The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

The Grapes of Friuli-Venezia: A Brief Guide

Posted on | April 13, 2015 | Written by IWM Staff | No Comments

Glasses full of Josko Gravner’s Ribolla Gialla

Last week, we featured a primer of grapes you can find in Campania, located in the southwest of Italy. Today, we’re delighted to follow up this primer with a brief guide to the indigenous grapes you can find in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, located in Italy’s northwest. Here’s a post that offers some explanation of Friuli’s range of wine styles, in case you need a little background information for these grapes. You might also check out Hawk Wakawaka’s excellent illustrated guide on white grapes and red grapes of Friuli’s Colli Orientali zone.

Reds:

Pignolo (pee-NYOH-loh)

This ancient grape dates back to fourteenth-century Friuli, but by the early 1980s, it had been reduced to just a handful of vines growing against the walls of the Abbey of Rosazzo. Rescued from the brink of extinction, Pignolo is now the basis for two DOC wines in Friuli’s Colli Orientale zone. The Pignolo grows in tight bunches that often hamper ripening and its difficulty in cultivation has inspired its name; Pignolo either gets its name from pigna, or pine cone, because of the shape of the grapes’ bunches, or from the Italian word for “meticulous,” from the viticultural care necessitated by its difficult shape. In either case, Pignolo is a spectacularly fussy grape that requires tremendous attention on the part of the winemaker to bring to fruition. When he or she succeeds, however, Pignolo makes a rich red wine tinged with cranberry with an explosive nose of fruit, earth and pepper and a spice-laden palate of dark fruits.

Refosco (reh-FOHS-koh)

This ancient varietal may be indigenous to Friuli or it may be descended from a Slovenian grape. In either case, it has been cultivated in Italy long enough to have appeared in the writings of Pliny the Elder and to have spawned several clones and at least one major newer varietal, Marzemino. Its full name is Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso, or “Refosco with the red stem,” and in addition to its shortened name, it also goes by Terrano in the Veneto and Caniga in Emilia-Romagna (Refosco is also cultivated in Sardegna and Puglia). Highly acidic, though relatively low in tannin, this varietal takes its sweet time ripening; however, it is fortuitously impervious to rot. Wines made from Refosco are a rich garnet in color and possess both a nose and a palate of dark fruits, which is underlain by nuts and herbs.

Schioppettino (skyawp-peht-TEE-noh)

Although this Friuli indigenous varietal nearly died out in the outbreak in the nineteenth century, Schioppettino is staging a comeback. Also known as Ribolla Nera, Schioppettino’s name translates to “crackling” or “little shot,” and it comes from antiquated appellations that were effervescent. Dating from the thirteenth century, this varietal has been cultivated primarily in the Colli Orientali del Friuli DOC zone, and it gained DOC status in 1992 in four dry red wines. Often prohibitively tannic, Schioppettino can produce an intense ruby hued, full-bodied wine that has a complex bouquet of roses and a palate of wild blackberries laced with pepper.

Tazzelenghe (tah-tseh-LEHN-geh)

This varietal gets its name from its trademark high acidity and marked tannins. Translated, Tazzelenghe means “tongue shredder,” and while this grape produces wines that in their infancy show formidable tannins, these wines also age quite well. Indigenous to Friuli, Tazzelenghe has most often been vinified as a blending grape with other varietals, usually Barbera, Merlot and Cabernet. However, in recent years, winemakers have been experimenting with this grape to make a single-variety wine. Full-bodied, suitable for long aging, and possessing bouncy acidic and sturdy tannins, wine from Tazzelenghe shows a combination of wild berries and bitter cherries on the palate.

