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robert camuto: letter from europe

The Collio Problem

With a trove of wines and vines, where does this Italian wine region fit in?
Photo by: Robert Camuto
Roberto Felluga of Marco Felluga at the historic Villa Russiz estate, which brought French varieties to the area in the 1800s.

Posted: Oct 9, 2017 10:00am ET

Northeastern Italy's Collio has a problem. A problem that, on its face, many wine regions would love to have: Too many grapes do well here.

Its terraced, hilly vineyards, which hug the Slovenian border, produce unique white wines from a long list of varieties—from international grapes like Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay to local stars Friulano and Ribolla Gialla, the backbone of many "orange wines."

And that's only the dry white wines. The area also produces a range of reds, from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to Cabernet Franc, along with a sweet white from Picolit.

The trouble is, with such a wealth of grapes and varied winemaker styles, it's been near-impossible to define the region to the world.

"It's a mess," says Robert Princic, 41, president of the Collio producers' consortium and owner of the Gradis'ciutta winery. "But the mess is our history."

For thousands of years, wine has been made here in the uppermost back part of the thigh of the Italian boot, between the Gulf of Trieste and the Alps. The area's hills of sandstone and marl (locally known as 'ponca'), on which the appellation is entirely located, make Collio prime white wine territory.

For centuries before the end of World War I, Collio, along with much of the Friuli region, was part of the Austrian Empire, and much of the population still speaks a Slovenian dialect. In the 19th century, French count Theodor de La Tour imported Sauvignon Blanc and other French varieties to his sprawling Villa Russiz estate. Then the Italians came.

Partly a result of Collio’s mixed past, the region’s whites are today a free-for-all. In the small appellation, which has 3,400 acres of vines, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Friulano lead the plantings, but 11 varieties are approved for use in either the DOC single-varietal bottlings or "Collio Bianco" blends.

Now Princic and other leaders of Collio's consortium, which counts more than 100 producers, have launched a sweeping project to put Collio first—and try to create some order.

With reformer's zeal, Princic says, "2017 is the beginning of a new, difficult and perhaps revolutionary journey."

Revolutionary?

Collio is applying for an upgrade to Italy's highest appellation status, DOCG, with the 2018 harvest. A key part of that is a proposal for a new category of wine: a Collio Grande Selezione white restricted to a selection of local varieties.

Friulano, which is rich in fruit, "must be the focus" of typical Collio blends, stresses Roberto Felluga, head of one of Collio's leading wineries, Marco Felluga. (The family company bought Villa Russiz 50 years ago for a separate high-end wine label.)

The proposed Grande Selezione blends would be required to contain 50 percent to 70 percent Friulano, balanced by high-acidity Ribolla Gialla and/or aromatic Malvasia (with a maximum of 30 percent of either). They would be released after two years and packaged in a unique angular bottle, designed by winemaker Edi Keber, that is already used by many Collio producers.

"We are putting all our chips for the future on local varieties," says Princic, adding that the move will encourage growers to change their plantings for future generations. 

"Change in the wine world is progressive," he says. "Once you plant a vineyard, it takes four years to produce grapes, but 20 years to produce great wines."

While emphasizing its local roots, Collio's revolution is unlikely to reduce its chief exported wine, Pinot Grigio, loved by Americans. The appellation's proposal calls for a new category called Collio Pinot Grigio Superiore, setting new standards and production limits that would distinguish it from the rest of Northern Italy Pinot Grigio.

"Collio Pinot Grigio is different from everywhere else," says Felluga.

He's right. Pinot Grigio has been planted here for 200 years. Though the wines show a wide color spectrum, from near-transparent to pink to orange, they tend to be richer than most Pinot Grigios.

So will new labels with words like "Grande" and "Superiore" help Collio become better known?

We humans like to categorize and classify. But Collio, at least up to now, simply defies classification.

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