Friuli-Venezia Giulia

Having just returned from a brief stay in Cividale del Friuli with my sister Maureen during my all too short vacation in the last week of September, it is only appropriate that we discuss this beautiful corner of Italy this month on our web site.

Cividale is really the home-headquarters to the Colli Orientali, one of the premier white wine regions of Italy, along with the region of Collio, from which it is separated by the Judrio stream, which could flow through our dining room and touch neither wall. In wine terms, the scene is very similar on either side of the Judrio. The uniqueness of this region can best be seen from hilltop locations like the Abbazia di Rosazzo, an ancient monastery in the southern reaches of the area, from which on a clear day one can see the Carnian Alps to the north and the Adriatic Sea to the south. The proximity of these two factors results in dramatic thermal swings from night to day resulting in a wonderfully balanced ripening of sugars, polyphenols and acidity of the grapes.

Tocai Friulano is the most important white wine by virtue of the fact that it is the most unique of the indiginous grapes of the region. It is believed to be a relative of the Sauvignon Blanc varietal, and certainly behaves as one, producing wines with a somewhat similar aromatic profile, though not as intense in any one of the many directions that the panoply of perfumes associated with the Sauvignon varietal can go in. An excellent example of this white is always offered at Babbo in the form of the Bastianich Tocai Friulano. We are currently working our way through the last of the 2004 vintage and will soon be moving into the 2005, which Mo and I tasted with an excellent plate of Salumi at Valter Scarbolo’s wonderful restaurant “La Frasca,” and I can assure that this winery continues to move from strength to strength with each passing vintage.

Other indiginous white varietals include the zesty ribolla gialla and the perfumed malvasia, while the picolit varietal is used to make one of Italy’s most coveted dessert wines. Exotically flavored with tropical fruit nuances, I recall tasting Picolit once with a producer when someone mentioned that it was Italy’s answer to French Sauternes. The producer wasted no time in correcting him that Sauternes was France’s answer to Picolit. The Girolamo Dorigo winery is always a reliable source of this gem of a wine. While expensive, Picolit always delivers satisfaction.

Another white dessert varietal which, like picolit, is also used in blends, is verduzzo. Verduzzo finds its best expression in the DOCG zone of Ramandolo, a tiny region pinned beneath precipitous peaks in the very north of the region. Verduzzo dessert wines, to me, are more vini da meditazione (wines for pensive sipping) than wines to pair with desserts due to their unusual tannic quality, but can also be excellent when paried with very rich savory dishes like our goose liver ravioli. Look for the Ramandolo of Giovanni Dri or Ronco Vieri to see what I mean, but good luck finding it, as the stuff is rare.

Red wine varietals native to the Colli Orientali are equally as intersting and exciting. The most widely-planted is the refosco, whose subvarietal Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso is the most commonly used and best. The resulting wine is medium-bodied, with notes of currants and fresh tobacco. Our friend Valter Scarbolo’s single vineyard “Campo del Viotto” is a textbook example of this varietal as does Le Vigne di Zamo’.

Schioppettino is another curious red varietal. It is thick-skinned and thus bursts between the teeth like a little gunshot which is what schioppettino means in Italian. The most choice growing area for this varietal is around the hamlet of Prepotto, where at the Trattoria da Mario (whose web site is appropriately¬†www.enotecaschioppettino.it) the host Marco Grassi showed us the varietal’s varsatility by pairing a diiferent example with each course he served us, including an insanely delicious “stinco di maiale” (Pork shank). The wine is medium-bodied and very elegant. At Babbo of late, we have been hot on the schioppettino of the Antico Broilo winery.

Pignolo is another obscure varietal which produces inky reds with fine but firm and dry tannins. The Colli Orientali also has a long history with the French varietals, both white and red, like sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio ( gris, en francais), pinot bianco ( blanc) and chardonnay for white and merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and pinot nero ( noir).

A discussion of the wines of Cividale would not be complete without mentioning the tradition of blending grapes to produce unique and individual expressions of both white and red wines. It is a tradtion that finds its roots in the days when there was not such a commercial market for wines and growers grew a mix of different grapes in the vineyard, often because they had no idea about it. As viticulture evolved and foreign markets developed, producers never abandoned this practice, and the “super-whites” ( Friuli will always be more famous for their whites than reds) are some of the most famous wines of the area. At Babbo, we are nuts for the Bastianich winery’s “Vespa Bianco,” which blends Sauvignon and Chardonnay (some of each fermented in barrel and some in stainless steel) with a small amount of Picolit. Other classics to look for include Jermann’s “Vintage Tunina” and “Capo Martino,” and Josko Gravner’s “Breg”.

There are many more than time here allows me to discuss, so you’ll just have come by and ask us about them at Babbo. See you then!