Beyond Pinot Grigio: Why You Need Collio Wines

Think of white wines from Northeast Italy and Pinot Grigio may come to mind. The Collio region in the southeastern corner of Friuli-Venezia Guilia makes intriguing Pinot Grigio while taking innovative steps to produce many other captivating white wines.

During the renaissance of Italian wine during the 1970s, red Super Tuscans garnered major attention. Meanwhile in Collio, white grape growers chose to nurture their indigenous grapes and also gained renown as a quality wine region.

At Press Club in San Francisco, wine director Mauro Cirilli states unequivocally that Collio is the top Italian white wine denomination. “With its unique terroir, it is hard to find a bottle of Collio wine that is not good.” Though Press Club is a wine bar with a diverse list, Cirilli always lists a few Collio wines.

What is it about this crescent of land in northeastern Italy tucked next to Slovenia that makes it so unique? Iris Rowlee, wine director at Perbacco in San Francisco, summed up the key elements of the terroir. “The mountain influences of the Alps tempered with Adriatic Sea breezes builds a platform for complex, interesting white wines.”

Photo: Collio Wine Route sign in Italian and Slovenian, Deborah Grossman

The Backstory On Collio

Collio is a small wine region. Many small growers cultivate 1,500 acres along hills and slopes, many with a southern exposure. The poncha soil, a mix of layered marl and sandstone, adds to the mineral and saline notes of the wine. With many microclimates, Rowlee added, “Collio is by far the top denomination in the Friuili-Venezia Giulia region.” To the north, Colli Orientali wines are fine, but it’s warmer in Collio and the wines have more phenolic expression and structure,” added Cirilli.

Collio growers have maintained their indigenous grapes wisely . Of course, they’ve received encouragement from fans over the centuries. In the third century Emperor Maximinus requisitioned so many barrels of Collio wine that a bridge was built to facilitate their transport. The Republic of Venice and then Hapsburg rule also encouraged the wine trade. In 1872, the area was one of the first to establish a wine association, a hallmark of the collaborative spirit among Collio winemakers.

Nobility built castles throughout the prosperous area. But wars were also waged at this crossroads of central, eastern and southern Europe. At Castello di Spessa, a historic castle and now agritourism winery, Casanova once stayed for an extended period. But so did Mussolini’s general who used the wine caves as military bunkers during World War II. The winery was bombed during that time.

The food is a fascinating mix of Fruilian, Austrian, Slavic, and German. Wild game with pasta strips is a local favorite. The local language of the Romance classification is named Fruilano, as is one of the native grapes of Collio. Many Collio residents speak Italian and Slovenian, and both languages are prevalent in the area,

Photo: Livon Manditocai single vineyard wine

Collio Indigenous Grapes

Collio white wines tend to have texture and character. Malvasia is fresh, lively and full bodied, is often served as an aperitif. The nose is fragrant—consider the wine as the tenor of the composition of Collio white.

Ribolla Gialla, a very ancient grape, is documented from 1300 in Collio, and the wines tend to be smooth and intense. At the Collio Experience Trade Tasting in Gorizia in May, Primosic Winery shared the evolution of ribolla gialla since the 1960s. The phenolics of ribolla gialla are especially suited for skin contact, and wineries such as Marco Primosic specialize in “new” styles of orange wines.

At Press Club, Cirilli has offered an entry level Primosic orange wine with slight skin contact with salmon tartar and Impossible vegan burger sliders. “The sliders especially match the complexity and rich flavor of the orange wines,” said Cirilli.

From the warmer areas of Collio, Fruilano yields full bodied wines that are popular as aperitifs or paired with seafood, white meats and prosciutto. Cirilli pairs fruilano with chicken parmesan sliders. The chicken is breaded, deep-fried and accompanied by tomato chutney, mozzarella and basil. “The wine has enough structure and acidity to cut the richness of the sliders,” he explained.

Collio Biano a blend of international and local varieties, is a specialty of the area. Winemakers take full advantage of the unique profiles of each vintage of grapes such as friulano, riboola gialla, and malvasia. Adding creative blends with international varieties, winemakers are keen to continually improve quality to increase exports of the wines.

Rowlee at Perbacco finds that Collio Bianco appeals to many palates. The minerality, structure and agreeable flavor profiles speak to many pairings. A special feature of most Collio Bianc is the ability to age.

Collio Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc

Pinot Grigio is grown in Collio as in most of Fruili-Venezia Guilia. Cirilli believes the most interesting pinot grigio comes from Collio due to its complexity, balance, structure and weight. When training his sommeliers about Collio pinot grigio, he emphasizes the differences to other Italian regions. “Expect a richer preparation—very unlike the watery, easy-to-drink pinot grigios available on the mass market. Another factor is the ability of the wines to age. The phenolic structure of the Collio wines leads to slightly more alcohol and more weight on the palate,” observed Cirilli.

Borgo Conventi was one of the first wineries to produce single variety sauvignon blanc. Many other wineries produce quality “sauvignon,” as the Collio wine producers call it. Attems is another producer who excels at sauvignon. Cirilli has served the Attems sauvignon blanc to much success at Press Club.

