Following several days in the Veneto, immersed in the delicious and impressive wines of Soave, I made a short trip that had been years in the planning. Well, if not planning certainly in the imagining. I had heard the words Udine and Friuli so many times since I was a boy that these places had taken on an almost mystical significance for me. I was too close not to make the drive, to move, finally, from the abstract to the concrete.
In the “Where I Come From” page on this blog, I spell out the roots of my own wine experience and how the efforts of my brother, his wife, and several friends, in the late 1970s to import Friulian wines to California sparked in me and many family members a love of wine that still burns brightly. In recent years, as I have learned more about how the wine industry works, and sometimes doesn’t, I’ve thought quite a bit about the changes that have taken place since the too often fruitless days of Rosalia Vintners, as the company was known. While my brother was unable to sell more than a bit of what he imported, today you can find the wines of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia on smart lists and in boutique shops across the country. Something had changed and I wanted to know what that change was. While I learned quite a bit in my four days, I left the region eager to learn more, much more. I’m convinced that there are stories to be told about this area, the wines, and the people and villages that produce them. The following photos capture some of my time in Friuli. Click on grouped photos for captions.
When my daughter and I arrived in Udine we were in desperate need of food and drink. The desk clerk at the hotel sent us to a nearby restaurant called Al Vecchio Stallo — At The Old Stall. Once a livery stable, it is now an energetic, unpretentious eatery with a simple menu filled with Italian and regional fare. The carafe above is filled with a simple friulano, which locals still refer to as tocai, having absolutely no use for the European Union decision to grant Hungary sole ownership of that labeling moniker. The ice cubes were a necessity given the heat of the day and the warmth of the wine. I’m open-minded but I still like my white wine cool. The checkered tablecloth was just the perfect touch.
In the summer of 2013, my brother, Donald, co-founder of Rosalia Vintners, found himself back in Udine with his son, Joseph.
Almost four years to the day, I was finally in Udine with my daughter, Katie. One of the first things we did was find where Don and Joe had stood to take our own family shot. We were disappointed to see new tables and a different placement. Still, a fair homage.
The historical capital of Friuli, Udine has a metropolitan population of nearly 176,000. On a sleepy Sunday evening you’d be hard pressed to believe that.
Udine is a city of almost 100,000, but the streets were nearly empty on the hot Sunday afternoon when we arrived.
The Loggia di San Giovanni and its clock tower, the Torre dell’Orologio, dominate the city’s principal square, the Piazza della Libertà.
The city’s roots go back to Neolithic times and the first mention of the town in historical annals is in 983. While none of the structures in the city date to that time, a deep sense of history pervades the streets and alleys of Udine.
Our first visit was to Russiz Superiore in the hills of Capriva del Friuli in the heart of the Collio, officially known as Collio Goriziano (a family friend who lives not far from here translates collio as “a small and sweet little hill.” Jancis Robinson says simply that collio is a local corruption of the Italian word colli, meaning hill). Owned by Roberto Felluga, fifth generation vintner, who also owns and operates Azienda Marco Felluga, his father’s eponymous winery, the Russiz Superiore label goes back to the late 13th century and was purchased by Marco Felluga in 1967. Rosalia Vintners carried both lines, and the crisp whites of Friuli were the first fine wines I ever tasted.
The cellars of Russiz Superiore are carved below the family estate and the Relais Russiz Superior, the luxury six-room inn that abuts the Felluga home. A long, winding staircase takes guests to tastings in the Felluga’s dining room. Visitors enjoy not only great wine but an intimate and memorable hospitality.
The winery’s crest is known as the Eagle of the Collio. From their own tasting pamphlet: “The Russiz Superiore emblem is reminiscent of the original coat of arms that once belonged to Prince Torre Tasso, one of the first lords of these lands, who came to Friuli in 1273 as part of Patriarch Raimondo della Torre’s retinue. A noble insignia, as the wines themselves are noble….”
This bottle rests on the shelf marked “1979,” which would make it part of the first vintage of this label that I tried during a visit to Tomales, California, while in college. Just seeing this brought back a flood of special memories, and gave me a chill that had nothing to do with the temperature of the cellar.
My brother, Don, delighted in telling stories of being able to have breakfast in Italy, lunch in what was then Yugoslavia (now Slovenia), and dinner in Austria. From the back porch of Russiz Superiore you can see, off to the right, several Slovenian villages. Just over the hills lies Austria. Katie and I are still kicking ourselves for not making the short drive to those two countries.
Once we had completed our tour we got down what matters most. Regina Marques, commercial export assistant, continued to guide us by pouring a strong flight of whites from both Marco Felluga and Russiz Superiore. My tasting notes are dominated by the words “fruit,” “mineral,” and “acid,” with many pluses and exclamation points on each page. After a total of eight whites (pinot grigio, friulano, ribolla gialla, chardonnay, and a blend of pinot bianco, friulano, and ribolla gialla), we also enjoyed a refosco del penduncolo rosso, one of the region’s flagship reds, praise of which dates back to Caesar Augustus. It is said to have been the favorite wine of his wife, Livy.
