Joe Bastianich cuts a wide profile. He's a partner in a restaurant empire in New York City. He shows up frequently on his mother Lydia's PBS show on Italian food. He writes wine books. And he also makes very successful wines in his family's native Friuli. Founded in 1997, the Bastianich stomping grounds cover 28 hectares in Colli Orientali del Friuli. Over ten grape varieties are planted here, but the heavy hitters, which go into the flagship Vespa Bianco, are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Picolit. Vespa Bianco has been a structured, creamy, deep white wine from its inception, while the Tocai is consistently one of the best, with its typical aromas of hazelnut, almond and freshly cut grass. Also look out for the Calabrone, a bold red made from a blend of indigenous and international varieties.
About Friuli-Venezia Giulia
Northeastern Italy's Friuli-Venezia-Giulia (FVG) region produces very good Sauvignons, Pinot Grigios, and Pinot Biancos, as well as some delightful--and sometimes more serious--whites from native grapes like Ribolla, Malvasia, and Tocai.
This region is also a source of some excellent cooler-climate Cabernets and Merlots as well as a few idiosyncratic red wines worth seeking out. Until recently, Cabernets and Merlots from this part of the country were often excessively vegetal, but today quality-conscious producers are making outstanding, ripe wines.
Friuli-Venezia-Giulia also produces some of Italy's finest sweet white wines: Picolit and Verduzzo. Piccolit is a delicately sweet late-harvest wine reminiscent of acacia, honey, peach, and citrus fruits. Some air-dried examples can be much more concentrated, with date and fig flavors.
Italy, like France, offers a world of wine styles within a single country: dry Italian white wines ranging from lively and minerally to powerful and full-bodied; cheap and cheerful Italian red wines in both a cooler, northern style and a richer, warmer southern style; structured, powerful reds capable of long aging in bottle; sparkling wines; sweet wines and dessert wines.
Most of Italy enjoys a relatively warm climate, and the southern portion of the country can be particularly hot in the summer months. However, Italy's Apennine mountain chain, which traverses the country from north to south, provides an almost infinite number of soil types and exposures, as well as favored hillside sites in virtually every region, where vines can be cultivated at higher, cooler altitudes. Mountainous terrain has also resulted in the segregation of many small wine regions, enabling dozens of indigenous grape varieties to survive in near isolation. Here, Italy markedly differs from most of the wine world, which is becoming increasingly international in nature.
But Italian wine, as most North Americans know it, is a fairly recent phenomenon. Prior to the 1950s, only a tiny proportion of Italy's wines were even bottled by the farmer who grew the grapes. Most Italian wine was consumed by the local market. The Italian government's DOC system (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), created in the 1960s, imposed more explicit standards and thereby improved Italian wine quality while at the same clarifying the labeling of wines and thus making it far easier for Italian producers to ship their wines abroad. (Today DOCG -- Controllata e Garantita -- is theoretically the highest level in the quality pyramid of Italian wine, with this special status more recently granted to such historically important Italian wine areas as Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino and others: areas that had previously enjoyed DOC status for at least five years.)
Of course, some of the most innovative Italian wine makers quickly began to look for ways to escape the restrictions of this system. They believed that DOC laws actually prevented them from making the best possible wines -- for example, by proscribing the use of certain grape varieties or by requiring them to age their wines in wood barrels longer than they believed was beneficial in some years. Those with a more independent bent essentially opted out of the system, instead producing wines that were simply classified as Vini da Tavola (table wines) but that in a number of cases surpassed the "official" best Italian wines in quality and price. (A new law passed in 1992 created the IGT category, or Indicazione Geografica Tipica, for the innovative Vini da Tavola for which DOCs were not yet created.) These trailblazers have revolutionized Italian wine over a period in which French wines have merely "evolutionized."
Dry white wines with pronounced minerality and zesty fruit flavors
The Northeast of Italy is the exception to the pattern established in the rest of the country; here, white wine grapes are the standouts, while reds, although often interesting, are the afterthoughts. For an example of this, look at the grape Tocai. Also traditionally known as Tocai Friuliano, for its native growing region Friuli, this grape is a member of the Sauvignon family. Like its more recognizable and well-traveled cousin, Sauvignon Blanc, Tocai produces dry white wines with pronounced minerality, acidity and gentle fruitiness.
Thanks to the vagaries of European Union naming conventions, the Italians have been searching for a new name for Tocai since 2006. In 1993, after Hungary joined the European Union, they gained the rights to the name "Tokaji," and all the variations in spelling (Tocai, Tokay, and several others). All this in spite of the fact that Hungarian Tokaji is a sweet dessert wine, with little in common with Tocai Friuliano apart from its color. Displeased with this outcome, winemakers in Friuli ardently protested the proposed changes, arguing that their Tocai vines were indigenous and transplanted to Hungary from Friuli in the twelfth century. The legal minds at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg were not swayed. Now, Friuli wine makers are still trying to settle on a new title. So far, "Bianco Friulano" and "Tai," Friulian for glass, have emerged as possibilities, but a real consensus has yet to emerge.
Adding to the confusion, Tocai Friuliano is the same grape that the French call Sauvignon Vert. Not just that: it's planted widely in South America, but incorrectly labeled Sauvignon Blanc. All this is good trivia, but wines from this grape only really become interesting in Friuli. Here, especially in the Collio region, producers are cutting yields and vinifying with great care. This results in zesty, mineral-rich wines marked by notes of pear. Tocai Friuliano forms wines that are especially food-friendly: seafood is a can't-miss partner. We especially like the offerings from Bastianich and Mario Schiopetto.