This is a not at all comprehensive tour through some of my favorite wine areas: Trentino, Alto Adige and Friuli Giulla Venezia. I am going to highlight areas based on specific wines that I love and the wineries that make them.
These three regions are probably more influenced by their neighborhoods to the north and east as by the rest of Italy. The food is very different and the languages are different. Alto Adige and Trentino together are called the Sud Tyrol and have a semi autonomous status legally in Italy. German is just as common as Italian in many areas. This is mountainous country so the food is rich in game and mushrooms, and lots of lard is used. Friuli Giulia Venezia has some of the same influences and foods, but adds flavors from the former Yugoslavian republics on its borders. Friuli also had a lot of Venetian influence in the past so its food uses more of the spices traded by Venezia. Friuli also has access to the Adriatic so it has a lot of seafood in its cooking. Fred Plotkin recently wrote a book on Friuli and its cooking. In both of these areas the names of many of the wineries do not sound Italian.
Aside from the cultural factors, there is also a different philosophy about wine making. In most Italian wine making zones, the DOC is given to a specific place name and there is a range of grapes that can be used to make the wine. The DOC is both a geographic guarantee and a recipe for the winemaking. For example in Chianti, the allowable grapes include the Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Malavsia, Trebbiano, Colorino. For Chianti Classico, the base wine must be at least 70% Sangiovese and no more than 90%, yet 10% can be any grape of the winemaker’s choice. Thus a wine COULD be 100% Sangiovese (although then it would most likely be called a Vino di Tavola “Super Tuscan” as those wines sell for more than Chianti), or it could be as little as 70% Sangiovese and have as much as 10% white grapes and could have Merlot or cabernet or syrah added. In fact it could have pinot noir! So seeing Chianti on the label does not specify the grape. In Friuli and the Sud Tyrol, the grape reigns supreme. Having said that, some of the best wines in these regions are actually blends. Jermann and Walter Filiputti both have blended wines that are amongst the most costly and sought after wines of the region: Vintage Tunina and Poesis respectively.
The other major difference in these areas lies in the scale of production. Most estates are small to tiny. It is not unusual for a winery to be 3000 or 5000 cases. Just to put that in perspective, Robert Mondavi may make 100,000 cases or more of Napa Valley Cabernet, 15,000 of his reserve and 10,000,000 cases of wine in total per year. Beringer makes 250,000 cases of its cabernet. The small scale of these areas leads to another difference, the quality of some of their cooperatives. The small growers may opt for selling their grapes to a coop and leaving the technical winemaking and marketing headaches to others. Some of these coops are simply superb. Some are truly awful. Many are just huge wine factories that churn the stuff out like so many gallons of gasoline (Santa Margherita and Cavit come to mind). So one of the main challenges comes in finding your favorite winery. One of my favorites is Doro Princic. This family owned winery makes only 3,000 cases in a good year and less in a poor one. Maybe 400 to 500 make it to the US. The result is a multitude of producers. Few regions are better suited to experimentation than these three.
In both the Sud Tyrol and Friuli, the most famous grape is the Pinot Grigio. This may or may not be the same grape as the Pinot Gris of Alsace. It is related to the Tocai Friulano. It has a tendency to produce large crops and tends towards insipidity. It never was traditionally the most famous or most widely planted grape in the area. But in the 1970’s, Santa Margherita introduced the wine to the US market and made their pinot grigio the number one selling Italian wine asked for by name in the US. In fact its success in the US drove the Italian wine drinking market and made pinot grigio the leader there as well. How unfortunate! The native grapes that used to dominate the area are now the lesser known grapes and a wonderful tradition has been cast aside in favor of mediocrity much as the corner burger shop has been replaced by those purveyors of bad taste, Mickey D’s, BK and all those other pushers of sameness. Pinot Grigio can on occasion arise to the heights of greatness, yet most often is just a vinous, innocuous, mostly forgettable experience. So many restaurants actually admit as much when the waiters say we have XYZ Vineyards chardonnay and a pinot grigio by the glass. I can tell some of you will be disappointed that I am not telling you how I really feel. I must admit that I enjoy so much doing my little bit to get people to drink the unusual and the traditional. But I am a lone salmon swimming upstream against the evil torrents of blandness, sameness and brand name.
