OK, you’ve heard me rhapsodize about Friulian wines and you’d like to taste them too, but what can you reasonably expect to find on your wine merchant’s shelf and what should you look for? Doesn’t it drive you crazy when you read about great wines and you can never, ever find them??
The Friuli Venezia Giulia region is known as a major white wine producer but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek out their reds, which have benefited from a concerted effort to upgrade their quality and reputation. Traditionally there are strong Austrian and French influences found in the region’s wines, and varietals such as chardonnay, Riesling, sauvignon blanc, traminer, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot are all commonly found in Friuli.
Friuli’s most commonly exported and best known wine is “Tocai Friuliana”. Don’t confuse it with sweet Hungarian wine Tokaji. There is an ongoing legal battle to disallow the Friulians from using the name Tocai, but I don’t believe that has been resolved.
Tokai Friuliana is a straightforward white wine that works well with simple fish preparations, lightly sauced pastas, and is a match made in heaven when paired with San Daniele prosciutto. The chardonnays we tasted were consistently delicious, having spent very little, if any time at all, in oak. These chardonnays have almost nothing in common with the typical buttery, oaked California style chardonnay. The Friulian style chardonnay is leaner and crisper and far better suited to pairing with foods. There is a sort of cult following for the unfiltered chardonnays, but very little actually leaves Friuli.
You should be able to find Friulian merlots as merlot grapes account for nearly 20 percent of all the vines in Friuli. And just so can sound cool to your wine guy, in Italy, merlot is pronounced with a prominent “t” at the end. Of course your wine guy may not know this and you’ll just wind up sounding like you are a little bit crazy. Keep an eye out for Friulian cabernet francs as these are also delicious. There are some single grape wines that are worth seeking out, namely “Refosco” and “Schioppettino”. From what I’m reading the refosco grape is getting a lot of attention these days from vintners outside of Friuli, particularly in California. A young refosco can resemble a gamay, being lively and fruity in the glass or it can actually be a big, almost Amarone type wine. It would be fun to do a refosco tasting and compare how different vintners handle this grape. Schioppettino is going to be harder to find because it is a difficult grape to grow and to tame. It reminds me of the Umbrian Sagrantino grape in that you have to subdue the tannins before it can be pleasurable to drink. However it is a great wine paired with grilled meats and it was our wine of choice the other night with our huge grilled steak.
One of the best value wines we came home with is a cabernet franc from Azienda Cencig. We stumbled upon this absolute gem of a vintner by happy accident. You know your fantasy of a vineyard with a happy winemaker, him mother hanging around in the back, some chickens wandering around, the smell of lunch cooking off in the distance to tantalize the taste buds and the view of the vineyard to satisfy the soul? What, your fantasy doesn’t look like that? Well mine does and that’s what Cencig looks like. We had a blast tasting his wines, trading stories about cinghiale and loading up our car with a cab franc that literally makes my toes curl with pleasure. I don’t believe that Cencig exports any wine, which is a real shame. We had a long conversation about how he felt he was being bullied into making wines that were more ‘international’ in taste and to his mind that was a crime. He declared that all California wines taste alike, which I certainly don’t agree with, but I understand his resentment of Parker-ized wines. I just went back to my notes, and to be dead honest, I loved every single one of his wines, so if anyone wants to organize a trip to Friuli and Cencig, count us in. And while I’m feeling confessional, we’ve been hoarding the cab franc…. Only the worthy are treated to a glass.
OK, blah, blah, blah…the chances of you walking into a wine shop that has a section dedicated to Friulian wines is slim so here is a list of vintners that if you see their name…grab a bottle and tell me what you think.
Bastianich (yeah, like Lidia)
Livio Felluga (good chance of finding these wines, they’re good, a little overpriced on the export market, but consistently good quality)
Marco Felluga (they’re feuding brothers)
Schiopetto (grand daddy of Friulian wines)
Edi Keber (he once treated us to his personal stash of unfiltered chardonnay… he lives and breathes his wine the way we would all like to)
Dorigo (they produce an excellent Schioppettino)
Petrussa (if you find their sauvignon blanc 2007….just buy me a bottle, ok)
Damijan (long shot that this producer exports but his unfiltered Banco Kaplia ’04 is probably one of the most unusual and complex whites we’ve ever tasted. It looks like cider in the glass)