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."
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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.
Grabbing a few bottles for lunch, Venica sets us off on our tasting tour. In the pretty medieval town of Cormòns, we talk and taste pig with famed prosciutto producer Lorenzo D'Osvaldo and his son Andrea. Friuli is renowned for its silky, mild San Daniele cured hams, but D'Osvaldo's tiny production is different. "Unlike the classic Italian method," explains Andrea, "we smoke our hams Austrian-style after salting." They do this over a cauldron fueled with laurel and cherrywood that resembles a Druid worship site. Tragically, I'm informed, the EU food police are clamping down on such artisanal methods. We curse the EU at a table under an olive tree as Venica uncorks his dark-gold 2000 Ronco delle Cime Friulano. Its profound minerality and elegant structure are an uncanny match for the 24-month-aged prosciutto and alabaster curls of guanciale fat. "Friulani never drink red wines with prosciutto," says Venica emphatically.
Dinner that night is at the Michelin-starred Trattoria al Cacciatore della Subida, known for its chandeliers fashioned from deer antlers, amazing food and comprehensive Friulian wine list. We begin with a dish featuring local polenta, topped with crumbled ricotta salata. The slightly coarse polenta is blended from a "cuvée” of five local maizes and is faintly smoky from having been cooked over a fogolar, the Friulian hearth. Other updates of Austro-Italian specialties by the chef Alessandro Gavagna include eggy girini (tadpoles in Italian), a spaetzle-like pasta dressed with shaved zucchini and aged Montasio cheese. Opened in the 1970s by Josko and Loredana Sirk and now run with their children Tanja and Mitja, the place has evolved into Friuli's best restaurant. "Friuli owes huge grazie to the Sirks," Venica declares, not just for their food but for their "Collio in Vespa" program that provides bright-yellow scooters to tourists. The trattoria is part of La Subida resort, on the edge of an oak forest, that includes a cluster of chic-rustic guesthouses. The family's pet project, though, is the fragrant vinegar produced from local grapes, macerated with skins for a year, then aged for three more in barrels. "I want to get the world hooked on Friulian vinegar," says Mitja.
The next morning we're in Cividale del Friuli, founded by Julius Caesar. Venica introduces me to gubana, a yeast roll with a dried-fruit-and-nut filling. At the sweet-smelling Del Fabbro bakery, the owners shape ropes of stuffed dough into knots while I furtively dip a spoon into the tub of filling. It's a slurry of raisins, nuts, leftover sponge cake and crushed amaretti, moistened with plenty of grappa and rum.
For lunch we try soft local-vinegar-braised salami, served with masses of onions at the folksy Bar Trattoria Al Campanile. It's the sort of hunters' food that requires gulps of a red wine so tannic it's called Tazzelenghe, or tongue-cutting. "These are the flavors of our cucina povera,” says Venica about a frittata made with spring greens, and a potato frico that presents itself as a crusty brown disk concealing gooey Montasio cheese. He'll serve his nonna's versions at a party he's throwing at the vineyard the next afternoon.
By the last day of the trip, everything is a haze of Friulano, Malvasia, grappa, melted cheese and prosciutto fat. I wind down with Venica and his wife, Chiara, at their wood-paneled home in a vineyard. We are all longing for a refreshing salatone (big salad); instead, I join Venica's family and friends around a picnic table to celebrate the latest vintage. "Winemaking can be a nonstop disastro of hail, drought, mudslides and rot," Venica muses. "But 2015 felt like vacation!" Andrea D'Osvaldo carves a prosciutto leg; Venica offers up plates of frittata, frico and polenta, and pours wine with abandon. "Because if you spend all year creating a vintage," Venica declares, "and then you don't enjoy it with friends right in the vineyard—what's the point?"