This little-known region may have Italy’s best wines

In Friuli, white wine is the specialty. But there’s much more to this region bordering Austria, Slovenia, and the Adriatic Sea.

Late afternoon sun highlights vineyards blanketing a hillside in Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy.
Photograph by Thomas Linkel, Redux

It was around noon on a sunny autumn weekday when I first walked into the Enoteca di Cormons, hoping to get directions to a nearby winery. I’d sought out the town’s wine bar after a two-hour train ride from Venice, where I was living while writing a novel. A Venetian restaurant I frequented had served me a Pinot Grigio from an Italian region called Friuli Venezia Giulia, situated to the east, next to Slovenia, so explained the waiter. The wine, made by a small winery called Venica, was so delicious that I decided I should visit it. That was the sole purpose of my journey to Cormons 25 years ago. I was not primed for any deeper discovery. I was not looking to change my life.

The wine bar, which doubled as the town’s visitor center, was surprisingly crowded at that hour. Its patrons were Italian and Austrian tourists, along with several ruddy-faced fellows with thick hands whom I took to be farmers before realizing they were winemakers. I was the only American in the Enoteca, but I was easily lost in the convivial clutter of women in furs and somewhat over-served men who brayed fondly while their small dogs hoovered prosciutto off of the floor.

The wines on offer were from Cormons vineyards—most of them tiny in scale, unknown to the outside world. Some of them bore labels with Slovenian monikers: Keber, Prinčič, Picéch, Drius, Magnàs. I asked one of the bartenders for a glass of Venica. No, she explained in Italian—that winery was in Dolegna, eight miles away. The Enoteca served only local wines, she said. She then poured me a glass from a small winemaker who lived a couple of miles down the road named Edi Keber.

It was a white wine composed of three obscure indigenous grapes: Friulano, Malvasia Istriana, and Ribolla Gialla. I took a sip. The wine was strikingly aromatic, both fruity and saline in flavor, possessing a kind of mineral electricity as it coursed down my tongue. That it was the most remarkable white wine I had ever tried seemed almost secondary to a more encompassing revelation: A wine can explain a place in ways that no word or picture can.

That was then. I’ve since made a second home out of the Enoteca di Cormons, and of the Friuli region in general. Its wine is integral to our relationship. The Alps looming to the north, the Adriatic Sea to the south, and the mineral-rich rolling hills in between all conspire to form an exquisite natural equilibrium for human experience and, for that matter, grape-growing. 

Twenty-five years since my first visit, Friuli remains strangely under-touristed. I suppose there are good reasons. Being on the border with Slovenia and Austria, its culture and nomenclature aren’t straightforwardly Italian. Its capital city, Trieste, only became a part of Italy after World War II.

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A proud winemaking tradition

Friuli has its impressive Roman ruins and handsome castles, not to mention some of the country’s most important war memorials; but it lacks a world-renowned art museum or a leaning tower to draw busloads of gawkers. And although it rivals Tuscany and Piedmont as Italy’s most important wine regions, those two are far more famous for a simple reason: They specialize in red wines, not white.

Friuli is where I’ve learned that white wines are not simply to be tossed down, but instead deserve one’s full attention. As Cormons’ preeminent maker of Malvasia, Dario Raccaro, said to me years ago, with characteristic intentness, “Robert, tu sai che io sono bianchista”—meaning, “you know that I’m a maker of whites,” a proud vocation unto its own. The names Raccaro, Keber, Venica, and Toros dominate Italy’s award competitions every year (and now, thankfully, are all available in the United States) because there is rigor and personality behind every vintage.

The region also provides an obliging canvas for expressing territory with precision. Winemakers like Keber near Cormons, for example, grow their grapes in marlstone, which yields bracingly fresh wines that stand well with a minimum of human intervention. That’s even more the case in the higher-altitude village of Dolegna just a few miles away, where the Venica winery that first drew me to the region produces wines that are supernaturally fragrant and apple-crisp, kindred to the cold-climate Austrian wines an hour’s drive north. 

(This road trip links Tuscany’s picture-perfect vineyards and vistas.)

