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Friuli wines represent an exciting cultural confluence of Italy, Slovenia, and Germany. In Episode 2 of the bonus season of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers explores how each of these three regions has contributed to Friuli wines in a major way. Friuli is one of Beavers’ favorite wine regions in the world and is known for producing exceptional Italian wines that are accessible in the U.S. market.
Beavers takes listeners on a tour of the geography unique to Friuli: from the foothills of the Alps, to the Isonzo River, to the Italy-Slovenia border area. Geography, language, and culture have collided throughout Friulian history, resulting in unique, nuanced grape varietals and wines.
Tune in to learn more about Friuli.
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and I bought a lightsaber. Yeah. I just… bought it.
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 2 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. This is the bonus season. My name is Keith Beavers. I’m the tastings director at VinePair. How are you doing? I’m very excited. I get to talk about one of my favorite wine regions in the world. Let’s talk about Friuli. If you haven’t had Friuli wine, oh my gosh, you’ve got to get into it. Oh my gosh!
If you’ve been listening to “Wine 101” since the first episode, I will often bring up the region of Friuli if it applies. Everyone on social media always asks if I’m ever going to do a Friulian episode? I wanted to so badly, and here we are. I love all the wines from Italy. I had an Italian restaurant and wine bar for 10 years. I love Italian wine, but there are certain regions that have a special place in my soul. Friuli is one of those places. What’s really amazing about this, and just boggles my mind, is that these wines are great. They’re here on the American market, but we don’t often just pick them up because we don’t know what they are. There are a few wines from Friuli that you know. You just may not know that it’s from Friuli or where it’s from in Friuli. So, let’s talk about this awesome place. Get ready to get excited, because you’re going to want to go out there and find some of these wines. You may already be drinking some of them.
Last episode, we were talking about Spain. We were talking about how Spain is comprised of 17 autonomous regions. Italy has five of those. One of them is tucked away in the northeastern corner of Italy. It is bordered to the east by a country called Slovenia. It’s bordered to the north by Austria. It’s bordered to the west by Veneto, an Italian region. It’s bordered to the south by the Adriatic Sea. This autonomous region is called Friuli-Venezia Giulia. It’s an autonomous region that straddles not only Italy, but also Slovenia and parts of Croatia. The Italian region of Friuli takes up the main geography of this area. It’s a little bit complicated, but one of the reasons why this is an autonomous region is basically because of the surrounding countries: Austria and Slovenia. The political borders have changed a bunch of times in this area, and there are three distinct cultures and three distinct cultures and languages here. There’s Italian, Slavic, and Germanic. Because of the melting pot of these cultures, with each culture having its own identity, it’s an autonomous region. Friuli exists in this region. I know it’s confusing. Autonomous regions are a little bit foreign to us, but that’s how it works.
There’s so much I want to talk about with Friuli. I have to focus here. We have a whole episode on appellations, and we talk a little bit about Italy in that. Friuli itself is a small-ish region, but it has four DOCGs and 12 DOCs. It has a lot of wine appellations there. We’re not going to get into the details of every one, but I want to give you a sense of Friuli. I want to give you a sense of the kind of wine that is made and consumed here. I really just want to get you excited about what kind of wines come out of here, so you can go out and look for them.
Friuli is in the foothills of the Alps, which are called the Julian Alps. I believe that’s where the Giulia comes from in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Interestingly enough, Venezia — which means Venice — is actually not in this region. That’s the Veneto. Some of the best wines from Friuli come from the hills. There are a couple of these wine regions and appellations that start with the word Colle or Collio, which means “hill.” There are two appellations that define this. They literally hug the hills. One is further to the north and is called Collo Orientali. There’s Collo, meaning hill. Orientali, I believe, just means the oriented hills of this area. Just south of that is another appellation, or DOC, called Collio. These hills hug the foothills of the Alps. It’s a stone’s throw, figuratively speaking, from Slovenia to the east. Over in Slovenia is a really great wine region called Goriška Brda. They make wine from some of the same indigenous grapes of this area that some winemakers do over the border in Friuli. Specifically, they do it in a beautiful little town called Gorizia. The names are different because the language is different. It’s awesome.
These two appellations — the Collo Orientali and Collio — are where you’re going to see most of the wines on the American market. Immediately south of these two appellations is a third appellation. It’s on a peninsula where the capital town of Trieste is. On this peninsula, the wines coming from this appellation are very cool. We’re going to talk about them in a second. Just west of that, in the actual valleys west of the hills, are a bunch of rivers. There’s a very famous river called Isonzo, which is actually its own wine region. I’ll pick up on that in just a little bit. I want to get those out of the way because every DOC and appellation has its own rules.
