The Madmen of Friuli

When people speak of traditional Italian wines (as opposed to modern ones), they mean wines that are produced more or less the way they were about 100 years ago. The turn of the twentieth century was a time before the widespread introduction of French barriques, single vineyard bottlings, and temperature-controlled fermentations in stainless steel tanks. All of these inventions (combined with lower yields, global warming, and a shorter aging period) has combined to make wines that are now more concentrated, fruit-forward, and oaky than in times past. In short, more modern.

Josko Gravner, an off-the-wall winemaker in the northeastern region of Friuli Venezia-Giulia, makes a very different type of "traditional" Italian wine. Instead of using methods from 100 years ago, he makes wines as they did in ancient Greek and Roman times.

Intentionally oxidized wines are made without any chemicals and are aged in urns, lined in beeswax and buried in the ground. The result is a cider-hued, mind-boggingly complex "white wine" that benefits from time in a decanter and room-temperature service. Sound weird?

He's not the only one. Ales Kristancic of Movia, Damijan Podversic, Edi Kante, La Castellada, and Bressan all make unique and individual wines from indigenous grape varieties that don't replicate anything else in the world.

And even Eric Asimov of the New York Times, on his week off, felt compelled to blog about the wines of Radikon, which he calls "alive" and writes that they embody "all the joy in wine drinking, where no matter how many times you swirl, sniff, and taste, you cannot pin down what's in the glass."

What has inspired so many in this area bordering Slovenia to make such unique wines? Is it something in the wine? Often there's nothing in the wine. This region has one of Italy's largest concentrations of organic and biodynamic winemakers. In this modern world, it seems the most unique and interesting things are most natural.

About the author: Joe Campanale is a sommelier at New York City's Babbo and is the food and wine editor at Debonair Magazine. Joe is a Certified Wine Educator, Certified Sommelier, and is pursuing his master's degree in Food Studies at New York University.

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