Vineyard: Villa Russiz
This vast property (250 acres, 100 of them under vine) was founded by a French-born count – Théodore de la Tour – in 1869. At the time, Collio was Austrian… and so was Théodore’s Vienna-born wife. De la Tour’s vineyards were as international as this high-society couple: in fact, they were the first in the area under authentic French rootstock – on some of the best hillside marls in the entire appellation.
Times and frontiers changed: after the First World War, Austria relinquished the region to victorious Italy, and the widowed Austrian countess (Gräfin in her own language… hence the present wine name) donated the estate to the Italian government, with the proviso that it would be employed as an orphanage. Fortunately for the wine world, the existing vineyards were maintained and augmented, part of the profits going to benefit the children. Many vintages and generations later, this happy arrangement still applies.
Villa Russiz technical manager since 1988 is Gianni Menotti (pictured above). A brilliant oenology graduate of Padua University, Gianni has maximized the estate’s amazing potential. Under his tutelage, critical and consumer attention have snowballed into whole-hearted accolades. In fact, in the fall of 2005, Menotti was awarded Gambero Rosso Slow Food’s top recognition as Oenologist of the Year. At the same time, two wines of the range (the Tocai Friulano and Merlot Graf de la Tour) attained the famous Three Glasses.
On that occasion, Gianni explained his success as “‘translating’ in the most perfect way possible this unique terroir into wine”. These southerly exposed vineyards are in the heart itself of one of Italy’s outstanding DOCs. Hilly, marlaceous and volcanic in origin, they comprise some of Friuli’s topmost terrains – particularly suited to whites. An average 20 to 30 years old, the vines are espalier, Guyot and cappuccina-trained at a density around 2,000 to 3,000 per acre, yielding small crops of highly concentrated, extract-packed fruit whose structured, layered flavors, firm texture and delicate, aromatic nose shine through in 100% varietals of rare brilliance and style.
This most Northeastern region of Italy bordering Austria and Slovenia has a blend of cultures that date back to the rule by the Austro-Hungarian Empire before WWI. Germanic and Slavic influences continue through today in a region internationally considered one of the best for white wine. Friuli is well known for setting very high standards for quality and on average yields just 3.5 tons per acre—some of the lowest found in Italy. All of the vineyards are found in the southern part of the zone surrounded to the North by the Alps. A temperate microclimate results from air currents between the shelter of the mountains and the Adriatic Sea. However, there are 2 DOC zones considered exceptional to all others: Collio (Goriziano) and Collio Orientali. Most of the wines made are single varietal in nature, with all Collio wines required to be 100% of the named grape. Traditionally, it was thought the wines would not gain any benefit from wood aging and blending. But there have been a growing number of exceptions, as producers have recognized that the depth and complexity of wines already recognized to be quite rich and full bodied could be enhanced further with malolactic fermentation, oak aging and or blending. White wine is of such importance in Collio that only 1/5 of the wine produced is red. Friuli produces wines from widely recognized varieties such as Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet and Pinot Noir. However, there are also a number of lesser known varieties that provide wonderful alternatives-Tocai Friulano, Traminer Aromatico, Riesling, Ribolla Gialla, and Picolit for white, and Refosco, Pignolo, Schioppettino and Tazzelenghe for red. It should be noted that, while Friuli is well know for white wines, they account for just a little over half of the entire region’s production. Red wines, which have not been recognized on the nternational market, have now begun to create a stir in recent years as wineries traditionally awarded Gambero Rosso’s Tre Bicchieri for white wines are now receiving the top honor for the reds.