Venice’s proximity to northeast Italy’s Friuli region makes it a perfect testing ground for some of the country’s finest white wines. David Lynch, the sommelier at Gotham’s Babbo, has described the area as “air conditioned,” and perfect for making great whites perfect for summertime sipping.
Known for native grapes Tocai Friuliano and Ribolla Gialla, the area’s wines vary wildly according to the producer. Generally they are minerally in their youth with peach and pear tastes, though the best of them round out and develop a creaminess; the truly age-worthy, tasters have noted, even take on red-wine qualities.
The leading iconoclast in Friuli is Josko Gravner. For the last eight years, he has made his wines in large clay pots called amphorae buried outdoors along with large wooden vats. His approach is completely hands-off. Gravner produces two whites: Breg, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling Italico, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio; and Ribolla, from vines up to 80 years old. The Breg runs about $90 in the States; the Ribolla is a few dollars more.
Damijan Podversic apprenticed with Gravner before starting his one-man operation in Gorizia near the Slovenian border. A traditionalist who remains respectful of the biodynamic calendar, Podversic also insists on bottling certain wines in December while the moon is waning. His Ribolla Gialla is considered large, powerful and elegant. The wine is usually in the $35-$40 range in the U.S.
Before the arrival of Gravner, Silvio Jermann was the consistent head of the class in Friuli, as important to the region as Angelo Gaja in Barbaresco. Unlike the others, he produces rather extracted wines, yet he manages to reflect the region’s unique terroir. Jermann makes six white wines, the topliners being Vintage Tunina, a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Malvasia and Picolit, and Were Dreams, now it is just wine! (yes, that’s the full name), a barrique-fermented Chardonnay. In the States, the bottles run $50-$60. His superb Vinnae, made from Ribolla Gialla, costs about $20.
New York restaurateur and co-author of “Vino Italiano,” Joe Bastianich started releasing wines from his Friuli winery beginning with the 1999 vintage. His signature wine is the Vespa, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Picolit. Made in a style similar to Jermann’s wines, it runs about $25.
Valter Scarbolo is Bastianich’s winemaker, supervising his Friuli vineyards, but he also has his own, rather economically priced, wines. His Tocai Friuliano is a superb apertif and costs about $14 Stateside.
One handy tip: When looking for wines from Friuli, those grown in the hilly zones of Collio and Colli Orientali del Friuli tend to produce wines that are more powerful and elegant.