Discovering Colli Orientali: one of Friuli Venezia Giulia’s key wine terroirs

Friuli Venezia Giulia is always one of the most challenging regions to write about – so immensely heterogeneous that even wine experts struggle to track down all it has to offer. 

One of the two key appellations for quality production in the region, the Friuli Colli Orientali DOC brings this fragmentation to the extreme: the melting pot of Venetian, Austrian-Hungarian and Eastern European influences matches a crucible of different climatic influences, shaping one of the most intricate – and intriguing – wine scenes in Italy. 

Perhaps the Colli Orientali were a bit overshadowed by the neighboring Collio Goriziano in the early stages of the Italian wine renaissance. Between the 1980s and 1990s, Collio rose to fame thanks to pioneering “super whites’ and ground-breaking orange wines by visionary producers who spearheaded a broader revolution at an regional level. 

However, producers from this area have made up for the lesser capability of breaking boundaries and setting trends by producing rock-solid wines that are a little less stylized but equally – if not more – characterful. 

While the presence of so many different grapes can be a bit confusing, the truth is that, varietal differences aside, most wineries have managed to find a common denominator, which lies in a combination of richness, aromatic intensity, and mineral-driven energy that always makes the wines of Colli Orientali easily recognizable. 

As always the case in Friuli, white wines dominate the scene yet this area is also the source of the region’s finest reds and ramati. Such wines aren’t just treats for adventurous drinkers – the best versions are truly world-class, and the only reason why they don’t grab much attention is that total volumes have been too low until recently. 

Blocks of Ponka among the vineyards at Zorzettig

A land of remarkable contrasts 

The Judrio River once demarcated the border between Collio Goriziano, under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Collio Udinese, belonging to the Serenissima Republic of Venice. 

The Colli Orientali DOC corresponds to the latter area – a sequence of hills that form a wedge around the city of Udine, interrupting the Veneto-Friulana plain and marking the border between Italy and Slovenia. 

On the northeastern end, Slovenia’s highest mountain, Mount Triglav, towers over the Julian Alps, while to the south the Adriatic Sea glimpses on the horizon in clear days. 

The dual influence of maritime and alpine air currents shapes a climate that is warm enough for Mediterranean plants such as olive trees and pines to thrive on the bottom of the valleys but also especially wet. Average annual rainfalls range between 1200 and 1800 mm, peaking above 2200 mm in the Ramandolo subzone in the north, which is one of the rainiest wine-growing areas in Italy. 

Weren’t showers so abundant, the soils would probably make it impossible to tend vineyards. “As in many other parts of Friuli, geology plays a crucial role in Colli Orientali – explains Matteo Bellomo, the brand ambassador of the Consorzio Colli Orientali – the whole area used to be covered by the Adriatic sea, which lapped the foothills of the Alps about 2 million years ago.” The evaporation of the waters caused the disintegration of an ancient coral reef, leading to the formation of yellow to gray-ish mixes of compacted sands and calcareous marls called Ponka. Rich in minerals, poor in organic matter and extremely porous, these soils drain the water from the top and force the vines to dig deep in the soil with their roots, naturally limiting yields.

“ The ponka is an extremely fallow soil with low fertility: it ensures great concentration – Bellomo added  – on the other hand, the presence of limestone favors the retention of invigorating acidity”.

The conformation of the valleys is the other factory behind the ampelographic heterogeneity of Colli Orientali.  “ Our best vineyard, Prà di Corte, lies close to a gully that channels cold air from the Alps –  explains Filippo Butussi, co-owner of the Butussi winery – these currents causes extreme diurnal swings, with nighttime temperatures often being 7 or 8 degrees lower than in other parcels we own only a couple kilometers away. Even if you planted the same grape in both areas, it would behave in a very different way”. 

Rationalizing production seems almost impossible yet many producers agree on the necessity to also work on vineyard designations instead of solely relying on varietal expression.  “The Friulian term pecal refers to circumscribed plots of land with specific features, not unlike the word climat in Burgundy,” adds Butussi, “to keep up with the rest of the wine world we should focus on this concept, associating grape varieties with single vineyards.”

Native whites 

The good news is that despite the extreme ampelographic heterogeneity, the whites from Colli Orientali manage to be stylistically consistent. “ In this area, the Austro-Hungarian style has always prevailed over the Slovenian one, which relies heavily on macerations, and the more international approach behind the super whites from Collio – remarks Mario Zanusso, the owner of I Clivi – precision and crispness have always been our focus”.

The common factor is what producers call the “taste of ponka”: a tactile, saline sensation that balances the almost viscous structure ensured by low yields.  Although it is scientifically impossible to prove that this feature derives from the high content of minerals in the soil, “mineral-driven” remains the most suitable adjective to describe this peculiar tactile perception.

Friulano seems especially capable of capturing this terroir-driven imprinting : also known as Sauvignonasse or Sauvignon Vert – but very different from Sauvignon Blanc – this semi-aromatic variety gives delicate and fragrant wines – never too austere but usually endowed with captivating saline energy. ” Friulano is by no means the easiest grape variety to handle –  states Bellotto – It tends to have low acidity and accumulates sugars quickly. However, when planted in areas where ventilation favors diurnal swings and limestone-rich soils, it maintains good balance between structure and freshness.” Its subtly aromatic personality means it is perfect to be enjoyed at an early stage but the more ambitious versions are also suitable for cellaring. ” Alcohol and salinity make up for the moderate acidity in the long term, slowing the oxidation process”. 

Ribolla Gialla is among the most widely grown varieties but if you are looking for ambitious expressions, you will find them in Collio rather than Colli Orientali, where it is almost always an entry-level wine: light, neutral, higher-acid than Friulano but also less complex. 

