Are you tired of the chardonnay, sauvignon blanc rut when it comes to white wine? Well I am, and have been for quite a while. While I still drink massive amounts of chardonnay in the form of Chablis and other white Burgundies, and New Zealand sauvignon blanc, not to mention white Bordeaux, I have found refuge in lesser known whites which are not only refreshingly unique in their tastes, but also food friendly and, most important, cheap. Most come from Italy and Spain.
If you’ve followed my blogs for a while you know by now that I like to view the wine world as a conglomerate of appellations, rather than individual labels. It’s much easier to keep it all straight that way. Certain appellations consistently deliver good quality, regardless of label and price. Today I would like to focus on one such region, relatively lesser known, but quite promising if you seek “alternative whites”. It is Friuli, in Northeastern Italy.
As you can see from the map, this is on the Slovenian border, along the Ardiatic Sea, and in the foothills of the Austrian Alps. The appellation is formally labelled “Friuli Venezia Giulia”, although the city of Venice, included in the name does not contribute anything to it. The major cities in this region are Udine and Trieste. As you might guess from the map, being Northern and near the Alps, it is a cool region, ideal for white wines, its major output.
There are numerous varietals that come out of here, but for practical purposes, the two you should look for are Pinot Grigio and Friulano. The former is a ubiquitous grape, grown in the New World and Old, with all sorts of different names. For instance in Oregon it is called pinot gris. It is a cool weather grape, and in Italy, can be tasted from various Northern appellations including Lombardy, Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia.
While the Italian version of pinot grigio is indeed on my list of “alternative whites”, I would really like to alert my readers to the existence of the lesser known Friulano. This is a wonderful grape which makes for light bodied wines with floral and nutty characters, crisp and with bright acidity, thus friendly to various foods, including all seafood, shellfish, and some lighter meats such as poultry and pork (assuming the latter don’t have mismatched sauces).
I first experienced friulano in a wonderful restaurant in Sonoma, between Santa Rosa and Healdsburg named Zazu. An unassuming building which looked like a roadside diner, the place had its own plot of vegetables next to the parking lot, from which they derived ingredients for their menu. Their innovative wine list featured a “mystery” wine. If you ordered this, it came concealed, and you had to guess it. I was there with my wife and another couple who live locally, all of us “wine experts”. Their puzzle wine was what you see in the second picture, and we never guessed it. All we knew was that by the time the label was revealed, the wine was gone, and we all loved it.
I have since ordered friulano in various restaurants if it appears on their wine list. In the Bay Area these tend to be Italian restaurants with extensive listings from this country. It is invariably priced modestly, unique, easily drinkable both alone or with foods I mentioned above. And it does not fail to deliver.
While this might be a traditional wine of Italy, it is a new discovery here in our corner of the world, and its reasonable price relates to its obscurity among the wine ordering crowds in my area. If past experience is any guide, it will soon be discovered and the prices will go up. I can’t believe how much restaurants charge for Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand nowadays. A decade ago, when we discovered this wine, it was the friuli of its time. So the game is to latch onto the wine on its upswing before it becomes to popular and mundane. Keep on the lookout for it in Italian restaurants.