Small region, big reputation

Collio in the north-east of Italy is small but punches well above its weight in terms of the quality of its whites. For publication in the week starting 10 June 2019.

The Collio region, about 140km north-east of Venice, averages about 6.5 million bottles a year from its 1,500 hectares of vines. Soave Classico to the south, discussed in previous columns, averages about 15 million bottles a year even though Soave Classico has 400 fewer hectares of vines.

Collio winemakers aim to focus on quality as a selling point. Lower yields per hectare enhance wine flavours and quality. Unlike Soave, Collio exports a small proportion of its output even though it has a high reputation in Italy.

Richard Bourdains specialises in Collio wines and writes for Decanter magazine. “Collio gets more awards than any other area relative to size.” Last year Collio won three times more Slow Wine awards than Soave Classico (19 versus 6), Bourdains said.

A comparison could be the Margaret River region of Western Australia which makes 2-3 per cent of Australia’s wines but typically gains one in five of the country’s wine awards.

Bourdains described Collio as a “small but highly significant appellation” located between the sea and the mountains specialising in a varied production of prestige white wines “made predominantly by small-to-medium scale grower-winemakers”.

Collio landscape.jpgCollio has about 350 winegrowers, with an average of 4 hectares a grower. They make at least 18 wines in the Collio Goriziano DOC but represent only 3 per cent of all the DOC white wines made in Italy. Last year 87 per cent of Collio’s wines were white.

From May 29 to June 1 the Consorzio Collio, which represents local winemakers, invited about 60 journalists from around the world to Collio Experience 2019. The aim was to increase the region’s visibility.

When DOC status was first awarded in 1968 Collio’s main grapes were all autochthonous: Ribolla Gialla (45 per cent), Malvasia Istriana (30 per cent) and Tocai Friulano (24 per cent). From 2008 the EU forced Italy to change the name of the last wine to Friulano to avoid confusion with Tocai/Tokaj from Hungary.

Nowadays Pinot Grigio is the most-planted grape (26 per cent), followed by Sauvignon Blanc (20 per cent), Friulano (15 per cent), Chardonnay (9 per cent) and Ribolla Gialla (7 per cent).

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A Primosic wine

Winemaker Marco Primosic likened winemaking in Collio to composing music for an orchestra. Different grapes work together to create something better than the individual instrument. “Over time the grapes lose their individual characteristics to reflect the terroir instead.” One of his bottles is shown in the photo.

One of the delights of the region is its Collio Bianco, a blend of estate-grown grapes developed in the mid 1990s with a maximum of 15 per cent of aromatic varieties (Muller Thurgau and Traminer Aramatico). In the blend Friulano typically provides body, Ribolla Gialla gives acidity and Malvasia Istriana contributes floral characteristics.

One of the finest Collio Bianco I tasted was a 2015 Gradis’ciutta Riserva made from the three grapes just mentioned. Gradis’ciutta has converted to organic production and the emblem will appear on bottles from this year.

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Lorenzo Palla from Ronco Lanchis

Other excellent producers along with Gradis’ciutta and Primosic were Ronco Lanchis, Drius and Caronesca.

The Consorzio Collio has submitted an application to become classified as a DOCG but the process has stalled. Robert Princic, who stepped down as consortium president last month, is the owner at Gradis’ciutta. His lovely Riserva appears a model for a DOCG wine. He said his aim was to create something age-worthy.

Princic noted the region’s clean environment and sustainable approach to agriculture. “Gradis’ciutta chose to be organic a decade ago and cut its use of herbicides. We are taking little steps to help the land grow.”

Richard Bourdains said Collio wines had some ageing potential, though the best drinking window was three to six years after bottling. The wines do not develop tertiary aromas in the same way as those from the Marche or Soave. “Collio wines do not oxidise, which is a good thing, and aromas become less floral but stay fresh.”

Alessandro Sandrine.jpg

1997 Friulano

I tasted a 1997 Friulano from the Marco Felluga estate. It is still fresh and zesty, with pronounced terpene aromas reminiscent of an old Riesling. In the mouth the wine offered flavours of lemon curd creaminess and grapefruit with a touch of flinty minerality. The photograph shows the estate’s current winemaker, Alessandro Sandrine, with the bottle.

About 20 per cent of the vines in Collio are planted to Sauvignon Blanc. The grape has been grown in the region since about 1860. Legend has it that Count Theodor de la Tour from the Loire married into a local family. At the time the French government banned exports of vine cuttings. So the count smuggled cuttings into the country with bunches of flowers for his wife.

Richard Bourdains noted that Collio’s soils were mainly Ponca, which was ideal for Sauvignon. Ponca is composed of marl and sandstone and contains marine fossils (see the video below). The Collio hills were under the sea 56 million year ago. Collio shares a border with Slovenia and Austria. In Slovenia’s Brda region locals call Ponca “Opoka”.

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Brother and sister at Drius estate

Collio winemakers say Sauvignon Blanc is difficult to cultivate. Ripeness needs to be precise when grapes are harvested. This often means picking several times which can be expensive. “Locals tell me the best land for Sauvignon Blanc is where elderflowers grow,” Bourdains said. “I do know the R3 clone is best for Collio in terms of aromatics.”

Bourdains said Sauvignon Blanc was a difficult wine to taste because of people’s mental associations with the Loire or New Zealand. “It’s natural to put this grape into mental pigeon holes.” Another big variable in grape quality related to where it was grown, he said. “You get the best aromatics from north-facing slopes because grapes mature best in the shade.”

Part of Collio Experience 2019 involved a seminar on economic sustainability. The noted wine economist Professor Mike Veseth, author of the Wine Economist blog, said sustainability in the wine world was based on three legs: environmental, social and economic. They were like a stool that needed all legs to be balanced. “But traditionally economics has been seen as an enemy of the other two,” he told the seminar.

“We are at a critical moment in terms of economic sustainability worldwide,” Dr Veseth said. “The price of wines below 11 Euros is collapsing. Wines priced above 15 to 20 Euros offer lots of opportunities worldwide. But expect lots of competition in this segment.”

This was the moment for Collio to “focus on quality, be consistent with what you produce and communicate this to the world”.

This is sensible advice.

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was the guest of Consorzio Collio who provided flights, four night’s accommodation and some meals.

Words: 1,060

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