The northeastern-most region of Italy, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia borders on Austria to the north and Slovenia to the east and has long been a confluence of three distinct peoples and cultures: Italian, Germanic, and Slavic. (See map under italy.) Despite endorsements of local wines by the usual succession of popes, emperors, princes, and princelings, “Friuli”, as it is known, had little commercial history of distinctive wines until the late 1960s, when the introduction both of German wine-making philosophy and temperature control—innovations usually credited to producer Mario Schiopetto—gave Italy’s first truly clean, fresh, fruity white wines. This created a fashion which has lasted to this day. This style of (predominantly white) wine-making is one of the characterizing features of the region’s production; the other is the large number of wines produced by each single estate.
Friuli’s geographical position on land successively disputed by Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, and Habsburgs, ensured that a large number of varieties would be available for planting. tocai Friulano, ribolla, malvasia di Istria, verduzzo, picolit,refosco, schiopettino, pignolo, and the acidic red wine grape Tazzelenghe are considered indigenous (although seerobola, for example). riesling, welschriesling (here called Riesling Italico), traminer, müller-thurgau, and blaufränkisch(locally called Franconia) are imports from Austria. The French varieties pinot bianco, pinot grigio, chardonnay, sauvignon,cabernet, merlot, pinot nero were introduced during the 19th-century Habsburg domination (and greatly expanded during the replanting of Friuli’s vineyards after the ravages of phylloxera), a domination which lasted until 1918 in the case of the province of Gorizia.
The result has been the multiplicity of single varietal wines in each doc: 17 for the 2,100 ha/5,200 acres of the colli orientali, 17 for the 1,500 ha of collio. If the proliferation of DOC wines with varietal names attached to specific zones has created some confusion amongst consumers, the geography of Friuli’s DOC structure is actually fairly easy to understand. Udine marks the northern border beyond which low temperatures make viticulture an impractical proposition in most cases: to the south of Udine exist two distinct bands of territory for the growing of grapes: the two hillside DOCs of Colli Orientali and Collio with calcareousmarl soils, and the alluvial plain with plentiful quantities of sand, pebbles, and rocks deposited by the various rivers—the Tagliamento, the Natisone, the Judrio, the Isonzo—which criss-cross the plain. These flatlands are divided into five DOCs, moving from west to east: lison-pramaggiore, latisana, grave del friuli, aquileia, and isonzo. The hillside vineyards give wines of much the greater personality, with Collio generally offering more delicacy and bouquet, Colli Orientali much body and length. The white, and red, wines of this latter zone have shown a real suitability for small barrel maturation, a phenomenon much less widespread in Collio. Isonzo, which borders on Collio, stands out among the DOCs of the plain and, in the 1990s, began to produce wines which, from the best producers, challenge those of the hillsides.
The region’s overall production averages a bit over 1 million hl/26.4 million gal per year, modest by Italian standards, but the percentage of DOC production, now over 50 per cent, is one of Italy’s highest, surpassed only by that in the trentino-alto adigeand more recently Piemonte.
Although Friuli enjoyed almost uninterrupted commercial success and expansion throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the formula of crisp and refreshing technologically sound wines is not difficult to copy, and the early 1990s saw increased competition and price pressure from other areas of Italy, particularly from the Trentino-Alto Adige.
Robinson, Jancis, The Oxford Companion to Wine (New York, 1999).