Ferdinando Zanusso (left) and his son, Mario, believe the soil is the secret to their extraordinary white wines that can be drunk young or age for twenty plus years. “The land makes this wine,” said Ferdinando, and then with a touch of irritation, “Nobody ‘makes’ wine. [People might think they can], but it isn’t that way. It’s the earth.”
The special soil of Friuli that Ferdinando was talking about is called ponca in Italian or flysch in German. It was pushed up from under the sea during the Eocene Epoch between about 30 and 55 million years ago. Packed with minerals and fossilized shells, it is composed of strata of sandstone and marl (rock formed from lime-rich mud mixed with clay. This gives the wine lots of structure and lots the minerality.
The soil is primary and as Ferdinando pointed out several times, great wine starts with the land. But there are other factors at work at I Clivi. Ferdinando believes in letting the land speak, using organic methods in the vineyards and natural methods in the cellar. Unlike some of his famous neighbors in Friuli, he doesn’t make long skin contact, “orange wine”.
Then, there is location. I Clivi is on the border between the Collio and the Colli Orientali, with most of the vines in the latter…
Just a few kilometers from the Slovenian border in the northeastern most part of Italy.
The Julian Alps form a wall against frigid air that would otherwise flow down from Austria and and the north.
While the sea, only 45 minutes away mitigates both cold in winter and hot weather in the summer. And then, there are the vines, most of them 60-80 years old with roots running meters and meters down in the earth. Ferdinando leaves lots of ebullient natural growth in the vineyard. Each vine has her own shape and story.
Long and flowing…
A little more angular…
A piece of modern art…
The first time I visited I Clivi, Mario offered me a tasting I Clivi Ribolla Gialla, I Clivi Friulano as well as the two cru versions of Friulano, Galea and Brazan. (see blog post). This time, Fernando took me out onto the terrace overlooking the vineyards for tasting other wines.
All I Clivi wines have commonalities. Ferdinando’s goal is to preserve all the delicate aromas of his native grape varieties along with the serious structure that comes from the soil. He uses only il mosto fiore, meaning the first pressing of the grapes. “I don’t take any of the unstable elements, just the best juice,” he told me. All the wines ferment with indigenous yeasts in stainless steel, no wood.
I Clivi Malvasia Collio DOP 2015
This wines bears no resemblance to a “typical” wine made from Malvasia, an aromatic variety found all over Italy and often used to make sweet, sparkling or passito wines. The special clone found in Friuli is called Malvasia Istriana. I Clivi’s version walks a tightrope between the delicate, spicy aromas of the variety and the crisp, dry, mineral characteristics given by the soil. It is light enough to drink as an aperitivo or with lighter dishes but structured enough to drink with a meal. 13% alcohol. “Steel magnolia” comes to mind.
I Clivi Verduzzo Friuli Collio Orientali DOP 2015
Verduzzo (delicious to say in Italian with its hard “z”: Verduttzo) is unique to the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia and was traditionally used to make a sweet, passito wine called Ramandolo. Unlike most white varieties with delicate aromas, it has tannins as well as acidity that give the wine structure. When you add this to the structure that comes from minerality from the soil, things could get out of hand. But Ferdinando’s specialty is reining his wines in so that no one aspect dominates. The wine is beautifully balanced (again not heavy with 13% alcohol). It is the ideal pairing for rich foods like Coquilles Saint Jacques, foie gras and Roquefort cheese.
I Clivi [Tocai]* Friulano 1997
Ferdinando brought out a nineteen year old bottle of Friulano. Drinking it was an experience I won’t forget. (I can’t say tasting because I drank the whole glass.) The wine was like a fifty something who looks 35. Vivacity and freshness was rolled gently in a blanket of velvety strength.
For all the people out there, who think white wine made naturally but without skin contact can’t age, this wine is proof positive to the contrary. It was not only a good wine, but a great wine. It’s elegance reminded me of Ferdinando’s because it resonated with understated simplicity and authenticity.
Even though Ferdinando says that the land makes his wine, he’s only partly correct. Yes, if you moved him to another place, he wouldn’t be able to make the same wine. But it’s also true that he has the wisdom to make careful choices: to “rein” in the wines, to seek a balance between subtlety and strength, and to use natural methods that allow the essence of Friuli to come through.
Even after years as a winegrower, he remains humble. He spends a lot of time reading and studying in this chair. He’s the kind of person, whose innate curiosity drives him to want to learn more. (He’s also done other things in his life including working for the UN in Mogadishu where the most powerful warlord, General Aidid, held him prisoner.)
The day after visiting I Clivi, I was driving a few kilometers away and came upon by this vineyard. I had to stop and take a photo. How different these spindly straight vines were that had been pruned and subject to grass and weed killers along with who knows what else.
*Perhaps the best known of the native varieties in Friuli is now called Friulano. Although when this wine was bottled in 1997, it was called Tocai Friulano (meaning Tocai grape from Friuli). Makers of a famous Hungarian wine called Tokaji, won a European ruling in 2007 stating that “Tocai” not be used on Friuli labels even though the wines and grape varieties were not the same.