A Fascination with Friuli Creates a New Category in the U.S.
A small region in Italy’s northeast corner, tucked between Austria, Slovenia, Veneto, and the Adriatic Sea, Friuli Venezia Giulia is a rare haven for complex, aromatic white wines made from the region’s abundance of native grapes.
While the spirit of winemaking in Friuli is firmly rooted in time-honored traditions, it’s also a bastion of innovation and creativity. In the 1990’s, local winemaking pioneers like Josko Gravner started experimenting with ancient methods like extended skin maceration of white grapes and aging in clay amphorae—the results of which spawned worldwide infatuation with the skin contact wines of Friuli and led to an uptick in interest in the native grapes and region as a whole.
Inspired by these delicious wines, producers across the U.S. are now embracing Friulian grape varieties like Tocai Friulano and Ribolla Gialla. Why now? Read on to hear from a few producers who are betting on the wines of Friuli—and seriously reaping the rewards.
A Taste of Friuli in Napa
Friulian varieties have yet to become mainstream in the American winemaking scene, but there are an increasing number of high quality examples being made in the U.S., from well-known winemakers to small producers. Perhaps the most distinguished example is Napa Valley’s Massican winery, founded by winemaker Dan Petroski in 2009. Petroski drew inspiration from the refreshing yet complex white wines of Friuli, making single varietal white wines and blends using Friulian grapes, as well as international varieties like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc (which are commonly seen in Friuli).
A blend of Tocai Friulano, Ribolla Gialla, and Chardonnay, Massican’s flagship wine, Annia, has garnered widespread recognition and demonstrated the potential of these grapes in the U.S. Similarly well-regarded California producers such as Arnot-Roberts and Matthiasson have also had success with the Ribolla Gialla grape, making complex wines reminiscent of the great producers of Friuli.
From Coast to Coast
Long Island’s Channing Daughters is among the producers that have embraced the grapes and winemaking traditions of Friuli. The sustainable winery has produced Tocai Friulano, Ribolla Gialla, Friulian white blends, and skin contact wines as far back as the early 2000’s, years before these wine styles had been seen in the New York market. How did these foreign varieties find a home on Long Island? “Channing Daughters likes to push the envelope of what is possible in our region and our vineyards,” says James Christopher Tracy, a partner and winemaker at the estate.
The winery’s close relationship with the Long Island Cornell Research Vineyard (which Channing Daughter’s CEO, Larry Perrine, helped found) has been instrumental in its growth and development. In the 1990s, the research station tested the viability of certain grapes and production methods on Long Island, leading to plantings of varieties like Tocai Friulano, Rofosco, Muscat, and Blaufränkisch in 1999.
Tracy notes that the interest in Friulian varieties stems from his travel to the Italian region, as well as research into regions with analogous climates. As it happens, Long Island’s temperature, humidity, rainfall, and its coastal influence aren’t dissimilar to the conditions in certain parts of Friuli.
Even though Channing Daughters has been producing wines inspired by Friuli for almost two decades, winemaker Tracy is just starting to notice an increased interest in their more uncommon varieties like Friulano. He figures they’re gaining favor because the wine lovers of today have fewer “preconceptions and prejudices,” than people did “30-50 years ago, when many did not look favorably on some of these styles. Now people are more open-minded and interested in trying something new.”
For Tracy, Friulian varieties are a perfect alternative to well-known varieties and styles. Tocai Friulano has similar flavors to Sauvignon Blanc, but with a softer, rounder texture, and a stronger savory component. And Channing Daughters’ “Ramato”, their take on a Friulian skin-contact Pinot Grigio, would seduce any wine drinker with its charming aromatics and extremely soft tannins.
Morgan Beck, winemaker at Oregon’s Johan Vineyards, was uncertain if Friulian grapes would ripen in her soils. Unlike the humid climate of the Mediterranean, Willamette Valley is dry, cool, and windy. Emboldened by her love for the wines of Friuli and her interest in making a textual white wine and experimenting with skin-contact methods, Beck forged on. The grape was unlike any variety she had worked with before. “[It has] thick skins, with a pulpy and viscous inside to the point where when you press it you get a lot of pectin and solids,” she says.
Johan Vineyards grafted their Ribolla Gialla in 2017, and when it was first released to a limited audience of wine club members and a few distributors, there was little interest. Now, in 2021, their Ribolla Gialla is a highly allocated wine, and Johan Vineyards has a long list of winemakers who are interested in buying grapes from their vineyard of Ribolla Gialla and Tocai Friulano.
The Ribolla Gialla grapes are the last grapes the winery harvests each year in order to achieve ripeness. The cooler climate led to a lighter expression of Ribolla Gialla, reaching only about 11% in alcohol. Even though these grapes were a bit out of their climate comfort zone, Johan Vineyards’ marine sedimentary soils are a wonderful fit for these grapes, imparting a savory salty line in the whites that is often a note that is appreciated in great Friulian wines.
Beck attributes the rising interest in these wines to an increase in consumer education, curiosity to try new styles, and the growth of the orange wine category in the mainstream market. She notes that Johan Vineyard’s Ribolla Gialla, which is fermented on its skins for 30 days, is a great introduction to skin-contact wines or unfamiliar varieties, as it has “flavor profiles that are reminiscent of wines most people are familiar with but with a new dimension. It could easily fit on the white wine section of a wine list.”
Considering current trends in the wine industry, it’s no wonder that Friuli wines are having a moment. Interested in ancient winemaking techniques? Looking for a fun skin-contact wine? How about low intervention winemaking practices? Or a unique grape variety? Friuli has it all, leading to heightened interest from winemakers around the world. As U.S. producers continue to experiment with these grapes, consumers will delight in the wide range of expressions of Friulian-inspired wines.