You can thank Livio Felluga of Friuli for two things: one, for bringing pinot grigio to the attention of the American public, and, two, for unleashing a tsunami of bad pinot grigio on the American public.
I remember clearly the first time I tasted Livio Felluga’s pinot grigio in 1978 in New York. Before that, there wasn’t a single Italian white wine I would have rated as anything more than pleasant.
Not that there was much to judge by: soave (often sold in a green bottle shaped like a fish) and verdicchio were about the only examples available.
So I was amazed by the richness, complexity, and aromatics of the Felluga pinot grigio I tasted, as well as by its coppery color -- called ramato -- that made many potential buyers think the wine had gone bad.
Though its production and distribution was narrow, Felluga’s wine was widely praised by the critics. It took American importers to capitalize on the novelty of pinot grigio. David Taub, who brought in Cavit wines, and Tony Terlato, who did the same for Santa Margherita, were both enormously successful.
Today pinot grigio is the top-selling Italian wine in the U.S. and U.K., with more than 600 producers making about 9 million liter cases. Some 90 percent is exported, principally to the U.S., Germany and U.K.
Most of them make plonk from any region of Italy the grape would grow. Thus, while Livio Felluga is still the high standard for pinot grigio, the company has focused more on its own proprietary wines, Terre Alta and Abbazia di Rosazzo.
Livio Felluga, now in his nineties, founded his winery in 1955 on the northern region of Friuli Venezia-Giulia, bottling his wines at a time when most others made and sold wine in bulk.
By the 1960s, he was using the most advanced vinicultural techniques to prevent oxidation and to keep his wines fresh and long-lived, which came to be called the “Friulian method.”
Today the family, which includes his children, Maurizio, Elda, Andrea and Filippo, oversees 395 acres (160 hectares) in the Collio and Colli Orientali del Friuli regions, producing 800,000 bottles yearly, for sale in 70 countries.
Felluga still produces a great deal of pinot grigio -- and I still think it’s the best in Italy.
He has broadened the vineyards with many other varietals like pinot bianco, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, picolit, refosco, sauvignon blanc and friulano, as well as making red wines from refosco dal peduncolo rosso, merlot, and pignolo.
The family is most proud of two current wines.
One is the single vineyard “Super Friulano” called Terre Alte (“Highlands”) made since 1981 from a blend of Friulano, pinot bianco, and sauvignon blanc, only in excellent vintages. It now carries the Italian wine law designation of IGT (indicazione geografia tipica).
The other is Felluga’s newest project, Abbazia di Rosazzo, made on the estate of an historic abbey with roses, leased to the family since the 1970s. First produced in 2009, within two years the wine was awarded the prestigious designation of DOCG Rosazzo (denominazione di controllata e guarantita). The wine is a blend of historic strains of pignolo, picolit and ribolla gialla.
After the grapes go through a cold soaking and pressing, the must is fermented in steel tanks with Friulian yeasts, then racked into oak casks to complete the alcoholic and malolactic fermentations.
I sampled an array of Felluga’s wines with Andrea, 50, who is in charge of the winemaking, over pizza and pasta.
Upon tasting the first wine, I was brought back to that moment when I was introduced to Felluga’s wines. These had the same degree of finesse and specific terroir that distinguished that first pinot grigio 35 years ago.
What’s more, I found that unlike 99 percent of all Italian white wines -- and 90 percent of all white wines -- the potential for aging in the Felluga wines was remarkable, with older bottlings taking on added nuance with no compromise of freshness and fruit.
Terre Alte 2011: Pale green gold, very distinctive nose, aromats of roses that is very identifiable as Felluga, clean with fine acid balance.
Terre Alte 2009: More velvety, smoother, with a synergy of terroir elements. Bottle with a screw cap for U.S. and U.K.
Terre Alte 2008: Not as much complexity as 2009, a little pepper, quite dry, but the fruit is bright and makes this ideal with seafood and cheeses.
Terre Alte 2007: Very big mouthful, with grapes harvested early. A remarkable long lasting wine.
Terre Alte 2006: Very round, voluptuous showing remarkable longevity, suggesting all Felluga whites should be saved for a year or two for true maturity.
Abbazia di Rosazzo 2011: Unusual, unique flavor unlike any other Italian white wine, with lots of spice from malvasia, ribolla gialla, more fruit, a blend of friulano, sauvignon blanc, pinot bianco.
(John Mariani writes about wine for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)