Friuli-Venezia Giulia: Just Try to Keep Up

Posted on Posted in Gravner, Vodopivec, Wine Press, Zidarich
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BY ERIC GUIDO | APRIL 21, 2022

Friuli-Venezia Giulia never rests. It’s one of the reasons the region was able to establish itself as the epicenter for white wine production in Italy. It’s the reason why leading producers had so much success internationally with their stylized Super Whites over a decade ago, and the reason why they were able to recover so quickly as those wines fell out of favor. The only problem is that producers also never stop tinkering or trying to reinvent the wheel. As a result, there is a large amount of confusion on the part of consumers as they try to figure out what they should expect.

Keeping track of the latest in Friuli can be dizzying.

Of course, there are trends, today’s paradigm being a clean and lean selection of native and international white varieties of varying residual sugar, along with a Ramato-style (skin-contact) Pinot Grigios (to show that you’re hip), characterless Merlots, slurpable Refoscos, and blended wines, often fermented and matured in oak. The result is an ocean of wine that can oftentimes be forgettable, mixed in with a small number of producers that stand out for their uniqueness, high standards of quality and focus on terroir. The good news is that producers in the latter category are growing in number. The even better news is that the historic producers of this region continue to turn out great wine, for the most part. And the cherry on top of it all is that more and more Friulians are talking about terroir.

As the Crow Flies

One of the most interesting things about the important winemaking regions of Friuli is how astonishingly close they are to each other, while also remaining so incredibly diverse. One of my first stops on a recent trip was on the plains of Isonzo, at the Vie di Romans winery. It was here, standing with a panoramic view of the entire region, that owner and winemaker, Gianfranco Gallo, puts the entire thing into perspective while pointing with his finger. Looking north, I could see the hilly Colli Orientali, the home to the likes of Miani, Ronco del Gnemiz and Ronchi di Cialla in the Cialla Valley. These higher elevations and hilly terrain, mixed with the famous Ponca soils (a chalky clay and sandstone) produce some of the region’s most famous, terroir-inspired wines. Pointing slightly further to the east, the town of Cormons, Mount Quarin behind it, and the Collio, literally a ten-minute drive away. Right beyond those hills, there is Oslavia, where the ancient styles of Gravner and skin-contact wines of Radikon are made, with the town of Gorizia, further south and the Slovenian border just a stone’s throw away, home to the Damjian winery. And finally, looking southeast, the Carso, a plateau of stone that hangs like a peninsula between the Adriatic and the hills of Slovenia, with shear limestone soils strewn with rich red clay, home to many of Italy’s most experimental producers: Edi Kante, Zidarich and Vodopivec, just to name a few.

Gravner 

It’s quite amazing, when dining in Italy, just how often a bottle of Gravner is being served to a group at a neighboring table. It seems like the Italians must be on to something because, here in the States, the work of Josko Gravner is seen by the majority as esoteric oddities, with all due respect, and only by a minority as the true treasures that they are. Granted, it can be subject to stylistic preferences; and let’s face it, “orange” wine isn’t for everyone, but there’s simply something about the wines of Gravner that transcends these categories. Today, Josko Gravner has chosen just two native varieties to place all of his attention on, Ribolla Gialla, labeled as Ribolla, and Pignolo, labeled as Rosso Breg. The process that he has perfected over time remains in place, where the primary focus is in the vineyards. The Gravner vineyards span across the borders of Italy into Slovenia, with only small ravines and outcroppings of woods that separate the two countries. Within those vineyards, you’ll find man-made ponds (“a-la” Gianfranco Soldera), as well as trees and bird houses, as the family strives to maintain an equilibrium of biodiversity amongst the vines, while tending to them through biodynamic practices. Perfect ripeness, achieved through harvesting as late as possible, and often botrytis-a!ected grapes, is the key. What happens from there is all about patience and time. Within the Gravner winery, headed up by Josko and his daughter, Mateja, you’ll find the amphora chamber that has helped define a large part of this region over time. Buried beneath the ground are a large number of terracotta Georgian “qvevri”. These vessels become the new home of Gravner’s perfectly ripe fruit, as the grapes ferment, whole cluster, for up to six months within them. From there, the juice is pressed and then returned to the amphora for another six months, then followed by up to six years or more in large neutral oak barrels of various sizes–yes, six years; as I said, time and patience. When you consider this, it starts to make sense as to why the wines of Gravner are so unique, containing a depth of texture and richness that can sometimes seem like it might be too much, only to be perfectly balanced by the wine’s structure and acidity. And while Gravner has certainly inspired a generation of winemakers, very few can come close to the magic that is created in this vineyard and cellar. If you’re looking for an experience to test your imagination and your palate, or to understand the skin- contact wines of Friuli from their inception–this is the address to do it. 

