After the Second World War, an interim Yugoslav-Italian border was drawn up by the Allied Forces and then re-drawn again by the Allies and Tito in 1947 when he established a unified Yugoslavia. Almost overnight, extended families found themselves separated by a border with wine producers having some of their vineyards in Italy while their homes were in Yugoslavia, now Slovenia.
Vignerons were required to obtain special passports to tend their vines which were now in a different country. Historically there had been such a strong interdependence between these two regions that it was felt that neighbours who had known each other for years would not make good border guards so Tito insisted the border guards were brought in from what is now Serbia and Macedonia.
One young producer I met in Cormòns in Friuli-Venezia Giulia recalled how, as a child, he regularly walked through the vineyards to visit his grandfather about half a mile away and had to pass through heavily-guarded border controls. Even nowadays many of the leading Italian wine producers in the Friuli region speak Slovenian at home.
But aside from arbitrary and enforced divisions there is far more that unites these two wine regions. Both sides of the border are known mainly for their white wines, and varieties such as Pinot Gris, Ribolla Gialla, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Malvasia and Friulano (previously known as Tocai Friulano or Sauvignonasse) dominate alongside pockets of the rare and high quality Picolit. As for the red varieties, they grow mainly Merlot and a little of the fascinating Schioppettino or the often rustic Refosco.
There is also a reputation here for orange wines too (white wines fermented on their skins as if they were red wines which may or may not be fermented in amphorae) with famous producers like Gravener and Radikon leading the way.
To underline the interconnections between the two regions, half of our small group stayed on the Italian side of the border and half on the Slovenian side. Although my first wine love will always be Italy, I was pleased to be on the Slovenian side as I had never visited the country before. Both Friuli and Brda are beautiful hilly regions with green, wooded hillsides and quiet, picturesque hilltop villages and those were exactly the kind of views I had from the comfortable Belica hotel in Medana.
There is a lot of excitement on both sides of the border with regard to the wines. Big, creamy, full bodied whites are typically made from blends of Ribolla Gialla, Friulano, Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, with single varietals being made from Pinot Gris or some of the best Ribolla Gialla. The Malvasia Isonzo is more aromatic than almost any other Malvasia I have ever come across. There are ripe, full-bodied Merlots, and smoky, more delicate Schioppettinos – referred to by one producer as Friuli’s answer to Pinot Noir. Not to mention orange wines which attract so much attention with their intriguing flavours but generate so much controversy even among the producers themselves, let alone the wine critics. Last but not least, there are some thrilling wines made from the lovely Picolit/Pikolit grape variety in both sweet and dry styles.
Both regions have so much to offer in terms of the quality and excitement of the wines not to mention the scenery and the food. Friuli and Slovenia may not quite be ‘wine without borders’ but they are wine regions with more similarities than differences, and the border matters less than their mutual dependencies. In our current times of conflict and nationalistic separatism, this is surely an example for all of us.
Here are some of the outstanding wines I tasted and the producers who made them.
Borgo Di Tiglio (Italy) especially their DOC Collio white bends.
Paraschos (Italy) Interesting orange wines.
Tercic Matijaž (Italy) exceptionally good Pinot Blanc.
Ronchi di Cialla (Italy) These producers are masters of Schioppettino and presented a wonderful study in this variety with a mini vertical tasting of their 1984, 1994, 2004 and 2008 wines. The 1994 was the wine of the night for me. Also excellent was their Cialla Bianco 2001, a blend of 60% Ribolla Gialla, with Picolit and Verduzzo.
Bastianich (Italy) especially for their Plus 2011, 15.5%, 10 g/l residual sugar. Big, bold, over-the-top style but impressive.
Meroi (Italy) especially for their Friulano 2013 which had an elegant, minerally, Chablis-like style.
Marjan Simčič (Slovenia) I was not a fan of all of the wines here but the best Rebula I tasted on the whole trip was from Marjana Simčič and his Sauvignon Blanc 2004 was also very good.
Ščurek (Slovenia) A rising star – all of the wines I tasted here were excellent. The dry Picolit was really something special. Ščurek is also making a delicious new sparkling wine from the Glera variety which historically was planted in Friuli. Move over Prosecco!
Šibav (Slovenia) All their wines were good but they make outstanding Pinot Gris/Sivi Pinot.
Jakončič (Slovenia) They make a delightful, dry white blend with a very Burgundian feel called Carolina (2010), a blend of 60% Chardonnay, 35% Rebula, 5% Pikolit.
Valter Sirk (Slovenia) His Merlot and his Malvasia were both outstanding.
© 2014 – 2016, Susan Hulme MW. All rights reserved.