Filming Season Two in Friuli with Charonte and Stige

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July 2013 found us in Friuli with 3 cameramen, a soundman, a fixer and a director. It was hot. Italy is usually hotter in July than in August. Italian wine professionals name their heat waves, just as we name our hurricanes. “Charonte” and “Stige” brought us temperatures between 95° – 102° Fahrenheit. Charonte (Charon) was the mythical underworld boatman who transported luckless souls across the River Styx (Stige). They gave new meaning to the expression, “Hot as Hades!”

Wineries keep exact records of heat waves because they chronicle warm nights which prevent grapes from achieving the acidity levels necessary for freshness, crispness and ageability. Good acidity comes from cool nights when the temperatures are 15° lower than those of daytime. Fortunately, there were fewer recorded heat waves in 2013 than in 2012, so we have hope for the 2013 vintage. And fortunately for us, many of our TV pieces were to be shot indoors.

Friuli is one of Italy’s most underrated and undiscovered regions for us Americans. It is a pity because it has a lot to offer and is close enough to Venice to inspire a side trip. Italy changes every 10 kilometers. Diversity makes Italy very interesting and constantly draws us back to it. Friuli’s history shows influences from ancient Rome, from the Venetian Republic and from its Austrian and Slavic neighbors. The culture of Friuli has been and remains solidly Italian. Friuli’s full name is Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

Most of the time we were in the zones of Isonzo, Collio and Colli Orientali, the plateau and hillsides in eastern Friuli. This area is midway between the Carnian and Julian Alps, and the Adriatic Sea. It gets both continental and Mediterranean breezes. The air is pure and almost heady. It’s perfect for the air cured prosciutto of San Daniele, the DOP pride of the Udine area. We filmed with the Consorzio del Prosciutto di San Daniele in a prosciutto facility. After seeing the process by which prosciutto is made and after having experienced two weeks of weather in the area, we saw first hand what makes this the perfect place for aging prosciutto.

Trieste was the gateway to Vienna in the glory days of the Hapsburgs and Austria Hungary. It was and still is the port of coffee, supplying many of Europe’s cafés and bistros. Alessandro Hausbrandt of Antica Tostatura Triestina showed us the techniques of wood roasting coffee beans and took us on a tour of the coffee warehouses in the Port of Trieste. “Espresso,” he told us, “is not a type or a grind of coffee. It is a method, a means of extracting coffee.”

We toured the Scuola di Mosaico in Spilimbergo. Only Ravenna can rival Spilimbergo in mosaics. This tradition of expressing artistic concepts through colored stones dates back to the Roman era. Minerals of various hues can easily be found in the local rivers and streams. Roman Aquileia, south of Spilimbergo and close to the Adriatic, was a center for mosaics. When Attila the Hun burned Aquileia to the ground in 452 AD, he destroyed the eighth largest city of the Roman Empire. Tiny Spilimbergo also has a medieval castle, a pedestrian town center and first rate restaurants. This is another example of Italian dominance in the arts, with the school having students from over 30 different countries.

Friuli sings of Grappa. Nonino, among other family distilleries, makes fine, modern grappa. We were fascinated by the quality and versatility of Tosolini’s Acquavite and Grappa. Soft and tasty, Bepi Tosolini’s “MOST” distillate even lends itself well to cocktails. Lisa Tosolini treated us to a tasty grappa sour. We were intrigued by the corporate name of Tosolini’s company, the Camel Distillery. It seems that, when the Tosolini’s were recreating themselves after World War II, Camel cigarettes were popular in their Povoletto area. There was even a jingle. The name was easily recognizable and stuck.

Italy’s most important wine nursery is headquartered in nearby Rauscedo. Called VCR, Vivai Cooperativi Rauscedo, has become the largest grape-growing concern in the world. There are over 1,100 hectares (2,700 acres) of nurseries and over 1,050 hectares (2,600 acres) of rootstocks, farmed by the 250 cooperative members and their staffs. Over 80,000,000 grafts per year are planted at Rauscedo. Satellite operations exist today in France, Spain, Greece, Australia and in Santa Rosa, California. Rauscedo is the world’s leader in the creation of healthy rootstocks and clones. VCR has been at it since 1933, and will never be replaced by the DVD! The director, Dr. Eugenio Sartori, opened bottles of wines made from rare VCR clones for us and gave us an educational, eye-opening account of global advances in viticulture during his 25 years at Rauscedo. We exchanged high fives in appreciation of this informative visit.