2013 Ribolla Gialla Anfora 

Color: White 

96 

Drinking Window: 2022 – 2034

Sweetly scented and exotic in nature, the 2013 Ribolla Gialla Anfora is rich yet airy, with dusty dried flowers, raw honey, ground ginger and yellow apples forming its bouquet. This is broad and round on the palate with ripe yellow pit fruits and Indian spices, as a balancing bitter twang tugs at the cheeks, all motivated by bright acidity. The 2013 often seems more like juice than wine, tapering o! long with a hint of butterscotch, yet not derived through wood, while leaving notes of cardamom and tropical melon to linger. What a beauty. Due to heavy rain in late summer, production of the Ribolla was down by around 30%, with only 18,000 bottles produced. 


2012 Ribolla Gialla Anfora 

Color: White 

94 

Drinking Window: 2022 – 2032

The 2012 Ribolla Gialla Anfora is bright and fresh, pulling you toward the glass with minty herbs and nectarine that give way to ginger-spiced apples. This possesses a weighty feel with round, soothing textures, yet harmonious all the same, as vibrant acids maintain a lovely balance. Cascading notes of fresh pears, spiced orange peels, fennel seed and lasting inner florals resonate throughout. This finishes long yet fresh, and it leaves the mouth watering for more. The 2012 is an amazingly balanced Ribolla that is beautiful today, yet with many years of evolution in store. 


2011 Ribolla Gialla Anfora 

Color: White 

91 

Drinking Window: 2022 – 2030

There’s a lovely candied apple note that first introduces the 2011 Ribolla Gialla Anfora, as raw honey and exotic savory spices develop in the glass. This is focused and chiseled in feel, further accentuated by a twang of sour citrus. Ginger-laced orchard fruits and hints of tangerine form toward the close. It leaves a staining of liquid floral concentration while also coming across as warming, as a subtle hint of heat remains. There was only a small amount of rain in 2011, which concentrated the juice within the berries, coupled with a late harvest starting on November 24th, and no noble rot. As a result, the 2011 is a very unique Gravner Ribolla. 


2009 Ribolla Gialla Anfora 

Color: White 

92 

Drinking Window: 2022 – 2032

The 2009 Ribolla Gialla Anfora is rich and more savory than sweet, with wet slate evolving into pungent floral perfumes, lemon oils and underbrush. This is round and pliant in feel, with a glycerol coating of savory orchard fruits cut by a laser-like core of brisk, salty acids. The multifaceted perfumes within tempt the imagination and last throughout the finale. The 2009 tapers o! long and fresh, yet lightly structured and with an exotic florality that lasts impossibly long. Yet, here, the endnote is how remarkably fresh this is. It’s a stunning Ribolla. The 2009 vintage provided a balanced summer, with rain in October and a healthy onset of noble rot. 


2007 Vino Rosso Breg 

Color: White 

92 

Drinking Window: 2024 – 2034

The 2007 Vino Rosso Breg, a varietal Pignolo, wafts up dusty, moody and dark in the glass, lifted by notes of crushed rose petals that give way to dried cherries, worn leather and hints of cumin. It’s soft- textured upon entry, showing a pronounced twang of acidity with tart wild berry fruits and saturating chalky minerality. The 2007 possesses fantastic energy and depth, even as its grippy tannins take hold toward the close and beg for a stay in the cellar. If enjoying this today, make sure to have it alongside a meal. The 2007 is the current release of the Vino Rosso Breg. 


Vodopivec 

Once in a blue moon, you meet a winemaker, and suddenly everything about the wines you’ve tasted from their portfolio makes perfect sense. So it was with Paolo Vodopivec, a man whose demeanor automatically demands respect, from the way he stands, to the way he talks, how he looks you in the eye, and the magnitude of passion that exudes from him. Much about Paolo Vodopivec is somehow communicated into his lineup of Vitovska. Yes, Vitovska, the one grape that he has chosen to champion, and his quest is surely a success. You can’t speak in circles of Carso wine lovers without Paolo Vodopivec coming up at some point, as suddenly everyone in that circle grows quiet, lovingly reflecting on the last time they tasted the wines. So how does he do it? It’s simple, but not really. Vodopivec organically tends six hectares of densely-planted Vitovska in vineyards made nearly entirely of limestone. In fact, while many producers in the region will truck soils up to new vineyards to be mixed with the pure rock, he prefers to deal with the terroir nature provided. The processes in the winery are gentle with spontaneous fermentation and long macerations. The wines spend their first year in large Georgian amphoras that are buried in the floors of the cellar. They are then moved to neutral Slavonian oak barrels for a further year of refinement, and then released four years after the vintage, making 2018 the current release. So what should you expect from a Vodopivec Vitovska? Sheer energy, verve, savory saltiness, depth and the balance to age, without the drying tannins often associated with skin-contact wines. In the end, these are wines that make you think, hold your attention firm and constantly keep you on your toes, much like Paolo Vodopivec himself. 

