Northeast Italy – the stretch of country between Venice and the Alps, Lake Garda and Slovenia is really three wine making regions.  Trentino-Alto Adige, Northern Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia. The variety of wines from these areas reflects the diversity of the grapes grown.

I am going to focus on wines from Friuli-Venezia Giulia, or Friuli as it is usually known, purely because it is the area I know and love the best.

Friuli-Venezia Giulia’s landscape is characterized by coastal flatlands to the south rising up to mountains and plateaux in the north. The region is bound by the borders with Austria and Slovenia (to the north and east respectively), which follow the contours of the eastern Alps. The most significant mountains in this area are the Julian Alps, whence the Giulia appendix in the region’s name. To the south lies the Gulf of Trieste (the northern tip of the Adriatic Sea), and the winelands of Veneto spread for miles to the west.

Friuli Venezia Giulia countryside with castle and church bell tower

Italy’s northeastern most region is the crossroads of Europe’s Latin, Germanic and Slavic cultures. As a result of this complicated history these wines reflect the traditions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Austria, Germany and the Eastern Adriatic. In addition to Pinots, Traminer, Riesling and Malvasia, there are the indigenous grapes such as Ribolla Gialla and Verduzzo.

The region is home to three DOCG titles (the highest classification for Italian wines. It denotes controlled (controllata) production methods and guaranteed (garantita) wine quality.  Two of these DOCG are for it’s unique dessert wines. Ramondolo, a little known sweet white winw whose Verduzzo grapes are grown in the hills to the north of Udine and Colli Orientali del Friuli Picolit a delicate amber wine made from the aromatic Picolit grape. The third is for wine from Rosazzo, a high-quality, mineral-laden white wines made on the hillsides surrounding the Abbazia di Rosazzo. The wine is a blend of several varieties, the most important of which is the local Friulano grape, which must make up at least 50 percent of the final wine.

There are ten DOCs in Friuli although two of these are considered to be exceptional – Collio Goriziano, which is usually known simply as Collio, and Friuli Colli Orientali, which runs from Gorizia along the Slovenian border to Tarcento. Quality is also excellent in the Friuli Isonzo DOC area, where some stylish dry whites are made from Gewurztraminer, Pinot Grigio and Riesling as well as some off-dry and sparkling wines. Some excellent reds are also made from the Cabernets and Pinot Nero, as well as sweet late harvest (vendemmia tardiva) wines, either as single varietal whites or blends. Carso is a DOC whose red Terrano wines and whites from Malvasia Istriana show great class. In the other DOC zones, varietal wines are favoured. The largest area is the Friuli Grave. Tocai Friuliano has been an important variety historically. The grape is now commonly known as Friuliano following a European court ruling to avoid confusion with the Hungarian wine Tokaji.

The area is known predominantly for its white wines which are considered some of the best examples of Italian wine. Along with theVeneto and Trentino-Alto Adige/Sudtirol, the Friuli-Venezia Giulia forms the Tre Venezie wine region which ranks with Tuscany and Piedmont as Italy’s world class wine regions.

Friuli whites are rich and creamy expressions with fragrant layers of stone and passion fruits, honeysuckle and drying mineral tones. They are complex because the region they occupy is so multifaceted. South of Udine are two territories for growing grapes. Colli Orientali del Friuli and Collio comprise the hillside areas, home to the celebrated Rosazzo and Oslavia crus where some of the best wines are made. Flatter lands have been enriched by alluvial deposits from the Tagliamento River and are home to the Isonzo, Grave and Aquilea zones.

Most of Friuli’s whites are mono-variety and, following the Austro-Hungarian or Anglo-Saxon tradition of wine making, these wines are named after the variety: Friulano, Chardonnay, Sauvignon, etc., which differs from the Latin tradition where wines are named after a place like Chianti, Valpolicella or Barolo.

