Collio Goriziano produces uniquely Italian wine
As the story goes, there is a town called Medana. In that town, you will find a house where many generations of the same family were born — yet they all hold different passports. The grandfather was born in Austria. The father is Italian. And the grandson is Yugoslavian. How may you ask is this possible? It is all because of the powerplays and the subsequent redrawing of boundaries that transpired following World War I and World War II. Today, Medana is in Slovenia, a stone’s throw from Italy and the wine region known as Collio (alternatively Collio Goriziano), within the province of Friuli-Venezia Giulia.
Drive for an hour northeast from Venice, and you will arrive in a crescent-shaped region with 1,500 hectares of vines. The majority of vineyards are planted on rolling hills upon a bedrock of marl and sandstone known as “Ponca,” which imparts a saline mineral quality to many of the wines.
Collio (“hillside” in Italian) has been producing wine since Roman times and this practice continued uninterrupted right through the epochs of the Republic of Venice and Hapsburg dominance. In fact, the wines were highly prized in Russia and Vienna starting in the 1500s.
In modern terms, the year 1869 is when the most profound viticultural change happened. French Count Theodore de La Tour married his Austrian love and moved to the area. As a means to help the locals, he subsidized the replanting of vineyards comprising low-quality grapes with high-end ones from France and Germany. These grapes included notables such as Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris), Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
Today, 17 varieties are authorized, with 85 percent of plantings being white, both indigenous and imported. In this regard, white wine can either be labelled under the Collio Bianco DOC, which represents blends of varying proportions, or numerous single-varietal Collio DOCs.
It’s all about the purity of the fruit, with stainless-steel, temperature-controlled ferments being the norm. Some new wood is being used judiciously, but it is still on the fringes. It is also noteworthy to mention that all Collio wines are dry, except for the Picolit grape.
This native grape has been documented since the 13th century. To show its best, it requires the warmest areas. It tends to produce deeply coloured wines that are light-bodied with notes of peach, pear, lemon and mineral. In the Oslavia enclave, bordering Slovenia, it is the most important grape. There they produce Orange wines with the varietal, along with other white grapes. With skin contact and barrel aging, the varietal takes on the characteristic orange colour and exhibits notes of bruised apple, cream and honey.
It is also worth mentioning that Oslavia was one of the first areas, globally, to concentrate on the concept of Orange wines back in the mid-1990s.
Originally from Veneto, it migrated to Friuli in the 1850s, and today, many consider it the finest of Friuli’s indigenous varietals. Before 2007, this grape was known as Tocai Friulano, but with Hungarian Tokay given sole right to use the name by the EU, the varietal became known as Friulano. All Friulano from Collio is dry, producing full-bodied renditions with peach, honey, floral and spice qualities while finishing on an almond note.
Malvasia is a family of grapes (20+ clones) with an ancient pedigree. Said to be from the island of Crete. Venetian traders brought cuttings from Greece to Istria in the 14th century, just a hop, skip and jump away from Collio. The varietal produces high-alcohol zesty whites with a personality of pear, pineapple, herbs, pepper/anise and flowers.
Although its origins are somewhat nebulous, Picolit has been part of the Friulian landscape for centuries. In fact, by the middle of the 18th century, it status was noble, as it was the favourite drink of most European courts. Today, in Collio, it accounts for less than 1 percent of plantings, as most producers view it as economically unviable due to meagre yields. The wine is always sweet, produced via either late harvesting or the passito method and subsequently aged in old wood. These wines are not inexpensive, nor are they cloying thanks to their vibrant acidity. Peach, apricot, honeycomb and acacia are all in play.
This varietal accounts for 25 percent of all plantings, making it the number one grape in Collio. Collio’s Grigios tend to be fuller and more extracted than the masses of vinified acid water known as Italian Pinot Grigio. Peach, banana, fresh apple, cream, spice and flowers are the hallmarks.
Sauvignon Blanc ranks second in plantings, and in the glass there is no denying typicity. These wines run the gambit from herbal/lime/grapefruit to peach/passion fruit/floral and honey. All versions have a lovely streak of minerality running down the spine.
In my esteem, this grape has excellent potential, but it represents less than 4 percent of vineyard space. In style, it resembles Alsatian versions, with honey, apple, cream, spice and white flowers with great freshness.
The Future of Collio
After receiving its DOC in 1968, Collio started to move from quantity to quality, in the hopes of securing the much-vaunted DOCG status. If all goes well, they will obtain that status sometime in 2018 or 2019. That said, after a week of tasting, I believe that yields still need to be lowered. Yes, there are some truly impressive whites that deserve the higher classification, but there is an equal amount of average juice. A concerted effort is still required before the entire lot is deserving of DOCG status. Until then, look for top producers.
Once DOCG is achieved, the region will then look to create a Gran Selezione designation à la Chianti Classico. According to Consortium president, Robert Princic, “the dream is to create an age-worthy white wine. The two options we are looking at are an indigenous blend of Friulano (40–70 percent), Ribolla Gialla (maximum 30 percent) and Malvasia Istriana (maximum 30 percent), with a minimum of two years of aging before release. Alternatively, or possibly concurrently, a Pinot Grigio Superiore.”
The producers of Collio realized long ago that with the masses of cheap white wine produced in Italy, and with their finite vineyards space, that the only way they would succeed would be by taking the quality high road. So, when purchasing, prices will be slightly elevated. Within Italy, their main competition is the Alto-Adige, another premium white wine region with many similarities to Collio.
But it’s not all about wine. Being at the confluence of many nations has created a melting pot of food, which is somewhat rustic, with a strong pork influence. The region is home to the famed Prosciutto San Daniele as well as the lesser known, yet equally delicious, Prosciutto di Cormons — a cold-smoked ham using cherry and laurel wood. Pork also finds its way into two local soups, Jota, which is sausage mixed with beans, potatoes, and sauerkraut, as well as Fasuj e Uardi, a barley, bean and pork mélange.
The famed cheese of the area is Montasio, a raw milk cheese, which can be served as an appetizer alongside prosciutto, or in a dish knows as Frico, which comes in two renditions. The first is a basic cheese crisp/tuile. The second, and my favourite is akin to rosti. Shredded potatoes and onions are sautéed in oil, and once tender, Montasio is added, which melts, weaving its way through the potatoes and creating a golden crust. There’s simply nothing better.