Christian Patat on the Wines of Friuli-Venezia Giuli

By Gavin Smith

Feb 19th, 2020

Christian Patat is one of Italy’s busiest and most successful vignerons working with his wife at top Friuli estate, Ronco del Gnemiz, as well as working with Enzo Pontoni, vigneron extraordinaire, at the legendary Miani estate. He also works as a consultant winemaker for many properties producing wines from all over Italy. Most recently he has been involved in an old vine project with long term friend and fellow Friulian, Marco Simonit – famed for his work protecting old vines all over the world most particularly at the legendary estates of Yquem, Leroy and Louis Roederer. We caught up with Christian to talk more about L’Età Più Bella (With Age Comes Beauty), which is set to release its first collection of wines from top sites in Friuli next month. His insight into the Friuli region is a great starting point to understanding Italy’s mecca for white wine.

Can you describe what you think is so special about the Friuli region for wine production?

Friuli is one of the most complex scenarios in the wine world given the unheard of combination of grape varietals, soil identities and climatic challenges. I’ll try to explain from the inside. The wide number of varietals is provided by different waves of invasion, such as the French (at the time of Napoleon) and the Austrians (in the same period of Napoleon but they stayed for much longer); these invasions explain why we have so many Bordeaux varietals (Merlot, Cab Franc, Cab Sauvignon, Carmenere) and others of French origin such as Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Sauvignon. The arrival of these “imported” wines did not cancel out the presence of local varietals such as Ribolla Gialla, Refosco, Schioppettino, Pignolo and Tocai Friulano. The Austrians also did their part leaving some Traminer and Riesling so that the picture is composed as it is today.

Until the ‘60s, Friuli was a poor region and the vineyards were in the hands of small growers selling locally and with no real commercial plan and having the ability to offer a wide range of wines gave more options to sell to occasional customers. For this reason the Friulians never gave up any of these varietals and when the DOC was finally in place they were all included.

In terms of soils there is a significant difference between the flat appellations (Grave del Friuli, Isonzo, Aquileia) and the hillside appellations (Collio, Friuli Colli Orientali, Carso). The flat area is basically made of gravelly soils, the hillside is basically marl (locally called PONCA and geologically called FLYSH), obtained by the sea pushing in the direction of the mountains and creating slates of chalk, limestone and clay, all of which is agglomerated in various percentages and sometimes within the same vineyard, providing an incredibly complex subsoil.

This complexity is augmented by the fragility of the structure which is very prone to erosion and obliges the growers to cultivate on terraces in order to minimize the impact of the water. This way of growing the plants generates very high costs and consequently low yields given the limited density of plantation (i.e. the average density on a modern planting in hillside Friuli can reach about 6.500 plants/ha which is much less than what can be achieved in Burgundy with an average of 10.000 plants/ha), and makes virtually impossible machine harvesting and other mechanical intervention.

To complicate this picture, Friuli has the highest amount of rain in Italy which means that growing grapes can be a real challenge, but the ponca soil has a high degree of draining, so to avoid issues and diseases caused by excessive water close to the roots. All this being said, the real peculiarity comes from the soil itself which can be a magical balance of minerally driven characters, with enough structure to provide full bodied wines and that’s the reason why white and red varietals are grown in the same place.

 

What varieties do you think perform the best in Friuli and why?

You may have different answers if you ask different growers but personally I think that among white wines I would go for Friulano (Tocai) because it expresses very well the different sites and shows better than any other varietal the balance of richness and saltiness.

Apart from Friulano I would pick Sauvignon Blanc because I see it as a possible third way between Loire and New Zealand. More aromatic than in France with richer body and more minerally driven than in New Zealand.

And finally, if you are lucky enough to have well aged vines Chardonnay can also do surprisingly well in cold sites. Among reds I would pick Merlot and Cabernet Franc given their tendency to ripen on the late side (same timing as Pomerol and Saint Emilion) and to provide low yields and concentration without losing freshness and spice. Also Refosco can do very well bringing a Syrah-like spiciness and a full body but it needs to be grown in very well suited spots.

Can you describe the last few vintages and qualify them?

2018 was a very sunny and dry vintage, driving to early ripening of some of the whites such as Sauvignon (starting date of harvest 23rd of August) but quite interesting for reds given that the month of September was quite fresh and dry so to give a larger window to pick the reds at the right level of ripening. 2019 was much cooler (starting date of harvest 1st of September) but quite ideal for whites with lively acidities and good concentration. Reds were also fine but some later rain in September affected a bit the possibility of fully ripe tannins so I would consider it as quite average.

