Italy—the Sunny Italy of tourist brochures—is a world of warmth and sunshine that delights the visitor but can make the creation of fine white wines a struggle. That’s not quite the case in Friuli-Venezia Giulia.
Usually called Friuli, the region has a viticultural triple play. First, there’s the climate. Italy’s own Far East has the Carnic and Julian alps forming a vast amphitheater in the north while to the south lies the Adriatic Sea. Cool alpine airs and warm sea breezes alternate in a kind of natural air-conditioning that blesses the innumerable hillside vineyards. The major wine zones form a narrow eastern corridor, with the Colli Orientali del Friuli (Colli, for short) spilling southeast from the pre-alpine foothills to join the Collio Goriziano (or Collio—note the extra o) and the Terrano del Carso (Carso). Winning wines also come from Grave del Friuli (Grave) and Isonzo, while the Annia, Aquileia, Latisana and Lison-Pramaggiore are also achieving stature, especially with their reds.
Second, the region has excellent grapes, including, for white wines (which account for 56% of production): Malvasia Istriana, Ribolla Gialla, Friulano (formerly Tocai Friulano), Picolit, Verduzzo and the immigrants Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and the Pinots Bianco and Grigio. For reds (44%) there are Schiopettino, Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso, Pignolo, Franconia and Tazzalenghe as well as Cabernet, Pinot Nero and Merlot.
Third, there is the will to quality, the drive to excel. Only a few decades ago most producers were content to sell their crop to huge industrial cellars or make wine for neighbors who drove up and filled demijohns in the trunks of their cars from hoses that looked exactly like those normally attached to gasoline pumps.
Then, beginning in the 1960s, a small group of far-sighted producers began turning the old peasant-wine culture upside-down and inside out. The adoption of stainless-steel tankage was just the start, and in the end they booted Friuli into wine-making’s modern age while retaining core aspects of their heritage. Indeed, the region’s winemakers take little for granted: one producer whose wine is foggy with sediment urges customers to "shake well before serving"; others reject added sulfites despite the risk of oxidation; another who has returned to wooden fermenters—and another who hasn’t stopped there. He goes all the way back to aging his wine in terra-cotta amphoras buried in the ground. And all, by the way, make notable wines.
Friuli's are among the royalty of Italian whites: distinguished and memorable, and often labeled by grape variety. That makes things easy for the consumer—but finding them isn’t always easy. Production is low because most estates are small and usually devoted to multiple varieties, not just one. To the wine lover that’s a challenge, not an obstacle. These are wines worth searching for.