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Ciao Tocai, Buongiorno Friulano
Ciao Tocai, Buongiorno Friulano on StarChefs.com
The region of Friuli on StarChefs.com
The region of Friuli marked in green.

By Jim Clarke
August 2008

"In trattorias or homes across Italy you are often offered a glass of wine – you say ‘sure’ and they say ‘bianco or rosso?’  In Friuli, however, there are no questions. Would you like a glass of wine?  ‘Si.’ And Tocai will arrive.” So says David Weitzenhoffer, wine importer and former Wine Director at Felidia’s in Manhattan. And for the most part it holds true – but something has changed.

Tocai is no more. As of the 2007 vintage the European Union has decided that another Tocai – the Hungarian wine, Tokaji, (both rhyme with pie) – had more right to the name than the Friuli region of Italy did. Never mind that Tocai Friulano, to give it its full name, is a dry white wine, whereas Tokaji is a botrytized dessert wine; Hungary wants its trademark wine protected. So “Tocai” is now “Friulano”; in Alsace, too, the traditional name Tokay Pinot Gris must now be shortened to simply Pinot Gris.
 
The relationship between Tocai and Tokaji, if there is one, is tenuous at best. Some say the grape has Hungarian origins. Others give it and its name more local roots. “Its name is said to be derived from the local word ‘tajut;’ which means glass of wine,” says Giovanna Borreri, Marketing Director at La Tunella, a Friulian winery. She says locals are understandably miffed to have the EU step in and rename their local star, but seem to be resigned to the new name. In a region blessed with a diverse number of indigenous varieties, “No one varietal represents the people and the region of Friuli more that Tocai. Friuli and Tocai are practically synonyms, which is why the name Friulano is not so much of a stretch,” says Weitzenhoffer.

The grape’s wines are marked by variety, ranging from light and crisp to a fuller, more honeyed style. Lots of factors play into that stylistic diversity: soils and clonal variety first among them, according to Federica Duline at Vignai da Duline winery. She says that a vineyard needs marly (clay and limestone) soils, called “ponka” in the local dialect, and good drainage to create wines with weight.  Friuli’s hilly terrain includes these marls as well as many areas of sandstone. Borreri says the Collio and Colli Orientali regions in the northeast usually create the more intense, longer-lived wines, with a distinctive minerality. The south part of the region has sandy and clay soils, and the climate is characterized by sea breezes, which influence the bouquet of the wines produced in these areas. According to Borreri, the southern Friulano is often lighter but fruity, sapid, and easy to drink and to enjoy, especially when it is still young.   

On top of that, Federica da Duline distinguishes between two primary types of Tocai (er, Friulano) clones. The common green clone, called Sauvignon Vert, is more closely related to Sauvignon Blanc and leans toward a crisper, lighter character. The rarer yellow clone, known as Sauvignonasse, has smaller berries, and instead leans toward spice and body. Often producers blend wine from the two clones to balance those qualities, either in the field, by planting them in the same vineyard, or in the winery.

Vine age also helps with weight and complexity. Da Duline’s “Ronco Pitotti” vineyard is planted with 35-year-old yellow clone Friulano; in good years it yields a wine powerful enough to support some barrique aging, if usually in 1-year-old barrels rather than new ones.

Friulano’s aromas range from green apple and pear to more rounded apricot, peach, or even tropical touches. Most show some minerality and spice – often a “baking spice” touch of nutmeg – and hazelnut or almond notes are often common. At the table, prosciutto is Friulano’s most classic companion. The lighter style also works well with salads – that crispness will keep up with acidity of a vinaigrette dressing; shrimp and other light seafood dishes also go well. The richer side of Friulano will match well with monkfish and pork dishes, as well as many pastas with cream or olive oil-based sauces.

The grape’s success has not gone unnoticed by winemakers elsewhere. Some Cal-Ital producers have embraced it, most notably Palmina in Santa Barbara and Monte Volpe in Mendocino. In New York, Hudson Valley’s Millbrook and Channing Daughters on Long Island are also finding success with the grape. “Its floral and aromatic profile is unique,” says Channing Daughters winemaker Christopher Tracey, “It’s one of the few 100% varietal wines we produce.” And if you’re not ready to give up on the Tocai name, head to the Hamptons; since they’re outside the reach of the E.U., Christopher says they have no intention of changing it.

Some recommended wines:
(the last of the Tocai, as the 2007 vintage is arriving soon under the grape’s new name)

La Tunella ‘Selènze’ 2005, Colli Orientali dei Friuli, Italy
A medium-bodied, well-focused wine, with lemon and mineral notes, some floral notes, and a definite almond character, particularly on the finish. Fermented in stainless steel vats, with extended sur-lie aging afterward.

Vignai da Duline 2006, Friuli Grave, Italy
Medium-bodied and firm, with marzipan, apricot, pear, and spice notes. A field blend of both clonal varieties is fermented and aged in older, large wooden barrels, making for a rounder, almost creamy mouthfeel without sacrificing freshness on the finish.

Livio Felluga 2006, Colli Orientali del Friuli, Italy
A relatively full-bodied, creamy style that shows that characteristic bitter almond aroma along with floral notes and touches of peach and quince. The long finish unwinds into some light white pepper and pear notes.

Schiopetto 2006, Collio, Italy
Aromatic, with peach, apricot, and honey notes as well as an underlying minerality. Fairly full, but firm, and definitely crisp and clean, with good persistence.

Bastianich 2006, Colli Orientali del Friuli, Italy
Pear, lemon, and citrus notes dominate, with some spice and minerality emerging on the palate. Medium-bodied and quite crisp and refreshing.

Bastianich ‘Plus’ 2003, Colli Orientali del Friuli, Italy
This is Bastianich’s more luscious take on the grape, using old-vine, late-harvest grapes (picked as much as a month later), often slightly raisinated or touched by botrytis. In addition, a small amount of the same wine from previous vintages is added for added complexity. Full-bodied, with lots of hazelnut and almond notes alongside ripe mango, peach, and pineapple. Quite creamy and opulent.

Palmina ‘Honea Vineyard’ 2007, Santa Ynez Valley, California
A fresh, floral take, with some almond notes plus floral, pear, and apple touches. Light, crisp, and refreshing, with a hint of spice and minerals on the finish.

Millbrook 2007, Hudson Valley, New York
Quite fruity, with apricot, pear, and even grapefruit aromas. Light-bodied, with crisp acidity on the finish.

Channing Daughters 2007 The Hamptons, New York
Floral, mineral, and citrus aromas blossom into almond, pear, and spice notes on the palate. Light to medium-bodied, with a well-rounded mouthfeel that doesn’t sacrificing any crispness on the finish.

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