Vignai da Duline (Doo-Lee-Nay) produces some of the top Northern Italian wines most people have never heard of. Their site, Ronco Pitotti, is one of the oldest hillside vineyards in Friuli—some of these vines were planted in the 1920s! There's a common thread through each bottling that's impossible to miss, with a balance and seamless structure that I more so associate with my favorite French white wines.
In the late 1990s, Lorenzo Mocchiutti and Federica Magrini inherited a few hectares of old vines from Lorenzo's grandfather. The couple quickly committed to the philosophy of "No trimming shoots" and "No herbicides." They believe the organically grown vines will find their balance through uninterrupted shoot growth, and who's to argue when it truly is the balance of their wines that stands out first and foremost.
Pinot Grigio comes from less than two hectares planted in 1940 and 1958 on marl-sandstone and limestone flysch. This bottling is a towering example of what Pinot Grigio is capable of!
Morus Alba comes from two parcels of Sauvignon Blanc and Malvasia equaling just 1.4 hectares. The Savignon Blanc and Malvasia vines grow on flych and red soils, respectively. Planted in 1940 and 1979.
Valori Merlot comes from a 0.32-hectare planted in 1920. Gravner and Radikon receive well-deserved acclaim for their Merlot-based wines, but I'd argue that Duline makes another great case. Only bottled in magnum.
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Italy has long been maligned when the debate at a raucous dinner party turns to The Great White Wines of the World. Often, names like Miani, Gravner, Radikon, Emidio Pepe, and Valentini are quick retorts when Francophiles list off the dizzying array of top producers throughout the country. To be fair, I've long struggled in finding Italian whites that reverberate with me like the benchmarks of France, Germany, and Austria do.
The aforementioned five Italian estates can be difficult to source, and pricing is often astronomical. Making proclamations about the great whites of Italy may be silly considering the wild diversity of varieties grown. But, after revisiting the oldest Friulano release by I Clivi I'm throwing caution to the wind: The 2015 old vine BrazanFriulano is one of the great, great whites I've ever had from Italy. At $39 per bottle this is not to be missed.
I Clivi's Friulano (formerly known as Tocai Friulano) comes from 70-year-old vines in the Brazan vineyard. In Collio these revered marl soils are known as Ponca. As a variety Friulano can be tricky, often succumbing to fatty and overly-glossy characteristics as acidity can drop off quickly while grapes are on the vine. Ferdinando Zanusso has fought against this by his meticulous organic work in the vineyard and in regularly sampling grapes before harvest to ensure picking occurs at the optimal moment. He also began to block malolactic fermentation in order to retain tension and verve.
I can't overemphasize just how thrilling the Brazan is to drink. On the nose there's a massive brioche character derived from the long aging on lees. On the palate there's a seductive gossamer texture that's perfectly proportioned to the ripe fruit and laser-focused acidity. And, while creamy coconut characteristics sound like an impossible feat to execute being balanced by bright freshness, that's exactly what Brazan does that ultimately made my head spin.
Some wines take a moment to really pull you in and reveal their greatness, but upon first sip this Friulano's perfection is made abudnatly clear. The best of Collio can show rich textural and exotic fruit notes OR they're built on mineral drive full of mouth-coating salinity. There's only one bottling I've found that displays both, and with each year in bottle Brazan's magic is divulged even more.
Friuli can be home to some of the most fascinating and adventurous wines in the world. Skin macerated whites (orange wines) have gained world wide loyalists, with producers like Gravner and Radikon reaching rock star status among them. Occasionally lost in all this is the brilliant whites of the region that march to the beat of a different drum. The clean and precise wines coming from Ferdinando Zanusso's I Clivi estate in the Collio region is just about the perfect representation of this other side of the coin. The first time tasting Ferdinando's wines it became clear these are destined for stardom, especially for those who favor more detailed, crystalline, and finely-etched whites.
I Clivi has a wide range of wines, but it's his Friulano (formerly known as Tocai Friulano) coming from 70-year-old vines in the Brazan vineyard that stole the show for me. The variety can be a tricky one, often succumbing to fatty and overly glossy characteristics as acidity can naturally fall out of these grapes rapidly on the vine. Ferdinando has fought against this by his meticulous work in sampling grapes regularly before harvest to ensure picking concludes well before sufficient acidity is lost. He also began to block malolactic fermentation to retain a taut and disciplined structure.
All the winemaking specifics aside, this bottling was an epiphany moment. As a more regular drinker of white Burgundy, dry Riesling, and focused Chenin Blanc I've found a certain criteria for whites that really reverberate with me - where fruit is shown through a prism of a well defined frame. Where plush and ripe characteristics are allowed, but held in check with an element of salinity and a mineral backbone for support.
The Brazan vineyard is ideal for these principles, planted on marl soils known in Collio as Ponca. Ferdinando goes out of his way to drive home the point that all his wines are a natural representation of his sites. Farming is organic, fermentation is native, and everything is handled in the cellar with the least amount of intervention possible. The Friulano from Brazan's 70-year-old vines are aged 18 months on their lees before bottling. This process allows the wines to regularly take a couple years in bottle to fully reveal themselves. The 2014 and 2013 vintages produced gorgeous wines here, but the 2012 Brazan Friulano stole the show.
The rich texture of Friulano is one that provides a never ending sense of fascination. I Clivi's example just happens to be one that balances that inherent weight with a fleet-footed touch that's unlike any I've come across.
2012 I Clivi Brazan Collio Goriziano Friulano
$35 per bottle.