Friuli is quintessentially European. Its indigenous grapes hail from the various empires that have ruled it over the centuries: French, Austro-Hungarian, Venetian. The region only became a permanent part of Italy in the 1950’s after World War 2. Anyone who says Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Merlot and others are not quintessentially Italian do not understand their European history. Italy has been a cultural cross-roads for so-long that in my view it is perfectly legitimate and historically accurate to appreciate and plant both ‘Italian’ varieties and ‘international’ ones. The distinction is false. This is particularly true in the border regions like Friuli and it is best to jettison the fettish for the ‘indigenous’ to explore here properly.
Steel vs. Oak
While Schiopetto was the founder of modern post World War 2 Friuli, the surge of quality continued through the 1980’s so that today there are a large number of superb producers. Along with the quality surge came diverging camps – the Schiopetto steel-only cold-ferment style and the Gravner led oxidative and higher-temperature barrel fermented approach. Both approaches, when done well, make great wine, and both can make ugly wine when misunderstood.
This surge of quality and variety is a return to form for a region that has made wine for emperors and kings for centuries given its proximity to the seat of power of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The idea that Friulian wines are too expensive is one you may hear uttered by layperson and sommelier alike – but in my view it is not fair. These are regal wines deserving of their price points and, in fact, relative bargains in today’s world of price-inflation.
A legendary producer of some of the top white wines in Friuli, Borgo del Tiglio emblematizes that continued surge of quality I discussed and is today a benchmark producer. Borgo del Tiglio is in the barrel-fermentation camp but their wines are far less extreme and oxidative than the wines of Gravner and Radikon. Nicola Manferrari inherited his family’s small 5ha estate in 1981 and left his job as a pharmacist to take over the estate. Immediately following his arrival, quality began to improve and, soon, Borgo del Tiglio found itself among the upper echelon’s of producers in Collio – Friuli’s most famous sub-region.
Red Wine in Friuli
Much red wine is produced in Friuli (40% of total production), but not much good and even less great red wine is made here. However, the contrast between the great reds and the widely available ones is utterly profound. I find the best reds of Friuli to be right on point in today’s world of medium-bodied reds – they offer distinctive aromatics, soft, easy to consume fruit, bright acidities and long minerality. Collio and Collio Orientale are the best regions. Grapes run from Merlot and Cab Sauv to Refosco and Schioppettino. Some of the very best wines are utterly profound and make a case for increasing research and production.
For all the deserved fame Borgo del Tiglio receives for its top white blends – the Ronco della Chiesa and the Studio di Bianco – its red wines also deserve praise. They make three in the Collio sub-zone, this Collio Rosso, a Selezione and a very rare Rosso della Centa.
All the reds hail from the Brazzano vineyard, 2.5ha of marl and sandstone in the hills of Collio. The vineyard is planted mostly with Merlot but also some Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines are thus accordingly Merlot driven (or 100% in the case of the Centa), with a tiny percentage of help from the Cabernet Sauvignon. These are bright, high acid wines that need a little time to unwind and open with air. But once they do, they are utterly delicious.
This 2009 Rosso danced with pesto marinated skirt steak due to its high acidity, plush plum fruit, and minerality. The wine was free of pyrazines and fully ripe – something to watch for in Friulian Merlot, which can often fall into the leafy camp. It was fermented and aged in used 250l oak barrels, and you can taste the friendly character of dill weed from the oak – it works nicely here and especially with the herbal flavours of pesto.
I am guessing most reading this post will not have tasted Friulian red wine – the Borgo del Tiglio Rosso is a good place to start.
Very Good+ to Excellent
~$60 at Kits Wine