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The Aging Vineyard Hands of Collio

The Aging Vineyard Hands of Collio

Photo courtesy of Consorzio Tutela Vini Collio.

Collio, meaning hill or hillside in Italian, is a small DOC formed in 1968, tucked into the north eastern corner of Italy on the border of Slovenia in the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Gorizia, a city of 35,000* is the largest in the region, split between both Italy and Slovenia. Common to border regions, the languages spoken here are varied, including Italian, Slovenian, German, and Friulano, the local dialect. But is Collio more Italian, or more Slovenian? When asked, Saša Radikon, of Radikon, the leader of the orange wine movement in Collio, defiantly replies, “We are from Collio.” The region is not one or the other; it is both, intertwined and inseparable. 

Such is the complicated history of Collio, tied inextricably to both World Wars, in a physical area whose border has changed multiple times. It may have been a hard start for an Italian region (as many of them are), but their survival, tenacity, and fierce independence unite them and help create who they (and their wines) are today. The result? A region steeped in tradition, both in everyday life and in the vineyard. 

The Wines of Collio

Photo courtesy of Consorzio Tutela Vini Collio.

In the wines you can feel the push and pull of multiple places in one glass. Known for their high-quality white wines, 85% of production in the region is white and only 15% is red**. Made from Ribolla Gialla, Friulano, and Pinot Grigio, these wines are powerful and structured. A meal in Collio always starts with Ribolla Gialla, a fresh wine with linear acidity and minerality. Friulano is more complex, structured, and has more body; an age-worthy wine. If you order a glass of white wine in Collio, they will most certainly serve you a Friulano. Pinot Grigio from Collio is light but structured, and can benefit from 1-2 years in bottle. Unlike other wine regions in the world, the trend is that plantings of international varieties are being grubbed up in favor of local varieties.

Tradition Reigns in Collio

With 1600 acres under vine, it is a modest region, with 300 growers and 160 producers; most are small and family-owned. For these small operations, there is a local tradition that historical friends and relatives of the producer will work harvest every year, usually for decades. The average age of these people is somewhere between 50-70 years old. Elija Muzic shares that his family’s winery, Cantina Muzic, had a woman who harvested every year until she was 85 years old. This speaks to the traditional and familial feeling of the Collio region that permeates all parts of the culture. Hiring workers from outside of the region or country is still commonplace, but requires a certain set of standards be met: minimum wage, health insurance, and retirement benefits. 

Photo courtesy of Consorzio Tutela Vini Collio.

Friends and Family in the Vineyards in Collio

This tendency toward keeping things community-driven begs the question: why hire friends and family versus using your year-round vineyard staff and hiring seasonal workers? “It would probably be more efficient to hire younger and more qualified personnel, but it would mean giving up the conviviality that the grape harvest entails,” says Luca Raccaro of Raccaro, a fourth-generation producer in the area. “Friends know how to take care of the (grape) bunches as we would, so even if they are slower, the result is always excellent. We are willing to work more slowly because we know that the quality of the harvested grapes will be excellent. The modern world teaches us to always live in a hurry and to savor the beautiful things in life very little.” 

Roberto Felluga and Harvest Workers. Photo courtesy of Tiziano Scaffai.

Ilaria Felluga of Marco Felluga & Russiz Superiore shares Raccaro’s sentimentality about this practice. “Some small wineries still pass on this tradition, calling on friends and family, including the elderly, to help with the work in the fields,” she says. “This preserves an important ritual for the region, which has its roots in our history. In addition, by involving friends and family, the winery owners can be sure that trusted people are working in the vineyards, who know exactly how to do their job during such a delicate moment as the grape harvest.”

Felluga continues: “The tradition of asking friends or family members to participate in the grape harvest is strongly tied to the past of our region. Historically, in Friuli Venezia Giulia, the grape harvest season was considered a time of joy and celebration, which was usually shared with friends and relatives. It was the culmination of a whole year of work and therefore it tended to be celebrated with the closest people, who were also involved in the harvest itself.”

Labor Shortages Hit Collio

Photo courtesy of Tiziano Scaffai.

Labor shortages seem to have hit every corner of the globe, including the tiny sliver of Collio. “Traditionally, people who have vineyard owners in their families want to help during the harvest,” says Muzic. “Also, it has become very difficult to find new Italian or Slovenian workers due to labor shortages; and, unfortunately, young people in general no longer want to do some jobs such as grape harvesting because it is tiring and hot.” Collio as a region is seeing a decreased interest from young people in this sort of manual labor. This issue is not unique to Collio. As a whole, Italy is struggling to fill jobs in agriculture and in trades like plumbing and electrical work. 

In with the Old, Out with the New: Not in Collio

Collio is not the type of place to forget the past and blindly step into the future. Agricultural workers are needed to supplement year-round workers during harvest, and growers will do what they can to ensure their rich grape-growing and winemaking history continues, even if this means hiring friends and family to help. “All our friends are hired with regular contracts during the harvest, but many of them would be willing to give up their wages in exchange for a supply of the same value in wine,” notes Raccaro. “This makes us understand that the tradition of wine in Italy is something tangible and heartfelt by the population, especially by that rural population that knows the rhythms of this kind of work.”

Understanding Collio

Photo courtesy of Consorzio Tutela Vini Collio.

Collio is the type of place that is hard to understand if you have not experienced it firsthand. It is small and steeped in tradition, and holds on fiercely to their place in the history of Italy and of the region. It is a history with a hard-to-define culture and strong ties to the past, making it feel a bit “old school,” but in the best way.  

When asked: what would you want the world to know about Collio that you think they might not already know, Muzic replies, “Not all these things can be studied in books. They are skills that can only be lived here, and every time something new is discovered, a new aspect [is revealed] that was previously unknown. I think the most beautiful thing about the Collio is simply this: you have to live it firsthand to understand it well and only then be able to tell and teach about it.”