The border wines

Friday, 11. August 2017 - 12:15

As our party approached the imposing white marble building in Oslavia, there was gloom in the air. With the menacing silhouette of Mount Sabotin in the background, the silence was thick. The building is a mausoleum: 58,000 soldiers of the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies are buried here. Between 1915 and 1917, in the Great War that was as bitter and pointless here as at the Somme and Verdun, no fewer than 12 battles were fought over the Isonzo river (Soča in Slovene) – a war of attrition Hemingway narrated so poignantly in A Farewell to Arms. 

After the experience of the mausoleum, the tasting that followed came as a shock. How could the wine of these hills taste so limpid and crisp? How could there be such camaraderie between winemakers with Italian, Slovene, and German surnames? Surely past conflicts could not be so easily forgotten? Thus began a fascinating exploration of an area known as Collio in Italian and Goriška Brda in Slovene, and considered one of the best white wine destinations in Central Europe.

Cut in half
The area around Oslavia, Gorizia, and Gradisca has been borderland since Ancient Rome. When Rome fell, it passed to the mighty Patriarch of Aquileia but soon became populated by migrating Germans and Slavs. The Venetian Republic and then Hapsburg Austria wrestled to gain control of the rural hinterland that fed the maritime trade of Trieste and Venice. During the Austro-Hungarian empire, the north-eastern Italian region of Friuli became a melting pot of three ethnicities: Latin, Germanic, and Slavic (who were nearly 60% of the population in 1900).

For all its tensions, Austro-Hungary fostered a peaceful cohabitation of these peoples. It was after the Empire disintegrated in 1918 that pressure mounted between two nationalisms: Yugoslav and Fascist Italian. The Mussolini administration persecuted Slavs but also sidelined native Friulians by relocating Central Italians to the area. After fascism’s collapse, deciding the new border between Italy and Yugoslavia resulted in a 10-year saga of guerrilla warfare and diplomatic treatises; World War II ended no earlier than 1954 here. (The paradoxical advantage was the avoidance of the large-scale displacements ubiquitous elsewhere in Eastern Europe.) In a gripping twist of fate, a memorial in the now Italian village of San Florianodel Collio pays homage to Slovenes who died in the Liberation War of 1941-45 against Italy.

The border was so arbitrary that farms or even single buildings were split; a farmer ended up with one cow being Yugoslav while the other remained Italian, the legend goes. Fascinatingly, two of the region’s top wineries, Movia and Renato Keber, have the same street address (Zegla 15), but in two different countries.

Families remained bilingual (or even trilingual, as Friulan is considered separate from Italian); Winemaker Kristian Keber, for example, has a Slovene mother and Italian father. But the crude reality of the Iron Curtain impacted Collio’s development for decades. As Italy slowly recovered from the war, Yugoslavia found itself politically marginalised. Collectivism discouraged quality and entrepreneurship. Soldiers from Serbia and Macedonia, oblivious of local relations, patrolled the vineyards to make sure the border stayed watertight. Brda was isolated from the rest of Yugoslavia by mountains and poor road connections, contributing to local individualism and closer ties to Italy than the rest of the country.

One revolution follows another
Fast forward to 1997. In the same town of Oslavia, Joško Gravner pumps his Ribolla into clay amphorae imported from Georgia. His neighbour Stanko Radikon stops adding sulphur dioxide to his white wines. The natural wine revolution is triggered and firmly puts Collio on the global map.

Yet it was not the first revolution in the area. In the early 1970s, Mario Schiopetto and Livio Felluga were the first in Italy to ferment white wines in stainless steel, adhering to an international style of crisp, clean flavours. (Collio was the warmest region in Austro-Hungary so red wine production predominated; in Italy, it became the northernmost area and so focused on whites.) They were also early adopters of French oak barriques, as was Gravner before his U-turn toward amphorae and skin contact. Temperature control and oak completely changed the game for Italian white wines, paving the way for the achievements of the 1990s; Friuli and Collio were again at the forefront of that change.

Meanwhile, Slovenian Brda also improved. Growers were forced to join cooperatives but could make up to 100 hL for ‘personal use’; those who found their vineyards cut by the border actually earned hard currency by selling grapes to Italians. Vintner Marjan Simčič mentions that the post-war decade, when Brda was included in the American-controlled A Zone, was also “very good business”. Compared to the rest of Yugoslavia, Slovenia always kept a notion of quality, later helping a smooth transition toward capitalist winemaking. The country also avoided war after Yugoslavia disintegrated in 1991. EU accession in 2004 and the adoption of the euro in 2007 brought further benefits, with Slovenia quickly narrowing the economic gap with Western countries. A growing, business-friendly economy, it occupies a respectable 30th place in The World Bank Group’s Doing Business ranking – 20 spots ahead of Italy.

