Winter Whiteout, Part I

Vino 2011 – a nearly week-long showcase of Italian wines – and a couple of snowstorms hit New York City more or less simultaneously last month, both with pretty major force, leaving many of the attendees content never to leave the comfortable confines of the Waldorf Astoria hotel. For my small part in the proceedings, I mushed my dog team northward in time to lead a seminar on Friuli white wines – not exactly the most seasonally apposite drinks, but the wines showed beautifully, so nobody seemed to mind.

Friuli Speakers Panel

As almost everybody knows, Friuli is the northeasternmost of Italy’s regions, right up against the border with Slovenia. Its most prized wine regions are exactly its most eastern, nearly Slovenian ones, the hilly vineyards of Collio and Isonzo and Colli Orientali del Friuli. Ethnic mixes – Slavic, Austrian, Italian – make the region diverse and very interesting. You readily see this in its cooking: Italian ways with pasta join with Austrian and Slavic ways with potatoes, the ethereal prosciutto of San Daniele shares the table with slices of speck, a hearty German-style air-dried bacon. There is almost nothing green that doesn’t find its way to the table, in uses from frittata to contorno. Unexpected delghts abound: Friulians make a great risotto with stinging nettles, and they do an unforgettable potato gnocchi stuffed with small plums and dressed with butter and breadcrumbs.

That same sort of diversity shows in the wines: The number of grape varieties vinified is as impressive as their quality. Indigenous grapes abound, as do some by-now-long-naturalized international varieties: Friulano (formerly Tocai), Ribolla gialla, Verduzzo, and Picolit are the most prominent native white varieties. (Among reds, Marzemino, Pignolo, Refosco, and Schioppettino are distinctive.) The “international” contingent includes the white grapes Chardonnay, Pinot bianco, Pinot grigio, and Sauvigon. (Among the reds, the usual suspects: Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet franc, Merlot.)

Because of the nature of Friuli’s soils and the varied slopes and exposures of its characteristically U-shaped valleys, even varieties that you may think you know well (Ho hum; another Pinot grigio!) taste different here – distinctive and interesting, more serious and more substantial. The eight examples we had at the seminar showed this very clearly.

We started with a marvelously characteristic Friulian wine, a 2009 Ribolla Gialla (DOC Collio) called Roncalto, from Livon. If you don’t know Ribolla, this is a close-to-textbook example of the kind: classic nut and fruit aromas with a strong mineral inflection; similar flavors plus a hint of citrus; and a tiny suggestion of sweetness in the fruity finish. A thoroughly enjoyable wine, it could serve as an aperitif but it really wants to be partnered with almost any kind of seafood.

Our second wine was a 2009 Sauvignon (Colli Orientali del Friuli DOC) from Comelli. This wine is slightly unusual for Friuli in that it had spent some time in barriques, which lent it a little roundness to flesh out Sauvignon’s usual raciness. In all other respects, it remained classic Friulian Sauvignon, with lively herbal aromas and underbrush and mineral flavors in the mouth. Only the finish betrayed the smallest taste of oak sweetness.

Next came a wine that surprised many attendees, a 2008 Pinot grigio (Isonzo DOC) from Lis Neris. The surprise was, simply, that this was a real wine, a wine of character, and not the forgettable, almost tasteless gulp that so much Pinot grigio has become. Grown in poor soil, with a tightly restricted yield, fermented and matured in tonneaux, and deliberately emulating the Alsace way with Pinot gris (same grape, different country), this example was medium-bodied, with excellent pear-and-apple fruit, rather creamy and rich (the only palatal evidence of the oak ), with a long, mineral finish.

With this wine, two of the major points I was trying to get across in my seminar remarks became apparent. The first is that Friuli makes serious, worthwhile wines and not the throw-away party fizz that so many people associate with Italian white wine. The second is simply that one of the hallmarks that identifies Friulian wines and makes them memorable is a bracing spine of minerality.

A 2009 Pinot bianco (Grave DOC) called Campo dei Gelsi from Forchir was our fourth wine. Pinot bianco performs well in almost every Friulian zone, especially if it is planted at a good altitude. It yields a medium-bodied wine like this example, usually less floral in its aromas and flavors than either Pinot grigio or Chardonnay. The kind of nice, earthy complexity this Campo dei Gelsi showed is what makes Pinot bianco such a fine dinner wine – and that, exactly, was my third major point about Friulian white wines: Like so many Italian wines, they aren’t vinified to be drunk alone, either as lightweight cocktails or as fruit bombs to overpower judges and walk home with gold medals. They’re made to drink with food. Wine in Italy is food, and if you ever want to understand the best Italian wines, you must never lose sight of that bond.

That’s also a good point at which to conclude this post. Next time, the rest of the Vino 2011 Winter Whiteout, plus a little coda about a carnivore jamboree.

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