Photo: Zegla Hills of Collio, by Deborah Grossman

Collio Innovations  

Another highlighted Collio Experience event centered on the Zegla hills in the Cormòns region of central Collio. Known as the “Zegla Project,” three neighboring winemakers are promoting their own regulations to enhance the quality and recognition for their wines. Hugging the border with Slovenia, the rolling hills offer many different aspects for vines, but the ponca soils remain the same. These conditions offer the winegrowers a unique testing ground for best practices.

The wineries: Renato Keber; Edi Keber; and,Blazic, are all certified organic or nearly certified. The great, great grandfather of Tereza Keber founded Renato Keber in 1900 when the area was under Austrian rule. Tereza Keber plans on following her father into a winemaking. “I have always lived here and worked here, and projects like this are so interesting to me. We care about the environment and in building our new winery, we use old techniques like gravity flows for gentle processing of the grapes.”

Photo: Zegla project wines Credit, by Deborah Grossman

Only natural yeast is used, the wines are fermented in barrels and then aged in stainless steel for two years. At the tasting of recent vintages from the Zegla project led by Tereza Keber during the Collio Experience, I found the wines to show slight differences, but all evinced freshness with a lively texture.

In Collio, traditional practices are changing. Production of vignette singolo, or single vineyard wines, is uncommon. But at Livon Winery, third generation Metteo Livon is initiating new programs in the Collio region for vignette singolo, wines. Known for their Collio Bianco blends and pinot bianco, the friulano single vineyard wines are outstanding with pure and elegant flavors.

Collio whites are definitely worth a spot on your wine list or shelf. Here are highlights of the top Collio wineries available for sale in the U.S.

Attems

Importer: Vintus Wines

Top wines in the U.S.:

Pinot Grigio

Pinot Grigio Ramato

Key facts: The pinot grigio expresses the weight, texture and minerality that sets Collio apart from the Fruili-Venezia Giullia. Attems Pinot Grigio Ramato is unique—both a Pinot Grigio and a rosé – two of the most popular wine categories. The Ramato follows the traditional way of producing Pinot Grigio in the Veneto. The term ramato, or “coppery,” was used to describe the pink hue of the wine due to the short contact with the skins before pressing.

Photo: Borgo Conventi with appetizer Credit, by Deborah Grossman

Borgo Conventi

Importer: Constellation Brands

Top wines in the U.S.:

Collio Pinot Grigio

Collio Sauvignon [Blanc]

Key facts: Borgo Conventi is owned by the Folonari Family (of the Ruffino wine group) but retains independence on quality and its vineyards spread throughout Collio. The winery vinifies separate blocks of the same variety by soil type, altitude and exposure. The wines are then blended for the optimal mix depending on acid, structure and flavor profile. The wines, 85 percent of which are white, are produced with state-of-the-art equipment.

Castello di Spessa

Importer: Vias Import, Ltd.

Top wines in the U.S.:

Pinot Bianco

Pinot Grigio Ramato

Key facts: The red wine cellar of this historic winery dates to the middle ages. With production capacity of one million bottles, the winery produces half that amount to maintain quality. The Joy label of Pinot Gris Rosé was created for the American market. The Collio Bianco is called Santarosa after the former owners. Balalanced with aromas of nuts and peaches, the wine benefits from the small percentage which spends time in oak. The pinot grigio is well-structured with a fruity and perfumed nose.

Livon

Importer: Angelini Wine

Top wines in the U.S.:

Collio Pinot Grigio

Collio Sauvignon Blanc

Key facts: Highlights of this winery close to the Slovenian border include focused attention on vineyard management. They are replanting vineyards with modern, high density protocols. Livon is also focusing on planting and nurturing native varieties. The wines can age—tastings of 30-year-old Livon wines were lively with fruit notes. The new single vineyard series such as the Manditocai Fruilano are an exciting example of new winemaking perspectives in Collio. With a refreshing elegance, wines such as Manditocai single vineyard fruilano, are approachable and add diversity to the white wine list.

Primosic

Importer: Siena Imports Inc.

Top wines in the U.S.:

Collio Pinot Grigio

Collio Ribolla di Oslavia

Key facts: Collio Ribolla di Oslavia is the on-trend label for wine bar venues and restaurants. The wine is skin-fermented for 30 days this wine resulting in a deep yellow/light orange color. Primosic calls these wines “second generation orange wines. The winery has maintained historic vines for a bank of old ribolla  vines and has a strong commitment to sustainability and “lutte raisonnée,” the “reasoned struggle” against pests without chemical intervention.

Renato Keber

Importer: Passionné de Vin Imports

Top wines in the U.S.:

Friulano Riserva 2012 Zegla project

Keber Friulano Riserva 2013

Key facts: Brian London, co-owner of Passionné de Vin Imports, gives background on the 2012 Zegla Friulano Riserva: “100% old vine friulano, macerated for 2 days, pressed into Slovenian oak casks, aged one year, then transferred to stainless steel tanks, aged for another 2 years, bottled and aged for another year before release. It is the quintessence of white Collio wine, bright, fragrant, expressive, energetic, just an incredibly structured, vibrant wine.”

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