The key to the cellar door is 10 inches long and dangles from a crimson bow, held tightly by our host, Castello di Spessa owner Loretto Pali. He is leading our curious group deep into the bowels of his ancient castle in the Collio wine region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia.
I’m gaining a deep understanding of the wine produced here, which I quickly learn is closely linked to the cultural fabric of this very special place in northern Italy that borders Austria and Slovenia.
Collio Goriziano Wine Region
The shape of the Collio Goriziano Wine Region is a crescent, so depending on where you are, you can be looking at Slovenia with Italy on both sides. The terrain here is variable. The main difference between the more general Friuli valley area and Collio is that the latter is hills and slopes, with elevations reaching 935 feet (285 meters) and coastal influence only 20 minutes away. The northern mountain influence is an hour away.
These hillsides are exemplary for wine-grape growing, offering suitable soil, sunlight and climactic variance to produce complex, interesting wines, particularly white varietals such as sauvignon, friulano, pinot grigio, ribolla gialla and malvasia.
Sunset From Baronesse Tacco
The Collio hills also make for epic views. A 360-degree sunset panorama unveils itself on the tippy top resort venue of Baronesse Tacco, the location of a tasting of 30 wine producers within the Consorzio Collio, the organization that has put together this four-day wine event I’m attending.
After sampling some standouts, like the 2016 Primosic friulano, the 2017 Gradis’ciutta malvasia and the ribolla gialla from Borgo Conventi, we gather for a multi-course dinner by Michelin-starred chef Daniele Repetti, concluding with a memorable dessert of ricotta panna cotta, raspberry meringue, lemon verbena gel and fresh berries.
In a rare shift, instead of more wine, I end the night with an excellent espresso by Torrefazione, who was showcasing its award-winning beans at a table out front.
In the days before this cumulative tasting, our group of wine educators, industry leaders and journalists had explored Collio wines exhaustively via estate tours and tastings.
Collio Wines Excel
We asked questions like “Why is Collio a unique region?” (Answer: rain, wind, hills.) “What makes wine from here excel in quality?” (Answer: climate, biodiversity, sandy soil, low production.)
Through two technical sessions led by Richard Baudains of the Wine Scholar Guild, we learn about Collio bianco, a field blend of co-fermented grapes with the idea that “the whole is more important than the sum of the parts,” he explains.
And after tasting more than 30 different sauvignons, we are infused with an understanding of this variable white varietal and why it is a difficult wine to taste because most people are pigeon-holing it with all the styles made throughout the world, from France to Australia.
Diverse Terrain Ideal for Hiking
We also explore the area, a wild, diverse terrain with abundant hiking and other adventures. Our hike along the sentiero delle vigne alte (“the path of the high vineyards”) weaves in and out of vines and showcases the soil we had been learning so much about.
Hours and muddy shoes later, we descend onto the road that leads us to Osteria de la Subida, a typical taverna that is the setting for our leisurely lunch of regional delicacies. We consume cheese, salume, olive oil, risotto, olives, preserves, ficco (fried mashed potato and cheesecake) and apple strudel – plus more wine.
Out back, this property also has guest cottages – where I would like to stay if I ever return – and a lovely pool, with horse stables across the street.
Collio Led White Wine Movement
Aside from learning that Collio makes 3 percent of the Italian national production of DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), a quality assurance designation for Italian wines, I also learn that this border region was a leader of the white wine movement in the 1960s and 1970s soon after establishing itself as the third Italian Consorzio in 1964. It is easy to see – and taste – why. As Baudains says, “The wines of the Collio have always had a reputation.”
But the larger theme that emerges is the integrity and pride these wine producers uphold. Their life work and its liquid result showcase the environment, culture and community living here.
Our first event comes full circle back to the castle where, after touring the cellar, the oldest in the Collio region, where three different world military forces took control and had their headquarters during various wartimes, we assemble for a truly astounding dinner by Chef Antonia Klugmann: tomato soup with truffles and hops, a simple and pure risotto with butter and sage, and pork rib with cedar, black garlic and mustard. This is topped off with another unbelievable dessert of chamomile ice cream, lemon meringue and ginger crumble.
Perhaps the best message comes from a panel discussion, where The Wine Economist editor and author Mike Veseth discusses the balance between environmental, social and economic sustainability. He says, “This is a critical moment…for Collio wine. This is the moment to draw on its history and look ahead…and to communicate that excellence with clarity.”
If You Go: Collio Consortium
Author Bio: Amber Selene Turpin is a freelance food and travel writer based in the Santa Cruz Mountains area of northern California. She has worn many hats, from baker to business owner to bookkeeper, but finds the most joy in writing stories of food and the world we live in. She is a regular contributor to Civil Eats, Edible Magazines, Napa Sonoma magazine, Slow Wine and The Mercury News in San Jose.