La Castellada Ribolla Gialla 2007 – an outstanding orange wine (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
Studying the wonderful world of Italian wines is an exercise in discovering something very new and distinct at every step of the journey. If you’re someone who prefers a few select wines, you probably don’t understand the charm and the allure of Italian wines. But if you want to move beyond the ordinary, Italian wines are for you.
That said, the orange wines from the Friuli region in far northeastern Italy are truly unique wines, even for Italy. Few people have tried them and fewer still understand them. So what an honor it was for me to moderate a special seminar on the orange wines made from the Ribolla Gialla grape in the small Oslavia zone of the Collio wine district.
This event was held in Chicago and was the creation of six producers from Oslavia that have united to produce and promote the orange wines made from the Ribolla Gialla grape. The vintners that were in Chicago – and then Los Angeles a few days later for a similar event – were primarily the younger generation who are working with their parents in the vineyards and cellars in their small community. The list: Marko Primosic (Primosic); Stefano Bensa (La Castellada); Marco Princic (Dario Princic); Saša Radikon (Radikon); Martin Figelj (Fiegl) and Naike Sosol (Il Carpino).
Marko Primosic (Photo © Eric Benjamin Kleinberg)
A few notes about Ribolla Gialla in Collio and Oslavia. This is an indigenous variety and it is especially tied in with Oslavia, as these grapes have always been prized in this zone; indeed, when this land was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, merchants would sell the best bunches to the wealthy class, while leaving the other grapes on the vines. Vintners here recall eating these grapes when they were young and in some instances, two liters of Ribolla Gialla per day would serve as partial payment for the laborers in the fields.
While Ribolla Gialla can be made as a typical white, fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks and then released some six months after the harvest, these producers believe that because of the thick skin of this grape, they can craft a more complex wine by macerating on the skins for an extended period, ranging from 30 to 45 to even 90 or 120 days, as in the case of Radikon. This gives these wines tannins, which allows the producers to limit the amount of sulfur added to the wine; for Radikon, they have been making this wine without the addition of any sulfur since 2002 (much of the orange hue, incidentally, is natural, as the grapes change to this color with late summer and early autumn sunshine – this is a variety that is routinely harvested in the first or second week of October).
Radikon Ribolla (Photo ©Eric Benjamin Kleinberg)
I asked several of Chicago’s top sommeliers, who were in attendance, their thoughts about the wines. All were quite praiseworthy of the wines, noting their extremely high level of quality; Charles Schneider of Binny’s Chop House, mentioned that in his notes on these wines, he was writing much more descriptors than he does for most red wines – that’s some praise, indeed! I agreed with him, finding notes not only of mandarin orange and tangerine, but also honey, marzipan and almond. The wines ranged in vintages from 2011 back to 2007 (Radikon and La Castellada) and the colors ranged from light orange for the youngest wine to deep orange/amber gold for the oldest wines.
Chef Mauro Mafrici telling the producers and guests about his food pairings with the Ribolla Gialla wines (Photo ©Eric Benjamin Kleinberg)
Viktorija Todorovska, a Chicago-based writer and chef, who specializes in Italian food and wine, mentioned that as the wines are so unique, yet so unknown, they really need to be paired with food, in order to get the message across. Boy, were we treated to some marvelous food from Chef Mauro Mafrici of Pelago Ristorante as well as Masaki Restaurant, who prepared both sushi/sashimi with the wines as well as traditional Italian dishes from pasta to roast veal. The acidity in these wines is not searing, so they can accompany a wide range of foods and Mafrici- who is clearly one of the city’s finest and most inventive chefs – performed brilliantly.
Foods paired with the Ribolla Gialla ranged from sushi… (Photo ©Eric Benjamin Kleinberg)
… to roast veal (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
This was truly one of the most fascinating wine seminars I have ever been involved in and it was indeed an honor to moderate the discussion. It seems clear that the mainstream wine publications in America are not going to devote much space to these wines; the reasons most likely range from their limited production to the fact that they may indeed not “get” these wines. Make no mistake, these wines are individualistic and not for the general public. But how fortunate are we that these six producers – almost every vintner in Oslavia – go to the trouble to make these wines not only to show the world what orange wines are all about, but also to make a statement that here is the wine – Ribolla Gialla with an orange hue, aged often for several years in large casks, wines that can age for more than a decade – here are wines that represent Oslavia to the world. Just as Montalcino is a cradle for Sangiovese and the Barolo zone is home to the world’s greatest examples of Nebbiolo, so too, this little district in southern Collio, very close to the border with Slovenia, is home to one of the world’s most remarkable wines.
That’s something to celebrate!
A special thank you to Alessandra Gruppi from Collio for asking me to organize and speak at this event. Also a special thank you to Marko Primosic for his cooperation in putting this event together and my gratitude as well to Eric Benjamin Kleinberg for letting me use his first-rate images in this post.
And finally, a big thank you to Chef Mauro Mafrici for his efforts as well as the six producers for coming to Chicago and for making these brilliant wines that truly reflect a sense of place!