If you are looking for fine Italian wine and food, consider the Friuli-Venezia Giuli region of northern Italy. You may find a bargain, and I hope that you’ll have fun on this fact-filled wine education tour.
Friuli-Venezia Giuli is a mountainous area tucked away in the northeast corner Italy, bordering on Austria and Slovenia. Experts believe that Friuli-Venezia Giuli was first inhabited twenty thousand years ago. Like most regions of Italy, it has belonged to many nations over the years. Unlike most regions of Italy, it remains multicultural, an exceptional mixture of Italian, Austrian, and Slavic influences. To make this article easier to read, we will replace the region’s full name by its first part, Friuli. The total population is less than 1.2 million.
While Friuli is home to a wide variety of agricultural products, most farmers don’t get rich. The farms tend to be small and much of the land is unfertile, suitable only for grazing and grapes. Unfortunately the Adriatic sea is in poor condition and fishing is on the decline. However, a wide variety of seafood is available. Friuli’s best-known food is San Daniele prosciutto, an uncooked ham aged in sea salt for over a year. Gourmets debate whether this ham or its cousin prosciutto di Parma from the Emilia-Romagna region in northwestern Italy is the best ham in the world.
Friuli’s administrative center is Trieste, which only became part of Italy in 1954. This city was once the principle port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Like Vienna, Austria, Trieste is filled with cafés. It is also home to the famous International Center for Theoretical Physics.
Friuli devotes about one hundred fifty thousand acres to grapevines, it ranks 14th among the 20 Italian regions. Its total annual wine production is about 27 million gallons, giving it a 13th place. Approximately 48% of its wine production is red or rosé (only a little rosé), leaving 52% for white. The region produces 9 DOC wines. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine and 1 DOCG white dessert wine, Ramandolo. The G in DOCG stands for Garantita, but there is in fact no guarantee that such wines are truly superior. Over 60% of Friuli wine carries the DOC or DOCG designation. Friuli is home to almost four dozen major and secondary grape varieties, about half white and half red.
Widely grown international white grape varieties include Pinot Grigio, often called Pinot Gris outside of Italy, Pinot Bianco, often called Pinot Blanc outside of Italy, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. The best known strictly Italian white varieties are Tocai Friulano and Verduzzo Fruilano, exemplified in the DOCG wine, Ramandolo.
Widely grown international red grape varieties include Merlot, grown in Fruili for well over one hundred years, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The best-known strictly Italian red variety is Refosco. Fruili’s candidate for grape variety with the most unusual name is Tazzelenghe, which means tongue cutter in the local dialect. While I have never tasted any wines based on this grape, I can guess that they won’t be delicate.
Before we reviewing the Friuli wine and cheese that we were lucky enough to purchase at a local wine store and a local Italian food store, here are a few suggestions of what to eat with indigenous wines when touring this beautiful region.
Start with Cjalzons con Ripieno di Cioccolata e Spinaci, Chocolate and Spinach Filled Pasta with Smoked Ricotta.
Then try Capesante alla Triestina, Broiled Scallops and Oysters with Watercress. And for dessert, indulge yourself with Strucolo di Ricotta, Ricotta Strudel. If you are like me, you think of Austria or Hungary, when you hear the word Strudel.
OUR WINE REVIEW POLICY While we have communicated with well over a thousand Italian wine producers and merchants to help prepare these articles, our policy is clear. All wines that we taste and review are purchased at the full retail price.
Pighin Pinot Grigio 2005 Grave del Fruili 12.5% alcohol about $13.50
I’ll start by quoting the marketing materials. “Toast, white flowers and mineral on the involved nose, this light-bodied white is all about zing, verve, and refreshing citrus flavors. Some notes of pit fruit, but mainly built to match up to seafood. Try with friends and grilled scampi drizzled with lemon juice.”
I first tasted this wine with sesame seed covered filo dough stuffed with hamburger meat and accompanied by zucchini in a tomato sauce. It was pleasantly acidic and fruity providing lemon and other citrus flavors. I liked it with a chocolate cake labeled strudel which intensified the wine’s acidity. I don’t think that any Friuli residents would have called that cake strudel, but this review is about the wine, and not the cake.
My next food pairing was with whole-wheat pasta in a spicy meat sauce. The wine stepped up to the plate and handled the spice very well. It was nice and round. I finished this meal with out of season strawberries, in whose presence the wine became almost sweet.
With filet of sole poached in onions, a side of brown rice, and okra in a tomato sauce, the wine became more acidic and rounder. It was quite refreshing. It was a sweet, acidic companion to fresh pomegranates. It took on a nice acidity with pecan and caramel chocolate candy.
Montasio is a cooked, full-fat, semi-hard cheese made from cow’s milk and aged for several months. It has a pungent smell and a strong, pasty taste. The Pinot Grigio was not outmatched by this powerful cheese. Strictly speaking, Asiago cheese does not come from the Friuli region, but its neighbors Trentino-Alto Adige and Veneto. Once again, the wine changed its character to match this softer cheese.
This wasn’t a great wine, but it did go well with everything. I would most likely buy it again.
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Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. His wine website is www.theworldwidewine.com .
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