Modern winemaking started in Collio - Italy’s most north-easterly region - in the second half of the nineteenth century, though wine has been made in the region for around two thousand years.
Collio winemakers focus on quality by keeping yields low. The region’s 1,500 hectares produce about 6.5 million bottles a year compared with neighbouring Soave’s 15 million bottles a year from only 1,100 hectares. Lower yields per hectare enhance wine flavours and quality. A typical hectare in Collio has about 4,400 vines. The Soave DOCG rules require a minimum of 4,000 vines per hectare but DOC wines tend to have up to 6,000 vines.
Grapes are mostly hand-picked because vines are grown on slopes, though the rows are wide enough to allow tractors sufficient space to operate. The soil in Collio is relatively uniform. Locals call it “ponca”, and it consists mostly of marl and sandstone. Ponca gives mineral and saline characteristics to wines.
Collio has around 350 winegrowers, who have an average of about four hectares each. The region makes at least eighteen wines from about a dozen grapes.
The Collio Goriziano DOC represent only three per cent of all DOC white wines made in Italy. Last year 87 per cent of Collio’s wines were white. The Collio was one of the first regions to receive DOC status, in 1968.
Summers can be hot while winters are cold and rainy. Average winter temperatures are about 4°C with 1,350 to 1,400mm of rain. Because of the rain the region is lush, with green rolling hills and forests. Indeed, three quarters of the region consists of forests and hills while only a quarter of the area is planted to vines.
Robert Princic, who stepped down in June 2019 as president of the local winemakers’ group, the Consorzio Collio, is the owner at Gradis’ciutta. He told me only about fifteen per cent of producers were organic or biodynamic. I suspect the large amount of forests and breezes from the Adriatic help eradicate grape pests. Mountains in the north shield vines from cold winds.
Vines tend to be planted on slopes with southern exposures to maximise sunshine hours. Collio is also famous for its orchards. One of the best ways to see the region is to travel the “wine and cherry road”, established in 1963. Do make a point of visiting some of the fine castles.
Collio winemaker Marco Primosic likened winemaking in the region to composing music for an orchestra because of the wide range of grapes – eighteen at least. 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 the delights is the Collio Bianco, a blend of estate-grown grapes developed from the mid 1990s. It has a maximum of fifteen per cent of aromatic varieties (Müller Thurgau and Traminer Aromatico). In the blend Friulano typically provides body, Ribolla Gialla gives acidity and Malvasia Istriana contributes floral characteristics.
In 1966 Cyril Ray, one of England’s best-known wine writers from the 1950s to the 1980s, described Collio wines as “whites from the hills that encircle the town of Gorizia” and recommended they should be drunk young when they had a “fresh taste and floral bouquet”.
In 2009 the region adopted a special bottle with a yellow capsule and the word “Collio” engraved at the top of the extra-long neck. The long neck is slightly narrower than traditional bottles, which means a narrower cork which tends to limit oxidation.
This bottle weighs 500 grams, well under the 600 to 650 grammes of the heavy bottles some regions use to impress consumers. It is part of the region’s attempts to be environmentally sustainable. Screw-cap closures are not permitted.
Collio whites do not have the longevity of Verdicchio from the Marche or the whites of Soave, but they can be safely cellared for up to about six years.
Richard Bourdains specialises in Collio wines and writes for Decanter magazine. “These wines develop up to a point. The aromas become less floral but stay fresh. The wines tend not to develop tertiary aromas.” Bourdains said the 2015 vintage was drinking well and believed the “best window” for most wines was between three and six years after they were bottled.
“Collio whites do not oxidise, which is a good thing. The acidity softens but juicy fruitiness continues. The common denominator of Collio is the quality, which is very high. They are nice wines to drink.”
A highlight of my visit to Collio was a tasting of twelve vintages of Friulano between 2006 and 2018 from the Ronco Blanchis estate, presented by winemaker and owner Lorenzo Palla. The grape was originally called Tocai Friulano. But the European Union forced Italy to change the name to Friulano to avoid confusion with Tocai/Tokaj from Hungary. The change took effect from 2008.
Wines from 2015, 2012, 2009 and 2006 stood out, though all were fine wines. All showed the way the local soil is expressed in the wines.
Another highlight was a dinner at Spessa Castle prepared by Antonia Klugmann, a Michelin-starred chef. The dinner marked the announcement of six Collio Awards, given annually to people who contributed to the scientific development of the region.