2018 Solo MM18 

Color: White 

94 

Drinking Window: 2023 – 2030

The 2018 Vitovska Solo MM18 is a dark and richer expression, yet still lively and packed full of tension. Dried blood orange, tropical florals, gingery spice and crushed stone form its seductive bouquet. This feels more like juice than wine, totally wholesome with energy and life, mixing ripe orchard fruits and grapefruit with vibrant acidity. It tapers o! incredibly long and potent with a salty staining of minerality, while leaving hints of dried peach to linger. Wow, the 2018 is a total head-turner. The Solo MM18 is a single-vineyard expression from Vodopivec, made from 1.3 hectares of vines planted in pure limestone and matured in a combination of amphora and large neutral casks. 


2018 Vitovska 

Color: White 

The 2018 Vitovska wafts up e!ortlessly from the glass with exotic florals, wet slate, candied ginger and dried apricots. This is soothingly round and pliant yet spicy with ripe yellow pit fruits and hints of cardamom. Its salty minerals balance the experience nicely, along with juicy acids that make for a jovial feel. This tapers o! with medium length and perfumed with an almost-liquid-rock flavor. The warmth of the vintage has made the 2018 a very accessible and fruit-forward yet harmonious wine. The Vitovska is matured in amphora for one year, followed by another year in large neutral oak cask. 


2018 Vitovska Origine 

Color: White 

91 

Drinking Window: 2022 – 2028  

The 2018 Vitovska Origine blends smoky crushed stone with savory herbs, wild florals and dried pears. It’s round and juicy in feel with pleasantly ripe orchard fruits and sweet inner florals. This is a total pleasure, balancing fruit with bright acids and minerals to create a truly enjoyable expression. It finishes incredibly fresh, leaving a light staining of concentration and subtle tannins on the palate. That said, the 2018 Origine is totally giving today and in a beautiful place. This is the only wine in the Vodopivec portfolio that is not aged in amphora, but instead fermented in large, open-top wooded vats. 


 2017 Solo MM17 

Color: White 

93 

Drinking Window: 2022 – 2029  

The 2017 Vitovska Solo MM17 is darkly alluring and bassy with an intense exotic citrus and floral mix that keeps me at the glass. With each tilt, there’s something new: ginger, kiwi, herbal tea, cardamom and smoke. This mixes vibrant acids with ripe orchard fruits and vertical minerality to create an amazing display of tension, coming across as sapid yet also remarkably fresh. There’s a layer of liquid florals that coat the palate, as this tapers o! lightly structured yet remarkably fresh and impossibly long, with a hint of hazelnut that lingers. 


2017 Vitovska 

Color: White 

90 

Drinking Window: 2022 – 2027

Masses of exotic florals and spices greet the senses as the 2017 Vitovska wafts up from the glass. Anise, wild flowers and musky dried nectarines can all be found with further coaxing. It’s round and pliant in feel, yet with a tart citrus core that mixes with its floral perfumes and a balanced inner sweetness to create a highly pleasurable experience. This tapers o! with length, taking on a hint of vanilla custard, yet it stays remarkably fresh throughout. The 2017 is so pretty and accessible. Of note is that the Origine was not produced in 2017 due to heavy September rains. That fruit was instead used to make the best Vitovska possible. 


Zidarich 

Descending into the cellar with Benjamin Zidarich feels very much like exploring a dwarven mine deep below Tolkien’s Grey Mountains. The cellar is carved into the sheer limestone that defines this region, and it stretches down five stories. It is also a perfect way to see the composition of the earth that defines the Carso region, solid rock and limestone, with veins of dark red clay strewn throughout. When seeing this, it’s no longer a surprise that Zidarich decided to begin using this stone in his wine-making process, carving solid pieces into giant fermentation and aging vessels for his wines. For Benjamin Zidarich, it’s all about a return to the ancient winemaking traditions of the region. His eight hectares of Vitovska, Malvasia Istriana and Terrano (an indigenous red) vines are certified biodynamic and tended completely by hand. In the winery, the fruit goes through spontaneous fermentations (more and more often in stone (Karst/limestone) vats), with long macerations spanning two to three weeks. Most of the aging is done in neutral, large Slavonian oak barrels. There’s no fining or filtering, and the use of sulfur is kept to a minimum. The resulting wines can be challenging for the average wine-drinker, yet totally mesmerizing for the adventurous sorts. And yet, while certainly Orange in style, the skin-contact whites of Zidarich blend freshness with richness, and they never seem to tire the palate the way some wines in this category often do. 

