They found it in Friuli, Italy
Bound to the north by Austria, to the east by Slovenia, winemakers in the northeast Italian region of Friuli have been producing beguiling orange wines for generations, and finally the world is waking up and paying attention.
“Everything you see, all the way to the edge of this valley, further too, was destroyed.” It’s a kaleidoscope of vineyards, forest, orchards, farmhouses and grazing land that covers the rolling hills. Roads twist and turn jaggedly through Friuli, running through farms and thatches of trees before opening into small, neat villages. But for what is preserved, there is the opposite; this is land that was decimated in conflict. “After the War, in Oslavje, there was one wall left standing, nothing else, no vineyards, no houses, no trees in some places, and many, many men died in these fields,” says winemaker Saša Radikon of Radikon wines as he raises his arm towards the horizon.
An introduction to a Friuli winemaker’s land is often punctuated by a reminiscence of the Great War – many men who toiled the land and knew the art of winemaking perished. The region lost a wealth of know-how in the process, but the grandfathers of today rebuilt, re-planted and re-grew Friuli. Until the 1980s, and in many cases 1990s, wines were mostly produced and sold off in bulk or bottled in demi-john to be sold locally, but the region has been known for generations for its conventional premium wines.
Now Friuli’s modern history speaks of natural wine production and cultivation, the celebrated use of amphorae as fermentation vessels and the vaunted ‘orange wines’ endemic to the region. The ‘orange wines’ are Friulian white wines that see extended skin contact with grape juice through the period of fermentation. The resulting wines turn shades of amber in colour and present an idiosyncratic array of aromas, offer a spectrum of tannins and phenolic grip as part of their textural feel. Similar wines are also seen from parts of Eastern European countries Georgia and Croatia, alongside other Italian wine regions, with examples also found in France, Australia, the United States and New Zealand.
While many producers seem to be innovating with this style of wine, the history dates back generations. This isn’t a trend, but a reintroduction of traditional winemaking techniques that have simpatico with the local white grape varieties, particularly ribolla gialla, malvasia, tokaj friulano, vitovska and of course, pinot grigio. In a strange kind of postmodernist twist, many winemakers in the region saw a potential with these grapes to not only re-establish a connection with the past, but to help cement the identity of Friuli once again into the forefront of drinkers’ minds. It wasn’t that long ago when the more hallowed names of Radikon, Gravner and Vodopivec were mostly well-kept secrets in Italy – their regional counterparts known for good, honest wines from a premium growing area, but without a wide-reaching international mark beyond conventional pinot grigio. Today their interpretation of Friuli is becoming a lingua franca for the region.
When the whites turn orange
It was the year 1994 when Stanko Radikon decided to use what many in Friuli commonly call “the full potential of the grapes” when making white wine. “Why do we throw away these skins which spend so much time with the flesh and juice of a grape when on the vine?” questions Saša, Stanko’s son and heir-apparent winemaker. “My father decided that he would begin some experiments with the old winemaking techniques of the region and extended the time of maceration of skins with the white wines. His father had told him about these methods and he knew that he could preserve the wine longer, while extracting more of the flavours and colour of the grape and the texture, which the skin included,” he says. The resulting wines deepened in colour, but needed longer time in oak and bottle to truly come together.
Stanko didn’t go by half measures either; his winery experimentation initially saw weeks of skin contact, but this increased to six months and beyond for some of his smaller batches of wine. “The ripeness of the grape is the most important thing for us,” says Saša over lunch in the family kitchen. “Terroir comes out in these wines, the wines are individual from every place here, but we see an emotion here too, we (people) react in a different way to these wines.”
Others are also offering an opinion. “The orange colour in wine is mistaken by many as being caused by oxidation,” says winemaker Joško Gravner of Gravner wines. “And so I call these wines amber wines, the colour is warm and generous, of course there is no oxidation.” Colour change in the white wines of Friuli is caused by skin pigment. White grape skins are left in contact with juice for longer periods of time than conventional winemaking deems normal. The result is not only a leeching of pigment of grapes, but a delivery of notable tannins and phenolics into the wines.