Tocai Friulano – This is my favorite grape widely grown in Friuli. It is akin to the tokay-pinot gris of Alsace and has nothing to do with the tokay of Hungary (which yields one of the great sweet wines made anywhere). Tocai has the character and terroir that pinot grigio often lacks. There is a legal dispute going on in the EU over the use of Tocai Friulano and Tokay and at last I heard the Friulani were losing. One move was to rename the grape Furlan, which is also the name of the Friulian dialect. Tocai Friulano are rich and oily, yet dry and crisp. They stand up to surprisingly stout foods such as tomato sauces, salumi, stew made with game, roast birds of any kind.
The high quality and uniqueness of the Tocai is attested to by the following. My favorite seafood restaurant in Roma, La Rosetta, is owned by Sicilians. I became a valued customer the first time I visited because I was familiar with Sicilian cooking from my time in the Italian restaurant business in Los Angeles where the chef owner of the restaurant I worked for had a deep love of Sicilian foods. However, when it came time to pick a wine, I went for a Friulian white. I almost apologized to the waiter saying that as nice as Sicilian white are (a little white lie) I preferred the whites from Friuli. He leaned over and whispered into my ear, “That’s okay, I do too”. Next, Massimo the owner came over and told me his favorite whites were Tocai as well. In fact he had more Tocai on his list than Sicilian whites of all kinds!
Tocai is almost too flavorful. Many a winery is now making a blended wine with the Tocai as its base. Filiputti’s Poesis is a wine in this category- tocai, ribolla gialla, chardonnay, sauvignon and pinot bianco all go into it.
Ribolla Gialla – A native grape to the Friuli area (or at least ancient heritage). It is another spicy grape, more aromatic and bright than the tocai. It is also a very good food wine. This is a wine that has a fresh citrus fruit component yet is also earthy. I wish that RG was more widely available in the US and that more people knew about it.
Gewrztraminer or Traminer – Tramin is a town in Germany. Gewrz is German for spicy. Thus the name of this grape is spicy one from Tramin. I absolutely love gewrztraminer, especially when made dry like that are typically in Alsace, and Trentino Alto Adige. These are wines of great intensity and richness, so much so that you may think they are off dry or slightly sweet, but they are usually quite dry to a slight bit off dry. This means that have wonderful flavors to stand up to flavorful foods and the acidity to refresh your palate. When my wife and I dine in NYC at our favorite restaurant there, Esca, we almost always have one of the three or 4 gewrztraminers they offer on their list. The wait staff all rush over when we do so because these are their favorite wines and yet almost no one orders them. Again, I am a salmon…
Riesling Renano – Another Sud Tyrol specialty. This is again a dry wine that is not my favorite but that’s just my opinion. Riesling is a grape that I prefer sweet so I love German Riesling but not Alsatian or Italian versions.
Malavasia – I am only familiar with Malavasia from Friuli but there may be some grown in the Sud Tyrol. This is another aromatic wine with a rich broad mouthfeel. I love them but they are very hard to come by even over there. If you do see one try it!
You may note that I have not mentioned red grapes so far. That’s because I don’t really drink reds from Friuli or Trentino Alto Adige. The predominant grape in Friuli is merlot and it is very often made in a lighter, high acid low oak style. I have really never seen many reds from Trentino and alto Adige but I know that they are popular. One red I do like from the northeast is Teroldigo, And there are many Veneto reds I like such as Vennegazzu by L. Gasparin. This latter wine is from the area north of Treviso and is cabernet based. Look for the simply incredible Capo di State “black label” instead of the fine “white label” regular. Maculan also makes cabernet based reds in Breganze, but I am not a big fan. Teroldigo is a high acid big fruit low tannin red, but I am not exactly sure of where it comes from. I do like Teroldigo when I find it on a wine list, although I have never bought a bottle to bring home.
For the producers, the star rating is purely arbitrary and not statistically reliable. It is a measure of how much my mouth watered when thinking about the wines from them that I have enjoyed. Its on a scale of 1 to 3 stars so you can tell how I really feel about Ca’ Terlano! I would love to visit both of these regions and do some serious tasting but the problem with that is the heavy use of lard in the food and my dietary restrictions. I would only do a trip there if I had an apartment and could cook for myself.