While much of the wine drinking world continues to grow in its enthusiasm for prosecco, Friulanos in the know are turning to the newest bubble in town, sparkling ribolla gialla, which is rapidly becoming a staple in regional enotecas.
Grabbing a glass of wine and a snack in local enotecas usually involves a plate of silken, elegant prosciutto. Whenever I come back from time in Italy or Spain I wonder why we can’t do such simple and sensible things like this in America. The ham alone is motivation enough to return as often as possible.
Another major component of the Rosalia Vintners’ portfolio was the wines of Livio Felluga, older brother of Marco. David Lynch, co-author with Joe Bastianich of the definitive study of Italian wines, Vino Italiano, calls Livio an icon of Italian wines and regards Friuli as the home of many of Italy’s finest white wines. The above bottle is the only wine that I drank more than once, enjoying it again with a plate of spaghetti alle vongole on my last night in Italy.
The aforementioned pasta delight. This is one of the very few dishes I know I could eat everyday and never tire of. And with a great white wine from Friuli, I would be in heaven every time.
Another staple in tales of Friuli was the town of Cividale del Friuli, about 18 kilometers east-north-east of Udine, at the top of the Colli Orientali. Original settlers here on the River Natisone included the Veneti and the Celts, with the city being formally founded in 50 BC by Julius Caesar. Today its medieval structures draw tourists from across Europe and beyond.
A few kilometers south of Cividale, on the western edge of the Colli Orientali, you will find Bastianich. Although not part of the Rosalia Vintners’ portfolio — the winery wasn’t founded until 1997 — I was curious to visit and see how their Friulian whites compared, quality-wise, with their popular red “I Perazzi,” from their Tuscan winery in the Maremma DOC called La Mozza. The sangiovese-based wine was a regular in our home for a while and I was hoping to find the whites as good or better. Also, I was interested in seeing if the winery felt more Italian or more American. We found out at the end of our visit that Joe Bastianich does own a nearby restaurant, popular with locals and tourists alike, that serves American specialties like hamburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches. Happily, we had dined in town on more local fare before making our way to the winery.
We were greeted by Virginia Toneatto, who, we were surprised to learn, had studied in the United States and spent time working at Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville. All the wines she poured for us, from both Bastianich and La Mozza properties, showed impressive depth, complexity, and balance. She admitted that one label, the Calabrone, is vinified specifically for the American market and is made intentionally on the sweeter side. I was a bit disappointed to hear that because the wine, a blend of refosco, schioppettino, pignolo, and merlot, will give American consumers a skewed impression of what these Friulian grapes actually taste like. While some might see this as an attempt at a gateway wine, I see it as possibly sowing the seeds of confusion.
It’s no surprise that Friuli’s happy situation, nestled between the mountains and the sea provide ideal growing conditions for their impressive wines. What’s surprising is that more people still don’t know about them. Wine lovers around the world are missing out. The important work begun by Rosalia Vintners and others so long ago remains largely unfinished.
Christian Patrizi, export manager for Azienda Agricola Livon, a family owned and operated group of wineries in Friuli, Tuscany, and Umbria, starts off our visit to Livon in the village of Dolegnano, about 25 kilometers southeast of Udine. A family friend in Udine, as well as Regina Marques and Roberto Felluga, who hosted us at Russiz Superiore, all encouraged us to visit, noting that Livon was a true representation of the exciting and forward-thinking winemaking now going on in Friuli.
The pignolo is bottled only in the better vintages. Picked late in the season, it is a powerful, concentrated wine that is built for the long haul. The schioppettino is a pure reflection of the region, showing powerful minerality, tension, and acidity. (I drank many glasses of this variety during my short stay and I easily admit that I enjoyed every single one of them.) The “Braide Alte” is a blend of chardonnay, sauvignon, picolit, and ribolla gialla, aged in 100 percent French oak, and shows impressive depth and a generous mouthfeel.
The “Manditocai,” 100 percent friulano, is a small (about 400 cases) production and mostly allocated. This might have been the most impressive example of the variety that I tasted all week. The ribolla gialla, from one of the Collio’s most admired vineyards, was an intense and elegant beauty. When combined in the “Solarco,” your mouth fills not only with a memorable wine but with a string of superlatives that fall short of the experience. I have to imagine that this was how my brother felt back in the mid-70s when he first encountered the wines of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, and why he decided that wine lovers back in America needed to know them, too.
Enoteca Ars Bibendi (Latin for “the art of drinking”) is not all that different from many of the wine bars found throughout the region. But it is very different from what often passes for a wine bar here in the States. Glassware, daily drink and snack menus, pricing, service, and the list goes on. We have so much to learn from our more “artistic” brothers and sisters in Italy.
A trendy glass of skin-contact ribolla gialla, an “orange” wine, is one indication of how much things have changed in 40 years. And, yet, the regional devotion to local varieties and the best ways to express and transmit what makes Friulian wine so special remains as grounded and traditional and passionate as ever. Buona notte, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, until we meet again! And we will. Sooner than later. Much sooner.