August 21st, 2023/ BY Michaela Morris

Tasting Collio

In Italy’s northeast, the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia is somewhat off the beaten track, and its dozen or so DOPs little known. Yet Collio was among Italy’s first DOCs, established in 1968.

Collio takes its name from colli which means hills and, indeed, to qualify for the DOC, vines must be planted on the hillsides. Yet this can be a modest 50 metres above sea level, making for an understated rather than dramatic beauty. Butting up against Slovenia, it is essentially an extension of the latter’s Brda region. Or vice versa. (Coincidentally, brda also means hills).

Crucially, the soil must be categorized as ponca which is composed of layers of marl and sandstone rich in marine fossils. It is distinguished from pebbly soil on the plains below. With abundant rainfall, the verdant hills are lush with vegetation, even when I visited in the height of summer. The area is further shaped by cool air from the Alps and cleansing breezes from the Adriatic. The nearby sea lends an intense luminosity that translates as a brightness in the wines.

A whopping 87% of production is white and the long list of authorized grapes includes well-known international favourites (like Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Riesling) as well as indigenous gems. Among the former, Sauvignon Blanc gets my vote. With a long history in the region, it is successfully made in a range of styles without trying to copycat other Sauvignon Blanc regions.

In terms of the latter, the trifecta of Friulano, Ribolla Gialla and Malvasia Istriana offer distinct personalities. For me, each evokes a specific colour – flavour-wise rather than visually.

Friulano (officially registered as Tocai Friulano even if wines can’t be labeled as such) is decidedly green. The colour association isn’t a stretch as its French synonym is Sauvignon Vert (green). It expresses a range of green apple and pear, unripe mango, green almond, balsamic herbs and pepper notes sometimes with a pleasant bitterness. Though modest in acidity, it is structured and often glycerol in texture.

The yellows for Ribolla Gialla could also be due to power of suggestion. Giallo is Italian for yellow, and the grapes turn golden as they ripen. In terms of aromas and flavours, think citrus, crisp yellow apple, verbena tea and yellow blossoms. Though picked fairly late, Ribolla Gialla preserves its acidity giving a steely backbone (a brilliant counter to the creamy richness of Friuli’s Montasio cheese). It is also a popular grape for making orange wine – which isn’t far off the colour spectrum.

Finally, Malvasia Istriana is pink – but tasteful rather than garish. Wines may be scented with rose, honeysuckle and musky florals and develop flavours of ripe rosy apricot. The best also sport a saline edge and juicy acidity. For a colour match, try with San Daniele prosciutto – another local specialty.

While varietal wines are Collio’s most successful, the plethora of different grapes provides a rich palette from which to craft an endless kaleidoscope of blends. These are simply labelled Collio Bianco. However, ‘Collio Bianco’ is confusingly a catch-all used by producers to distinguish their top wines, which means it includes mono-varietals as well.

Robert Princič at Gradis’ciutta | photo credit: Michaela Morris

“Collio is difficult to communicate because so there are so many complexities,” admits Fabian Korsič at his family estate. He prefers to focus attention on place rather than grapes.

Bringing it full circle, Robert Princič at Gradis’ciutta declares, “Collio gives its own accent to every variety.”

I would agree that this is the case with the region’s most successful wines. Collio’s strength is personality, not (low) price and coaxing out character is essential. After spending three days there tasting over 100 wines, following are a dozen of my top picks.

Livon Roncalto Ribolla Gialla DOC Collio, 2022

Subtly yet appealingly fragrant with scents of yellow broom and Mirabelle plum. Livon’s Roncalto flows like fresh stream water and flavours recall spring meadows and river stones. Long, vertical and steely, it expands with a juicy sappiness. 

Damijan Podversic Ribolla Gialla DOC Collio, 2019

A convincing argument for Ribolla Gialla as an orange wine. This sees a lengthy skin maceration of over a month as well as long ageing in large used casks. Golden in colour with nutty nuances offset by orange oil, mandarin peel and pressed flowers. The palate has a decisively dry, phenolic tug with countering juiciness. Palate cleansing and meant for food. Don’t serve too chilled.

