The Eagle of Collio, Tasting the Aged Pinot Biancos of Russiz Superiore

 

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Looking out at the Julian Alps and Slovenia in the distance from the driveway of Marco Felluga’s Russiz Superiore property, nestled in the Gorizia hills,  Friuli, Italy, it was hard to imagine that this verdant area had been in the middle of so many wars across the ages.

The Felluga family is a dynasty of winemakers that has survived in an area entrenched in the battles of 2 world wars. Marco Felluga‘s father, Giovanni, began winemaking in Istria, then post World War 1, moved his family to Grado in the 1920s and finally to Gradisca d’Isonzo in the Collio where he found the clay, sandstone soil called ponca and the Gorizia hills were a perfect terroir to grow grapes.  After high school, Marco studied enology in Conegliano and returned to work with his brother Livio in the family winery.  Post World War II, Livio returned from military service and the 2 brothers worked together at the family estate. In 1956, Livio went to Brazzano, where the Livio Felluga estate today has over 155 hectares planted to vines within Collio and Colli Orientali del Friuli. At the same time, Marco formally established Tenuta Marco Felluga in Gradisca d’Isonzo, which now has over 120 hectares in the Collio region. In 1967, Marco purchased the Russiz Superiore property which has 100 hectares, 50 hectares planted to vines in Capriva del Friuli.  Roberto Felluga, 5th generation leads both companies today. It was in the driveway of Russiz Superiore where I found myself standing, on top of the Russiz hill, listening to Alessandro Sandrin, enologist at the estate since 2012, speak about the family, the estate and grape growing. Gambero Rosso writes on Roberto Felluga and his family here. John Mariani at Forbes, interviews Roberto Felluga, 5th generation and son of Marco here.

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Alessandro Sandrin, enologist, Russiz Superiore

 

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The emblem of Russiz Superiore, which is named after this specific place Russiz and Superiore meaning higher, since the winery is on the top of a hill, is a two-headed eagle. The two-headed eagle was the emblem of Prince Torre Tasso, one of the first lords of the land of Capriva del Friuli in 1278. The eagles also refer to the influence of the Hapsburg Monarchy and the later Austro-Hungarian Empire on the area. “According to the classification of the Collio dated 1787, its wines were already considered precious by the Hapsburg Empire “for their goodness.”  The Hapsburgs were also credited as bringing french varietals like pinot blanc/pinot bianco and pinot gris/pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc to the area.

Russiz Superiore is noted for producing Felluga’s most highly regarded wines including the Pinot Biancos.

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Marco Felluga has been noted by many journalists (such as here at Italian Wine Chronicle noting Marco’s  90th birthday celebration in 2017) as being a major force in establishing the Collio Goriziano DOC (often cited as just Collio DOC) in 1968 as well as forming the Collio Consorzio to support and promote the region. Felluga and now his son, Roberto credit the quality of their wines to German winemaking knowledge bringing freshness and a balance of fruit and acid. (Mariano, Forbes).

So here we were, sitting in the scenic tasting room at Russiz Superiore, which also offers 7 luxury rooms in their Relais, gathered for a tasting of Marco Felluga’s project which Roberto is continuing, promoting Pinot Bianco as a noble grape that is perfect for aging. Alessandro who guided us through the tasting, stressed that Pinot Bianco is a perfect grape because of its ability to ripen and the phenolics of its skins. The soil at Russiz Superiore has an ancient coral reef below it and they have found fossils in the ground. The nature of the ponca soils ( marl,  sandstone) creates flavors in the Pinot Bianco grapes that do not arise in grapes grown in other regions. As I reread what limited notes I took during the tasting, (I get caught up in the deliciousness of the wines and forget to write notes) I found that as we went down the line in year, the wines were more aromatic and took on more complexity yet maintained freshness. I think these unique wines are a reflection of the soils, the climate and the hills that the grapes are grown on. Felluga is by all intents organic although they are not certified. One only has to scan the horizon to sense immediately their care for the environment.

 

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We tasted through the 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014 and 2013, Collio Pinot Bianco Russiz Superiore.

Appellation Production AreaRussiz Superiore, located in the municipality Capriva del Friuli in the Collio Doc. Elevation: from 80 to 200  meters above sea level.

 

Grape: 100% Pinot bianco. Cultivate in Collio since the second half of 1800.

Type of soil: The Collio’s hilly terrain, formed during the Eoceneperiod, is composed of layers of sandstone and loam rock (limestone and clay) that were once the ocean floor. Today the sea, which is about twenty kilomete (12 miles) away, and the nearby Alps send afternoon breezes over the vineyards, cooling the grapes after a warm day of sun. Proximity to mountains and sea, along with the mineral-rich but poor soils, create the ideal situation for producing complex, well- structured wines that are very age-worthy. These soils are imper- meable so rainwater flows off their surface, producing little erosion and preventing standing water.

Vine training: Guyot.

Plant yield: About 1.5 kilograms per plant (on average)

Harvest: All hand picked in the second week of September.

Winemaking: After destemming, the juice and pulp underwent cold maceration at controlled temperatures, followed by a gentle pressing to separate the grapes from the skins. Approximately 15% of the must fermented in oak bar- rels and 85% fermented in stainless steel vats.

Aging: The wine aged on the lees for eight months and at least in the bottle.

2018 – One of the hottest years ever, but during the harvest period the temperature ranges allowed for a long harvest period and an ability to get great aromatics out of the skins. Mature white peaches, apples, great balance between acid and alcohol, 13.5% a very luxurious mouthfeel.

2017– End of April frosts

2016–  A year where vine diseases were an issue because of rain. The window for harvest was small. This wine was quite aromatic, white flower blossoms, fennel, chamomile, citrus notes.

2015– Perfect weather, wine was very aromatic, yellow plum, white peach, chamomile

2014 – Rainy year in Italy, July was the rainiest, this was a cool climate vintage

2013 – Slow harvest but lots of warmth towards the end of September. I didn’t write much as to tasting notes but I did put down stars.

The biggest thing I noted is that the wines became more aromatic and really tasted better as they aged, the primary aromas took on more intensity and the tertiary were limited because there was not much barrel ageing but bottle ageing so some slight oxidative notes. But the soils gave the wines an underlying minerality that kept them fresh and alive as we tasted older bottles.

My overall impression of these wines were that they were highly unusual, delicious and much more complex and interesting than pinot biancos/blancs from other regions. Ones that I would not hesitate to choose to accompany  a white fish dish, white meat or cheese dish. This experience definitely changed my opinion on pinot bianco and reinforced that the Collio area, the hills, the soils, the climate are magic for white grapes and in particular, these pinot biancos.

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