The Natural Wine Pioneers of Friuli
We say that natural wine isn’t a trend — and we’re right — but it’s certainly trending. Or rather, wines that sell themselves as natural are. But what about the winemakers who were doing this — organic or biodynamic farming, minimal intervention in the cellar — long before neon labels and clear bottles became the craze?
These are the people who inspire us. Many of the producers on our shelves fit that description — Lorenzo Macchiutti and Federica Magrini of Duline certainly do. Lorenzo and Federica are avant-garde winemakers in Friuli who have dedicated the past 25 years to crafting some truly remarkable wines. Incredibly classic, deliciously refined, and highly representative of their region.
And what a region to represent. “Friuli very much has its own culture and place in the way Sicily has its own culture and place,” says Brittany Galbraith, Director of Education. Historically, Friuli has been home to so many different cultures and countries — while borders shifted, traditions remained. The result is a unique region where you’ll find now-native Chardonnay leftover from the Austro-Hungarian empire alongside the longer-standing local variety Friulano.
Lorenzo and Federica’s wines come from old vineyards influenced by that long history, where you’ll find Merlot beside Tocai Giallo, Malvasia Istriana, Pinot Grigio, and more. Their philosophy is simple. Don’t trim the shoots, and don’t use herbicides. The result is anything but. As Brittany puts it, “Duline’s wines are complex but not complicated.” Because they know where they are from and celebrate with every single vintage.
We sat down with Lorenzo and Federica to talk about their journey, their process, and the place they call home.
This interview took place on March 16, 2022, with Federica Magrini, Lorenzo Mocchiutti, Sadie Williams, and Ashley Bryant. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Lorenzo and Federica courtesy of Kermit Lynch
Following Harmony in the Hills of Friuli
Sadie: One of the first questions we have is about the phrase “natural wine.” We're interested in hearing your thoughts on what that phrase means to you.
Federica: It's not easy to explain such a big word as “natural.” You may consider everything or nothing in this word. At this moment, I think there's a lot of confusion about marketing wines as “natural” or “not natural” wines. So it's very difficult to explain. The only thing that we can do is what natural for us.
At first, when we started about 25 years ago, we started as people who were consumers of organic food and had a great vision of what a natural life [would be]. And so we followed that idea to preserve the environment and respect the environment. But we’re talking about 25 years ago. At the time, natural wine wasn't a trend.
We started out producing organic wines, starting from the oldest vineyard, with vines from Lorenzo’s grand-grandfather. And so we had the incredible treasure [of] old vines with no pesticides, no herbicides.
We just tried to preserve the beauty of our environment and for us, that is the first idea of natural. Protect the environment. We are not the owners just because we bought some land — this is something we share with all the people.
Lorenzo: Yes. Our idea was to produce wines very focused on the life in the vines and the life in the earth. To have a glass that speaks about a treasure in the vines and in this way, we follow the idea of producing wines that express themselves clearly. They spend a long time refining. In this way, we try to express the grape's potential and why people have to preserve the biodiversity and preserve the quality of the soil without using herbicides, chemicals, or without using machines that destroy the fertility of the soil. The fertility of the soil is a very long process that needs centuries. And winemakers can destroy it in a few minutes by using a caterpillar or a big machine to reduce cost. But, we follow the idea [that we should] find the style of wine that clearly shows this quality of the soil and the treasure that we have in the soil. Elegance, finesse, and a long time refining.
Federica: At this point it’s very trendy to say, "My wine is natural." But for us, it's really a daily choice, so we could never use it to push the wines.
Ashley: Because you've been working on that for 25 years before the word natural was part of it. It's really a part of your daily life, how you live.
Federica: We have the dream that people can feel this in our wines without so many words.
Ashley: I think you can.
Sadie: You had mentioned that you're not using any pesticides or herbicides in the vineyards, on the vines. That's one part of making wines the way you do. What does that look like in the cellar, in terms of your process? You mentioned long aging times and making them more refined.
Lorenzo: Yes. The process is very linked with the process of the vineyard. So, very low technology. All we add is time, and wait for the natural process. It's easy because the way of refining and working in the cellar is the same in the last 1000 years even in Burgundy. It's very simple. Press the grapes and wait for the natural fermentation and for the malolactic to end. And then waiting and tasting many times. It's easy in the cellar because the main part of the work is in the vineyard. We are not enologists, we never had enologists in our cellar, in our estate. Also, we never had consultants in the vineyards or in the cellar. But we work very hard in the vineyard because in this way our raw material, our grapes are very easy to manage in the cellar. It's very difficult to destroy the quality of the wine.