Another mistake is also then lumping these extended maceration wines, so-called ‘orange’ wines, clumsily in with wines deemed ‘natural wines’. While many producers in the region will cite ‘natural winegrowing’ as their wine ethos, few are shy of using sulfur to shape the wine before bottling, thereby crossing an assumed tenet of ‘natural wine’.
Likewise, great hype has been made about the use of amphorae to ferment wines on their skins. The story is of course not about the vessel but much more about the skin contact, the vineyards and the grape growing, with most producers of note farming biodynamically or without any form of chemicals in their vineyards. Maceration is the lynchpin. After extended maceration, which can range from a few weeks through to several months and in some cases longer, the wines are left in barrel for prolonged periods, often several years. After time in wood, wines are left to mature in bottle for long spells too.
Orange wines present with incredible aromatic spectrums, at once idiosyncratic but also vibrant, pure and engaging. Texture is often key – they can be dry, showing various characters of stones and minerals, display structure from fine to powerful tannins, and demonstrate an ability to not only age further, but to develop positively over days in an open bottle. And while it would be ill-advised to pigeon-hole these wines into a generic category like ‘orange wines’, as say sherry, where terroir can be overlooked for style, there are characters that find a common thread through the tapestry of Friuli’s skin macerated white wines.
The village of Oslavje
I was fortunate enough to visit this beautiful region in July of this year. As you approach Oslavje from the central Friuli town of Gorizia, the road narrows and begins a small but winding climb into the foothills. Finding Radikon winery and cellar is no easy task; it’s tucked away off the bend of the road at the end of a short siding. Various Radikon family members are darting in and out of the house and winery on arrival; Stanko bears an unusual likeness to Walt White from cult television series Breaking Bad – spectacled, hair shorn close to his skull, with a sinewy physique, large hands and a big smile. He’s off doing things around the winery as Saša offers a wander through their vineyards. “Ribolla gialla grows best at the top of the hills, it’s just the way it works,” he says grabbing a grey, dusty handful of rocks and dirt from between vine rows. “You can see that this soil is very rocky with many different shapes of rock, but it’s a loose clay kind of feel on the surface, and below it is compacted and very strong.” The soils look hungry, mean and rugged.
The winery itself is located underground, a feat that took several years of hard hand labour from the Radikon clan; the result is a high-ceiling cellar with natural rock framing the space. “It’s very strong and cool in here – we use no temperature control in this space, nothing is added to the wine, in here they are made carefully,” he says. The winery is orderly with very large wooden Slovenian oak vats the primary vessel found here. It’s immaculate, though rustic, minimalist and functional.
A tasting of the Radikon current releases is undertaken in the family kitchen. Wines are poured from the emblematic 500ml bottles that house the core of the Radikon range – Ribolla, Oslavje (blend of pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay) and Jakot. While ribolla gialla is comfortably an indigenous variety of the region, tocai (tokaj) friulano has been questioned by Hungary’s wine authorities due to its similarity to the Hungarian grape tokaj. The word tokaj was banned on labels outside of Hungary, but Stanko was unperturbed, reversed the name to Jakot, and then set about allowing all his friends in Friuli do the same to designate that the wine was made from the tocai friulano grapes. “It was no problem sharing, it’s better if we are united in this way,” Stanko says with casual magnanimity. The three white wines are aged for 40 months in large Slovenian oak casks after extended skin contact.
Around the corner from the Radikon enclave is family friend and wine producer Dario Princic and his family. A wiry, tall man wanders out from the house and shakes my hand. This is Dario Princic, decked out in a t-shirt and jeans, fresh from the winery with stained hands, he encourages his daughter Savina to help translate his thoughts on the land. “The most important thing is how we make the grapes grow,” he says, brevity captures the essence of his lesson here.
On top of a rise in the foothills, you can see the central Friuli town of Gorizia in one direction, and the rise and fall of Slovenian hills in the other. The land is rich in limestone with clay compacted throughout, and again shows the dustiness that is characteristic of Friulian land. The close-planted vineyard is tended biodynamically; white grapes include chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, ribolla gialla, pinot grigio and tocai friulano, while reds are limited to cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Princic first started extended skin maceration of his white wines in 1999 after conversations with Stanko and his other Oslavje counterpart, Joško Gravner.
