MARCH 2020 ITALIAN WINE CLUB
How we’ve made it this far in our Italian Club tasting through every Italian region and have barely yet acknowledged Friuli is mindbottling. You know… when your thoughts get all trapped up in a wine bottle? I digress. In the Northeastern corner of Italy along the border of Slovenia, tucked into the convergence of the Alps and the Adriatic Sea, is a region that is renowned for producing the best white wines in the country. And here in Friuli, ‘White’ is a very loose term. More often an entire rainbow of colors from lemon green to straw, from marigold to orange, and from copper to pink all count as white wines here.
That may seem confusing but it’s all about the use of traditional winemaking methods that include longer contact between the wine and the grape skins. This region is pretty much ground zero for the Italian maestros in the heady world of ‘orange’ wines that more often get their color from oxidization. But it’s also the natural pigment of the grape that adds color, such as in this month’s Ramato. Yes, Pinot Grigio is naturally a pink wine. Friuli is also a storied home for wines made from some French native grapes; again, Pinot Grigio. In the next two months we will dig into the amazing wines of this corner of Italy and celebrate the love for this viticultural melting pot – Served up, of course, with some traditional Jota and Prosciutto San Danielle.
WINE NO. 1
Venezia Giulia, Friuli, Italy 2018
Ribolla is a chameleon who not only roams the spectrums of color but ranges the gamut of texture as well. It can be made in so many styles- from fresh, citrusy and bitter-edged to the deeply phenolic orange wines made on the skins in clay amphoras. The grape on its own without much manipulation shows a linear zippy character with hints of juniper green. And yet, when skin-soaked, aged, and even oxidized, it becomes an entirely unique “orange” wine. Most would argue that Ribolla reigns the supreme grape for that category.
I Clivi is the life work of father and son Ferdinando and Mario Zanusso, who farm and make wine together (and eat and drink together more importantly). Over the years they have sought the fullest expression of their soils by producing low-intervention wines particularly matched to the terroir in Friuli’s DOCs: Colli Orientali del Friuli and Collio. Their vines are organic and extremely low yielding, growing on steep rocky hillsides and ranging from sixty to eighty years old. While the Zanusso fam is farming in some of the best soils for mineral-driven Friulanos in Brazan, they also believe this terroir expresses some of the purest crisp and high-acid Ribolla, and they are the only producer that makes methode champenoise from Ribolla. You can see why in this bottle, with its neat sharp notes of salty breeze.
First impressions are always interesting in wine, as your brain will have already made a few assumptions about this wine by its color, or, in this case, its obvious lack of color. Oh! So! Bright white chamomile meadow flowers and wafts of rosemary all through the nose, this wine is impossibly translucent and as fresh as a cold stream gurgling over limestone. It’s somehow bordering on tropical yet truly lean and zesty, like underripe pineapple with that puckering pop. You want to define zippy in a wine? Go ahead, ‘cause this is the one.
In the wine world, this region is almost always referred to simply as Friuli. But it contains two other subregions: Venezia and Giulia (Tre Venezie also, just to keep it complicated). The border with Italy and Slovenia has blurred many times over the centuries but in modern times it’s become one autonomous region, Friuli(ish).
Ronchi di Cialla
Cialla, Friuli, Italy 2018
Friulano began its storied career long ago as “Sauvignonasse” in Southern France (yet no Sauvignon relation) and made its debut in Friuli (its modern namesake) in the early 1800s where it was given the flashy misnomer “Tokai / Tocai Friulano”. The argument was for a possible relation to Hungary’s famous Tokaji grape, Furmint, (strangely Pinot Gris was also misidentified as “tokay” in Alsace). It is likely there was some attempt at thunder-stealing goings on as well… It took until 2008 for the name Tok/cai to be legally dropped from all labels and grape references in Italy. Oddly, the few folks who grow it in California have yet to follow suit.
The Rapuzzi family settled in the far flung eastern hills of Friuli in the Collio DOC in a small valley surrounded by chestnut, oak and wild cherry in the 1970s. They were much more fascinated by the indigenous grape varieties that were disappearing from their home than by the internationally popular French varieties that were moving in, and the family Rapuzzi are credited with actually finding the last 70 Schioppettino vines in the valley and rescuing the variety from the brink of extinction. They have continued their love of native local grapes for 40 years, organically growing the classics on their rolling hills of limestone and clay, and producing some of the purest and deepest expressions of the region’s unique varieties.
Just perfectly in tune with summer sun, this wine has plush and juicy fruit a-plenty, like fresh green melons and waxy yellow pears. And yet there’s nothing cloying or heavy, it stays bright and lifted with aromatic herbs like fennel, mint and tarragon. All that lovely fruit and waxiness and aromatic lift really light up just as the crackling limestone minerality kicks in for the win. Here’s a reminder that good white wines change a lot in the glass as they warm a bit and absorb oxygen. Not to say this will be easy… this one goes down really, really easy.