Sadie: So you say that you're not enologists, and you never worked with consultants. How did you both come to winemaking? How did you learn how to do this in this way?
Federica: This is a difficult question. At first, the idea was to preserve the vineyards of his grand-grandfather and put our best into realizing something great, but great for us, of course. And so we spent a lot of time tasting, and visiting producers at the beginning. And we tasted some wine that we really consider opened our minds and [said] we want this, for our expression.
Lorenzo: I started following my grandfather and following the work he did in the cellar, in a natural way, but without knowing why. And then it became a necessity to know why the fermentation happens or why the wines refine in this and that way. And so I started to study and learn by myself asking questions to our colleagues and studying a lot of books.
Ashley: That makes sense. You mentioned that you tried some wines and they were these mind-blowing bottles that changed the way you think about wine. Who are some of those people or mentors that you had in this process? I know 25 years ago, not a lot of people were making wine this way.
Federica: I remind some Kante of '96, '97, or some wine from Burgundy of the same time. Just simple, simple wines, but so pure and clear that we understood that could be really our focus.
Lorenzo: A lot of good Burgundy. But not only winemakers but also people like Masanobu Fukuoka is a great teacher, [as is] Jean-Marc Roulot. You need both to understand and to do the best for your wines.
Federica: We love to put together different philosophies, different cultures. And so to find something deeply linked with us but not only one teacher, not only one way, but many ways together.
Sadie: And is that where your philosophy of not trimming the shoots comes from?
Federica: Well, we live in a good house in the middle of Duline, which is the oldest part of the vineyards we have, and we have so many windows that look out on the vineyards. It helps us observe and follow our vines every day. Lorenzo decided that observing the canopy was the most important thing to realizing a different idea of wine culture.
Lorenzo: When we're managing the old vines, we were lucky to observe something that the modern winemakers can’t — the natural physiology of the vines. The symbol on our label Mulberry trees married with the vines. But this is real, it's not just an image. We have mulberries, also cherry trees, and plum trees in the rows. And where the vine is married with the fruit trees, it's impossible to trim. We had the choice to choose to trim and take out the trees — naturally we decided to keep the landscape with the whole trees. But in this way, we observed that when we don't trim the shoots, every year the plants have a balance and harmony in how they grow. To make great wine, you have to not only find the equilibrium, but you have to follow the harmony.
Federica: And a great way to have the perfect harmony every year, according to the different seasons with the different quality of the climate, is to not trim. Because a plant that’s not trimmed, with the complete whole shoots, is able to grow according to the light and to the rain. If there is no light or a lot of rain, the shoots grow more to compensate for the lack of light. But in the season when the sun is too much, or there is no water, the natural physiology of the shoots is to grow less. In this way you have fewer leaves and in this way less alcohol and more freshness. And we discovered this only after many years following and comparing our wines with our neighbors and observing that every year our harvest was later, but with less alcohol and more acidity.
Lorenzo: So that is why we always do malolactic in our wines, because we have enough freshness to do the complete malolactic, and in this way, the wines are more stable and more adapted to for long refinement period. In the past, this was the way, it was the unique way in all the Mediterranean climate areas. But at the end of the '80s, consultants brought the idea to trim the canopy from France, because in this way, it's easier to trim not by hand, but with a machine to reduce the costs of manual labor. But it is not a technique focused on the Mediterranean area, it's for areas with a fresher climate like France at the north, the center of the north of France, where you need to increase sugars and reduce acidity.
Ashley: That's fantastic. I like the idea of trusting the vines, that they know what to do if it rains or if they need more sun. And it makes sense in the glass too, that the freshness of the wine allows for malolactic fermentation. It's probably a big reason I love your wine so much and why I think so many people do. And that it's even more age-worthy because of that is something that I hadn't really considered.
Federica: For us, malo is the natural way to produce, because it's the complete wine and it's very, very digestible for our stomach.