“I wanted to try this traditional way of winemaking to keep my wines in health and long life without using chemicals,” he says quietly. “I know this kind of winemaking has its risks, but I also know that this approach produces great results.” Princic is a founding member of Vini Veri, an association of some of Italy’s natural winemaking fraternity.
Princic macerates his white grapes for between eight and 35 days, depending on the variety. The Trebez, a blend of pinot grigio, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, shows amazing complexity, thickness and textural nuance for what could be considered an unusual coupling of varieties.
Back down the road in Oslavje, the luminary of natural winemaking, Joško Gravner, has his spectacular house and cellar; a towering structure seemingly etched from a single piece of stone. A tall, casually elegant man greets us with mellifluous Slovenian translated by his daughter Jana. There’s not a hair out of place in Gravner’s cellars and home; the journey beginning with a descent into the immaculate winery through the minimalist architecture of his home.
“First I want you to realise I am not making natural wine; I use sulfur to finish my wines. It’s a small amount added by intuition, but it must be there, wine is not a natural product of grapes, vinegar is, so we must learn how to make wine by taking care of it,” Gravner states. “The fashion is so-called natural wines, but these are marketing words, to make wine naturally you must change your style of life and all your techniques and follow the classic way of making wine. One of the most important things is to give soul to wine, not to do stupid things in the cellar,” Gravner says emphatically.
The Gravner winery is filled with large, older wooden casks, but passing through an antechamber and stepping outside reveals a gated-cellar with stairs that lead to a lower level. The underground space opens up to a bare room save for an elevated stage and the spectacular site of a series of clay amphorae buried in the ground. There’s an almost monastic feel here – lighting is low but set to highlight elements within the space, it’s quiet, buffered from outside sounds and the air feels crisp. It’s a remarkable sight. “I want a cellar not a theatre,” quips Gravner. “So many wineries have things in them that make them more winemaking theatres rather than a place to simply make wine. So much of winemaking theatre is fad.” It’s an interesting statement from a producer who has changed his winery methodology three times in the past 20 years, completely overhauling modernist practices like stainless-steel tanks in his winery – something Gravner was renowned for being a pioneer of in earlier times in Friuli.
Gravner follows Rudolf Steiner’s principles of growing, which includes using seven-year cycles in the winery. Fruit is harvested by the moon, at late ripening, given six months in amphorae on skins before being pressed and returned to amphorae for the rest of the year, then sent to large format wood for six years – in total it takes seven years before the wines are bottled.
Gravner is charming albeit dogmatic – his vision is steadfast. “White wines are the great wines of the world; you can macerate white wines longer than reds with much more personality to come from the wines.”
A lesson in Friulian red wines
Fulvio Bressan steps out of his jacked-up four-by-four wearing a black t-shirt with ‘Rock and Roll’ emblazoned on it, a quiff almost half a foot high lifting from his crown, a pair of camouflage army pants with black boots peeking out and cigarette in hand. “Do you like wines from Friuli?” he bellows, approaching at pace. “Have you drunk my wines?” pointing a thick finger. An affirmative reply and his hand pats my chest. “This is good, this is very good,” he growls. The men of Friuli all seem to be XL in personality and size. Fulvio is no exception as he bustles in and out of tastings and the vineyard, leaving his svelte, calmly intelligent wife Jelena in charge as he disappears at times. It’s a charismatic visit. Fantastic.
Bressan is a ninth-generation winemaker and producer in his family, continuing his father’s work with the indigenous varieties of schioppettino, pignolo, tocai friulano, malvasia, ribolla gialla and verduzzo friulano. “When we planted schioppettino and pignolo people said we were mad,” roars Bressan, “but our philosophy is to support the original grapes of the area, we believe in our land and how our land represents our culture.”
Bressan’s winemaking is traditional and framed by a refusal to bow to modern technology. Nearly everything is done by hand, fermentation takes place inside concrete tanks with glass spheres inside them, maceration is long, fermentation indigenous, no chemicals are used in the vineyard or winery. “Most wines we taste in the world are boring or ruined by chemicals, it kills what the grapes give us and ruins the personality of the producer,” Bressan states.