2019 Vitovska 

Color: White 

The 2019 Vitovska is airy and fresh with smoky crushed stone, dried pears and hints of savory spice. It’s silky and pliant yet with a tension-building core of tart orchard fruits and hints of ginger. There is a verticality here that keeps the expression supremely focused, as it tapers o! long and fresh with nuances of sour melon that linger on. 


2019 Teran 

Color: Red 

92 

Drinking Window: 2024 – 2030

The 2019 Teran wafts up with crushed raspberries complemented by dried roses, licorice and stone dust. It’s finessed and sultry in feel, with saline-minerals and nervous acidity guiding its tart wild berry fruits. This tapers o! lightly structured, with lasting notes of hard red candy contrasted by hints of tobacco and savory herbs. There’s so much depth within the 2019 Teran, which only further cellaring will fully reveal. 


2019 Malvasia 

Color: White 

91 

Drinking Window: 2022 – 2027

Ginger and dried flowers, incense and hints of kiwi make the 2019 Malvasia impossible to ignore. This is round with soft, enveloping textures showing spiced citrus and sour melon tones. Exotic florals, blood orange and hints of brown spice linger, as the 2019 tapers o! remarkably fresh. A truly seductive Malvasia. 


2018 Malvasia Lehte Classe 

Color: White 

92 

Drinking Window: 2023 – 2028

The 2018 Malvasia Lehte Classe somehow reminds me of exploring a cave, with its musty, moist air and minerals balanced by a twang of exotic green citrus. It’s soft and juicy with motivating acidity, coming across as amazingly vibrant, more like juice than wine, and with a mix of blood orange, pineapple and sweet spice. This is long and remarkably fresh with a sweet and sour twang of citrus. The Lehte Classe hails from 35-to-40-year-old vines, and it matures for three years in large Slavonian oak. 


2017 Vitovska 

Color: White 

90 

Drinking Window: 2022 – 2027

The 2017 Vitovska is wild and exotic, lifting up intensely floral, with peach liqueur and dried apricots forming its bouquet. The textures are silky-smooth, yet this is salty in character with a contrast of sweet and sour citrus. The 2017 leaves the mouth watering to notes of tropical melon, as inner floral tones resonate. After tasting this, Benjamin Zidarich informed me that the bottle had been open for two weeks, which I never would have guessed. 


2016 Vitovska Kamen 

Color: White 

94 

Drinking Window: 2023 – 2030

The 2016 Vitovska Kaman is exotic and vividly floral with a herbal and black tea-like character, showing dusty dried flowers and hints of musky pear. The textures are round and soothing with a hint of tropical citrus and a pretty inner sweetness, yet this is undeniably savory, as a note of sour melon forms toward the close. The Kaman tapers o! long and lightly structured while leaving a perfumed air through the finale. The balance within is remarkable, especially for a skin-contact-styled wine. Benjamin Zidarich allows the grapes for the Kaman to go through spontaneous fermentation in large stone vats. After two weeks or more, the juice is moved to large Slavonian oak to refine for two years on the lees. 


2015 Vitovska Collection 

Color: White 

93 

Drinking Window: 2022 – 2027

The 2015 Vitovska Collection wafts up with a wild florality, as stone dust, confectioners’ sugar, exotic spice and incense give way to crushed dried flowers. This is pure and mineral to the core with a citrus- like intensity, depths of tart orchard fruits and a twang of savory spice. Nervous acids add a wiry feel, keeping the palate engaged, as the 2015 finishes long, lightly structured and staining with a bitter twang. Yet throughout it all, it’s remarkably refreshing. The Vitovska Collection, a selection from the oldest vines, is only made in select vintages and only bottled when Zidarich believes that the wine is fully ready. 


2015 Rosso Ruje 

Color: Red 

93 

Drinking Window: 2023 – 2030

The 2015 Rosso Ruje tempts the imagination, showing a blend of crushed raspberries and blueberries mixed with savory herbs and dark exotic spices. This is round and soft on the palate, contrasting the tart wild berries and peppery tones within. Bright acidity maintains wonderful balance, as the 2015 tapers o! with a sour tangerine twang and hints of licorice. There’s so much energy here, but also depth. This wild blend of 80% Merlot to 20% Terrano keeps you coming back to the glass again and again. The Rosso Ruje macerates for one month on the skins before being refined in large Slavonian oak for four years prior to bottling. 


 

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