The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

The Grapes of Friuli-Venezia: A Brief Guide

A look at Friuli’s special grapes

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.


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.


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!


Discovering Diverse, Delicious Friuli-Venezia Giulia

A look at Italy’s North–and it’s not just great whites!

Taken from Wikipedia

Taken from Wikipedia

Bordering Austria and Slovenia in the northeastern region of Italy, Friuli-Venezia Giulia’s culture offers an intriguing amalgam of cultural influences. Even the region’s name shows that cultural melange. “Friuli” recognizes the ancient Friulani who first settled the area, while “Venezia” refers to the people of the Venetian Republic. Like its name, Friuli-Venezia’s wine culture reflects its heritage, blending indigenous and international grapes, modern and ancient methods, and producing a dizzying array wines ranged along a wide stylistic spectrum.

Friuli is disposed to be a white varietal specialist: Many of its wine zones receive the benefit of a propitious interaction between mountain air and warm sea currents, and this moderate environment lets grapes realize rich fruit flavors while retaining their incisive acidity. The ideal terroir is considered to be the provenance of the zone’s premier regions, Collio and Colli Orientali, which feature soils comprised of limestone, marl, and sandstone, and vineyards situated at a high elevation.

The Friulian standard-bearer wine is a crisp, clean white, and while imitated throughout Italy, no other region possesses the breadth of Friuli’s white varietal canon, composed of both indigenous and international varietals. The principal members of the former category include Tocai Friulano, Malvasia Istriana, Ribolla Gialla, and Picolit, while the latter is headlined by Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Bianco, and Pinot Grigio.

Also from Wikipedia

Also from Wikipedia

While Friuli-Venezia Giulia is understandably known best for its white grapes, the region also possesses a healthy relationship with red varietals. Friulia has enjoyed particular success with the Bordeaux varietals, but its indigenous varietals—Refosco, Pignolo, and Schioppettino—are on the rise in the wine world’s radar. While many regard Refosco as the leader of the trio, all three have been making their way back into the Friulian landscape. Schioppettino, Ribolla Gialla’s black counterpart, may be translated into a powerful wine of black fruit and spice that reflects kinship with a Syrah from the Rhône.

Josko Gravner with his anfora

Josko Gravner with his anfora

Friuli-Venezia Giulia has a long, storied history of winemaking, one that encompasses modern wine protocol, but also one that has increasingly been hearkening back to winemaking’s roots. None lead the oxymoronic charge of “new” old winemaking more successfully than Josko Gravner, whose work with anfora has for all intents and purposes ignited a wine movement. Starting about fifteen years ago, Gravner began fermenting his wine in anfora, large clay pots buried in the ground, leaving his white grapes in extended contact with their skins. His method has caught on, and in part because of Gravner, Friuli is one of the pivotal centers of natural winemaking in Italy. Like Gravner, producers such as Marjan Simcic, Stanko Radikon, Miani’s Enzo Pontoni, Movia’s Ales Kristancic and others work to create unique interpretations of the region’s grapes using natural, often biodynamic methods.

While Friuli-Venezia Giulia might not have the name power of Toscana or Piemonte, there’s no doubt that this is a powerhouse of a winemaking region—especially when you’re talking about Italian whites. Of course, that’s no reason to sleep on the reds! Friuli is all about diversity, much of it undiscovered and most of it delicious.

What to Pair with Josko Gravner’s Incredible Amber Wines

Bold wines require bold choices

gravner glassesWhite wine with red meat? I say yes—when the wine in question is made by Josko Gravner. These magical golden wines from Friuli are fascinating on their own, and they’re even more enticing when paired with food. They are some of the most versatile wines I have ever tasted. Not only do I enjoy partaking in these wines but also I take great pleasure in playing with spices, herbs, textures and proteins to bring out different flavors and nuances in these special wines. Similar to great red wines, Gravner’s Ribolla promise vitality and are destined to live a long life through their acidity and tannins.

Friuli’s Josko Gravner is an iconoclastic producer; he’s ever evolving and constantly refining his embrace of a “new-old” approach in his winemaking. Gravner’s passion for perfection through experimentation changed his philosophy; today he strives to achieve great wine through great simplicity, retaining the unique character and of each vintage, the integrity of his grapes and most importantly the “life” that exists in each amphorae and bottle of wine.

I had a great privilege of meeting Josko this week at an event hosted by Domaine Select, tasting through seven vintages of his prized Ribolla Gialla, 1998 through 2006. These mysterious Ribolla wines aren’t always instantly scrumptious; instead they slowly draw you in, evolving with time. Drinking them is similar to the feeling I get when a book or a movie starts slowly then gradually draws me in, and next think you know I’m hooked. These cerebral Ribollas require an open mind and time to observe and appreciate the life that each bottle has to offer.

