White, not red, is the forgivable reflex for wine lovers contemplating Friuli-Venezia Giulia’s Collio and Carso DOCs. Could a Collio red wine command attention? With the likes of Gravner, Radikon, Keber, Venica & Venica, Zidarich, Jermann, and more making global benchmark white, yellow, and orange wines in steels, woods, and amphoras from indigenous Ribolla Gialla, Friulano, Malvasia, Pinot Bianco, and Pinot Grigio fruit, why even consider attempts at international red varietals? Leaving the Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc to Bordeaux is also forgivable.
Last week before leaving Boston for Northeast Italy, I spent a few hours at the Boston Wine School at an energetic Ribera Del Duero seminar and tasting. Jonathan Alsop runs the school and every time I am with Jonathan, he says something simple about wine that lands with profound resonance. This time Jonathan opened the seminar for thirty wine writers and members of the New England trade saying, “we study Bordeaux so we can discover and appreciate regions like Ribera Del Duero.” Benchmarking field players against pinnacle performers makes sense. Knowing state of the art generates comfort and confidence discovering overperformers and their idiosyncratic advantages.
Last night in Cormons, a pastoral town straddling the Slovenian/Italian border in the heart of the Collio DOC, we sat down to an unforgettable meal at La Subida Josko Sirk and reflexively ordered white (orange) $38 ***** 2006 Radikon Ribbola. It was not all that simple, since the wine list is an encyclopedia of new and old vintages from the finest Collio and Corso producers. This wine was a soft pillow welcome to Collio; orange from extended whole cluster maceration inside steel. Unsweetened candied apricots, peach perfumes, herbs and spicy pepper leap from the oxidative styled orange liquid. Classically, the wine offers richness backed by a sharp linearity that coats the entire top of your tongue with exciting acidity. This is why I am in Collio, these are the wines I love to drink.
The family behind La Subida’s restaurants and guest houses know their way around Collio wines and thoughtfully convinced me to order an older vintage of ***** 1994 Gravner Rosso Vino da Tavola made from approximately 80% Merlot, some Cabernet Sauvignon, and a smattering of mysterious local indigenous Collio red wine grapes. It was only 65€ on the wine list and the first slurp of the wine had me thinking about Jonathan Alsop’s simple wisdom all over again. This time I pondered, “We study Bordeaux so we can appreciate old Gravner Merlot.”
1994 was a cool vintage in Collio, and this Gravner is only 12.5% alcohol by volume. And, there is not even a touch of brown at the edges of the twenty year old Merlot. The aromatics can easily transport you to Bordeaux with eyebrows raised in surprise. Tobacco leaf, lead, fresh raspberry, and red cherry fruit dominate the nose. The fruit is decidedly red, not black, and the wine finishes as long as any Right Bank Bordelaise could ask for. It is a combination of bracing acidity and freshness from a cold Collio vintage with ever present, rich, elegant berries and secondary aromas we have come to expect from venerable old Pomerols and St. Emilions. I am not sure I could have appreciated how special and unique this wine is had I not “studied Bordeaux” for the last twenty eight years.
This old Gravner actually conjured visions of 80 year old skiers you see gliding down ski mountains; clearly moving on in years, but still firm and capably holding on to the strengths of their youth. Their performance matured, not hindered, by age. All night and morning I have been thinking about this new breed of red wine discovery, something that California seems to have trouble replicating with its Bordeaux varietals, plagued by drying fruit or evaporating structure after twenty years.
Lesson learned; think red wine, not just white/yellow/orange in Collio. This afternoon, we get to spend time in Gravner’s cellars where we intend to learn more about the mysteries that allow red wine to perform like Bordeaux without shedding its Collio uniform.