Learning and loving more about the wines of Collio in the Italian Alps
The Friuli-Venezia Giulia region is about as close as you can get to Austria and still be in Italy. But few personalities could be further apart if national stereotypes like hugging in public and arriving on time for appointments are indications. But native Friulanos not only embrace this diversity, they turn it to their advantage: "When I'm an accountant, I am Austrian," laughed a winemaker during my trip to the region, "but when I am in love, I'm Italian."
In fact, up until 1867, Friuli-Venezia Giulia (FVG) was the Austrian Empire's southernmost stronghold. Shielded by the Julian Alps in the north and warmed by the Adriatic Sea breeze from the east, FVG ripened fruits and vegetables ship to Vienna's markets and wines to Vienna's cafés.
Today, FVG reaches far beyond her Alpine neighbors, with worldwide recognition for producing Italy's finest white wines, especially those grown in the subregion, Collio. And last week, a virtual seminar conducted by the Consorzio Tutela Vini Collio reached wine lovers across the U.S., including me.
"We speak many languages," said journalist Matteo Bellotto, explaining Collio's brochure printed in Italian, English and German. "But our favorite is the language of our vineyards, which is wine."
The conversation begins with the name Collio, meaning hill. Collio is 100% hillsides, providing grapes with countless exposures to brilliant sunshine and a wide swing from hot days to cold nights. In addition, the slopes are comprised of ponca ("flysch" in German), stratified marl and sandstone created by an ancient sea's ebb and upsurge. As vine roots weave through the strata in search of water ("Down, down, deeper down," says Bellotto), grapes absorb a fascinating minerality, even salinity. Collio wines are concentrated, dry but ripe with fruit flavor and mouthfeel, distinctive minerality and robust acidity.
Collio offers unique grapes to express this unique soil. Of course, there's pinot grigio, which even Bennasi Paulo, a proprietor of La Bellanotte, admits does not reflect the region. Still, his pinot grigio is firm and lush, more suited to Brodetto di Pesce, the regional fish stew, than shrimp cocktail.
Here, a sort of caveat emptor is required. Collio wines are available in the Chicago area, in theory. However, disruptions in the pipeline may have one producer stuck on an Italian dock awaiting a ship, another in a local warehouse awaiting a check. For the foreseeable future, please regard promises of availability in terms of the old sales rep's maxim: "It's true. It's just not true yet." As always, your best resource is a trusted wine merchant.
Other Collio grapes to seek out include Friulano (see Ross's Choice) and:
Ribolla Gialla is "our shy one," according to Isacco Curtarello, oenologist of Kurtin Winery. To me, it's a freshly scrubbed face, glowing with vitality, with no distractions from makeup or fussy winemaking. My palate recognized the medium-bodied flavor and texture of lemon peel for a unique pinot grigio alternative and perfect to pair with dishes prepared or garnished with lemon or peel, including salads, seafood and many Moroccan dishes incorporating preserved lemon.
Collio Bianco is the region's flagship. First approved in 1968, Collio Bianco is a blend determined by the free interpretation of each producer, sometimes including international grapes, sometimes matured in wood, the range expressing the many personalities of Collio uniting in one brand. At Muzic Winery, Fabijan Muzic blends only indigenous grapes Tocai Friulano, Malvasia Istriana and Ribolla Gialla, with no oak, for the purest expression of his vineyards and region. Muzic's Collio "Stare Brajde" is round, complex and elegant with a rich stone fruit flavor that enriches the palate through a broad and complex finish. Make this your alternative to unoaked domestic Chardonnay and celebrate diversity with the producers of Collio.
• Mary Ross is an Advanced Sommelier (Court of Master Sommeliers), a Certified Wine Educator (Society of Wine Educators) and recipient of the Wine Spectator's "Grand Award of Excellence." Write to her at food@daily herald.com.
Producer: Azienda Gradis'ciutta
Region: Collio, Friuli-Venzia Giulia, Italy
Availability: Spotted at wine boutiques including Galleria Liquors and, Crespo Food & Liquor (both Chicago), $23.99
Distributed by: Heritage Wine Cellars, Niles
Tasting notes: Friulano (also called Sauvignon Vert) reminds this wine lover of anise, raw almonds and stone fruit, expanding over three days in the fridge to juicy nectarine, anise, lime and savory finish. A unique and exciting mate for antipasti, including prosciutto (especially the region's famed Prosciutto di San Daniele) and seafood including Capesante gratinate (scallop gratin).