Northeastern Italy’s rich tradition of dried-grape wines stretches back to the height of the Roman empire, when the acinaticum of today’s Soave, Gambellara, and Valpolicella reigned as one of Western Civilization’s earliest “celebrity” wines.
With all of today’s talk of and favor curried by so-called Natural wines and their “back-to-our-heritage” ethos, we often forget that the earliest paleo-European wines to emerge with celebrity cache were among the most manipulated of that era. The purposeful desiccation of fruit intended to obtain a more concentrated wine with higher alcohol content and greater levels of residual sugar cannot avoid (however obliquely) reminding the informed observer of the “dropped fruit” and “hang time” employed by the Californian chemists who produce Ovaltine-inspired grape-flavored beverages with 17+% alcohol.
The roughly two dozen (yes, that’s it, count ’em) producers of Ramandolo cannot trace their roots back to Roman times but they can point to documents scribed in the high middle ages when their sweet, dense wines were coveted and praised by at least one Roman Pope (Gregory XII). Centuries before the villages of Cialla and Corna di Rosazzo would earn their fame for the production of fine white wine, Ramandolo (which only recently joined the Colli Orientali del Friuli consortium) was renowned for its unique confluence of warm maritime ventilation, a natural shield from inclement weather (the Alps), chilly winters that naturally and gently stabilized the wine, and a sturdy and industrious townsfolk who express the hardships of mountain living in perseverance and patient enology.
On the last day of our Colli Orientali del Friuli blogger project, we traveled to the appellation of Ramandolo (in the northernmost, isolated subzone of the appellation) and got to taste 12 wines by 12 producers (roughly half of the entire body of wineries), all wines I had never tasted before, of which none (to my knowledge) has representation in the U.S. market.
Production levels are extremely small here. Eyeballing the anecdotal figures given to us, the average surface area planted to Verduzzo (the main grape variety) per winery is 4-5 hectares, with most weighing in with 1-2 hectares.
What sets these wines apart from their relatives in the Veneto (or their very distant relatives in Tuscany) is the fact that Verduzzo is an intensely and uniquely tannic white grape. While the majority of labels we tasted that day were dominated by invasive toasty oak (imparted from barrique aging), the best wines allowed the bitterness of the tannins and the sweetness of the residual sugar to play a gorgeous counterpoint harmony in the glass. Where I often find even some of the best dried-grape Moscato to be one-dimensional (think Sicily, think Piedmont), these wines — when done right — show depth and seductive character.
My favorites of the 12 wines tasted were Daniele Gervasi (my top wine), Maurizio Zaccomer, and Andrea Comelli, who also tasted us on an experimental botrytized Ramandolo (in one instance accidental and in another induced by wetting the grapes and covering with cellophane).
Like Rumpelstiltskin, the producers of Ramandolo seem to have awaken only recently to discover that the globalization of wine and globalized tastes might afford them a space in the market to sell their wonderful wines for the high prices they demand. They’ve got a long way to go but our experience on the ground there seemed to indicate that they are working together toward a shared goal of launching the Ramandolo “brand” on the international market. With such small production and such a tightly knit small community of winemakers, their solidarity is surely the only path toward that objective. I hope they make it because the wines can be stunning.
Tasted any great Ramandolo lately? I have…