There’s something magical about eating and drinking in Italy. It could be the emphasis on using local ingredients, the pleasure of evening aperitivo with wine and small plates at an outdoor café, or drinking expertly pulled espresso standing up at the bar as the sun rises over terracotta rooftops. It could just be that the food and wine are delicious. But a large part of the magic of Italian food and wine is how decidedly, and geographically, varied it is.
Each region of Italy has a unique cuisine and wine culture, and maybe the farthest from what Americans might consider “Italian food” is that of Friuli. Throughout history, the area has been occupied by various societies that have informed its unique food. A plethora of international and indigenous varieties, as well as distinct cultural movements, yield red, white, orange, and sparkling wines. Such diversity, in such a small space, is remarkable. It’s exciting. And it’s part of why this is such an endlessly rewarding region to explore through food and wine.
Where is Friuli?
Friuli is in northeastern Italy. In the north, it’s bordered by Austria. In the south, by the Adriatic Sea. Slovenia lies to the east and the Veneto region to the west. The area’s topography is varied, including coastal shores and mountains. North of the Adriatic coast, the land rises steadily into plains, then rolling hills, then climbs even higher still to the snow-capped Carnic and Julian Alps.
Throughout the centuries, Friuli has hosted a number of cultures, including the Romans, Slavs, Austrians, Ottomans, Venetians, and French. At one point a group of people called the Carni lived there — they worshiped a Celtic healing god from their perch by the Adriatic Sea.
The Wine of Friuli
The wines vary just as much as this landscape and cultural history. There are over 30 varieties grown in the area — you’ll find international grapes like Sauvignon Blanc alongside indigenous varieties like Friulano. They’re used to make crisp, aromatic whites, fresh reds, and textural orange wines.
Currently, Friuli is most well known for the latter. In fact, the most famous producers here — Stanko Radikon, Josko Gravner, la Castellada, and Dario Prinčič — are partially responsible for the renewed global interest in the ancient process of skin-contact white winemaking. They all began producing orange wines in the 1990s and were inspired by the historic winemaking techniques of the Caucasus in present-day Georgia. Gravner especially latched on to the use of qvevri — large, subterranean amphorae — to ferment his wines. This desire to search the past for inspiration, to turn to historic techniques and indigenous varieties, is shared with other producers in the natural wine movement. It’s part of what makes these wines so compelling and valuable.
But attempting to define Friuli by that one winemaking style would be futile. Bobby Stucky is a Master Sommelier and co-owner of the Friuli-focused restaurant Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colorado. Through his work, he has traveled to the area enough to get a sense of just how diverse the winemaking techniques actually are. In the cookbook “Friuli: Food and Wine” he writes that lumping Friuli in with other Northern Italian winemaking regions together would be like “combining the Loire, Burgundy, and Beajoulais into one homogeneous chapter!”
Winemakers work in many different styles, he notes. “On the same day, on the same road, you might meet a producer making a Tocai Friulano in a crispy, non-oxidative style. His neighbor might make it with a lot of bâtonnage...and malolactic fermentation...The next producer might use no oak, and another might make a macerated wine.”
He also describes a macerated wine by Vodopivec that doesn’t fit the “orange wine” box, being “clear and vibrant in tension, quite luminescent.” Then there is the sparkling blend of Malvasia Istriana and Chardonnay by Edi Kante and the brooding, structured interpretation of the indigenous Refosco by Vignai da Duline.
The point is, the grippy macerated white wines of Friuli are delicious, and so are these. And they all point to the stunning diversity of influences that reverberate through this place.
The Food of Friuli
The impact of many cultures and terrains on Friuli’s history can be felt in the food, too. As various societies passed through the area, throughout history, they left culinary marks. The popular dishes of Friuli can include everything from a completely dairy-free seafood risotto from the coast to fermented turnips served with pork fat sausages.
Cjalsòn’s— little dumplings stuffed with melt-in-your-mouth mixtures of sweet, savory, and spiced ingredients — are a delicious example of a dish that encapsulates diverse influences. These aren’t your average Italian ravioli. The unique combination of techniques and ingredients, like raisins and mint, or candied fruit and cinnamon is evidence of the area’s history: in the Middle Ages, nomadic salesmen would trek the mountains of Austria-Hungary selling spices, which is thought to have informed this dish.
There is also cherry gnocchi, influenced by Austrian culture, Pestat di Fagagna — a preserved tube of lard, herbs, and vegetables used to season food — and smoked trout from the crystalline freshwater lakes of the region. Travel the region sampling recipes, and you'll be overwhelmed by the collision of flavors.
Enjoying them Together
Since I can’t travel to Friuli to experience this by plane, I recently decided to do so by table with a bottle of Dario Prinčič’s Jakot, an extended skin contact wine made with the indigenous Friulano grape, and a sizable serving of Prosciutto di San Daniele.
The experience was transportive in the best sense, and a reminder that wine is a portal into culture, identity, and landscapes. It opens pathways between the drinker and the vineyard and allows us an opportunity to appreciate the histories that brought it to our table.
Dario’s Friulano is made with extended skin contact: 22 days in old oak. It’s brilliantly orange — when light passed through my glass, it cast bright mandarin beams on the table — and has a depth reminiscent of the shadowed bits of amber.
For me, drinking it provoked the sensation of walking through a field, in the height of summer, that hasn’t been mown in a month. The scent of grasses warmed by the sun is intense and intoxicating. But walking in a field of tall grass in summer, rather than just smelling it, alters the experience. Because grass prickles and chafes. It has texture and intensity and a whole world of industrious creatures meandering through its stalks. Drinking Dario’s wine was something like that. It has a heady aroma that initially usurps its power and grasp in the mouth, but that thoroughly accentuates it. And it continues to unfold and reveal itself as you drink.
It’s fresh and drinkable, but with a sturdiness that begs for food. Specifically for melt-in-your-mouth San Daniele prosciutto, which comes from the northern part of Friuli. It’s smooth, rich, and just slightly sweet. The distinct flavor — which is unlike any other prosciutto in Italy — has something to do with the wind that blows in off the Adriatic Sea.
It’s a combination that could not possibly come from anywhere else. The wine and ham fit together in a way that is just impossible to replicate by consuming wine and food hailing from separate parts of the globe. It’s a combination that not only makes sense together, but that belongs together.