Generally speaking — and this is how we, on the American market, can start to better understand Friuli — it’s famous for its international varieties, which are basically French varieties, but it also thrives on its native varieties. A lot of this has to do with, you guessed it, phylloxera. Phylloxera decimated the indigenous population of varieties in this region. To build things back, a lot of “international” varieties were planted in its place. Eventually, the native varieties came back. By that time, though, the Friulian winemakers had taken a page from German winemaking and started working with temperature control and stainless steel in the 1960s and 1970s. They were making very fresh, clean, crisp wines from grapes like Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc and making really nice, medium-bodied, well-structured Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Those wines are, to this day, still wonderful. These varieties are still being used in Friuli, but so are the native varieties. A lot of winemakers will have a line of single-variety wines. You will see blends, but there’s going to be a lot of single- variety wines. They’re definitely going to have the international varietals and their native varieties.
But, to tack on some more awesome, not only is it German influenced, but it’s Slovenian influenced. Not only do you have these indigenous and international varieties being made from wine, but the styles are also different. This is the land of amber or orange wine. In that part of the world, just over the border of Friuli into Slovenia, orange wine is a big part of tradition. It stemmed from survival. This is how wine had to be made, because they didn’t have the equipment or technology. Then, it became a style. I finally had the opportunity to go to Friuli a few years ago. It was just amazing.
Primosic. Oh, my gosh. If you guys get to try Primosic, it’s awesome wine. It’s from Gorizia, just on the border of Slovenia. Nicola Primosic, the youngest of the winemakers, told me a story where he knew he wanted to make orange wine. His grandfather asked, why would you want to do that? Back in the day, orange wine was more of a survival wine, but winemakers evolved into making white wine. They had more technology and equipment. When Nicola wanted to make orange wine again, his grandfather was like, why would you? I just find that really awesome. By the way, guys, they make great orange wine. It’s awesome.
OK. I’m aware of my excitement. I hope you guys are getting a sense of this awesome place and this confluence of cultures. You can also see that in the varieties. From Austria, there’s Riesling and a grape called Müller-Thurgau, which makes white wine. The French imports came in the 19th century and were the varieties that helped after phylloxera. There’s Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Carménère. That’s a long list of French varieties. I have to say that some of the most expressive, smooth, structured, 100 percent Merlot wines come from this place. They’re beautiful. They’re supple. They’re smooth. They have wonderful acidity. The tannins just melt into the wine. They’re wonderful. Merlot from Friuli is just great. Also, the majority of the Pinot Grigio that you guys drink is from Friuli.
Some of the best Pinot Grigio in the world, in my opinion, is in those appellations that hug the border of Slovenia and the Alps. Not all, but a lot of Pinot Grigio that you drink that’s on the American market is from Friuli. Some of the best Pinot Grigio coming out of Italy is in those appellations that hug the Alps and the border of Slovenia. They’re the ones that have the word hill in their name, Colle or Collio. Actually, one of my favorite Pinot Grigio wines from this area is very available in the American market. The name of the wine is called Jermann. It’s in a screw cap. Just buy it. It’s wonderful. It will show you how Pinot Grigio can have depth and character. It’s great.
You may have noticed these two wineries that I mentioned. One is Jermann. It’s very Germanic. Then, there’s Primosic, which is very Slavic. So cool. There’s one more thing about these international varieties that blows my mind. I hope it blows your mind, too. We talked about the peninsula where the capital city of Trieste is. Oh, my god, that city. Trieste is an espresso capital of the world. It’s an amazing place. North of Trieste is a wine region called Carso. There is where we have the first orange wine to ever make it onto the American market, but it looked like a rosé, so we all called it rosé. It’s really an orange wine. What? Yeah. What’s popular in this area is to make Pinot Grigio, but to let it rest on the skins. Therefore, it’s kind of doing the orange wine thing. We’ll get into this in another episode very soon. Because Pinot Grigio has a little bit of color in the skin, which I talked about in a previous episode — check out the episode about Pinot Grigio — the resulting color is almost like a copper color. In Italian, copper is “ramato.” These Ramato wines are spectacular. They look a little bit like rosé. It’s really interesting because the copperiness doesn’t always come out. Sometimes it just has a little more of a dark pinkish look to it. But, they’re wonderful. They’re technically orange wines, amber wines, because they are skin contact. If you go to an Italian wine bar or you’re in an Italian wine shop, ask them about Ramato. It’s very refreshing. It’s awesome wine.
