When Jack and Joanne at Fork & Bottle announced the topic for this month’s edition of WBW, they put forth a strong recommendation: spend at least $20 per bottle. Go for the best. My initial reaction was, “Ok, I’m on board with that.” It would give me the perfect opportunity to get into some of the wines from currently hot producers like Josko Gravner, Radikon or Edi Kante. I soon realized though that the task of acquiring those wines would not only entail the outlay of some serious greenback but would also force me either to make a trip up to New York or to resort to ordering via the Internet.
So I switched gears, opting instead to shop in my own neck of the woods. I picked up a total of three wines: the only two Friuli wines available at one of the better local Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) specialty stores and one Slovenian wine from my own workplace, where we don’t currently carry any wine from Friuli. They all ranged between $10-20. It’s not the first time I’ve intentionally opted to break the WBW ground rules; only time will tell if it’s the last. Along the way, I also broke a few of my own rules (more on that as we move along).
It’s fair to say that Tocai Friulano is the signature grape of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. I rounded up two examples, both from Collio, a small province in southeastern Friuli that, along with neighboring Colli Orientali del Friuli, turns out most of the consistently higher quality wines of the overall region. Its historical origins may indeed be intertwined with the famous Hungarian Tokaji in more than just name, as some viticultural historians believe that Tocai Friulano was once identical to the Hungarian vine Furmint. However, most ampelographers (though not all Italians) agree that the vine called Tocai Friulano, since approximately the 1930s, is actually one and the same as Sauvignon Vert, aka Sauvignonasse.
Whatever the case may be, a good example of Tocai Friulano typically gives peach and blossom aromas with a distinctly crisp, mineral texture. Relatively versatile, Tocai is at home both in straight-forward, tank fermented wines and in more elaborate, oak-endowed selezioni. It also makes a reasonable blending partner.
In 1993, Hungary won its petition with the EU to gain sole rights to the terms Tocai and Tokay in an effort to protect the name of its famous dessert wine, Tokaji Aszu. Most producers in Alsace have already dropped the term Tokay from their Pinot Gris. Many Italian producers are now in the process of following suit. Any wines bottled after March 31, 2007 should theoretically no longer bear the work Tocai; most will simply be called Friulano. Andrea Felluga has written a concise explanation, along with some colorful insights into the matter.
Collio Tocai Friulano, Conti Attems 2004
I never buy a wine strictly because of its label; however, I often avoid wines because of their labels. Cute animals, catchy names and absurdly oversized bottles are all red flags. Attems’ Tocai didn’t offend on any of those counts yet it still threw up some warning signs. It’s purely subjective and instinctive on my part, but something about the artwork and color choices on both the front and rear labels screamed “commercial” to me and would normally have made me steer clear. I would have doubly steered clear from the partnership with Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi – a large Tuscan wine concern that has held similar partnerships with Robert Mondavi among others – as such relationships are typically constructed to leverage brand awareness and distribution channels rather than to make a good wine better. The fact that the wine is estate bottled was about the only potentially saving grace that kept me from rejecting the bottle in spite of my willingness to suffer for the greater good of WBW.
I should have stuck with my instincts. This was the first wine I’ve purchased (as opposed to tasted in passing) in years that was just plain undrinkable. Its color was promising, suggesting no signs of advancing age. The nose, however, was lacking in the fruit and charm I expect from Tocai. Instead, it smelled of artichokes, lanolin and feed corn. The wine’s medium acidity was still in tact but its texture was coarse and hinted at the beginning stages of oxidation. Fruit was also absent on the palate, which was dominated by acrid, bitter sensations and a flavor of canned creamed corn. It became less and less appealing with air and as it warmed in the glass. Was it just over the hill? The deterioration of age may have played a role but I saw no signs that there was ever any good initial raw material.
$11. 13% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Folio Wines, Napa, CA.
Collio Tocai Friulano, Colle Duga di Damian Princic 2005
Colle Duga is a small estate of seven hectares that nearly abuts the border with Slovenia in the eastern extreme of the Collio. Their Tocai, much like Attems’ above, shone a pale greenish-yellow in the glass. Lime blossom and honeydew melon met my nose, followed by a fleshy, neutrally oaked, medium-acid attack on the palate. The wine got crazy in the presence of food, totally transforming to an intense, slightly candied lemon-lime character. It recalled a distinct flavor memory from my childhood. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it but it was somewhere between the original Gatorade formula and a lemon-lime ice pop, plus a touch of Snapple peach iced tea. Though these flavors may sound strangely appealing, their unnatural character was driven home on day two, when Princic’s wine, in spite of showing a hint of its peachy typicity, smelled clearly of paint thinner and modeling cement. It was significantly better than the Tocai from Conti Attems. But at $20, marked down from $30 via the PLCB’s “Chairman’s Selection” program, it was neither a good value nor a wine I look forward to revisiting. If you do feel compelled to give it a try, I’d recommend making it a one-night bottle.
$20. 13.5% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Bartolomeo Pio, Fort Washington, PA.
Brda Ribolla Gialla, Ferdinand 2006
As Tocai is the signature of Friuli, so Ribolla, also planted in Friuli, is the traditional variety of Brda. Ferdinand’s Ribolla is simple, clean and easy, brimming with peach on both the nose and the palate. There’s a refreshing, tingly character in the mouth, accented by delicate minerality. As the wine warms, it becomes fleshier but holds onto its purity of fruit. It paired well with a semi-firm cow and sheep’s milk cheese, providing a worthy foil to both the fattiness and saltiness. Still a hint yeasty, I’ll look forward to revisiting this from time to time over the next six months.
$14. 12.5% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
If you’ve read this far and would like to read more, why not join me and participate in the first edition of the Wine Book Club. We’re reading Vino Italiano, by Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch. Given that Friuli leads off the geographical chapters of the book and that Bastianich owns a wine estate in Friuli, it’s a clear tie-in to and jumping off point from this month’s WBW theme.