Imagine you are a professional car reviewer. Your days are filled with analyzing the latest makes and models, and going on regular test drives. Before the pandemic, you might have been whisked away to race tracks in Germany, off-road events in the Australian Outback, or given the keys to a sports car angled at Highway 1. Still, with the advent of electrified cars, you have plenty of variety to your work. Supply-chain hiccups aside, some say it is a “golden age” for car consumers because of these developments, and you — riding shotgun in this whole movement — tend to agree.
And then you are asked to review minivans.
That’s how I feel about Italian Bordeaux blends. We live in an age where I can buy four different Timorasso wines from four different producers in Denver, Colorado. Where I can explore the eccentricities of Piedirosso, the heroics of Valtellina and the natural wine scene of Sicily without ever setting foot in Italy (or a New York City wine shop, for that matter). And this is just the wines of one country. Why would I prioritize reviewing Merlot- or Cabernet-centric blends from a country with so many other vinous gifts?
Why would I prioritize reviewing Merlot- or Cabernet-centric blends from a country with so many other vinous gifts? Because, like minivans, Bordeaux blends are still what a lot of people buy.
Because, like minivans, Bordeaux blends are still what a lot of people buy. Maybe not as much as they used to, but they’re still a big part of the market. For many, they are familiar and they get the job done … like a minivan.
Fortunately, one unsung corner of Italy makes really, really compelling versions. So compelling, in fact, that my analogy drives itself off of a cliff: Friuli-Venezia Giulia, in the northeastern corner of the country.
Bordeaux varieties, but in particular Merlot, started taking a shine to this place in the second half of the 1800s well before Parker Points accelerated their ubiquity. With the Adriatic Sea immediately to the south and the Carnic and Julian Alps to the north and east, Friuli’s vineyards are perfectly positioned to take advantage of the climatic tension in the air. It may be a generalization, but where there is persistent tension in the climate — a push and pull of air currents — great wine can often be found.
In Merlot from Friuli, we find a wine of contrast that is plush and detailed, yet on a softer, and more elegant plane than most of what is churned out in Tuscany and nearby Veneto. One winery that exhibits this trait nicely is Ronco del Gnemiz, near Udine in the Colli Orientali del Friuli. Better known for their chiseled white wines — especially age-worthy Sauvignon Blanc — the Palazzolo family and winemaker Christian Patat clearly have an aptitude for teasing out Merlot’s often misunderstood finesse, as well as harnessing Cabernet’s potent spice and upright tannins.
These are familiar sensations — among the most familiar in wine — yet when they are dialed-in this precisely, one can’t help but smile at the revelation they become. Rather than a straight city street to the grocery store, it’s the open, winding road with the surf pounding on one side. Several other Friuli-based producers make quietly astonishing versions of Bordeaux blends and varietals. It’s high time we seek them out, even with Italy’s Renaissance of the Indigenous Variety chugging along.
2015 Ronco del Gnemiz “Rosso di Jacopo” Friuli Colli Orientali
Friuli Colli Orientali DOC
Grapes: Merlot (55%), Cabernet Sauvignon (40%) Cabernet Franc (5%)
Opinion: ★★★★ 3/4 (out of five)
Value: Very Good
Learn more about our wine icons.
A beginner might like … the subdued sense of power in this wine. In a way, there is nothing new to the formula. Everyone has had a Bordeaux blend, but to witness it taking on such a lithe form — where each sinew of detail holds up the frame with strength — is refreshing.
A wine obsessive might like … teasing out the details. As noted, everyone knows this recipe. It is where it deviates from the norm that we either find terroir or a deft winemaking touch. To me, Merlot from Friuli seems to have a quieter disposition, while remaining potent, taunt and enticingly fruity. The other half of the blend — the Cabernet Sauvignon and splash of Cabernet Franc — shows the winemaking skill from Christian Patat. The right amount of spice, the nuance of faint musk, and a steely frame to hold it all up.
Note: This wine was purchased with funds from our editorial budget thanks to subscribers like you. Learn more about gift subscriptions to help us keep the momentum going. Grazie!