Rare native grapes that are exclusively found within this area such as Verduzzo and Picolit also deserve greater attention. In the past they were used to make sweet wine: the former because of a genetic anomaly that causes floral abortion, favoring the concentration of sugars in the grapes; the latter because of its high content of tannins and phenolics, meaning that the wines often taste gritty and unbalanced if the grapes aren’t picked very late.

However, when blended with Friulano, Ribolla or Malvasia, Picolit imparts a bit of floral, spicy and honeyed flamboyance, making for extremely  characterful dry wines. Verduzzo, instead, smells spicy and not-so-sweet even when it is vinified as a Passito, and the single-variety dry versions blend similar aromatics with the tactile depth of a red wine. 

The vineyards of Specogna in Corno di Rosazzo

Pinot Grigio

Pinot Grigio is the only naturally pink grape in the world. In the past growers in Northeastern Italy would ferment it on the skins to make copper-colored wines – almost a missing link between orange and rosè. Even though success of white versions has caused this tradition to disappear, a few producers from Colli Orientali have always tried to keep it alive. The success of skin-contact whites has eventually fostered a revival of Ramato, whose name derives from rame (the Italian word for copper), and by now there are at least fifty small producers who include it in their portfolios. 

The best versions highlight the affinities between Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir, displaying aromas of strawberry, balsam herbs and spice that may remind you of entry-level versions of the Burgundian variety. What they also stand out for is great versatility with food: the textural richness, enhanced by light tannins and Ponka salinity, allows them to match anything from charcuterie and lightly aged cheese to tuna, swordfish, and poultry.

Sauvignon Blanc

While Sauvignon has been present in Friuli Venezia Giulia since the 19th century, it was only in the late 1990s that it started gaining prominence. In times in which New World examples began eroding the dominant position of the Loire valley, many producers from Friuli pursued a bombastically tropical and grassy style, encouraged by a few influential Italian critics who favored these New world-ish wines over traditional ones from native varieties. 

Frankly, Sauvignon from Friuli never enjoyed the same success beyond the national boundaries, as it struggled to cope up with top-notch versions from other countries, being neither as bright and refreshing as Sauvignon from New Zealand nor as refined as Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé. 

A number of factors – including a scandal concerning the use of unauthorized yeasts by some producers – caused the fashion to fade quickly, especially in the Colli Orientali area. But every cloud has a silver lining: the real quality upsurge of Sauvignon from Friuli took place just as the wines started to experience this popularity crisis. ” In recent times we have witnessed a major stylistic shift – Bellomo pointed out – producers have partially given up the R3 clone, which gives the greenest examples, and replaced it with French biotypes. They also started picking later to partially get rid of excess pyrazines”. 

New wave Sauvignons are radically different from those of the past: fruity and exotic rather than herbal, with an extra kick of Ponka-derived salinity balancing the rich structure. Meanwhile, the exuberant versions of the past have evolved well: terrific aged examples such as Specogna’s 2005 or Butussi’s 2000 show that the potential was already there to make top-notch wine. 

The fogolar (fireplace) is a key feature in traditional houses in Friuli

The reds 

Sun-kissed slopes and warm fluvial basins in the Colli Orientali area have always allowed to grow red grapes a bit more easily than in other parts of Friuli Venezia Giulia – in fact they account for about 30% of the surface under vine, as opposed to 11% at a regional level.

The average quality, however, has long been fairly underwhelming: “ The word tajut, which means sip of wine in Friulian dialect, referred to the habit of tagliare (blending) local reds with smoothing dollops of bulk wine from Southern Italy.  Doing so was necessary to tame gritty tannins and herbaceous notes deriving from underripe grapes’ ‘ Bellotto remarks.  

While climate change has somewhat lessened the difficulty of reaching full ripeness, herbal flavors and drying tannins are still recurrent in the reds of Colli Orientali – especially among those made with Bordeaux varieties or Refosco dal Penducolo Rosso. Rustic wines that pair well with hearty local fare but lack refinement still represent a noteworthy share of the production, and you will also find a few versions at the opposite end of the spectrum –  focusing on syrupy aromas arising from grapes that were picked (too) late to get rid of the green-ish grit.   

So the real excitement lies in quickly little gems from forsaken grape varieties that are going through a revival such as Schioppettino, Pignolo, Refosco di Faedis, and Tazzelenghe. The latter two surprised me the most on this recent visit: also known as Refosco Nostrano, Refosco di Faedis is generally richer and broader than Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso but also characterized by subtle herbal and savory nuances that allow it to achieve surprising balance.

 Tazzelenghe, instead, is the natural antidote to global warming, the “cut-to-tongue” acidity making for super-crisp wines graced with lovely aromatic finesse. Too bad it only covers 6.19 hectares in the entire region! 

Schioppettino could have risen to fame early on as the Rapuzzi family (Ronchi di Cialla) had already started world-class from this variety in the 1970s. But they have been alone on this mission for about thirty years: “ it wasn’t until the early 2000s that a greater number of single-variety Schioppettino started hitting the market” Ivan Rapuzzi explained.

Schioppettino yields elegant, mid-weight wines with attractive spicy aromas deriving from the high content of rotundone (the molecule you also find in Syrah), and mouthwatering acidity. While never too austere in its youth, they also age gracefully, as shown by a terrific 1992 Schioppettino di Cialla I tasted on this occasion. 

Last but not least, Pignolo has become the crown jewel of many estates – the grape itself may not be the easiest to manage due to the high tannin content but its aromatic profile is often elegant and multifaceted enough to spark enthusiasm. Honestly, however, I don’t think that there is a lot of room on the market for Pignolo in times when full-bodied reds are slowly falling out of fashion – it is likely to remain a niche grape, yielding low volumes of top-shelf wine for connoisseurs!

Check out the report with the best wines from Colli Orientali