Whites:

Friulano (free-oo-LAH-noh)

Tocai Friulano is an example of how complicated the names of grapes can be. As its name suggests, Tocai Friulano is cultivated primarily in the Friuli region of Italy; however, Tocai Friulano isn’t at all related to the famous wines of Hungary, the Tokaji, nor is it related to Tokay d’Alsace, which is actually Pinot Grigio and which often is cultivated in the same vineyards as Tocai Friulano. In actuality, Tocai Friulano is Sauvignon Vert, a clone of Sauvignon Blanc, and it makes a wine with a seductive floral aroma, a surprisingly cushy mouth-feel and a palate that’s often both citrusy and saline.

As confusing as this hodge-podge of names already is, Tocai Friulano has an even more tangled legal history. In 1995 Hungary launched a formal complaint to the European Union, claiming that Tocai Friulano impinged on the status of their Tokaji wines, which the EU settled in favor of Hungary. As of April 2007, Tocai Friulano can no longer be called “Tocai Friulano” on any bottle labels sold outside of Italy, and thus bottles now simply read “Friulano.”

Picolit (PEEK-oh-lee)

Friuli’s Picolit may very well be the panda of the wine grape world. Poorly pollinating, prone to flower abortion, something of a cult object, and awfully cute, Picolit has simultaneously been poised on the brink of extinction and been the unwitting recipient of extreme popularity for a number of decades. Picolit gets its name from its severely low crop yields, as well from its tiny berries, and these two factors have presented problems when Picolit gets swept up in a fad, as it was in the mid-eighteenth century and again in the 1970’s. Grown only in two regions of Friuli, Gorizio and Udine–Picolit’s main DOC is in the Colli Orientali–Picolit’s primary method of vinification requires the grape is partially, or fully, dried on mats. Rather than a desert wine, Picolit is a vino da meditazione, a wine to savor as you contemplate its golden color, lichee and stone fruit palate, and notes of green tea. Recently, some modern vintners have added Picolit to blended, dry table wines to some success.

Ribolla Gialla (ree-BOH-lah JAHL-lah)

Descended from the Greek varietal Rebula, Ribolla Gialla dates back to 1289 in Friuli, and although its popularity has diminished in recent years, this varietal was popular enough to inspire Giovanni Boccaccio to include it in a diatribe against gluttony in the fourteenth century. There are two main types of Ribolla, and they are not created equal. Ribolla Gialla, or yellow Ribolla, is different from the Ribolla Verde, or green Ribolla, which is a less interesting and less cultivated clone. The primarily grown, Ribolla Gialla is probably also related to the Schioppettino, which is sometimes called Ribolla Nero. Ribolla Gialla makes quite full-bodied wines with great structure, qualities that seem at odds with its often neutral palate. When it veers away from its trademark neutrality, Ribolla Gialla can make wines with a sassy acidity that complicates its full texture in compelling ways; it holds delicate flavors of Golden Delicious apples, cantaloupe, and butterscotch.

Riesling Italico (REES-ling ee-TAH-lee-koh)

Riesling Italico is unrelated to German Riesling, or Riesling Renano as it is called in Italy. Known elsewhere as Welschriesling, Riesling Italico is cultivated in Friuli near Serbia, as well as Trentino-Alto Adige and Lombardia although to a lesser extent. This varietal produces a floral wine with a jaunty acidity and a delicate, crisp, floral palate.

Verduzzo (vehr-DOOTS-soh)

Verduzzo has a split personality. When grown on the plains of Friuli, Verduzzo becomes Verduzzo Friulano, a dry wine that’s yellow with green highlights, and perfumed with fruit and almonds. When it’s cultivated in the hills of Friuli, however, Verduzzo’s winemakers make a desert wine either by allowing the grapes to grow over-ripe, or harvesting and then raisining the grapes before maceration. The result is rich golden desert wine that strides the line between sweet and semi-sweet, with floral notes, honeyed fruit and balancing acidity. Verduzzo is also cultivated to a lesser degree in the Veneto.

If you’re in the Tri-State Area, join us for this special tasting event that explores Italy’s indigenous grapes on Saturday, April 25. And if you’re not, here’s a delicious value Friulano from Borgo M, which we featured in our eLetter!

 

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