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Mixed messages

Published:  23 July, 2008

When considering Friuli, there are certain accepted truths' that need to be discarded. First, the idea that Friuli is solely a land of white wine production; this is largely correct, but by no means entirely. Second, the notion that Friuli (or Friuli-Venezia Giulia to give it its full and more proper title) is a compact unit, when in reality it is highly complex and variegated.

Volume-wise Friuli is a middle-of-the-roader. Between 1999 and 2003 production averaged 1.1 million hectolitres, jumping to 1.34 million hectolitres in 2004. This puts Friuli more or less in line with Lombardy, Trentino-Alto Adige and The Marches. There are some 12,000 hectares (ha) inscribed to various DOCs, plus 60 to Ramandolo DOCG, according to the latest information (for the 2003 campaign). A little over half of these are attributed to DOC Friuli Grave - 4,532ha in the province of Pordenone, 1,503ha in the province of Udine. Then there are 2,073ha for Colli Orientali del Friuli DOC, 1,390ha for Collio DOC, 1,282ha for Friuli Isonzo DOC, 763 for Friuli Aquileia DOC, 264 for Friuli Latisana DOC, 182 for Lison Pramaggiore DOC (in the province of Pordenone) and 81 for the obscure Friuli Annia DOC.

But these are only numbers. Between these various zones there exist situations of profound diversity, not just in terms of volumes but in vineyard practices, in styles of wine and, not least, in the markets targeted. Vinous Friuli includes high-yield wines from the flatlands, mainly coming from the west, on the border with Veneto; in the province of Pordenone, from vines like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc (or is is Carmenre?) and Pinot Grigio, under the Lison Pramaggiore DOC or under the Friuli Grave DOC, the biggest in the region; and also from Friuli Latisana and Friuli Aquileiea in the province of Udine. But it also embraces low-yield wines from four zones in the east, and it is these - the wines of Colli Orientali, Collio, Isonzo and Carso, as well as DOCG Ramandolo - that generally arouse the passions of wine lovers worldwide.

These zones are either hilly or, in the case of Isonzo, blessed with a particular terrain and subsoil (not unlike that of Bordeaux's Graves) that give to their products a special cachet, a classiness that sets them apart. All four are situated - whether in the provinces of Udine, Gorizia or Trieste - in the extreme east on the border with Slovenia, and as happens elsewhere in Italy where wines are produced near to national frontiers - in Valle d'Aosta in the north-east, on the French border, or in Alto Adige in the far north, adjacent to and not long ago part of Austria - they display a viticultural and oenological identity composed of various parts from the diverse cultures and traditions from which they spring.

The principal indication of this diversity is a large number of heterogeneous grapes and wine styles. There are indigenous varieties, of course (Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso, Verduzzo Friulano, Tocai Friulano, Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia Friulana, the legendary Picolit), not to mention grapes that are being brought back from near-extinction, like Pignolo, Schioppettino and Tazzelenghe. But there are international grapes as well, of both French origin (Merlot, Cabernet, Sauvignon, the various Pinots) and Austro-German origin (Rhein Riesling, Riesling Italico, Mller-Thurgau, Franconia, Blaufrnkisch) - without forgetting, of course, the grapes of Istrian or Slavic origin, such as Terrano del Carso and Vitovska.

This diversity leads, in the nine DOCs and three IGTs (delle Venezie, Venezia Giulia, Alto Livenza) - but not in the sole DOCG, Ramandolo, based entirely on Verduzzo Giallo, to a large range of wine types, so that producers often find themselves making 12 or 15 different styles of wine. This is an indication of the extraordinary potential for quality production that the region enjoys: the possibility, for every grape - whether present in the vineyard for centuries or introduced at the end of the 19th century following phylloxera - to express itself in a way that exceeds the purely varietal and brings out the personality of the various Friulian terroirs.

The blessing, however, has its negative and counter-productive side as well. Not only does the fragmentation of production create problems of recognisability - for example product-zone identification becomes excessively diffused - but also of commercialisation owing to the insufficient availability of bottles of any given type to inspire importers to make promotional efforts. To be sure, no one can deny that the Sauvignons of Collio producers like Schiopetto and Villa Russiz, or of Isonzo wineries like Vie di Romans, Lis Neris and Pier Paolo Pecorari, or Colli Orientali winemakers like Rosa Bosco are perhaps the best examples of their type in Italy; or that many Chardonnays, from Collio or Colli Orientali or Isonzo, are of particularly elevated quality; or that the Pinot Grigios of the best Friulian producers are one step, indeed two steps, above the derivative, banal offerings of Veneto, Trentino or Alto Adige. It is indisputable that many other white varieties, such as Ribolla Gialla, Pinot Bianco, Malvasia Istriana (one need only think of the extraordinary version of Borgo del Tiglio), have a character and a richness of flavour, an expressive force that is hard to find in many other Italian whites. And of course one cannot fault the quality of the best versions of Tocai Friulano (Collio Ronco della Chiesa, the Selezione Vigne Cinquant'anni of Vigne di Zam, the wines of Schiopetto and Ronco del Gnemiz), all marvellous examples of white wines of complexity, structure and drinkability. But these are exceptions.

