Lauren Friel on July 12, 2017 2 Comments The rustic scenery and winding roads of Friuli-Venezia Giulia are often overshadowed by Tuscany’s rolling hills and the Piedmont’s regal history, but this small region in northeastern Italy deserves a closer look. Friuli borders with Slovenia and Austria, and was occupied by the Austro-Hungarian empire until the 19th century; before that, it was tossed around between the Slavs, Lombards, and Venetians, with the port city of Trieste often at the heart of the battle for ownership. As a result, the culture in the Friuli wine region is a fascinating mashup of Slavic, Austrian, and Italian; everything from the food, to the language – and yes, even the wine – is unique, making it a fantastic destination for exploring the rare and unexpected. With four distinctly different DOCG regions – Friuli Grave, Colli Orientali di Friuli, Collio, and Carso – all within a reasonable distance of one another, there’s so much to experience. Below, three wonderful reasons this overlooked wine region might be worth a visit — and is definitely worth a taste. The Incredible White Wines For white wine lovers, Friuli is heaven. Home to some of Italy’s rarest white grapes, the region is known for producing serious wines whose depth and complexity hold their own — even next to powerful red stalwarts like Nebbiolo and Sangiovese. Friulano Formerly known as Tocai Friulano, this aromatic relative of Sauvignon Blanc is no longer allowed to be labeled as such: in 2007, the European Court of Justice ruled in favor of the Hungarians, who argued that Tocai Friulano was too easily confused with their famously sticky-sweet Tokaji. As a result, winemakers from Alsace to Australia had to rethink their wines’ identities, and while winemakers in Friuli have been reluctant to follow the rules, “Friulano” is the widely used replacement moniker. Though not quite as aromatic as Sauvignon Blanc and slightly weightier, the grape produces lovely mineral-driven whites with delicate orchard fruit and citrus notes, often with a delicate, herbal edge. It’s an excellent mate with tricky pairings, like asparagus and artichoke. Look for the wines of Marco Sara and I Clivi for traditional expressions of this lovely grape. Ribolla Gialla This high-acid white grape is tricky to grow, giving it a sort of cultish fame in the region, especially in the production of sought-after orange wines (more on that later). Believed to be a descendant of the rare Greek grape Robola of Cephalonia, it has an ancient genetic lineage that gives it incredible depth and complexity, often with high-toned floral notes and a savory finish reminiscent of almond flesh. The grape’s fame among the wine geek set has even led to plantings in Napa, where serious producers like Mathiasson and Arnot-Roberts coax tropical density from the vines. Pinot Grigio This isn’t that overproduced, bulk stuff you pick up on a Saturday in August for your neighbor’s pool party. Pinot Grigio from Friuli is real Pinot Grigio, often made from older vines that are harvested in diligently low yields in order to produce rich, dense wines with a creamy expression that even Chardonnay would envy. The most traditional producers rely on a rare Ramato style to showcase the grape’s distinct personality – the skin-contacted production method brings out Pinot Grigio’s naturally pinkish hue, producing a copper-colored wine with a rich, oxidative expression. Vitovksa Another favorite for the orange wine-making set, Vitovksa’s home is in Carso, where its expression (when not made orange) is most often compared to Albariño — briny and citrus-driven, with a strong mineral backbone and a pleasant snap. It’s a hearty, rugged vine not widely planted but beloved for its age-worthy balance. Verduzzo Friulano Most often harvested late and made into a deliciously spicy sweet wine, Verduzzo’s expression is one of salt and pears when vinified dry. Most often grown in the Collio and Colli Orientali di Friuli zones, the sweet wines are more highly regarded, though dry versions are gaining some ground. The Orange Wines Before orange wine became the trendiest weird wine in the weird wine circuit, there was Friuli – more accurately, perhaps, there were revered producers Josko Gravner and Stanko Radikon, whose affinity for long macerations and clay amphorae helped rejuvenate the region’s reputation as a go-to for wines unlike any other. In the 1990s, Friuli’s identity was at a crossroads; having benefited from a reputation for fine white wine in the 70s and 80s, production levels increased, leading to a corollary decline in quality and a focus away from native grapes toward easily marketed international varieties like Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Josko Gravner and Stanko Radikon were concerned for for the future of the region, and for Fruili wine all around. They saw a need to set themselves apart. Taking cues from the region’s shared winemaking history with Slovenia and the traditional production methods still practiced just over the border there, Gravner and Radikon (along with producers like Movia and Kante) set out on a mission to go back to the roots of Friul wine, focusing on native grapes and historic winemaking methods. Low yields, long macerations (sometimes months, sometimes years), maturation in clay amphorae and oak barrels, and an avoidance of all additives resulted in wines that the modern wine market had rarely seen. This was the resurgence of true Friuli wine. As a result, Gravner and Radikon’s rustic orange wines became beacons for a new definition of quality in the region, capturing the attention of sommeliers and Michelin restaurant-goers the world over. Though orange wines are slightly more mainstream today, Gravner and Radikon’s wines remain standard-bearers, and while it’s true that their price tags reflect their status, these wines are an experience no wine-lover should miss. The ‘Osmize’ (aka ‘Frasca’) While you wind your way between the hilly growing regions — from the coast to the mountains — keep an eye out for red wooden arrows near Trieste – signs pointing you to the local vineyards offering “osmize,” or a sort of pop-up open-air café. The tradition of osmize is uniquely Friuli and dates back to the rule of the Habsburgs, when Maria Theresa threw the locals a bone, so to speak, assuaging their high taxes by allowing the sale of local foods tax-free for a period of eight days (or any multiple of eight days). The stipulation was that a red sign had to be hung to demark the participating establishments. Today, small wineries use osmize as an occasion to offer fresh cheeses, charcuterie, and wine to locals and passersby alike. Take a drive and follow the signs to for snacks and conversation, or check this local calendar of participating wineries.