I want to talk to you, wine lovers, about the native varieties in this area. Now, Friuli is primarily a white wine-producing region. I think almost 80 percent of the wines made in Friuli are white. That’s great. The Sauvignon Blancs are so clean and crisp. They’re awesome. And the Chardonnays? Forget about it. OK. Where it gets really interesting is with the native varieties. One of the imports from France I did not mention was a grape from southwest France called Sauvignonasse. It was a blending varietal that was introduced to Friulil. They took it and called it Tocai and then they called it Tocai Friulano. Now, it’s just called Friulano. In its home, over in southwest France, it’s not neutral, but it’s an easy-drinking wine. It’s really chill. Here in Friuli, the Friulano grape makes a different kind of wine. Yes, it is kind of clean and refreshing, but it has depth. It has good acidity. It’s a great food wine. This is a Thanksgiving white wine, Friulano. Little side note: The name was changed because, in Hungary, there’s a wine called Tokaji that’s made from the Furmint grape and there was a lot of confusion. The story is complicated, but essentially, Friuli said, “Fine, we’ll just call it Friulano.”
Another white wine you’re going to see around is a wine made from the grape Ribolla Gialla. It’s almost frothy. It’s not, there’s no bubbles in it, but the acidity is so high. The body of the wine almost has some depth to it. When you’re drinking, it almost feels a little bit frothy, but it can be so well done. Ribolla Gialla is often made into an amber wine. Over in Slovenia, they call it Rebula, and in Italy they call it Ribolla Gialla Primosic. They have a great Ribolla Gialla.
There are other white wine grapes, but you’re not going to see a lot of them on the American market. You will maybe see Verduzzo, which is almost an easy-drinking, everyday white wine on the American market sometimes. There’s also a very interesting white wine grape called Vitovska. It’s Friulian, but it’s also Slovenian. This is actually a grape that is the progeny of the Prosecco grape Glera and a specific Malvasia grape called Malvasia Bianca Lunga, which is actually the variety of white Malvasia that was used to blend into Chianti when they were blending white wine into that. It’s awesome. Vitovska has the Malvasia vibes. It’s a little bit musky, but it has the Glera vibe, so it has a high acid. It’s a very awesome wine with some stinky artisanal cheeses.
And the reds, wine lovers, the reds. You have Schioppettino. It’s almost like a Cab Franc / Syrah thing. It’s just awesome. You’re not going to see a lot of it around, but if you see Schioppettino, try it. It’s great with pork. There’s Pignolo, which is dark, deep, inky, and higher in alcohol. It’s almost like a modern Syrah, but with more acidity and a little bit more structure and balance. If Friulano is the region’s white wine grape, Friuli’s red wine grape is a grape called Refosco. Wine lovers, please, if you can, try to find Refosco. You’re going to really enjoy it. If you like the soft, supple fruit of Merlot, but you also like the nice, subtle, pepperiness of a good Cab Franc, and the structure of Merlot and a Pinot Noir, that’s Refosco. Yes, it can be kind of inky as well. But, man. How do I say this? Drinking a Refosco reminds me of being in those hills we talked about. It’s good with gamey meat. It’s good with cheese. I actually had the pleasure and opportunity to go with the Primosic family down to Trieste. We went to this amazing restaurant. We got piles and piles of meat and drank Refosco while people played accordion. It was awesome. Refosco is a wine that, once you try it, you wonder, “Why haven’t I not tried this before?”
The thing about these wines — the whites and the reds — is that they don’t always have a bunch of oak on them. They do have oak, but not all the time. They’re made in all different kinds of ways. Stainless steel is a big deal in Friuli. It’s part of their identity. Orange and amber wine is part of their identity. It’s when you get west of the hills, down in the lower-lying areas where there are five rivers that crisscross, there’s a wine appellation named after one of them called Isonzo. With this, you’re getting more of a small-batch, small-barrel maturation type of wine. What’s cool about this area is that the wines have these wonderful Burgundian-like structures to them. They’re awesome. One of the most well-known ones that you guys should check out is Livio Felluga. I mention that because this is why Friuli is so great. Livio Felluga is obviously an Italian name. Primosic is obviously Slavic. Jermann is obviously Germanic. All three of these winemakers make amazing wine.
I just love this region, with this confluence of all these cultures making amazing stuff. I hope this got you guys excited about Friuli. I’m going to peace out and go have a bottle of Refosco.
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And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.