Wednesday, January 16, 2008

WBW #41: White Wines from Friuli-Venezia Giulia

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

This was the big rule breaker. First, most Tocai is best drunk young. Picking up a wine from 2004 in early 2008 was, I knew, already pushing the envelope. Buying it in a shop that doesn’t care for its wines or exert discretion in its selection processes, though, was the real no-no. But I was prepared to take some risks for the sake of the WBW exercise. I took more.

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
Given that I sell this wine at my day job, Ferdinand’s Ribolla Gialla was my failsafe for this tasting. One of my coworkers is fond of saying, “This wine is technically from Slovenia but it’s really Italian.” Apparently Jack and Joanne agree, as their definition of Friuli for this WBW episode was extended to include the hills (colle) on the Slovenian side of the border in Goriska Brda. It’s a position which is reinforced by winemaker Matiasz Četrtič’s decision as of the 2006 vintage to relabel his wine, formerly called Rebula in keeping with Slovenian culture, to the Italian Ribolla Gialla.

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.


Jeff said...

I occasionally get that "gut instinct" when looking at a wine label and it's surprising how often I'm right. Weird.

Sean Sellers said...

Wow David,

It seems like you and a few others didn't have such a great experience with Friuli. I can only say that Jacob and I faired a lot better. We loved ours, a Sauvignon Sol from Ronco del Gnemiz. They make a Tocia too; I've ordered online but not tried yet.

I found your description of the Tocia really fascinating, but what struck me most was to read about just how Byzantine the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board is.

I often forget just how relaxed the laws are here in the UK. We don’t have to worry about strange interstate commerce laws or the behaviour of companies like The market here is so competitive, that if you can find it online in the UK, you can buy it. And if you can’t, there are companies that will buy abroad and import it by the case for you. On the upside, at least you don’t live in a dry county. I used to do, when I was a kid, growing up in Oklahoma.

David McDuff said...

Just wait a few more years. With more practice it won't seem weird any more, just natural.

Luckily, this was far from my first crack at wines from Friuli so I know there's plenty of good juice out there. I stacked the cards against myself when I decided to limit things to the confines of the PA system. Not that there's never any good wine there, the odds are just against you. I'll look out for something from Ronco del Gnemiz.

Jack at Fork & Bottle said...

I take it you didn't try the first two wines a couple of days later to see if they came around? Very disappointing.

Glad to see the Slovenian one worked out.

David McDuff said...

Actually, I tasted both of them into their second and third days. As I mentioned, the Colle Duga took on some peachy fruit with time but also developed significant volatile aromas. The Attems was bad on day one, bad on day two and less bad on day three, only because its flavors started to fade to a more neutral place.

The Brda Ribolla Gialla from Ferdinand actually picked up more flesh, marly minerality and forward charm in its second day. It was still relatively simple but, at $14, a solid wine.

Wicker Parker said...

The anecdotes I've heard reinforce the notion that Tocai Friulano is an eager sprinter and not a distance runner. The unoaked 2006 Giovanni Puiatti is currently quietly floral and throws terrific, weighty, but clean notes of honeydew, pear, brioche, honey, lemon curd, and lemon zest. But I'm told that the 2005 Puiatti is already tired by someone who really liked the 2006.

David McDuff said...

Nice note, Mike. I think you're (we're) absolutely right about
Tocai's ageworthiness in general, though there are always exceptions to every rule. Some of the lower yield, barrel aged versions, like those from Borgo del Tiglio, may have the capacity to hold up for a few years.

Steve said...

I like the description of Tocia....wines are just my favorite and always prefer to buy via internet!

Anonymous said...

Dear David,

I am new to this conversation but have some familiarity with wines from Friuli. My suggestion to participants in this discussion would be to experiment with other producers from Collio and Orientali before giving up on Tocai. As for its ageworthiness, the Tocais from Venica and Venica, Doro Princic, Ronco del Gelso, Edi and Renato Keber, Schiopetto, and a few others can easily, easily, hold and improve for 5-7 years. I still have some 04' Tocai that are evolving beautifully. In addition to limited selection, another factor may be storage and shipping conditions for wines sold retail by the Penn Liguor Board. Anyhow, thanks for the article, and the opportunity to offer two cents. Peace, Mike

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