Beyond orange
As the popularity of orange and ‘natural’ wine exploded amongst the vinous hoi polloi, it might have been tempting for Friuli and Brda to focus on those alternative styles. But local winemakers were savvy not to put all their eggs into the same basket. Crisp stainless steel whites still dominate, although the local terroir lends them more weight and spice than elsewhere in Northern Italy. Grape varieties such as Pinot Grigio, Bianco, and Chardonnay can be oak fermented for fascinating results, with variations such as larger and older oak as well as concrete tanks (and the ever-so-fashionable eggs); more heavily oaked styles remain popular in Slovenia, partly because they were embraced later.

Many top bottlings are white blends; in fact Collio Bianco was one of the early regional brands to counter the varietal wine craze in Italy. There is also a niche of sweet wines from the local Verduzzo and Picolit grapes. But it is the red wines that come as a surprise if you think of Friuli as a white wine region. Merlot works well here and gives many Pomerols a run for their money, while native varieties such as Pignolo and Schioppettino show huge promise. On the Slovenian side, there are impressive Cabernet Sauvignons and Pinot Noirs. Even quality sparkling wine is making waves. It is a case of ethnic diversity translating into a myriad of wine styles and flavours.

Critics argue this diversity is excessive, serving no commercial purpose. Some producers choose to focus on the Ribolla grape, while others advocate Friulano (formerly known as Tocai). Terroir determines these choices, so some define the Collio style more broadly: powerful, richly textured, malolactic-fermented white wines. Others argue global warming will shift the balance toward red wines. But don’t expect an Austrian DAC-style uniform wine pyramid here. “This can never happen in Friuli,” argues Stefano Novello of Ronco Severo winery. “Everyone wants to be different.” Years of multi-ethnic neighbourhoods and shared experiences have fomented a culture of tolerant individualism where creativity and constructive competition are held in more esteem than marketing strategies or regional definitions.

Joining forces
On the other hand, the neighbourhood in Collio-Brda is so good that some producers have started advocating a trans-border appellation of origin. Joško Sirk, whose La Subida restaurant in Cormòns is a hub for local vintners, is a notable proponent. Another is Kristian Keber, winemaker for the Edi Keber winery on the Italian side, who has also inherited land in Slovenia.

It definitely makes sense. The area is essentially a single geographical entity, sharing a pool of grape varieties and consistent wine styles. But at this point, economics kicks in. Existing estates in Brda can currently blend their own (but not bought-in) grapes from Italy into a Brda protected designation of origin wine, but not the other way around. The reason is simple: Italian grapes sell for €1.00 to €1.50 ($1.07 to $1.60) per kilogram, while Slovenian grapes sell for less than half that amount. Labour costs and bureaucracy are significantly lower in Slovenia; vineyards cost €50,000.00 per hectare east and €200,000.00 west of the border. The Collio PDO consorzio levies €0.07 per bottle, a promotion budget roughly five times larger than what Brda spends.

Italian bottlers thus fear they will be pushed out of the market by Slovenian competition if all wines bear the same PDO name. “It is a political problem,” says Kristian Keber. It is a typically Italian one, one might add, where consorzios are often controlled by large bottlers who buy grapes from small growers and keenly use that political leverage to their advantage. So a joint PDO appellation is unlikely to materialise anytime soon. The only legal solution for an Italian winery at the moment is to bottle a “blend of wines from different countries of the European Community” – an inelegant avenue followed notably by Jermann for their Vecchia Contea Stara Grofija wine. As often is the case, legislation drags behind reality.

Counterculture
After 100 years of bitterly divisive conflict, Friuli and Slovenia again gravitate toward each other. Is it a paradox? Or perhaps a valuable lesson: common heritage is the antidote to political poison. In a time of division and alienation, culture – wine culture, too – straddles arbitrary borders. Cohabitation evolves into integration, and neighbours end up becoming brothers. In Collio, wine is not just a drink; it is a powerfully unifying cultural force.
Wojciech Bońkowski

This article first appeared in Issue 2, 2017 of Meininger's Wine Business International.