The destiny of Tocai Friulano, as we write the most diffuse white variety of Friuli, almost synonymous with Friulian white wine, currently lies under a sword of Damocles in the shape of the agreement on the protection of wine denominations made in 1993 between the EU and Hungary. According to this agreement, in order to safeguard the Hungarian geographical indication Tokaji', other conflicting denominations, for example Tocai Friulano and Tokay d'Alsace, may be used only until 31 March 2007, after which the name Tocai Friulano will have to disappear, despite the huge difference between the two wine styles, the Hungarian one being sweet, botrytis-affected and made from a mix of grapes, the Friulian being dry and 100% varietal.

The Friulian regional authorities, supported by the Ministry of Agriculture, have chosen to appeal against the decision, considering the grape to be indigenous, its presence in vineyards being attested to under the name Tocai since the early 17th century. The defence (according to which there is no conflict of identity between a geographical entity like Tokaji and a varietal denomination such as Tocai - they just happen to be homonymous) has been handed to an expert in EU affairs.

While awaiting the administrative decision, and comforting themselves with the illusion that victory against the bureaucratic might of the EU is possible, the world of Friulian wine has, however, committed the sensational mistake of not deciding upon and broadcasting, as widely as possible, an alternative name in the case of a defeat that could take place in a mere two or three years. It is not as if the production of Tocai is insignificant, seeing that it covers a vineyard area of some 1,600ha. This, surely, is a major strategic error, given the difficulties of imposing a new denomination on an unsuspecting public overnight.

So there is a lighter side and a darker side to the portrait of Friulian wine. The lighter side consists in the undeniably high level of wine quality; the darker of a resistance on the part of the wine sector to advertise and promote its wares in any sort of united way, with the result that each of the nine DOCs often moves without reference to the others. There are problems, too, with prices, which in the case of the top Friulian wines tend to be rather elevated, to an extent that is sometimes difficult to justify in terms of quality, especially abroad (though the principal market remains Italy, indeed the local market, and producers are not, on the whole, desperate to export).

It is true that Friulian producers are on average very small and are thus obliged to sustain higher production costs than would other zones of similar vocation. Nevertheless, they cannot afford to lose contact with the global wine market and of what consumers are ready or able to pay for their wine.

In this zone of great white wines, excellent reds are not lacking. There are examples of new-style Merlot that can stand comparison with, or exceed, the best of Tuscany, but, apart from a few Bordeaux-style blends, the most interesting wines seem to come from native grapes such as Refosco, Pignolo, Schioppettino or Tazzelenghe. These are grapes of great personality, capable of satisfying individual tastes in this age of ABC' (Anything But Cabernet), especially where the producers manage to find a mode of vinification and ageing that does not constitute the umpteenth variation on the international theme of deep concentration, intense colour and wood aromas seeping from every pore.

One positive aspect of the current trend, especially among white wines, is that of the reduction, on the part of producers, of the number of wines on offer in favour of blends of sometimes great originality and daring, whether these be DOC wines (Friuli Isonzo Bianco, Collio Bianco, Colli Orientali del Friuli Rosazzo Bianco) or IGTs (Venezia Giulia). These white blends may consist of varying percentages of any of the following: Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Ribolla Gialla, Tocai Friulano, Pinot Grigio, Malvasia Istriana, Gewrztraminer. Better-known ones include Vintage Tunina and Capo Martino from Jermann, Studio di Bianco from Borgo del Tiglio, Terre Alte from Livio Felluga, Blanc des Rosis from Schiopetto, Breg from Gravner (more individual' than Breg it doesn't get; if it reminds you of Sherry, remember it's how it's supposed to be), Flors di Uis from Vie di Romans, Molamatta from Marco Felluga, Lis from Lis Neris, Ronco delle Acacie from Le Vigne di Zam, Braide Alte from Livon the list goes on.

It is these white blends that best represent vinous Friuli today. They are artist-producers' expressions of their own personality and that of their estates, standing out from the crowd thanks to the sheer originality of their grape mix and their individual names rather than their legal titles. If they were not genuinely interesting and carefully crafted, they could be dismissed as being pretentious and often overpriced. Overpriced they may indeed be, although at this level that is a matter of perception. Indisputably, however, they are the real crown and essence of what Friulian wine is today.