Bressan also takes his family history seriously, with crests embedded in much of the imagery of the winery. “I learned a lot from our past,” he starts. “Like our Carat wine, it’s a bend of tocai friulano, malvasia and ribolla gialla – why did our ancestors plant them together? Tocai has low acidity so it is the natural corrector of high acidity ribolla, and to add complexity, malvasia gives glycerol texture and richness to a wine, this is why they are harvested and blended together.”
But great strengths lie in the Bressan reds – the sprawling family estate is positioned within the commune of Farra d’Isonzo of the DOC Collio of Friuli. The site is flat, planted with biodiversity in mind, and set on dark, grey rocky soils. His parents still work the winery and the land – his mother is hand sticking labels on bottles, his father tinkers with a tractor. Here, the schioppettino and pignolo wines taste guttural, intense, concentrated with an unusually crunchy texture. Bressan’s versions both carry spice, tangy acidity and some glycerol, and are wines of depth and vibrant flavour. But it’s the pignolo, or His Excellence The Ancient Friulian Wine, as Bressan calls it, which stands out.
“Production of pignolo is very difficult,” offers Bressan in a quieter, reflective moment. “It needs a lot of ageing, the yields are very, very low, people are leaving it more and more because it is hard work, you need the perfect skin ripeness window with this variety and if you leave it too late, it can literally drop off the vine before you can harvest.” The 1997 Pignolo is still in barrel, it shows ripeness of dark fruits, herbal spice, amazing sweetness without cloy and a curious refreshment in orangey acidity. The 1999 and 2000 have been bottled and released, the 1999 a savoury, sour and sweet medley of earth, red and black fruits, juicy texture, cinnamon spice and a disarming satiny elegance.
A singular vision
While Bressan may flex a breadth of grape varieties from Friuli, Paolo Vodopivec has a focus – vitovska. The grape is a native grape of both Friuli and Slovenia, a border variety that is now mostly found in Isonzo and Carso communes. Vitovska is usually known for its bright green skin and light, almost neutral flavours, but for Vodopivec, the variety is a great transporter of terroir.
Vodopivec works solo in his four and a half hectares of vineyard, a close-planted site that yields fruit at around half a kilogram per vine. The soils are red and dark, rich in iron with a scattering of various-sized stones throughout. Carso is surprisingly close to the Adriatic Sea, and the maritime influence is high. There are many small vineyards throughout Carso, but they’ve mostly been trained to create high-volume wine, something that Vodopivec’s parents set out to achieve.
“I took over from my parents and set about changing the vineyard, I knew I had to work hard, I wanted to make wines that showed the best of the region with vitovska as the channel. To create wines with little intervention, then man has to have sensibility about what plants need. I’m a natural wine producer but only by not intervening, my approach is scientific, not esoteric,” states Vodopivec.
He’s energetic and maintains blazing eye contact. There’s a long wander through his umber-soiled vineyard, which sits a few hundred metres away from the rustic family compound. Home-made bird coops poke out above the canopy, a strand of trees borders the site – biodiversity is encouraged.
Vodopivec continues, “I work like this so I can see exactly how my fruit is grown and be absolutely part of the process, not just receiving the end result.” His older vitovska wines 2003 and 2004 are searing, vital, crisp and filled with slatey-mineral texture – their youth and vigour are notable.
Tastings continue, and finally, following the opening of the last wine, an invitation to see where the wine is made is offered. The spectacle that follows is breathtaking.
Pushing past a cobwebbed, rusty-hinged door a cavernous space opens underground. Carved from the hillside, a slender drain track is the only winery edifice visible as an ancient horse cart stands filled with last season’s dried pruning canes, Vodopivec calls it his monument to the natural aspects of winemaking.
A second, huge wooden door is opened. Unveiled is a mind-blowing vision – paving stones and wooden beams frame a series of amphorae buried in the ground in semi-circles with light punctuating the vessels. Further through and we enter a dim but strategically lit cask room for large format wood. The whole underground winery is hewn from natural rock so “the connection between terroir of Carso and the winery is complete”, explains Vodopivec.
The space is remarkable for scale, design, and the juxtaposition of the humble Vodopivec lifestyle. The expanse is magnificent, almost a vacuum from the outside world in its energy and focus, void of all distraction and influence. Perhaps there’s a metaphor here for the progress of Friuli, too.
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY MIKE BENNIE
This article is from the October/November 2012 issue of Gourmet Traveller WINE.