A “small compendium of the universe” was how writer and poet Ippolito Nievo described Friuli, “mountains, plains and lakes in sixty miles from north to south.”.
These miles also include that range of hills that reaches from the border with the province of Gorizia to Tarcento, a town in the province of Udine. The area is all to the east of the main city in Friuli and while there are woods to the north, to the south lie a series of tidy vineyards on gently sloping hills, none of which reach two hundred metres in altitude, alternated with hollows or plains. We are in the Colli Orientali or Eastern Hills of Friuli, where the soil, called “flysch di Cormons”, is either marl or sandstone. Marl, which the locals call ponca, may contain different percentages of limestone and clay and alters depending on the atmospheric phenomena, crumbling into fragments that change from their original grey-blue colour, gradually turning varying shades of ochre yellow. In the Eastern hills, marl normally prevails over sandstone and the impermeable rock forces rainwater to run over the surface, eroding it. In time, this has formed small steep valleys where water courses flow.
The fragility of this soil would soon loosen the roots of the vines. To avoid this, the hills have been terraced from the hilltops to the plain below, and these are called ronc in Friulano, a word that does not exist in Italian that emphasises not only the characteristic of this landscape but has also come to mean a hill where quality wines are produced.
The Eastern Hills cover a fairly large area so the climate varies from one zone to another in terms of rain, wind, altitude and exposure and also distance from the sea, which has a warming effect on the vineyards, especially those between the roncs of Manzano, Buttrio, Rosazzo and Ipplis and up to Rocca Bernarda, Gramogliano hill and the Romagno woods. In this part of the hills, flowering, ripening and harvest generally take place earlier than elsewhere.
The coldest, wettest zone comes after Cividale, towards Tarcento, and in this strip of land, only Ramandolo and Savorgnano del Torre enjoy a milder climate.
The Eastern Hills of Friuli have a great vine-growing and wine-producing vocation and some of its districts have managed to give such signature characterisation to wines that they have known worldwide as the pride of the Friuli wine business.
The coldest, wettest zone is linked to autochthonous varieties that live in symbiosis with its climate and terrain: Verduzzo, Picolìt, Refosco dal peduncolo rosso and, especially, Refosco nostrano, also known as Refosco di Faedis or di Torreano. This latter varietal has survived thanks to the local vine growers who, after the plague of parasitic diseases in the nineteenth century, insisted on replanting it, ignoring the fashionable pandering of oenologists and nursery gardeners who were making way for French cultivars. Verduzzo is golden in colour and sweet, at times buttery and tannic, excellent from Ramandolo Nimis and Savorgnano del Torre, which is also the top zone for Picolits obtained from aroma-rich grapes that are often favourably affected by a mould called botritys cinerea commonly known as “noble rot”.
The slightly milder zone to the east of Cividale encompasses Spessa di Cividale, S. Anna, Ronchi di Gagliano, Prepotto, Novacuzzo, Croaretto, Albana, Cialla, and Fornalis. While the white wines such as friulano, pinots bianco and grigio, and chardonnay are fresh with delicate overtones, requiring time to bring out all their graceful smoothness, the feather in the cap of red wines is schioppettino, with the best examples coming from Prepotto Albana and Cialla. Another great red is refosco dal peduncolo rosso.
In the area closest to the sea, where its effects are felt the most, top wines are ribolla gialla and friulano together with sauvignon, pinot bianco and müller thurgau. Picolit expresses all its excellence once again in the hills of Buttrio Rocca Bernarda and Rosazzo and for a while now the latter has also been famous for its rosso pignolo. Only here and on the hills of Buttrio will you find a wine with the evocative name of Tazzelenghe, in other words “taglia lingua” or tongue-cutter, due to the acidity of the grape juice and not because the wine irritates the taster’s tongue. Even when its base acids are high, this wine caresses the palate, gently tickling it. A great red for drinking after a few years’ ageing so that its magnificent dryness and riot of lively flavours and aromas can be enjoyed to the max. This too is the Eastern Hills of Friuli, a treasure chest of fine wines, scenery, the men and women who have shaped the landscape, and wines safeguarded over time, skilfully warding off certain extinction! The hills in this portion of Friuli are a must-visit for all wine aficionados, a chance to follow and taste the local wines, enraptured by an aroma or a colour!
Maria Cristina Pugnetti