Producers – Trentino Alto Adige
I will treat the Sud Tyrol as a single unit. To distinguish the two would require me to actually consult a reference book and that would be too much like work! Besides, the winery differences far outweigh the geographic ones (leave it to me to have a philosophical reason behind my laziness!).
***Ca’ Terlano – My favorite winery in the area. They make simple blends, vineyard designated wines and then their top of the line bottling. These latter are amongst the greatest white wines I have ever tasted. They go by proprietary names such as ****!!!Quarz (sauvignon) and ****!!!!Lunare (gewrztraminer). I have only seen these wines in Venezia (at Fiaschetteria Toscana and the wine shop next door to Achiugette) and in California (imported by Diamond Wine Merchant).
***Institute di San Michele – Superb gewrztraminer. Again, there are blends and then there are vineyard designates. Very delicate of body but very intense flavors. Simply superb wines. I was introduced to them at La Rosetta in Roma and I have seen them in NYC at Esca. Amazing producer.
***Hoffstadter – I have had these wines at Esca in NYC so I know they make it over here. The importer is either Vias or Vinifera so they are nationally distributed. They will make several designations of a particular grape. A little fuller in body and less aromatic than the San Michele.
***Maso Furli – I have only had this wine (their traminer) at Fisachetteria Toscana. in Venezia and it is one of the most stunning whites I have ever tastes. I have seen the blend wine on a list from an enoteca in Firenze but I have not seen their reserve wines.
**Pojer e Sandre – Very nice whites in a more rustic style. They make some lesser know grapes like Muller Thurgau.
*Kris by Franz Haas – Widely available and very good bargain. Cost plus usually has them as does Whole Foods so they are available in a lot of markets.
*Lageder – Probably the most famous winemaker in the area, and a very good one. Very precise wines, very clean if a little bit soulless. I would not hesitate to buy anything by Lageder if there were no other Sud Tyrol wines to try, but I almost always would try something else to further my education. The house style predominates in my opinion.
Producers – Friuli
***Ronco Del Gnemiz – Incredibly rich and spicy wines. I love their Tocai and their chardonnay. I have not tasted their wines since 1997 vintage and have not seen them in DC since I moved out here.
**Doro Princic – Tiny little producer who is right on the border. You actually leave Italy when you drive through some of his vineyards. Lovely wines with a little more delicacy than the Gnemiz.
**Jermann – The first heavy hitter winery from Friuli to make it big in the US. They go back in history to when the area was a part of Yugoslavia. Wonderful rich wine, very pricey, very good.
***Pra di Pradis – From the owners of Castelcosa (see below). This is their reserve wine. Big rich wines of substance. Very racy wines. I love them, hard to find.
**Castelcosa – Very easy to find. This is a blended wine, the blend being across the zones of production. They are very recognizable by their bright mustard or goldenrod label which at first appears to be put on the bottle crooked. It’s a great marketing ploy as their wines are instantly recognized.
***Walter Filliputti – The first famous winemaker from the area. He has consulted with many of the top wineries at one time or another. His eponymous winery is now making great wines. Try Poesis!
***Abbazia di Rosazzo – Not sure if they are still in business, their label got hung up in legal battles. Wines were originally made by Filliputti.
**Piuatti – Very nice producer of wines with distinct flavors. Not my absolute favorite but I would have no problem drinking their wines if one of my more favorite wines was not available.
**Zamo e Zamo (aka Vigne di Zamo) – Very nice. Another Filliputi influenced property. They make some old vines bottlings. Really good property.
*Livio and Marco Felluga – 2 wineries owned by different branches of the same family. Not my favorite, very commonly available.
**Vie di Romans – I have only had their wines once or twice and I was very impressed. If you are at Esca in NYC, the wines are available there and are worth a try.
**Borgo Tiglio – Very small producer of high quality. Very hard to find. They make “regular” and cru vineyard designated wines. The designated wines are a major step up.
***G. Dorigo – Haven’t seen them recently but these are huge bodied and full flavored wines that justify their high price. One of the great producers.