Roncho / Ronchi (plural) = hill / hills in the Friulian dialect, and most producers in the area take their name from their regional hillside, here the hills of Cialla; even the DOC Collio is itself the Italian for hills. The hills are alive, with the sounds of Friuli.
Cormons, Friuli, Italy 2018
While this Pinot is called gray/gris/grigio, it should actually be called pinot pink; the skins of the grape are actually more like the color you see in this glass, a faintly fuchsia blush. Let that sink in for a minute, let it soak on the skins if you will, and that will help us get past the vast, vapid ocean of innocuous Pinot Grigio (you know the stuff) that has become one of the most popular white wines in America. Instead, that maceration will transport us to the not-quite-red but definitely-not-gray, copper-colored wonder of Friuli: “Ramato”, PG’s R-rated skin-contact rosé.
These hills are the veritable capital of Pinot Grigio, where this long-ago mutation from Pinot Noir has been growing for well over 200 years. The Ferlat family has cultivated their tiny five hectare estate since 1950 in the Friuli Isonzo DOC in the Eastern part of Friuli Venezia Giulia. Moreno has taken over from his father after he gained experience as cellarmaster working at Livio Felluga, and now he heads his family’s humble but renowned operation. The Pinot Grigio is made in the classic Ramato style: it is de-stemmed and crushed for maceration in a concrete tank with 2, 4 and 7 days of skin contact, then the grapes are pressed and finish fermenting off of the skins so that the wine doesn’t become too dark, tannic or harsh.
Ramato is most often garnet or copper colored, but there’s nothing dull about this brilliant crimson cherry jubilee wowza rosé. An aromatic nostalgia smorgasbord of fruit candies: watermelon jolly rancher, kiwi strawberry snapple, and raspberry slushie, but the palate is dry and crisp like a pink lemonade iced tea with a zest of rose water. There’s a twist of Campari that you just can’t get enough of. With all that lush raspberry and strawberry all over the nose, you might even think it was a rosé of Pinot Noir. All the pretty aromatic juiciness is zipped up tight with a quenching balance of acid and tannin, making it a seriously stand out pink that is likely to haunt your palate for quite some time.
Ramato walks the tightrope between red and white in a way that only a truly great rosé can dream up. In fact, Ferlat isn’t allowed to name the DOC on the label because he makes it too dark in color! But a rose by another name would smell as sweet.
Savorgnano, Friuli, Italy 2017
Schioppettino rose up literally from the edge of extinction to become a beloved Friulian favorite in just 40 years. The love for Schioppettino, aka Ribolla Nera (no relation) aka Pocalza (in neighboring Slovenia) is written in the name, which probably comes from the Italian scoppiettare “to explode”. Whether that means crunchy grapes or explosive flavors, it definitely means the wine is bombastic. The variety is packed with a ton of the flavor compound called rotundone, which is the chemical responsible for the taste and smell of green peppercorns, so strap in aboard the rotundone rocket, we’ve got lift off.
Out in the Easternmost reaches of Colli Orientali del Friuli, in the cool foothills of the Alps, lies the little commune of Povoletto. Marco and Sandra Sara, and their two boys Pietro and Tobias, produce their microscopic seven hectares of organic vines here on soils that are locally renowned (also charmingly named) “ponca”. This is a flysch marl, which, when said 5 times fast, means: sandy clay sediment on limestone, and is notorious for imparting crazy acidity, so in these hills, it is THE flysch in all the top vineyard sites. The Schioppettino grows on just shy of four acres at the top of the Sara’s hills at about 1000 ft elevation – and also where the ponca is richest, which they believe gives their wine the most brilliant acidity and complexity.
There’s a sweet spot here that lands right between the Northern Rhône and Beaujolais, and yet we find ourselves way out in Northeasternmost Italy, where this Schioppettino manages to straddle the line between the luscious crunchy carbonic crushability of Beaujo and the deeper black pepper brambleberry of Syrah. With loads of purple flower perfume and peppercorns, the aromatics are a kaleidoscope of fruit and spice. The palate is like sinking into a velvet cushion, with the plump texture of black cherry and a snap of red currants, with sky high acidity and yet melting tannins. Would you like some freshly cracked rotundone on that? Answer: ‘Si. Bon pitic e prosit!’
Once an endangered outlaw in its homeland, Schioppetino was saved from near extinction in the 1970s by a few brave farmers who championed its ancient local ancestry (and deliciousness), even defying a very strange local Friulian law which made it illegal to cultivate extinct (and thereby unapproved) grape varieties.