Readers of this blog and other articles I write will know that I’ve developed a speciality of wines of the Jura, France’s smallest wine region. Since Jura is synonymous with Vin Jaune, the curious wine from the Savagnin grape, I often mention and discuss it. But now, I’ve fallen for another curious yellow wine – this time from Friuli in northeast Italy.
We’re currently on an exploratory wine tour of Italy and spent three interesting days in Collio and Colli Orientali in the province of Friuli Venezia Giulia. The Collio region in particular, right on the Slovenian border has a growing reputation for its white wines, and as I’d never been to that part of the world it was high time to visit. Single varietal wines dominate though there are a growing number of interesting dry white blends under the simple Collio DOC label. Whereas Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco and Sauvignon are particularly important, with some Chardonnay too, the region – like all of Friuli – is also known for its unusual indigenous varieties, most especially Friulano, previously called Tocai Friulano (a term now outlawed by the EU because of confusion with Hungary’s Tokaj) and still known locally as Tocai.
The variety that excited me on our little trip was Ribolla Gialla, which is especially prized when grown on ponca – a marly sandstone, flaky soil – in hillside vineyards on the Slovenian border near Gorizia, which gave the original name to this region – Collio Goriziano. On the Slovenian side (which we had no time to explore) where more is grown, the variety is called simply Rebula. Mentions of Ribolla Gialla go back to the 13th century but in the modern wine era of Collio, until very recently interest was mainly in the dominant international varieties. A revival of interest in Ribolla Gialla seems to have started in the 1990s with the legendary producer Josko Gravner focussing on the variety – sadly I have yet to taste his wines, but I was able to taste a few good examples from some of his neighbours in the villages of San Floriano del Collio and Oslavia.
I learnt most about the variety from Franco Sosol of Il Carpino whose explanations in Slovenian were expertly translated by his son Manuel. The family estate has 2.5 hectares (about 7 acres) of Ribolla Gialla and he explained that the variety needs to grow in ponca soil and have plenty of sun, ideally with a warm sunny period in late summer as it is a fairly late ripener. In these conditions it will shrivel and concentrate to some effect, important because it is very vigorous. Il Carpino practice a green harvest to reduce yields, something that appears to be crucial with this variety otherwise it produces a high acid, ‘green’ wine rather than the yellow colour and flavour that gives the grape its name. After tasting a young 2008 named Vigna Runc, dry, delicate and fresh with a distinct dried apricot character, made to be bottled, sold and drunk young, we moved on to a more traditional style under the main Il Carpino label. The 2006 Il Carpino Ribolla Gialla 2006 was a later harvest selection and the grapes spent six days macerating on the skins before fermentation in large old oak botti (big casks). The colour was amber and the exotic nose showed flowers, honey and almost crystallized apricots. The very dry acidic finish was backed up again by dried apricot fruits and had a really long finish. Franco explained that the variety has very thick skins that keep most of the flavour, hence the long maceration which was traditionally practiced in the area and is now undergoing a revival. He has used this method for his ‘better’ version since 1999 and noted that in 2007, he left the grapes with the skins for 45 days! They used to age the wine in barriques, but have changed, as many have generally in the region, to the less obvious large oak casks and now the oak doesn’t dominate the delicate flavours of the grape. I loved the wine and when I drank a bottle a week later, described it as positively Roman – it needs food and can be matched with strong fish dishes or we matched it successfully with Pecorino cheese.
Another winery we visited, Primosic has a relatively huge 24 hectares (60 acres) planted, more than half their estate and Marko Primosic drives a yellow Porsche 911 to help promote the variety. They too produced two versions, a fresh one and one with 10 days skin contact and ageing in 500 and 700-litre casks. The latter was extremely yellow in colour, with spicy oak melding with the deep fruit flavours – the tannin was most noticeable and the wine definitely needs ageing. A completely different version is made by Tercic who includes 10% of the local Glera grape (a relative of Prosecco variety) in the blend. Tercic prefers to leave the grapes hanging longer on the vine and then practices a shorter maceration to produce a more obviously fresh fruitier style.
Whether made in the fresh style, or the more unusual long-maceration style, I left the Collio, smitten with Ribolla Gialla and can’t wait to taste some more if I can find any outside the region. Our trip in Collio, which I also intend to cover in a few weeks on the Wine Travel Guides blog was much enriched by an excellent, newly published book by Carla Capalbo, Collio – Fine Wines and Foods from Italy’s North-East. If you are visiting the area or are simply intrigued by its history, food and wines, don’t fail to buy a copy. Carla will be writing travel guides on Friuli to expand the wine regions of Italy on Wine Travel Guides.