Lorenzo: It's a simple natural law that, "The longer the shoots, the longer the roots." And leaving the shoots to grow very long, the roots grow deeper. And it's why the vines we don’t trim are more resistant to the lack of water. And so it's very interesting this technique, and now with the climate changing, and at the same time, deeper roots, means more minerals inside the vines. It's why our wines are not only fresh but are always vibrant, and salty. It's a very enormous quantity of minerals, thanks to the roots and thanks to the shoots.
Ashley: They go together.
Lorenzo: Yeah, they grow this way. Deeper and higher.
Ashley: I hadn't thought about that at all, how it's related in that way. The other thing that I've noticed about how you choose to work in the vineyard is that you work with some more well-known varieties, Chardonnay or Pinot Nero, but you work with a lot of varietals that are native to Friuli. Were these older vines you inherited from your grandfather native varietals? What was the choice to keep them around? Why is that important to you guys when you could work with more well-known varieties?
[Lorenzo and Federica sidebar in Italian.]
Federica: Lorenzo is talking about they seem international varieties, but they are more Friulani than you might think.
Lorenzo: So, if you go today to buy the plants, to plant the new vine of Chardonnay, now, you buy an international Chardonnay. But what we have in our vines, arrived in Friuli more than two centuries ago, thanks to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And so it's very old genetics. The name is the same: Chardonnay and Chardonnay. But the genetics are very different. It's a very old, old kind of Chardonnay, and at the same time, an old kind of Pinot Noir. Old kind of Sauvignon, old kind of Merlot. No one sells these kinds of varieties now. The Austro-Hungarian Empire and also the Republic of Venice, spread these varieties in Friuli because they were very strong resistance to disease. We are very lucky to manage old vines that are very rich in these old genetics.
Sadie: You've mentioned the history of Lorenzo's family in the area. Can you tell us a little bit about that history? And how these vines came to be in your family?
Lorenzo: Okay. In the 1920s, my grand-grandfather moved from the center of the village, buying a little parcel to build the house and the cellar. And at the same time, [he bought] a big parcel with the most important vineyard in the village that was named Duline. And so at that time, my grand-grandfather started to replant Duline, and it's why the large part of our rows are from 1920, and then 1936, 1943. And we keep also one row that is still alive from 1908. It's more than 100 years old.
But at that time, they worked not only vines, they also had cows and bulls. But my grandfather in the 60s, decided to stop with that, and focus only on wine, and focus only on bottling wine. So, he was one of the first winemakers that started bottling all [his own] wine. At that time, only the noble families used to bottle wine or merchants that bought grapes from the little farmers. And so when we started in 1994, '97 with Federica, we were lucky to have 30 years of history of bottling wines. It's very important to have a history, to know how to bottle and how to refine the wine.
Federica: What was strange for Lorenzo's family, was that his parents moved from the village to Udine which is the city of Friuli. But Lorenzo and I did the opposite process. We left Udine and went back to the countryside, and they were not so happy about our choice at the time.
Sadie: Because you went back to being farmers?
Federica: Because they dreamed about Lorenzo as a doctor, me as a teacher, as an anthropologist. And so for them, it was very strange to leave this kind of opportunity and job to do something that 25 years ago for two young people, was quite crazy. Now it's very fashionable, at the time it was crazy.
Sadie: It brings me back to something you said earlier about, you said “following harmony” when Lorenzo and you were talking about the vineyards, the idea of following the harmony that you find in the vineyards and the vines, and I think a lot of people think about creating harmony. The idea is that we have to create harmony. You both seem to have a different viewpoint, which is that harmony exists, and it's our job to follow it, to find it, which is beautiful.
Federica: Thank you. It's like you are following the star in the sky, it’s the same to try to follow the point of harmony, but it's moving every time, so you have to re-adapt yourself to find it.
Sadie: Is there anything that you wish people in the United States knew about the wines and the winemakers of Friuli?
Federica: Someone once told me that Friuli is like a compendium of the universe because really you can find everything. You have the mountains to ski or walk, you have the sea, you have so much history. Here, there was the second most important city of the Roman Empire centuries ago. You have the boundary with Slovenia and the boundary with Austria, so in less than 100 kilometers you may move everywhere and find so many things to do and to discover, and also many vines of course.
Lorenzo: It's why also we manage so many varieties, because the land is very complex, and also the food is complex, the culture is complex, it's why you can find Malvasia and Chardonnay at the same time.