 

10 DOCs, 4 DOCGs, 30 different varieties – It can be difficult to know where to start exploring the wines of the region. Can you advise?

Diversity can be fascinating but it can also turn into a nightmare given that you have to add also the wide difference of styles available (stainless steel crisp white wines, barrel fermented Burgundy oriented, orange wines with maceration on the skins…). I cannot really advise on this as I find all this diversity as a real limit to communicate the character of the region, but on the other hand I have to admit that there are very few wine regions in the world (maybe none) where you can find so many reasons of interest. That’s why more and more wine enthusiasts are travelling this way and fall in love with the complexity of these terroirs and wines.

Are all the fine wines of the region concentrated in one area or are they dotted all around?

90% of what we can call fine wines are made on the hillsides of Collio, Friuli Colli Orientali and Carso and very few are made in the flat appellations such as Isonzo.

Friuli-Venezia Giulia comes across as quite independent from the rest of Italy, why is this?

I think a whole history of invasions (Romans, Longobardians, Venetians, Austrians, French) has created a sense of self protection. More than this after the Second World War Friuli has turned from a poor region into one of the very wealthy and productive areas of Italy, due to the silent and consistent attitude for hard work of the Friulians. They have been able to turn it into a well kept secret and make a pride of it.

 

How long have you worked at Miani?

I started in 1991 helping him in decision making at the time of the final blending and taking on my shoulders all the commercial aspects that he did not want to manage.

What makes the wines from these top wineries stand out?

I don’t know if they stand out but what I can surely say that we both apply a tireless dedication and passion to what we do. We both consider single sites and soils more important than varietals and we have the ambition to “bottle a place” more than a wine.

Who has been your biggest inspiration in life and as a vigneron and why?

My father, a real bon vivant, who put me in contact with great wines since I was still very young and created in my mind the quest for quality in every aspect of my life. The fascination for great wines came from him, just watching his excitement when receiving his annual allocation of Champagne Salon or Monte Vertine (to name a few) and the pleasure he used to take in sharing with friends. Then my wife who despite challenges, family issues, economical limitations never gave up looking for the best possible wine here at Gnemiz, loving this place and respecting it as a living treasure and not just as an instrument. Finally Enzo Pontoni at Miani who showed me how you can achieve your goals only with hard work and passion and how you can be the happiest man on earth just for the fact that you are doing exactly the work you want to do in the way you want to do it.

How did you first get involved in L’Età Più Bella (With Age Comes Beauty), the old vine project?

That was Marco Simonit's idea to involve me as we had experimented in the past and in some ways we started the project in the mid ‘90's, but at that time we were all too busy to follow up and we did not have a well formed concept of what we could do… we were just youngsters… 

 

What is so unique about the wines that have been produced under the L’Età Più Bella label?

The goal was to explore the identity of various plots of very old vines, all of which were well placed with very good exposition and with an excellent quality of soil. The character which comes out from an old vineyard has a different kind of balance and texture, as we use to say, it is more a “wine of roots” than a “wine of sun”. That’s quite evident by the fact that old vines tends to ripen later than neighbouring young vines and suffer much less from potential water stress, producing more consistent wines of complexity and finesse. We were not looking for fruit bombs to impress, but for refined and subtle characters and ageing potential.

You are a philosopher and a jazz musician as well as a winemaker. Can you tell us more about these passions?

That’s all too generous, in fact I have none of these titles. I did not complete my studies in philosophy due to the sudden death of my father so I cannot call myself a philosopher. My passion for philosophy is due to my classic studies and when it was the time to chose the University, my father suggested to go for philosophy so that, he said, “when you will finish your study you will not find a job and can come to help me to sell some wine!” That’s exactly what happened, just with wrong circumstances. About jazz, I always wanted to become a piano player and I’ve studied a lot for this but at the end I was not good enough to make a career and I have quickly understood there was no point in dreaming to be the new Keith Jarrett, so I became a well trained amateur and I gave up playing in public.

As for winemaking I don’t have a formal education given that I had to work and did not have time to study at University, so I started a process of self education in a kind of backwards process, from my instinctive ability to be a good taster, moving gradually to all the knowledge which drives the production of wine, from the vineyards to the cellar. It took me years and the support of many friends who allowed me to verify my skills in their cellars. The results of my “experiments” were very promising and convinced me to go deeper in my studies until the point of being able to take full responsibility of a wine production as I’ve been doing in the last twenty years.

The 2018 L’Età Più Bella collection is available from next week, exclusively distributed by FINE+RARE.

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