat and grapefruit soda. It’s rare to find a wine that is as-giving and honest at this price.

2017 Hedele Sauvignon Goce

Hopping over to Slovenia, Andrea Pittana was economical with his words. While he said very little, each sentence was impactful and a testament to his wisdom. As I mentioned earlier, he produces wines in unbelievably modest conditions. His bottling brings Sauvignon to new heights. I am zapped with grapefruit oil, cold, juicy snap peas and mint. Sage is also noticeable in this wine, as well as gooseberry and passionfruit. Cashew and brewer yeast add even more shades to a complex wine. 

2022 Venica & Venica Ronco delle Mele

This wine is thoughtful and beautifully produced. The use of oak intentionally gives the wine structure and depth while never detracting from its energy. Baked green fruits and oily preserved citrus make for a palate that invites food but doesn't require it. The bottling is memorable. While I don’t find it to be mineral-driven, the wine, like all other Sauvignon mentioned, feels like it had a place. 

The Red Wines of Friuli

I would be remiss not to mention reds, although it was not the focus of this trip. Schioppettino was a first for me. I found it most burly, savory and gripping. The grape produces wines with exciting age potential. This was fully displayed when I tasted the 1992 Ronchi di Cialla Schioppettino di Cialla. Another red variety worth mentioning is Pignolo, which is prized for its tannic density. Adding depth to blends, I found it compelling, but young wines featuring the grape need to mature into balance. Nearly every Merlot I tasted was stunning. They are unique and comparable to the region's Sauvignon Blancs in their potential to be great. The 2010 Borgo del Tiglio Rosso della Centa and 2005 Radikon were exceptional.

Walking through the Keber vineyard.

Final Thoughts

After the trip concluded, I tossed and turned. Friuli Venezia-Giulia and areas on the Slovenian border were captivating but diverse. I could not think of another classical wine region that struggled this deeply with variety selection. Focus is critical in defining a region. It provides a digestible framework for understanding and appreciating the collective production. Every producer understood and acknowledged this but clung relentlessly to their side. The sides disagreed more ferociously than my sister and I did as teenagers. I planned to prescribe a solution but could not choose a side. Not because I do not want to. Nothing would be more satisfying than writing a cure-all solution that indigenous is better than international or vice versa. The pros and cons lists of both approaches are equally long.

Indigenous varieties in a monovariety wine were en masse not worth the average consumer’s time. However, when blended, the wines were thought-provoking and unique, making some of the most memorable bottles I have ever tasted. But no matter how delicious the blends were, they presented a rather steep barrier to entry for the average consumer. Everyday white wine drinkers could easily find something to love about a Ribolla Gialla-Friulano-based blends. The challenge is getting the bottle on the table. When better understood and more inexpensive options are available, why would someone take the unnecessary risk? The indigenous varieties, however, eliminate the opportunity for comparison, making it hard to analogize or criticize the bottlings. There is no other serious context for Ribolla Gialla, Friulano or Malvasia blends. In a business sense, cornering a sector of the wine world like this could be advantageous.

For international varieties, some of the production felt like watered-down copycat bottlings of somewhere else's style. But not Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot. They were shining examples of terroir and some of the most age-worthy drinkable wines of the trip. They were distinctive. But more importantlythey were familiar enough for me to contextualize that they were distinctive. International varieties make market penetration easier. 

Grapes, whether we like it or not, have their own identity to consumers. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are in themselves brands, the power of which could be keenly leveraged to call attention to Friuli Venezia-Giulia. A glaring struggle that accompanies this approach is competition. Optimism about standing tall next to other Chardonnays or Sauvignon Blancs worldwide is charming, but real-life underdog stories do not always end as they do on film. Being the next Willamette Valley, Marlborough or Burgundy may take hundreds of years to happen if it ever does. 

So, where does Friuli Venezia-Giulia go regarding variety selection? 

There is no easy answer.

Assessing the wines and illuminating the two paths is the only work I can do. Unfortunately, this illumination in the short term is likely futile. The biting separation of both camps makes it impossible to see unified messaging about grapes in the region. The division is neither childish nor unfounded. Although many talking points are dogmatic, it is without choice that history has painted all of the producers and everything they choose to make. Identity is not forged overnight, and for Friuli Venezia-Giulia, collectivism is a new concept. The region may appear wrinkled and wise, but internally, the heart of a child beats. I floated around, unsure of who it would be, trying on hat for fun and letting destiny be defined by the minute. 

My gut instinct says the current generation will not make hard decisions about varieties. Over time, I hope division fizzles as the connection to historic identity becomes the blurry backdrop to an exciting future. Time is a region's only tool to grow into its adult-sized shoes, regardless of when focus will have to happen. Without direction, Friuli Venezia-Giulia is doomed to remain swirling in the obscure whirlpool of its own insanity. Scarily, the variety selection is only the surface. This is a subplot to a more significant identity crisis forged by false idols of maceration, but that is for the next piece. In the meantime, drink the indigenous white blends, Sauvignon Blancs and Merlots. Oh, and skip Pinot Grigio from the plains. 

Laura Bruno is the winner of the 2022 Vinous Josh Raynolds Young Wine Writers Fellowship. This is her first article for Vinous.

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