The “Camino” Less Travelled
In light of this year’s MOU between Vinitaly and the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, our region is poised to speed-date the great and multifarious wines of Italy. While Hong Kong wine lovers have long been aware of Chianti, Barolo and the Super Tuscans, few of us have much knowledge of the culturally and viticulturally heterogeneous region of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia.
Friuli is not the first region Hong Kong travellers envision when planning an Italian tour – its Austro-Italo-Slavic culinary offerings stray far from the tomato sauces of the south and creams and truffles of the northwest and its main industries are not leatherwork nor automobile production, but chair and steel manufacturing. It is a region that, for our market at least, has no recognizable brand image. This makes informing Hong Kong’s wine afficionados about this northeastern-most corner of Italy, a task our team has recently undertaken, quite a challenge.
For the US and UK markets, Friulian white wine has some caché, be it complex, steely Pinot Grigio (the best in Italy, bar none) or oxidative orange wine aged in amphorae from Josko Gravner and his ilk. Friulian reds are not so familiar, often lumbered with names that range from slightly tricky to unpronounceable due to a tangle of “r’s,” “n’s” and “l’s.” Ribolla Nera, the latest (and inaccurate) Asian-market synonym for the red grape Schioppettino, may be one of the clumsiest re-branding attempts in the history of marketing.
However, Walter Filiputti – the oenological guide for our recent jaunt through the rolling hills, gravelly dry river beds and rust-red carst forests of Friuli, and one of its foremost enologists – would have us believe that reds are Friuli’s next big thing. Intriguingly, grapes we consider international like Merlot and Cabernet have been in Friuli for around 150 years, since the region once belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, we found the truly indigenous grapes, grown virtually nowhere else in the world, generally more compelling. Schioppettino, for example, has recently experienced a Renaissance, with several young producers (one we encountered was just 18!) banding together under the designation “Schioppettino di Prepotto.” These peppery, berry-toned gems age remarkably well: the ‘94 Viarte we tasted had developed Pinot-like aromatics in its old age.
Filiputti’s pet variety, Pignolo, which he rediscovered in the early ‘80s, is his pick for the northeastern Italian great red (apologies Amarone). Sadly, few examples of aged Pignolo are on hand to be tasted, so we tasted a few young’uns, which we hear will take decades to peak. At the moment, they are elegant, racehorse reds, with powdery, refined tannins and sleek fruit profiles, like Barbera at its best.
Much as we focused on these exotic reds, the whites did not fail to impress either. Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and the eponymous Friulano (or Tocai, as it was previously known and still referred to by most Friulani) all speak in dulcet tones of the region’s 2000+ native edible herbs and blossoms. A few estates, sadly, have taken Friuli’s primacy in clean, stainless steel winemaking and reductive handling too far, leaving some of the whites with telltale sweaty onion, musky aromas. However, it’s nothing a little aeration can’t fix.
Though volume-wise Friuli does not contribute massively to Italian wine, producing only 2.5% of its volume; in terms of scientific advancement and cultural heritage, it is one of the country’s richest areas. Vivai Cooperativi Rauscedo, the very first stop on our tour, is the world’s largest grapevine nursery, and its VCR-labeled clones are recognized wherever vines are cultivated. We would argue that herein lies the secret to Friulian wine: it is almost a microcosm of Italy itself, a country with fiercely individualistic traditions of winemaking. Friuli has embraced technology wholeheartedly, but truly finds its stride when science is put in the service of its great oenological heritage.
As published in the South China Morning Post