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."