Here’s what you can expect from the individual grapes that make up Friuli’s rich patrimony of white wines:

Bianco (or blended wines): These wines benefit from sophisticated winemaking techniques that produce added elegance and intensity. Particularly impressive are the white blends that pair an aromatic component like Sauvignon with a richly textured partner such as Friulano or Picolit.

Friulano: The most commonly planted variety in Friuli, Friulano was once associated with easy-drinking taverna wines made to be consumed young. Careful effort has recently turned Friulano into the region’s banner grape. Work by leading winemakers such as the late Mario Schiopetto and Livio Felluga helped bring out luscious aromas of white almond, stone fruit and Cavaillon melon. Wines including and preceding the 2006 vintage were labeled Tocai Friulano. But after a long battle with Hungary’s Tokaji region, the European Union ruled that Friuli Tocai wines should be identified simply as Friulano which means “coming from Friuli.” “We fought hard to keep ‘Tocai,’ but we are better off with ‘Friulano’ because it identifies our region,” says Felluga.

Pinot Bianco: A French import, Pinot Bianco was introduced during the 19th century Habsburg domination along with international varieties Chardonnay, Sauvignon and Merlot. It is planted across Northern Italy and has found a happy home in Friuli thanks to the calcareous marl soils that enhance its aromas of mineral, apricot, pear and Golden Delicious apple. They are among the most food-friendly whites ever, thanks to their naturally creamy structure. Pair them with shellfish or white asparagus risotto.

Pinot Grigio: In Friuli, Pinot Grigio has a very different image from the mass produced watery wine often found elsewhere. Winemakers Ronco del Gelso (Sot Lis Rivis bottling), Vigneti Fantinel (Sant’Helena) and Ermacora craft creamier, denser wines with passion fruit, honeysuckle and bright lemon zest that would pair with Tandoori chicken or spinach and ricotta ravioli. An interesting new style of Pinot Grigio is Ramato, which means “copperish in color.” You could mistake it for a rosé but look close and you will indeed see that it is more amber than pink. The color comes from extended contact with the skins (that are naturally copper-gray in color, hence “Pinot Grigio”).

Ribolla Gialla: Another important indigenous grape of Friuli, Ribolla Gialla boasts a distinctive personality with a saturated golden color, light body, high acidity and fragrant aromas of exotic fruit, papaya and mango, which turn nutty with time. It has existed in these parts since the 1300s (in Slovenia it is known as Rebula) and gives its best results on hillside vineyards.

Sauvignon: We call it “Sauvignon Blanc,” but in Friuli the grape goes by its variety name “Sauvignon” (the root for Sauvignons Jaune, Noir, Rose, Gris and Vert). What distinguishes the grape in Northeast Italy is that it lacks those aggressive aromas of nettle and artichoke you sometimes find elsewhere. In the Colli Orientali del Friuli’s Collio and Grave areas it tends to showcase softer aromas of passion fruit, sage, mint and tomato leaf. Try one with Thai basil coconut curry sauce.

Verduzzo Friulano: Made as both a dry and a sweet wine, Verduzzo enjoys a long indigenous existence in Friuli. When vinified dry, it can be difficult to appreciate because of its resin and pine nut flavors and sour astringency (there’s a slight tannic bite there too). Dessert wines, such as Scubla’s Cràtis and Gigante’s version, are much more popular.

Red wines from Friuli have tended to be single varietal wines made from Italian grapes like Refosco as well as Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Nero. Historically they were light and approachable and not designed for long term keeping. But this is a region where experimentation and forward thinking in the winery is as much part of the routine as homage to traditional techniques is in other parts of Italy. Consequently there are some fine blends on the market, often aged in oak barrels. The resultant wines have great depth and complexity and a firm structure that ensures they are capable of ageing.

Refosco, also known as Terrano, is a versatile red grape whose recent versions have taken well to oak ageing. Some distinctive and interesting reds are also made from Tazzelenghe, Pignolo and Schioppettino, grapes from the region that are seldom seen elsewhere, and Franconia which is better known in Central Europe as Blaufränkisch.