Visiting vineyards by Vespa and speaking Slovenian

By Wink Lorch

Everything seemed yellow on our first wine tour in Collio in north-east Italy, right on the Slovenian border. The sun shone brightly, some of the wines were curiously yellow and the Vespa parked outside our delightful agritourismo in the vineyards was bright yellow too! Unfortunately we were not on a leisurely trip, so we zipped around with four wheels rather than two in order to see as much as we could in a short three days.

Yellow Vespa waiting for wine tourists

Yellow Vespa waiting for wine tourists

Collio, part of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, is well-known to the inner circle of Italian fine wine fans as the source of the country’s very finest white wines. We were lucky that just before our planned visit we were invited to a launch of a new book on Collio’s wine and food by Carla Capalbo, an American living in Italy. This travel guide with a focus on wine and food provided incredible in-depth information, clearly presented and I would highly recommend buying a copy if you plan a visit there. Wine Travel Guides will add guides to this area soon and I’m very much hoping that Carla will be our specialist contributor.

Cherries in CollioThe local Consorzio, who both govern production and promote the wines of Collio, want to encourage wine tourists and supported publication of Carla’s book whilst leaving her a free hand to write as she wanted. Providing a range of Vespas for tourists to rent is also the Consorzio’s initiative, along with plenty of leaflets and maps available in the growing number of excellent agritourismo accommodation, restaurants and, of course, winery tasting rooms that are dotted along the wine route. Incidentally part of the wine route also doubles as the cherry route – something that back in May we enjoyed at each breakfast!

The heart of Collio, around the town of Cormons, is less than a couple of hours east of Venice and we soon discovered it is in deep countryside with the Julian Alps often in view. The views from the wine producers we visited were of rolling hills with forests high up and vineyards with little villages below. For those not used to being in border country, it might seem strange to find that not only do many wine producers in this Italian land speak to each other in Slovenian (or a local Friulian dialect), but when they show you the view, they carefully indicate: “that village is in Slovenia, the few houses next to it are in Italy, the next village is Slovenia …” and so on. Collio is named Brda in Slovenian.

Vineyards in Zegla in the heart of Collio

Vineyards in Zegla in the heart of Collio

The predominantly white wines are generally dry and full-flavoured from a range of grape varieties. Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio and Friulano (formerly named Tocai Friulano) are the best known, though there is good Chardonnay and classy Sauvignon Blanc too, along with a handful of curiosities, most notably Ribolla Gialla, which made in the traditional way with a long maceration on the skins (most unusual for whites) is positively yellow and delicious. Most producers also make a blend which is simply designated as Collio DOC and is often the top of their range. It’s a good thing these white wines are full-flavoured because the hearty local food might, on first taste, call out for red; but persevere and you’ll find the full-bodied whites match really well. My enduring memory of tasting with the wine producers is being served fabulous dried hams (notably from the famous producer Lorenzo d’Osvaldo) and salamis, plus cheeses with great bread and olive oil.

There are few towns of any great size in Collio, the most important being Gorizia (which also has a Slovenian sector called Nova Goricia). We enjoyed exploring the smaller town of Cormons, especially sitting down on a balmy evening outside in the main square for a couple of glasses of wine and a plate of food at the friendly Enoteca di Cormons. We were also told about a joyous wine and food street festival in Cormons that we missed by a day – Fieste da Viarte, which is held on a Sunday at the end of May.

Patrizia Felluga in her vineyard

Patrizia Felluga in her vineyard

Back on the food trail, we had a lovely casual lunch at Luka, a trattoria in the important wine village of San Floriano del Collio. Owned by Patrizia Felluga of the famous Felluga wine dynasty, Patrizia also owns her own winery Zuani, producing just two excellent Collio DOC blends, and is the president of the Consorzio. Together with our friendly agritourismo hosts, wine producers Savina and Renato Keber, we also had a fabulous evening out at La Subida, one of the most important restaurants in the region.

La Subida is more than just a restaurant, as they also offer accommodation, have an equestrian centre and an informal trattoria down the road. Eating a meal at the beautiful La Subida restaurant is a real event, in a relaxed environment, with excellent local food and a huge wine list: if you have the budget to splash out, you should definitely seek advice on the wines to choose from the sommelier. The quality of La Subida, of the local white wines and the warm Slovenian-style welcome combine to show that Collio is a real heartland of gastronomy, something that until recently has been perhaps restricted to those ‘in the know’.

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