In no other region of Italy, with the possible exception of Alto-Adige, can be found, across the board, white wines of the quality and complexity as those produced in Friuli. Operating in the cultural crossroads that are a constant reminder of Italy’s past, Friuli’s winemakers were among the first to combine generations of farming wisdom with the innovative technologies and practices of the 1970s, establishing a template for producers throughout the peninsula. Whether their wines came from international favorites such as Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay or indigenous vines of Friulano, Verduzzo, Picolit, or Ribolla Gialla, there was a common thread evolving – crisp and vivacious, pure expressions of each grape’s true characteristics.
The good news for consumers is the number and variety of Friulian wine showing up stateside, as more Italian producers are forced by necessity to increase their export share to offset a dramatic decline in domestic consumption over the last five years or so. It’s not uncommon to come across bottles from Friuli in wine stores or on restaurant lists, such as the two we’re focusing on.
The tale of Ribolla Gialla is similar to that of many of Italy’s “native’ grapes, related to or DNA descendants from somewhere else, in Ribolla’s case, Robola from Cephalonia in Greece. References to it date from the 13th century, when Friuli was part of the Venetian Republic, the pre-eminent Mediterranean traders of that era. In its adopted homeland the grape thrived in the well ventilated Colli Orientali, the eastern hills on the Slovenian border where cool northern air currents interact with the warmth of the Adriatic to foster conditions in which grapes ripen slowly and achieve a more natural balance.
The Perusini estate in Gramogliano is modest compared to its neighbors but is credited with reviving Picolit, the region’s passito style wine. It is Ribolla, however, that is their premier offering. Teresa Perusini has likened their unoaked Perusini Ronchi Gramogliano Ribolla Gialla Colli Orientali del Friuli 2011 ($21.99) to Audrey Hepburn, noting its lean profile and reticence. I don’t know about that, but it is neither bold nor flashy, and does take a while to reveal its inherent nature. It’s a white with an obvious but downplayed structure that supports a surprisingly rich and fleshy body (Sophia Loren, maybe?).
There’s a slender strain of acidity and minerals that keep it lively and on point. From a muted, slowly evolving nose of pears and just a whiff of mint to the pleasantly savory finish you find a persistent saline sensation – fairly common for Friuli. My thought is that a second bottle might allow for the discovery of even more nuances and complexity. Perusini’s version would go well with mildly flavored vegetables or fish, but for me it would be a simple plate of lardo and prosciutto di San Daniele.
Di Lenardo Toh! Friulano 2013 ($10.98 @ WineWorks, Marlton, NJ) plays on the fact that it was formerly known as Tocai Friulano. Even though it’s a dry wine, and is not the grape in Hungarian Tokaj, the confusion was sufficient to persuade the European Union to order Friuli’s winemakers to drop any reference to Tocai. The region’s signature white grape is most closely linked Sauvignonasse, a French cultivar and the name by which it is most widely known outside Italy.
Di Lenardo’s state-of-the-art cellar is in the Grave DOC close to Veneto. In contrast to Perusini, the estate churns out 650,000 bottles a year, 70% of which is exported. “Toh!” stays on its lees until bottled, accounting for the creamy texture and ripeness of flavor. The fact that it never sees wood brings out precisely defined aromas and sensations. Saltiness blends with citrus and almonds on the nose, along with a thinly disguised vegetal quality that has the sharpness of Sauvignon Blanc. It loses nothing from start to finish, the package holds together throughout. This is a white wine that is drinkable year round, as comfortable with bean based soups or roasted white meats as it would be with prosciutto and melon.