a ‘serious’ lunch
by Brough Gurney-Randall
Lunch with Tastes of Italy
An Anglo-Italian hotchpotch of folk gathered for lunch at 67 Pall Mall – London’s wine club – for a celebration of Tastes of Italy’s close links to this little-known region of northern Italy.
Our connection with the region began in 1990 when company director William Goodacre stayed with the Collavini family learning the ropes at their busy winery whilst picking up the lingo along the way. Since then we have made many friends out there and expect to make many more in the years to come.
Friuli Venezia Giulia, to give its official title, is located top right on the Italian map, bordering Slovenia and southern Austria. Italians manage to rattle out this mouthful with poetic ease but the region is more than a fusion of names, it is also a blend of cultures embracing Eastern European, Venetian and Slavic traditions. The name Friuli is derived from “Forum Julii” – the marketplace of Julius, which Caesar created in 50 BC on the site of today’s Cividale del Friuli. This town was the provincial capital and remained so under Lombard rule, the Cividale part being added as it passed to Frankish rule in 774 AD. The region is a crossroads and critically controls central Europe’s only access to the Mediterranean. Its strategically sensitive position has left a history that is both complex and, at times, violent. It has been occupied by Huns and Magyars, been conquered by the likes of Charlemagne and Napoleon and belonged to both the Venetian and Hapsburg Empires.
Tucked up in the armpit of Italy, Friuli struggles to attract visitors. This is not to infer the slightest whiff of anything unsightly, it is simply to convey that it is a bit of a backwater compared with the glories of Rome or Venice – or indeed any of the other popular Italian hotspots. And yet Tastes of Italy returns here year on year surprising our loyal clients with this little-known gem…. and they love it! What they find is genuine people and fabulous gastronomy in a scenic, and often dramatic, landscape.
From a vinous perspective, it is one of the few regions in Italy that produces decent quantities of aromatic, fresh white wine. Winemaking here is both creative and technically proficient – and whilst most wines are sold under the name of a single grape variety, a lot of producers’ flagship wines are inspired blends. The rolling hills of the pre-alps provide the perfect micro-climate for wine production. The region is protected from harsh northerly winds by the surrounding mountains – the Carnic alps to the north and west; the Julian alps to the north and east. There is plenty of sunshine to achieve full ripeness, but also altitude and gentle sea breezes blowing in off the Adriatic, mitigating any fears of excessive heat. Deep glacial soils and plenty of rainfall complete the perfect conditions.
The best wines come from the Collio and the Collio Orientale districts, close to the Slovenian border, where wines are made from both international and indigenous grape varietals. The former includes Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris (Grigio), Riesling, Cabernets Sauvignon (and Franc) and Merlot. But more interestingly, there are some wonderful and unique native varietals. Whites such as Ribolla Gialla, Vitovska, Friulano, Verduzzo and Picolit and reds like Refosco (and related Terrano) Pignolo, Schioppettino and Tazzalenghe. The later translates as ‘tongue stinger’ – but for the most part these local wines are both delightful and different which brings us neatly to our first bottle.
Collavini Ribolla Gialla Brut 2014
Collavini were at the forefront of reviving this ancient varietal, planting 4.5 hectares back in the 1970’s when most people were grubbing it up to plant French varietals. First documented in a deed of sale in 1299, this vine is believed to have arrived in the region via legionaries passing between Pannonia (modern Hungary) and Gaul. The current owner, Manlio Collavini, has continued to expand the area under vine to 15 hectares, earning him the epithet of ‘Lord of Ribolla’! They make an excellent and very reasonably priced still wine but this sparkling version is totally unique. After the initial fermentation (partly in barrique) the wine is aged on the lees in large gently rotating horizontal tanks for a least 30 lunar cycles before fining, bottling and release.
Description: mid gold, with good mousse of very fine bubbles. A soft biscuity nose with perhaps a hint of acacia makes way for a crisp dry palate. Textural but with refreshing “cut”
ANTIPASTI: San Daniele ham, torn mozzarella, roasted peaches & toasted almonds
It is time to take to the table for one of Friuli’s gastronomic treasures, San Danieli ham. Any Friulano, or Friulana, will tell you to forget about the inferior and cheaper product from – whisper it – “Parma”. They will tell you theirs comes from smaller pigs fed on better food, salted more gently and aged in the superior, drier winds of central Friuli. Produced in smaller quantities, it is more aromatic, sweeter and fattier than “the other stuff”. Reassuringly expensive, it melts in the mouth and is perfectly matched by Attems Cicinis Sauvignon Blanc 2017.
The Attems dynasty has a history of winemaking that can be traced back to 1106. Purchased by the Frescobaldi family in 2000 it now covers 44 hectares, but the Cicinis vineyard – located in the famous Collio district close to Gorizia – produces their best wine. The grapes are picked in different states of ripeness and then aged appropriately in either stainless steel, traditional oak barrels, or state of the art cement “eggs”. The wine is then assembled prior to bottling, drawing its separate qualities together. The result is both density and complexity, as well as the typical aromatics and familiar fresh acidity you’d expect from this varietal. It is a beautiful, silky, homogenous wine and to my mind, one of finest expressions of Sauvignon in the world.
PRIMO: Pan-fried fillet of sea bream with shaved fennel and orange salad
For this course we must imagine travelling south to the coast to Friuli’s capital, Trieste. This area is the Carso, a rugged strip of land between the Slovenian border and the Adriatic which, notionally at least, is the source of our fish today.
