Friuli-Venezia Giulia may not be Italy's best known wine region, but it might be its biggest hidden gem. Situated in the far northeast corner of the country bordering Slovenia, the rolling forested hills are dotted with vineyards producing exceptional white and orange wines.
Friuli Venezia Giulia Geography & Terroir
Though Friuli-Venezia Giulia is a small wine region, it's far from homogenous. Stretching from the Adriatic up toward mountaintops of the Julian Alps on the Slovenian border, the rolling hills are a unique environment for grape growing. It's a relatively mild climate with a long, sunny growing season that allows the grapes to ripen slowly while retaining good acidity.
The soil is a compilation of limestone, sandstone, and marl, which infuse a distinct minerality into the grapes. The climate and terroir lend themselves particularly well to producing bright and aromatic white wines, which the region is best known for.
Friulian Wine: Grapes & Characteristics
The bulk of the wines from Friuli are crisp whites with a relatively linear structure, a degree of minerality, and compelling aromatics. Pinot grigio is widely planted here, along with sauvignon blanc, pinot bianco, friulano, and chardonnay. When it comes to the lesser-known local varietals, ribolla gialla, verduzzo, and picolit can be found sprinkled across the landscape. The whites highlight individual grape varietals, showcasing crisp profiles with nuanced aromatics.
The region also has a rich history of producing stunning extended skin contact wines. With winemakers like Gravner and Radikon aging particularly aromatic white grapes like ribolla gialla and malvasia on their skins in amphorae, the orange wines define the style with their sophisticated and grippy nature.
While Friuli isn't a blockbuster producer of reds, it is steadily becoming more known for some top-notch vino rosso. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and pinot nero are grown here along with the more obscure refosco, schioppettino, and pignolo. If you enjoy a not-so-heady red with good acidity, these Friulian wines might be perfect for your palate as they tend to be lighter, fruitier expressions that do well when served slightly chilled.
Notable Regions Within Friuli
The small wine region of Friuli has ten Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC's) and four Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG's), which produce over twenty different varietals. Of these DOC's and DOCG's, four stand out as the primary sub-regions.
Colli Orientali del Friuli
A sub-region known for the hills, or colli, the micro-climate here finds the sweet spot of the warm breezes and cool nights between the Alps to the north and sea to the south. Producing exceptionally high quality whites with crisp aromas of tart apple and white blossom, they are pleasantly flavorful on the palate. The local varietal, friulano, defines much of this sub-region and has compelling characteristics of Meyer lemon, apricot, and thyme with a crisp finish. The aromatic malvasia is also grown here, expressing a big personality of flowery perfume with a dry yet richer textured palate.
Further south and square with the Slovenian border, Collio's vineyards are steeper and wind whipped, creating the perfect conditions to grow sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, and pinot grigio with racy acidity and fully-developed flavors. This small percentage of production is well suited to extended aging that brings a complexity of hazelnut and vanilla to the fresh fruit notes of apricot and orchard apple. The native varietal, tocai friulano, is also grown here, along with the local blend, collio bianco, which often combines both native and international varietals to produce a fragrant white with balanced fruit, floral, and mineral notes.
Grave del Friuli
The largest of the main sub-regions, Grave del Friuli produces much of the wine in the broader region. With expansive vineyards set on the valley floors, the conditions are typically warmer during the day than elsewhere. The proximity to the Adriatic helps to regulate temps, bringing a cool sea breeze into the valley, which helps the grapes retain good acidity. Grave del Friuli produces bright pinot grigio with tart gooseberry and lemon along with lots of lazy, golden, bubbly Prosecco. These wines aren't intended for aging; they are less complex, easy drinking, refreshing whites that hit the market ready to drink.
Far to the northeastern side of Friuli lies Carso. The small and rugged sub-region produces whites, skin-contacts, and reds, but is most famous for its orange wines. A handful of the native white varieties that are brilliantly aromatic are very well suited to be made into orange wines. These include ribolla gialla, malvasia, and vitovska. The extended skin-contact creates a textural palate with notes of dried citrus peel, steeped tea leaves, and a nuttiness from the oxidation. The high acidity and mineral-driven notes round out these wines and make them something really special. Red wines from here sometimes come from the not-so-common terrano grape. With notes of bright cherry and forest floor, it has an affinity to pinot noir and is an absolute delight to drink. If you can find it, that is.
A Hidden Gem
Friuli-Venezia Giulia is Italy's off-the-beaten-path wine gem that won't disappoint. With zippy expressions of classic international whites, juicy reds, and complex orange wines, the small northerly region is a delightful discovery whether you travel to the vineyards in person or search out it's brilliant wines at home.