The wine school in Conegliano is in Veneto, close to its border with Friuli. There are cultural connections with both Conegliano and Veneto, since the days of the Venetian Republic. One wine shared by Veneto and Friuli is Prosecco sparkling wine. Made from an ancient Roman grape, the Glera, Prosecco actually takes its name from the Friulian village of Prosecco, a hamlet close to Trieste. Prosecco is now the world’s most popular sparkling wine.

Special wines come from special places. Isonzo, Collio and Colli Orientali in Friuli are special indeed. The pure air, continental and sea winds are combined with excellent soils and terroirs to form perfect microclimates, especially for white grapes. Hills, mountain ranges and pristine rivers round out the terrain.

Isonzo is a plateau rich in iron compounds, limestone and clay. The vines of Isonzo in great vintages are caressed by the cool and dry Bora winds, which sweep in from the wide, open valleys of Slovenia. In the hands of talented, dedicated growers, the grapes and subsequent wines rival those of the more illustrious Collio and Colli Orientali hills.

Gianfranco Gallo, Vie de Romans.png

Gianfranco Gallo, Vie de Romans.png

We found two such gifted and committed farmer/winemakers in Gianfranco Gallo of Vie de Romans Winery and Valter Scarbolo of Scarbolo Winery and La Frasca Ristorante. Both love their land and share their work with family members. Both produce an assortment of reds and whites from international and indigenous varietals. The emphasis is on dry white wines capable of being cellared for a decade or more. One vinification technique used by these two and other quality producers is batonnage.  This consists of stirring wine during the aging process, giving it greater contact with the lees, thus extracting more flavor and complexity.

Moving uphill to Collio we visited Roberto Pighin, whose family is renowned for wonderful Pinot Grigio from Friuli Grave. The Pighins did what most dedicated growers and wine makers do. They took their profits and invested in prime parcels of land, thus providing a better future for their descendants. One of the outstanding whites produced at Pighin’s choice vineyards in Collio is Sauvignon Blanc. The quality is consistently excellent, but quantities are always small. The soil here and in Colli Orientali is called ponca, dense and firm, loaded with microelements, well suited for premium white wines.

The Pighin Family and Crew

The Pighin Family and Crew

In adjacent Colli Orientali we were greeted by Marco Fantinel, whose family owns the La Roncaia estate. The hearty, dry red Refosco was elegant and complex, a step up from the more earthy Refoscos from lower lying vineyards. A luscious, unctuous dessert wine, Ramandolo, rounded out our tasting. Made entirely from the Verduzzo grape, this golden gem was balanced and harmonious with a crisp, mouth-cleansing finish.

Local, indigenous, autochthonous varietals grown in Isonzo, Collio and Colli Orientali include the white Malvasia Istriana, Ribolla Gialla, Tocai Friulano, Picolit, Verduzzo and Vitovska. Reds include Refosco, Pignolo and Schioppettino aka Ribolla Nera. International whites include Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, Rheinriesling and Sauvignon Blanc. Among the reds are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Grigio, and Pinot Nero. Some of these international varietals have been in Friuli for over a century.

The cuisine shows both Austrian and Slavic influences, e.g. gulasch and strucolo, a type of strudel. The people enjoy meats cooked on a fogolar, a local open-hearth grill. You cannot resist frico, fried grated Montasio cheese, or prosciutto di San Daniele, considered by many to be the most exquisite of all cured meats. The Friulian table reflects the historic crossroads with flavors from Slovenia, Hungary and Bohemia, alongside Friuli’s own hearty, rustic cuisine. Along the coast you feel the touch of Venice.

Local wines go best with the local food. Special wines come from special places and they are made by special people. Put Friuli-Venezia Giulia on your radar screen!

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