Super Whites: Friuli reaches for the top

By Craig Camp
Friday, June 13, 2003

A MILD-mannered white wine entered a phone booth next to a winery and with a swirl of color and a whoosh of air a superhero suddenly appeared. What's that in the sky? Is it a white Burgundy, a Napa chardonnay? No, it's Super Whites!

Named by Slow Food and backed by its public relations machine, the Friuli "Super Whites" tasting tour once again rolled through the United States. Over thirty wine producers from Friuli, the most northeastern region of Italy, left their red wines at home and showcased their best whites. Fruili has become justifiably famous for excellent white wines and producers are doing their best to get the story out.

The real superheroes of Friuli are their indigenous vines: ribolla gialla and tocai friulano for the whites and refosco, schioppettino, and pignolo for the reds. That is not to say the wines from French varieties can't be excellent, but the unique flavors and textures of Friuli's own grapes offer a distinct style and balance that make them stand out in a world dominated by vines of French heritage. It also means that they get little more notice than Clark Kent.

The late Mario Schiopetto revolutionized the winemaking of the region more than thirty years ago by introducing stainless steel fermentation and aging, which allowed the expansive fruit flavors produced by the regions vineyards to express themselves. Soon he was followed by now-legendary winemakers like Silvio Jermann, Livio Felluga, Nicola Manferrari (Borgo del Tiglio), and Josko Gravner.

Today Fruili is recognized as the finest white wine region of Italy, and recent surges in the quality of its red wines have made this region the only area of Italy to produce both world-class red and white wines. Small producers, in the hills on the border with Slovenia, in the sub-regions of Collio, Colli Orientali del Friuli, and Fruili Isonzo are relentlessly pushing the quality envelope, and with each vintage are producing wines of complexity with a balanced power that is the hallmark of these vineyards.

The artistic passions of these winegrowers found the production of single-variety wines too limiting. Inspired by the success of Silvio Jermann's splendid wine, Vintage Tunina, a blend of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, tocai, and picolit, it is now almost impossible to find a top winery that does not produce a "super-blend." Each winemaker sees this wine as a personal statement and each blend is a unique melange of the varieties in the vineyards. Although these blends are usually a producer's most expensive wines, only varietal wines made from a single grape qualify for D.O.C. status. So they are labeled only as I.G.T. Leading "super-blends" include: Jermann Vintage Tunina and Capo Martino, Miani Bianco, Vie di Romans Flor di Uis, and Bastianich Vespa.

Friuli has recently gotten a big public relations boost in the United States as Joseph Bastianich, partner of celebrity chef Mario Batali and son of the celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich, began producing excellent wines from the estate he purchased in Collio. Needless to say his wines are getting huge exposure at all of their restaurants. To his credit, all the wines under the Bastianich label are of the highest quality.

Stainless steel may have created the foundation for Friuli's modern success, including the rare wines of Gravner. However, the never-satisfied Josko Gravner left stainless steel behind for barrels, and now has left the barrels behind for amphorae and an ultra non-interventionist style of winemaking. These are radical wines often causing heated debates because of their brownish color and intense flavors. They have to be tasted to be believed.

The last decades have seen the emergence of a bevy of inspired wines from estates ranging in size from small to tiny. In addition to those mentioned above, look for Le Due Terre, Dorigo, Villa Russiz, Borgo San Daniele, Dario Raccaro, Ronco del Gelso, and Radikon among many others producing excellent wines loaded with personality.

In a mere three decades, Friuli has gone from making simple wines for local consumption to being Italy's most diverse producer of super-premium wines. Now that is a super feat.

Some Super Stars from Super Whites 2003

-2000 Bastianich Vespa: A new-style wine blended from chardonnay and sauvignon blanc with a touch of picolit and just the right amount of oak.

-2001 Borgo San Daniele Tocai Friulano: The wine of the tasting. Exceptional depth and power and a finish that will not go away, this is an extraordinary white wine.

-2002 Girolamo Dorigo Ronco di Jeri: A round, rich, and creamy sauvignon blanc without a hint of the (in)famous cat pee aroma.

-2001 Schiopetto Tocai Friulano: A classic wine. Very firm in style with clean minerals balanced with lively ripe fruit flavors.

-2001 Vencia & Vencia Sauvignon Blanc: Racy, zesty and fresh with crisp grapefruit balanced by rounder ripe peach flavors.

-2002 Villa Russiz Tocai Friulano: Round and complex, exceptionally perfumed.

-2002 Jermann Capo Martino: Always exceptional, this wine did not disappoint. Beautifully balanced with exotic honeysuckle aromas and a texture that is creamy and zesty at the same moment.

-2001 Vie di Romans Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and Sauvignon Blanc: If the Borgo San Daniele Tocai was the wine of the tasting, Vie di Romans was the table of the tasting. All three of these wines are exceptional and this may be the best chardonnay of the region.