It is Friuli’s time to shine

By / Wine + Drinks / August 24th, 2017 / 14

Have you ever tasted a wine called Tazzelenghe? Actually, it’s a rare grape variety grown in the Colli Orientali del Friuli zone. The term, Tazzelelnghe, translates as “tongue cutter,” so named because of its egregiously high acid and tannin content.

When you think of Friuli, what springs immediately to mind is white wine, particularly Friulano (once known as Tocai Friulano, but the Tocai was dropped at the insistence of the Hungarians, who argued that it caused confusion in the market with their sweet wine, Tokaji).

Friuli — located in the extreme northeast of Italy, bordering on Austria, Slovenia and the Adriatic Sea — also grows the indigenous Ribolla Gialla and Malvasia Istriana, as well as three of Italy’s best dessert wines, Verduzzo, Ramandolo and Picolit; but there is also a bewildering number of autochthonous red varieties that even the most ardent wine geek may never have heard of.

In his monumental study Native Wine Grapes of Italy, Ian d’Agata writes that there are 38 varieties (21 red and 17 white) that you will only find in Friuli, “and only 15 had been previously described in existing literature and ancient documents.”

The names of the most significant red varieties trip off the tongue with the musically mellifluous sound of the Italian language: Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso, Schioppettino, Terrano and, of course, the above-mentioned Tazzelenghe (see Gurvinder Bhatia’s article, “Try these 5 native red grapes from Italy’s Friuli region”).

Friuli also contributes to the oceans of Prosecco exported from Italy (exports that amounted to 306 million bottles in 2014). We tend to think of Prosecco as a product of Veneto, coming from Valdobbiaddene and Conegliano; but the name Prosecco originates from the eponymous village that is now a suburb of Trieste and reputedly the place where the Glera grape — the major constituent of Prosecco — was first propagated.

But the region is far and away a white-wine zone, boasting the largest proportion of white wines to red of all of Italy’s 20 regions. The split is a remarkable: 77 percent white to 23 percent red. The combined weight of Prosecco and Pinot Grigio account for much of this imbalance.

I’m going to make a prediction here: The next big thing might just be a wine that comes from this region — sparkling Ribolla Gialla, made either from 100 percent of this native variety or blended with Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, and/or Pinot Nero.

In addition to its indigenous varieties, producers in Friuli Venezia Giulia — to give it its full name — also grow international varieties such as Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir.

But for all the plethora of wines it produces, Friuli Venezia Giulia is not on the radar of most wine lovers. The region with its spectacular mountains (the Dolomites) has yet to capture the imagination of wine tourists as Tuscany, Piedmont, Veneto and Sicily have.

Just to show how overlooked the region is, when I googled Friuli on my phone using voice recognition I was sent to a website called “Free Willy.”

Friuli Venezia Giulia may lack the international recognition factor of Chianti, Piemonte and neighbouring Veneto, but it can rightly claim to be the nursery for the entire Italian wine industry. The region currently produces 80 per cent of all of Italy’s rootstocks — which amounts to 20 percent of the total amount of rootstocks propagated in the EU counties and 25 percent of what the rest of the world produces.

It’s now Friuli’s time to step into the spotlight. With the 2016 harvest, Friuli Venezia Giulia became Italy’s 334th DOC. And with the ever-expanding Italian DOC system we may yet see a super-DOC that includes all the regions of the northeast where the ubiquitous Pinot Grigio is grown — Pinot Grigio delle Venezie DOC.
But first, I guess we have to cut our teeth on Tazzelenghe.


Tony Aspler, Order of Canada recipient, has been writing about wine since 1975. He is the author of 18 wine books, including The Wine Atlas of Canada and three wine murder mystery novels. The best concert he ever attended was Rush with the Tragically Hip as the opening band. His favourite comfort food is milk chocolate and his cocktail of choice is a Kir Royale. At home, he drinks wine (lots of wine).

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