FOOD & WINE Magazine: Italy’s Next Wine Frontier
“On a hilltop above cascades of neat terraced vineyards framed by soft pre-Alpine peaks, Giampaolo Venica is telling me about “promiscuous agriculture.” And grinning. “Actually, it’s just our sexy Italian term for mixed farming,” explains the boyishly handsome 38-year-old scion of the acclaimed Venica & Venica winery. Until wine really took over Friuli in the mid-1980s, everyone just planted vines alongside whatever else they were already growing: fruit, wheat, maize.”
Looking around—Austria is to the north, Slovenia is almost visible to the east and the Adriatic Sea is 20 miles south—I decide that Friuli itself embodies an intriguing “promiscuity”: of cuisines and identities, of traditions and languages. Climates, too. “The salty Adriatic breezes combined with the Italian Alps create distinctive microclimates,” Venica tells me. “That gives Friulian whites their structure and special complexity.”
This once-obscure pocket some 100 miles northeast of Venice, where Mitteleuropa meets the Mediterranean, is captivating Italian and international sommeliers. I, too, have come to Friuli to experience its aromatic whites based on local grapes—Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia and others cultivated here for centuries—as well as the familiar Sauvignons and Pinot Blancs, French grapes introduced by Napoleonic troops. But I also want to explore the foods of Friuli, which is seen as a culinary frontier in Italian cuisine. For the next three days, with Venica as my guide, I’m going to learn just how ideally his wines pair with the region’s hearty offerings.”
Our first stop, before going in search of Friuli’s best salumi, cheeses and bakeries (we’re stocking up for a party in honor of the 2015 vintage), is the family winery. On a lush green estate in Collio, we sample the delicately floral Malvasia along with an apple strudel baked by Venica’s great-aunt Iole. His father, Gianni, and uncle Giorgio, both sporting blue vests, tell me about the winery’s history. The Venica family once grew cherries, apples and plums while producing vino sfuso(bulk wine) for their trattoria, which was famed for its frico—not the wispy wafer known to Americans but a thick, cheesy potato pancake—and, always, polenta. In 1988, just a decade after their first bottling, the Venicas were awarded Tre Bicchieri from Gambero Rosso, the top Italian wine prize. More acclaim followed; the estate grew, and, eventually, the Venicas converted their trattoria to a B&B and began concentrating on vino, with Giampaolo as the brand’s global ambassador. “At first I went door-to-door like a beggar,” he says, “pleading to American sommeliers about our Friuli.” Before long, American wine buyers were becoming more curious about regional Italian whites and eagerly started seeking him out. Soon, the family’s intense Sauvignon (“a vino dramatico“ in Giampaolo’s words), its surprisingly complex Pinot Grigio and its velvety Friulano appeared on the lists of such restaurants as Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan and Alinea in Chicago.