One of the questions most frequently asked of us is: “What’s your favorite wine?” Our answer is simple: “Whatever’s in our glasses at the moment.” We are equal-opportunity drinkers. Assuming that the wine is sound, we enjoy every single sip of it, regardless of price, score, country, or color.
Today what’s in our glass comes from our spiritual motherland, Italy, and specifically in this case, Friuli — the source of, among other things, wines made from varietals that would likely be extinct were it not for a handful of passionate mavericks in this region who have championed them.
A crossroads of cultures that mingles influences from regal Austria to the north, snow-capped Slovenia to the east, the Adriatic Sea to the south, and the vine-covered Veneto to the west, Friuli is not only a terrific travel destination, it’s a wine region like no other in Italy — a wine region with a breathtaking range of grape varieties, some of them grown only here.
Shall we taste?
Pignolo. Historically a blending grape, pignolo might very well have been erased from our universe were it not for the efforts of a few visionaries: Domenico Casasola, manager of the vineyards at Abbazia di Rosazzo; Silvia Zamò, owner of Le Vigne di Zamò estate; and noted winemaker and author Walter Filiputti. Named for its compact pine cone-shaped bunches, pignolo’s power and promising future lie in its thick tannins. Rich in texture and alcohol, it should appeal to New World-wine aficionados and lovers of zinfandel, sagrantino, and barolo.
What to pair with pignolo’s juicy blue and black fruit, shimmering sweet spices, and robust tannins? A perfectly charred ribeye steak, of course. Notable producers include Borgo St. Danielle, Rocca Bernarda, Scarbolo, Specogna, Giovanni Dri Il Roncat, and Livio Felluga.
Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso. There are four genetically distinct grapes in the refosco group. Notable natives of Friuli since the seventeenth century, their lineage extends to the grandparent of the corvina and rondinella grapes, via a natural crossing with the Trentino cultivars teroldego, lagrein, and marzemino. The leading star of the refoscos, refosco dal peduncolo rosso yields wines exuding beautifully ripe blue and black fruits with softly scented floral notes of violet and lavender. They're dry, of medium weight, and approachable, making them ideal contenders for our daily dinner wine, especially with a comforting bowl of chili or pork stew.
If you can get your hands on these limited edition wines, ask for these notable producers: Cadibon, Pitars, Tenuta Ca’ Bolani, Castello di Buttrio, Perusini, Aquila del Torre, Buiatti Livio e Claudio, Butussi Valentino, Ca’ Tullio, Vitas 1907, Cantina di Bertiolo, Pizzuin Denis, Valchiarò, Le Monde, Marco Cecchini, Petrucco, and Valpanera .
Refosco di Faedis. Officially called refosco nostrano ("our refosco"), this grape has inspired producers eager to revive, revitalize, and reclaim its one-time renown to found a group called Associazione Volontario Viticoltori Refosco di Faedis — the Voluntary Association of Refosco di Faedis Growers. The organization has established specific guidelines to demonstrate the high quality and originality of the grape, including a program to produce reserve wines, with 18 months of aging in large oak casks, followed by six months in the bottle before release. With their wines sporting a black label with a golden eagle emblem, roughly 30 producers are committed to this mouth-watering movement. Bravo!
When I think of refosco di Faedis, I envision deep ruby hues and sweet spiced notes of cinnamon and cardamom, held together with lively acidity and graceful tannins. Among the notable producers are Macor Gianni, Graziano Mosolo, Perabò Maurizio, Ronc dai Luchis, Di Gaspero Flavia e Umberto, and Zani Elvio.
Schioppettino. Also called sclopetin (in Friuli), pocalza (in Slovenia), and ribolla nera (in parts of Italy beyond Friuli), schioppettino has a history as scintillating as its sensory profile. Abundant in the thirteenth century, it subsequently began disappearing and was outlawed as an illegal varietal in Friuli in 1976, before being rescued from extinction in an emergency town council meeting in 1977. Schioppettino’s savior was the Rapuzzi family, who located and tended to 70 abandoned vines of the grape in 1970. With the support of the celebrated wine critic Luigi Veronelli, schioppettino earned the right to become part of the Colli Orientali del Friuli DOC (denominazione di origine controllata, similar to the French appellation or AOC) in 1989.
Schioppettino’s distinctive green peppercorn character is held together with juicy fruit, bright acidity, and alcohol levels rarely exceeding 12.5 percent. If pinot noir and syrah had a love child, it would be named schioppettino. For food pairings, think finger-licking barbecue, fresh pasta with ragù, and succulent medium-rare steak. Notable producers: Ronchi San Giuseppe, Conte d’Attimis Maniago, La Tunella, Centa S. Anna, Flaibani, and Gigante.
Schioppettino di Prepotto. The commune of Prepotto, just east of Udine on the Slovenian border, is schiopettino’s spiritual home, and this schioppettino clone showcases alluring wild red berries and seductive spiciness, laced together with mouth-watering acidity, medium body, and soft tannins. The grape is cultivated almost exclusively in the grand cru hills of Prepotto, Albana, and Cialla by some 26 producers committed to upholding the true varietal character of the grape by adhering to strict production guidelines. The aforementioned Rapuzzi family not only succeeded in establishing a DOC for schioppettino di Prepotto, but their vineyard in Cialla also received a “cru” designation in the 1990s.
For a memorable meal, partner wine made from the grape with grilled meats, including wild game. Notable producers: Ronchi di Cialla, Colli di Poianis, Grillo Iole, Vigna Lenuzza, La Buse Dal Lôf, Marinig, Ronco dei Pini.
Tazzelenghe. One sip tells the story of tazzelenghe (tacelenghe in the local Friulian dialect), which means “cuts the tongue.” Thanks to six passionate producers dedicated to producing high-quality wines from the grape, we can enjoy red-fruit-driven, light-framed tazzelenghe with refreshing acidity and fine tannins. Along with pignolo and schioppettino, this variety was saved from extinction thanks to an EEC regulation authorizing these indigenous grapes for cultivation in the province of Udine. This would be a good wine for Easter ham (or Thanksgiving turkey). The most notable producers are Colutta Gianpaolo, Jacúss, and La Viarte.
Terrano. Rich in iron, minerals, and antioxidants, while remaining low in alcohol, terrano was once consumed by young women in the region as a treatment for anemia. Genetically identical to refosco d’Istria and the Slovenian refosk, terrano grows almost exclusively on the iron-rich red soils of Carso in Italy and neighboring Slovenia. Exuding wild berries and savory nuances, spiked with white pepper and Indian spices, and bound with balanced alcohol, tannins, and lively acidity, it would go perfectly with succulent lamb kebabs and nutty hard cheeses. Recommended producers include Bajta, Castelvecchio, and Skerk.
In a world where we embrace and revere regionality, ethnicity, and local cuisine, shouldn’t family-owned outfits, producing world-class wines, swaggering with their own signature soul — and, mind you, sold at unbelievably low prices — merit the attention and respect of connoisseurs? Move over, cabernet and merlot; these are the new — but old — kids on the block, from some of the lowest-yielding and rarest native grape varieties in the world, and they're here to stay.