The winemaking history of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia has been strongly influenced by the history of the Friuli and Venezia Giulia regions that were important stops along the Mediterranean spice route from the Byzantine Empire to the trading center of Venice. During the Middle Ages, travelers passing through this area brought grapewines from Macedonia and Anatolia. Under the Habsburgreign, the French varieties grape varieties were introduced. Prior to the phylloxera epidemic over 350 grape varieties were grown in the region. During the 19th century, the region served as a major Mediterranean port for the Austro-Hungarian Empire which installed a Teutonic influence in the people of the area.
Following the phylloxera epidemic, winemaking in the Friuli region was very muted and did not begin to garner much attention till the 1970s. The international popularity of Pinot Grigio in the 1980s and 1990s help to change the dynamic of Friuli-Venezia Giulia winemaking. Prior to this time vineyard owners sold their grapes in bulk to co-ops and négociant-like wineries that would blend the grapes together.
Friuli has built a glowing reputation for white wines made by relatively small wineries and estates. The whites had long been dominated by Tocai Friulano, a variety related to Sauvignon Vert or Sauvignonasse. But a European court has ruled that Tocai must change its name so as not to be confused with the Tokay or Tokaji of Hungary—which, curiously, is the name of a wine but not a vine.
Friuli’s Malvasia Istriana, Ribolla Gialla and Verduzzo also can be intriguing, as can such admirable foreign varieties as Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco and the ever popular Pinot Grigio. The Friulian style in whites favors the exquisitely fresh and fruity, with delicate fragrance and flavor that express clear varietal character. Many producers consider their whites to be too pure and linear to benefit from wood aging. But there are a growing number of exceptions to the rule, in white wines that gain depth and complexity from blending, oak aging and other artistic touches.
The best vineyards in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia are located on the south facing slopes of the Alps foothills in the southern part of the region where it can benefit from the most direct sunlight to go along with the night time cool breezes from the Adriatic. The vineyard yields of the Friuli are among the lowest in Italy averaging 3.5 tons an acre. This is a result of the Friuli quest for high quality over quantity in their wines and also a reason why these wines tend to be more costly than other Italian whites.
While white wine dominates Friuli wine production, nearly 40% of the production is red with Merlot being the leading red wine grape. In the 1960s, winemakers of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia pioneered using modern techniques for white wine making in Italy by quickly getting juice off the grape skins and taking extra measures to prevent oxidation. Through Italy these techniques came to be known as the metodo friulano or “Friuli method”. Most Friuli wines are made in varietal form, with most appellations in the region requiring wines to be made with 100% of one grape, but distinguished blends are also made. The generally philosophy of Friuli winemakers (especially in regards to their white wines) is to emphasis the grape’s pure fruitiness and acidity without the masking affects of oak. To this extent, the Friulians more closely resemble the Alsatians and winemakers of the Loire Valley than their counterparts in Burgundy, Spain and other parts of Italy.[
In recent years there has been a revival of Orange wine production in the Friuli which involves leaving the white wine grapes in extended maceration with their grape skins. The resulting wines have a hint of color pigments that gives it an orange hue.
Friulian reds were traditionally light and fruity, best to drink within two to five years of the harvest. That style applied to the predominant Merlot and Cabernet Franc, as well as to Pinot Nero and the worthy native variety of Refosco. But certain winemakers have heightened structure and nuance by blending Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and other varieties and aging the wine in small oak barrels.
Friulians have shown an encouraging tendency to revive varieties that had been neglected. Foremost among the legends is Picolit, a white that ranked as one of Europe’s finest sweet wines around 1800, when it was favored by the Hapsburgs and other royal families. Despite low yields, Picolit has been coming back. So has Verduzzo, notably in Ramandolo. Ribolla Gialla, a native of Collio, has benefited from new methods that make it into a dry white of character.
Among the reds are Refosco, also known as Terrano, which can be made either light and fruity or into a durable wine for aging. Though rare and odd, Franconia and Tazzelenghe make distinctive reds, but perhaps the Pignolo and Schioppettino varieties have the most intriguing potential.
Sparkling wines represent a growing field, as producers bring not only choice Pinot and Chardonnay grapes into their cuvées but also Ribolla for fine spumante by the classical and charmat methods.