The majority of the time people pair wine to go with their food; however, when a bottle of Gravner is involved, I believe it should go the other way around. Indigenous to Friuli, Ribolla is a somewhat obscure grape, but Gravner’s natural approach and use of amphorae give the wines weighted layers of earth, fruit and spice. When I think of pairings for Gravner’s indescribable amber wines, I immediately go to foods that will play off their texture, fruit and spice, while matching their weight and intensity. I encourage you to try it with anything from a simple steak and eggs or oven roasted chicken to French cassoulet, mushroom risotto, adobo pork, veal blanquette or ossobucco. The bottom line is to have fun and indulge all of your senses to experience the full breadth of what these special Ribolla wines can offer.

What Do Millennials Want? A Wine with a Story

Finding meaning in a bottle of Movia Merlot

Findings by the Wine Market Council, graph from

Findings by the Wine Market Council, graph from

Being a kid in the 90’s was awesome. My days were typically spent rolling around town on my Razor Scooter, sipping on Capri Sun, listening to Now! Volume 7, and generally being boss in every imaginable way. But alas – one must grow up and enter the real world. As time passes and my generation, known as “Millennials,” enters adulthood, we bring with us a fresh set of tastes, preferences and values. And while I’m typically wary of such all-encompassing generational monikers, it is impossible to negate the effects that Millennials have had on the world of wine.

Now, at the ripe age of 24, I’ve been lucky enough to taste a lot of amazing wines at IWM. My unique position does not make me an outlier, however; nationwide, young people are encompassing an increasingly broader share of the consumer market. Twenty-somethings in 2014 drink a lot more wine than twenty-somethings in 1994. Wine bars are popping up all over the city.

Most importantly, the Millennial wine market is less concerned with “old-guard” standbys such as traditional rating systems. Younger wine drinkers value an intriguing story over a number. Quoted in a recent Fox Business piece on Millennial wine drinkers, Melissa Saunders of Communal Brands says, “Historically, wine has been marketed to older generations and came with a huge pretense. But this generation is blowing all of that out of the water. They don’t care about the pretentiousness of a wine, they want something that is authentic and speaks to them.” I know my own experience attests to the truth of Saunders’ assertion.

One of my favorite wines comes from Movia in Brda, the land that straddles the border of Italy and Slovenia). Centuries old, the Movia estate is rare in that it combines old-world traditionalism with new-world sensibilities. Ales Kristancic, owner of Movia produces all of his wines biodynamically, meaning that not only does he grow the grapes and make the wine without intervention, he uses the movements of the moon and the stars to guide his practices. You might be inclined to raise an eyebrow at the cosmological aspects of Kristancic’s winemaking process–that is, of course, until you actually taste his wine. I recently had the pleasure of tasting the Movia Merlot 2004, which I found lively while remaining smooth and gentle. The 2004 Merlot from Movia offers a delightful expression of terroir that is drinking beautifully today.

Maybe you’re a Millenial, in which case I suggest you open a bottle of this biodynamic beauty for your friends. And maybe you’re a Gen-X or Baby Boomer, in which case I suggest the same. A great wine is a great wine, and as long as you’re over 21, you’re adult enough to enjoy it.

Ales Kristancic Decoded

The man, the madness and the message

A Slovenian Hurricane swept through Hong Kong last week as we welcomed back our friend Ales Kristancic, the iconic winemaker of Movia. Much has been said of Ales’ high energy visits to Hong Kong and New York, but very little about the stories behind the stories. After all, what the heck are “happy chickens who smoke Marlboros and wear sunshine glasses?” And why is Ales so excited about a 2011 harvest that lasted 2.5 months longer than previous years?

Sure, last week’s visit featured its share of ballroom dancing in elevators, walking up down escalators, and some very suggestive commentary, but I’ve learned to notice the “off-moments” when Ales pulls Sommeliers to the side for private tutorials and explains the methods to the madness.

So why does Ales frequently reference chickens smoking Marlboros? As it turns out, he’s referring to billboards in Yugoslavia that featured Marlboros as a taste of freedom. While the familiar color of red worked, the message caused a particular problem and thus Marlboros were banned. As you can imagine, smoking Marlboros in public then became the ultimate expression of freedom and being beyond the law.  Happy chickens who “know the rooster” and smoke Marlboros are the most free and happy chickens. They transmit positive energy to us, as a biodynamic vineyard and wine can do. Or so I’ve gleaned from spending a lot of time with Ales.

As we learned when Ales arrived, we were lucky to have him. The visit was in doubt when it seemed the 2011 harvest would never end. In order to harvest in the meticulous grape-by-grape nature that Ales demands, he headed to Serbia to recruit a band of literal gypsy blueberry pickers to help ensure proper selection and adequate coverage for the difficult 2011 vintage. Admitting to great concern during the summer, Ales now considers this one of Movia’s greatest ever vintages and offers full credit to his longtime Movia team and their last-minute teammates.

It has taken quite a bit of time with Ales, but I’ve become a better listener. It’s easy to get caught up in moments Crocodile Dundee moments, like when Ales introduced himself as the President of Turbojet to everyone waiting in line to board the Macau ferry, but in learning to listen to his subtext, I’ve gained an even greater appreciation for how some of my favorite wines have become what they are.

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