On the Isonzo plains, the site of some of World War I’s bloodiest battles, the relentless exposure to sunlight yields Sauvignon Blancs that rival those of Sancerre or Marlborough. Closer to Trieste and the Adriatic, the rugged limestone soil on the Carso plateau is another universe, one from which artisans like Beniamino Zidarich and Edi Kante have produced marvels from the native grape Vitovska that achieve a stony elegance and thus challenge a casual Chardonnay quaffer’s notion of what a wine can be.

I visited Kante’s winery back in 1998. A tall, stubborn genius, he is what the Italians call un gran personaggio, a true character—though also a generous one, devoting a late afternoon to an extensive tasting of his wines before leading me to a backwoods trattoria that I’ve never since been able to find. Similarly, the famously temperamental Josko Gravner, who ferments his Ribolla Gialla grapes in Georgian amphorae buried beneath the soil, received me at his winery in 2000 and then, by way of explaining where he was coming from both artistically and literally, drove me across the border to stand beside his grandmother’s grave in Slovenia.

Nowadays, when I visit the Enoteca di Cormons, I’m liable to run into a bianchista like Franco Toros or the sparkling wine specialist Roman Rizzi who, after a boisterous hug, invariably signals for a bottle of his making to be sent our way. Their affability, native to Friuli’s peasant traditions, masks a commitment to their craft that has only deepened over successive generations. Indeed, since my first visit to Friuli, progeny like Giampaolo Venica, Luca Raccaro, and Kristian Keber have built on their fathers’ work with innovative approaches to grape blending and fermentation.

Drinking in the history

The region’s bianchiste are unlikely to stray far from what has given them creative fulfillment, as well as modest renown. Of Friuli’s twenty thousand acres devoted to vineyards, more than three-fourths of its production is white wine. (In Tuscany, the ratio is almost exactly the opposite.) But it should surprise no one that the same winemakers can work wonders with red grapes as well.

I was reminded of this one evening a few years back, when I took a 45-minute drive from Trieste to meet an old friend at Lokanda Devetak 1870, a restaurant about a mile from the Slovenian border. The narrow, unlit, and scarcely marked country road leading there foreshadows the unpretentious, tradition-bound place that it has been for over 150 years. But thanks to its patriarch, Augustin Devetak, the country trattoria also boasts one of the most impressive wine cellars in Friuli.

Giulio Colomba was waiting for me at our table. A biologist by training, Colomba co-founded the Slow Food gastronomic movement in 1989 and was for many years the Friuli wine critic for Gambero Rosso, the revered annual guide of Italy’s best wines. From my earliest days in Friuli, I would run into Colomba at wine bars and restaurants. It soon became my habit to ask for whatever that bespectacled man with the mustache was drinking. For someone so learned, I found him to be genteel, curious, and always up for a challenge. This time, I wanted the two of us to spend an evening drinking only the region’s red wines.

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It was a cold January night, made for grilled venison and ravioli stuffed with porcini mushrooms. The chef and matriarch Gabriella Devetak was in her usual form, serving food that was unfussy but delectable. Augustin materialized from his cellar with four bottles—all reds, a decade or older, representing different corners of the region. One of them featured the local grape known as Terran, by tradition a rustic accompaniment to wild boar and gnocchi. But in the hands of Beniamino Zidarich, the wine was supple and persistent. Even more memorable was a Pignolo, a grape that was rescued from extinction a few decades ago and is justly regarded as Friuli’s noble answer to Cabernet.

But for me, the region’s definitive red wine has always been its interpretation of Merlot: far more robust and profound than the often-cloying version in the United States. So it was that evening, when Colomba and I fell into rhapsody over a 20-year-old deep ruby jewel known as Rubrum, made by the soft-spoken Franco Sosol of Il Carpino, from the high border village of San Floriano a dozen miles away. We both moaned in awe as the first sip of Sosol’s Merlot went down. The wine critic then simply said, “The victor of the night.”

Hardly for the first time, I considered Friuli’s capacity to surprise. “A person could come here,” I observed, “and happily just drink red wines.”

Colomba smiled gently. “You could,” he said. “But why would you?”

Robert Draper is a National Geographic contributing writer.

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