Arriving at sunset on Tuesday, we were greeted on the front terrace of the winery by Mario Zanusso, the current winegrower at I Clivi. Mario is a handsome guy, at once quiet, intense and somewhat reserved -- not at all unlike the wines we would taste with him a short while later. Walking and talking with him, I got the sense that he'd be just as much at home taking in a Ramones gig at CBGB (if only we had a time machine) as he seemed in the hills of Rosazzo.
The vineyards at I Clivi, as are much of the high quality sites throughout Colli Orientali del Friuli, are laid out on terraces cut into the hillsides. The slopes here, though not exactly gentle, are not insanely steep, at least not when compared to more precipitous viticultural areas such as the Mosel or Northern Rhône. While I'm sure that, for some producers, ease of mechanization plays into the maintenance of the terraces, Mario explained that their genesis sprang from a more primal need, as the friable nature of the ponca-rich soils make the landscape highly prone to erosion. The terraces, at a very practical level, help to keep the vineyards in place in a landscape where heavy rainfall might otherwise, over time, lay bare the roots of the vines.
|I was so intent on capturing the beautiful view of the sunset (something for which my camera is not particularly well suited) that I totally neglected to snap a few shots of the old vines on the steeper, terraced vineyards at I Clivi.|
In both the vineyards and the cellar, I think that the approach at I Clivi can best be described as rational. Respect for nature is maintained, farming is certified organic, but no particular doctrine or credo is followed. In Mario's own words, "The first thing is that the wine is good. We don't need to obey some [set of] rules." Some of his wines are fermented on their native yeasts, others not, depending on the needs and characteristics of the vintage and each cuvée. Mario uses a light hand with sulfur, adding a bit at crush when the fruit is most susceptible to oxidation, most of which is consumed during fermentation, then adding just a dash at bottling for the sake of stability.
We tasted from the family's very last bottle of 2009 Ribolla Gialla, all 11.3% alcohol of it, produced from the fruit of 15 year-old vines grown in Brda; a very clean, light and vibrant style, round in feel and lifted by its bright acidity and minerality.
The first of two examples of Friulano came next, the 2009 Colli Orientali del Friuli Friulano "Vecchia Vigna al Clivi," which comes from 60 year-old vines immediately adjacent to the house and spent a year on its lees before being bottled in October 2010. Intensely salty, with a gorgeous balance between fleshiness and racy acidity. A 2009 Friulano "San Lorenzo," from the Collio DOC, was richer, less mineral, more savory in its flavors, with an attractive vegetal undertone and a classic signature of bitter almond flavor on the finish.
A bottle of 2007 Collio Goriziano "Clivi Brazan" was richer, darker and more evolved than the '06 "Galea," a facet influenced more by the rainy 2007 growing season than by the wine's different place of origin, over the hill and into the Collio zone. Still, the wine was far from without its own charms; much more tropical and zesty on the nose, with aromas of lychee and hothouse flowers, along with a subtle peppermint scent.
Neither Mario nor Ferdinando are particularly fond of sweet wines, so they opt to produce a Verduzzo -- one of the two autochthonous vines of the region, along with Picolit, typically used for sweet, appassimento wines -- in a dry style. In the words of my traveling companion Wayne, Verduzzo is "a red wine grape with white skin." While that character is generally masked in sweet expressions of Verduzzo, it came through clearly here, with a tannic, grippy, somewhat aggressive texture that called out for food -- roast pork or veal come to mind.
As the evening progressed and our tasting wound down, Ferdinando offered us one last taste, of the only red produced at the estate, the Colli Orientali del Friuli Merlot "Clivi Galea," in this case from the 2003 vintage. Regardless of country and region, the Merlot vine loves clay and there's clay aplenty in the ponca soils of the Galea vineyard. Classically red-fruited and elegant at first taste, it took on a smoky character on the finish, where it showed quite a firm spine. Food came to mind once again, this time roast beef with pesto....
Bidding Signore Zanusso arrivederci under starry skies, I was ready for dinner, dreaming of sleep and, most of all, still savoring the intense, lingering impressions left by the wines and the particular passions of a father and son growing wines in the Friulano hills.