Accompanying this we are trying two vintages of Edi Kante’s Vitovska. Whilst it may sound like a discounted brand of Vodka, it is in fact an indigenous grape varietal; a cross between Prosecco’s Glera grape and Malvasia. Edi Kante explains: “Mankind should be proud of the land he works. Each territory can create something special, so in the vineyards of the Collio, it’s Ribolla Gialla; in my region of the Carso, it’s Vitovska grapes”
Resistant to winter frost and summer drought, this grape is a hardy little chap and it needs to be! This is hostile territory for plants where the vines fight for survival on the thinnest of soils overlying hard limestone. The family personally carved out the cellar three stories deep into this rock where the wine spends 12 months in old barrels and another six in stainless steel before bottling. As if that is not enough, it is then aged a further 7 years before release, surely making it Italy’s most extraordinary white wine.
Edi Kante Vitovska Selezione 2007 and 2010
Description: The first thing to note here is there is hardly any evolution in colour: they are both almost water white. Everything about them suggests wines of no more than 2 or 3 years age. The nose is discreet, at times offering hay (particularly the 2007), or acacia, citrus, later marmalade. The palate is also reserved with a wet pebble, hard minerality at its core. It is austere yet over time (we drank them both over 6 hours) it revealed different facets, like a face suddenly catching the light. At different times, sage, bitter almond, pear, spice, lanolin. It is important to note the wine should be served lightly chilled for it to be most expressive.
Both wines were superb but we called Edi the night before and here is what he said about them.
“These wines, the 2007 and 2010 vintages are my sons and they both turned out well. Perhaps the 2010 is my favourite but I am proud of them both. I am particularly proud of their evolution in the bottle. The wines show where they were made – they are fresh, saline, mineral. You can feel the sea and the karst landscape. This landscape is my home and like any woman you love, however difficult, you have to stay close and you make it work!” (Edi Kante, 6th August, 2019)
SECONDO: Spiced duck breast, celeriac dauphinois, dried cherry jus
For this course we must journey back through the Collio and press on north towards Cividale del Friuli. This is a pretty little market town full of history and charm, but we are stopping just short of it to visit the Rapuzzi family in the Cialla valley. This valley, with its ‘Ronchi’ (cultivated hillsides), has been famous for its wine for centuries and in 1496 the Honourable Chapter of Cividale decreed it would purchase their grapes every year. Schioppettino was the wine of choice for special occasions and it is well documented that the best came from this valley and the surrounds of Prepotto. After the ravages of the phylloxera louse in the nineteenth century, the varietal seemed doomed until a little viticultural miracle took place. When Paolo and Dina Rapuzzi established Ronchi de Cialla in 1970 they decided to plant their vineyard with cuttings taken from sixty vines rescued by Bernardo Bruno, the Mayor of Prepotto. With so many reliable varietals at their disposal they were considered crazy to plant this defunct grape in this obscure corner of Italy. It is pleasing that today they are renowned throughout the world for producing this extraordinary, rare and unique wine.
Ronchi di Cialla Schioppettino 2000 and 2010
2010 Mid-weight ruby colour. Nose of light red fruits with a touch of florality. Palate is light-bodied, silky and pinot-esque and yet there is a touch of white pepper and bramble leaf finish. Intriguing, with slightly dusty tannins that need food to make the wine work. In fact, as the lightly spiced duck arrived the wine was transformed becoming seamless and appeared to gain in density.
2000 –Light garnet colour. More earthy on the nose with raisins and dried fruit. It suggests an old Syrah (St Joseph rather than Côte-Rôtie) or an old warm vintage of Châteauneuf conjuring up Christmas cake flavours.
DOLCE: Pannacotta, poached apricots, crumbled amaretti
For this course we do not have to move, even in an imaginary sense, as we are staying put with another wine from the Rapuzzi family. No surprises that it is yet another rare grape unique to the region.
Ronchi di Cialla Picolit 2008
Picolit is Italy’s most precious and prized dessert wine but is a notoriously difficult grape and it is remarkable that it remains in cultivation at all. Owing to a genetic flaw, its flowering buds often fail to form, a malady graphically described as floral abortion. Yields are ridiculously low, though concentration and flavour are correspondingly high. Prices are eye-wateringly high too! It is occasionally a dry wine but most growers late pick the grapes and dry the bunches on hay racks. It is delicate and luscious without being over sweet or cloying.
Description: mid-gold with a honeyed, slightly earthy nose. Certainly sweet but there is a crisp cut and a pleasant skinsy bitterness at the finish. A great foil to a perfect wobbling pannacotta.
COFFEE & Petit Fours
We concluded with an expresso and that means beaming ourselves back down to Trieste, the coffee capital of Europe. Strictly speaking it should have been ‘Illy’ coffee, which it wasn’t, but for artistic licence let us imagine that it was. Francesco Illy arrived here from Vienna in 1933 and within a couple of years had invented the “Illetta”, the blueprint for the espresso coffee machine which revolutionised the drink across the globe. However, Trieste’s connection with coffee goes much deeper than that. It was here that coffee was first landed in Europe in the 17th century and it remains a massive industry today, with well over a million bags of green coffee stored in this vast port at any one time. But it’s not just working with coffee that is a tradition here, the locals also drink twice as much as your average Italian – and where better to do that than in one of the historic Viennese coffee houses found on the Piazza Unità d’Italia.
This waterfront square is the largest in Europe and its grandeur and scale reflect its incredibly wealthy past. Its magnificent neo-classical buildings face the open sea, inviting the world into its heart. Trieste may not boast a leaning tower, Uffizi museum or Colosseum but it certainly has soul born out of its border location and edgy population. The city describes itself as a “terra Mitteleuropea” and it is indeed an elusive melange of Austria, Italy and the Balkans. A true melting pot of a city, displaying its colourful history and cultural diversity through its people, gastronomy and architecture.
So ends a memorable ‘Tastes’ lunch with some extraordinary wines and excellent food. I hope that this little bulletin explains our special relationship with Friuli and perhaps it might encourage you to forge one of your own!