Ronco Blanchis Friulano DOC Collio, 2022

A captivating mix of balsamic herbs, green almond and white pepper on a backdrop of fresh orchard apple. The palate brings some citrus notes into the mix. Slightly glycerol in texture without being heavy.

Zorzon Friulano DOC Collio, 2022      

Decidedly ‘green’ yet ripe aromas and flavours of greengage plum and fleshy pear. The palate is tactile and full with accents of marzipan. There is admirable definition, vibrancy and length here. Well done.

Casa delle Rose Malvasia DOC Collio, 2022

Malvasia Istriana loves the sun and Casa delle Rose’s 2022 has soaked it all up. Clean and intense aromas of rose and orange blossom converge seamlessly with succulent peach flavours. Despite ripeness there is still a cool, salty edge. Refreshing and begging for an exotic prawn ceviche.

Villa Russiz Malvasia DOC Collio, 2021

Gorgeous scents of pressed rose and pretty pink lilac are nuanced by the suggestion of a sea breeze. The palate is concentrated and mineral-driven with a saline backbone. For now, it just hints at apricot, but this should emerge fully with a couple more years in the bottle.

Attems Cicinis Sauvignon DOC Collio, 2021

An intense nose of cool tropical fruit – very guava and passion fruit with a hint of tomato leaf. As it warms up, toast and vanilla oak nuances emerge without usurping the fruit purity. This complex and elegant wine is midweight with fleshy nectarine and crisp, mouthwatering acidity.

Fruscalzo Pinot Grigio DOC Collio, 2022             

While historically Pinot Grigio was recommended without skin contact, there is a trend towards ‘ramato’ or coppery hued versions like this. Restrained aromas of strawberry and peach are joined by fruit-forward flavours of melon on the palate. With a slight creaminess of texture and zesty finish, there is no lack of character here.

Bracco 1881 La Mont-Brach Collio Bianco DOC Collio, 2021         

Friulano-led with equal parts Sauvignon Blanc and Malvasia Istriana lending nuance. Scents of guava and passionfruit are accented by sweet garden herbs. Green mango and nectarine take over on the palate. I love the underlying succulent juiciness and mineral-driven, stony core.

Villa Russiz Maisha Collio Bianco DOC Collio, 2021    

A blend of autochthonous trio Friulano, Ribolla Gialla and Malvasia Istriana, Maisha opens intriguingly with balsamic herbs, almond and a suggestion of rose. Full and rich, this is sumptuously weighted with ample concentration of flavour to match. Tropical fruit meets fleshy white pear. Lingers with linden and salted lime. I’ve tucked a bottle away in my cellar.

Gradis’ciutta Bràtinis Collio Bianco DOC Collio, 2018

Here Chardonnay provides the volume with Ribolla Gialla contributing a vertical backbone and Sauvignon Blanc adding sappy green notes. Oak aging brings in touches of vanilla, toasted nuts and cedar. Juicy, full and seamless, it all comes together nicely. Drink now.

Korsič Merlot DOC Collio, 2020

While most of the reds I tried tended towards underripe flavours and tannins, Korsič’s Merlot was a lovely surprise. Fresh sage and cedar infuse currants and red plum. The palate is savoury rather than sweet with integrate oak layering in smoke and forest nuances. Lovely balance of soft pliable tannins and tangy acidity. Finishes with a sprinkle of nutmeg.

Michaela Morris is an international wine writer, educator and speaker based in Vancouver, Canada. She has worked in various capacities of the industry for 25 years. Besides holding the Wine & Spirit Education Trust Diploma, Michaela is an Italian Wine Expert certified through Vinitaly International Academy (VIA) and leads seminars on Italian wine around the globe. Not surprisingly, her go-to cocktail is a negroni.

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