Tim had alerted us to the long drive, and we were all ready at 8am. Towards 11am, after a lot of very flat scenery and a very quick coffee stop, we suddenly saw hills. Then we were driving up into the Colli Orientale de Friuli (eastern hills of Friuli) to arrive at the one of the most picturesque visits we have ever done – the Abbazia Rosazzo.
Founded by Augustinian monks in 1230, who introduced the first vines to the hills (the Romans having only planted vines on the valley floor), a beautiful Romanesque church was built in the 18th Century. About this time many French varieties were introduced to the region, which had come under the influence of one Napoleon Bonaparte.
We walked through the cloister, admired the church with its frescoes, and went out onto the terrace which had magnificent eastward views to the Goriska area of Slovenia (where some of had been just over a year ago) in the north, and Trieste in the south.
The bishop of Udine owns the Abbey, but Livio Felluga, a family winery, manage the vines around it, and also farm 130 ha of vines on a hill a short distance away. Alice, the export manager, was our host and she explained the history behind the company.
Livio Felluga, who died at 102 years of age a couple of years ago, was originally from Istria but moved to Friuli in the 1930s, where his family farmed and made wine. Following the Second World War, while everyone else was abandoning the land to seek work in the developing chair-making industry, Livio returned (following 7 years military service, some time spent as a POW in Scotland), and bought vineyards, restoring and replanting them. He was hugely instrumental in the renaissance of wine making not only in Friuli but in the whole of Italy, with his focus on estate bottling (rather than shipping in bulk to the co-op or even out of the region), and the creation of the DOCs (appellations) that we are now familiar with. His family continue to run the business, which has achieved a stellar reputation.
Livio Felluga’s wines are mainly made under the DOC Friuli Colli Orientali, but they, along with just two other producers, make wines under the DOCG Rosazzo. These latter wines are made mainly from the Friulano grape, historically called Tocai, and known as Sauvignonasse in Slovenia. We tasted three wines with this grape variety, each demonstrating its aromatic mineral character, the top of the range Terre Alta (blended with Pinot Bianco and Sauvignon Blanc) the pioneering work of Livio’s son Maurizio.
Our tasting of six wines also included a fabulously rich, complex Pinot Grigio (as Tim said, this is Pinot Grigio, Jim, but not as we know it), their newest wine, a rosé, and a very interesting red made from Refosco dal Penduncolo Rosso which had a fresh fruity nose, and great structure on the palate. All the wines were wonderful and we were fulsome in our praise, also of the lovely nettle and herb-wrapped local cheese!
We drank some more Livio Felluga wines over lunch at Le Badie restaurant round the corner (due to the sweltering heat only a couple of us walked, and we were thankful to sit inside with the air conditioning on), yet another fabulous four courses, culminating in a properly wobbly mousse with a Picolit/Verduzzo sweet wine.
Luckily it was only a few minutes drive to the Friuli Isonzo area, back on the plains, close to the ‘Collio’ (Colli Goriziano) hills. At Vie de Romans Lorenzo introduced us to the region – which had spent 500 years as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, ending with the Second World War (the front line was just a few miles away) at which point no olive trees were left having been used for bridge construction and firewood. The wines grown and food culture of the region reflect the middle European influence – French oak had been used in the making of several of the wines we tasted, and there was Riesling in one of the blends!
Having spent a lot of time in the previous couple of days learning that you need hills to make top quality wine (the poorer soils, sunny aspect and cool nights making for lower yields, longer growing period and better fruit quality), we now had to unlearn some of that and discover that the terroir on this flat landscape provides equally good conditions. Lorenzo described how a few metres below us there was a very hard, but permeable, layer of limestone known as ‘karst’. (Fun fact: further down the coast towards Trieste, in the DOC Friuli Carso, dynamite has to be used to blast a subsoil out of the karst, which is then covered with topsoil brought in other regions)
The soil is therefore very free draining, a good thing as this is the wettest area of Italy, although this year they are suffering a drought and have had permission to irrigate. Vines send their roots deep in search of the water table, encountering all sorts of interesting minerals en route. The Bora wind that we had learnt about in Slovenia, which brings cold air down the valley from the Alps has a significant cooling and drying effect. The night time temperature can be 18 degrees cooler than the day, this diurnal variation making it particularly well-suited to white varieties.
The five wines we tasted demonstrated the quality this terroir can produce – rich, flinty, elegant Sauvignon Blanc, buttery Chardonnay, an even more complex, rich Pinot Grigio which was rose gold in colour and full of structure, and their eponymous blend of Malvasia, Friulano and Riesling (“Vie de Romans”) providing a whole spectrum of fruit and spice to choose from. We finished with the Sauvignon, this one from the 2008 vintage, which was still fresh and vibrant, but developing far more complex vegetal aromas and flavours.
A quick visit to the barrel cellar and we were off – probably quite glad that our long drive home was on flat ground, and all agreed it had been well worth the journey.