Collio – introducing Italy’s best-kept wine secret
The Collio (aka Collio Goriziano) is a small Italian DOC. It’s in the Friuli Venezia Giulia (FVG) region in the far north-eastern corner of Italy, bordering Slovenia. Following a recent visit, this article is designed as a brief introduction to Collio and its wines.
Future companion pieces will cover some of the most important wines in more detail. Given the excellence of its wines and winegrowers, the Collio is arguably Italy’s best-kept wine secret in the UK. It’s time that changed.
The Collio DOC occupies a small crescent-shaped area. It’s bordered by Slovenia and the rivers Isonzo and Judrio, as shown below. To the north, the high mountains of the Julian Alps rise majestically, with Austria beyond. Heading west(ish) will take you to Venice in an hour. To the south are the Adriatic beaches, with Trieste providing port access to the Mediterranean. Immediately eastwards is Slovenia.
Friuli Venezia Giulia (FVG)
Friuli Venezia Giulia is (FVG) arguably one of Italy’s least-known regions, yet it has a long and turbulent history. Over millennia, it’s been fought over by many different cultures, a cultural crossroads at the heart of Europe. The Romans, Goths, Byzantines and Lombards ruled it before it became part of the Venetian Republic. Then Napoleon took it. After that, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire under the Habsburgs.
Though it joined Italy after the First World War, it saw renewed fighting during the Second World War and was then physically separated from the East by the Iron Curtain until the end of the Cold War in 1991.
Times are more tranquil now. These days, Italy and Slovenia are both in the European Union, bringing the opportunity to renew closer relationships. As an example, the European City of Culture in 2025 will, for the first time, be jointly held by Gorizia in FVG and neighbouring Nova Gorica in Slovenia. This will highlight this single municipality, which spans both countries.
This history is important because it has bequeathed a rich mix of Germanic, Slavic and Latin influences on wine and food, language and culture, creating a unique and precious identity, much of which is waiting to be discovered by international tourism. For example, the first Lonely Planet Guide to the FVG region has just been published in May 2023.
Friuli Venezia Giulia produces oceans of Prosecco and Pinot Grigio – familiar wines – a significant reason FVG outputs around 90 million bottles annually.
However, FVG has much more thanks to twelve DOCs, four DOCGs and three IGPs, with contributions from many excellent winegrowers, terroirs and grape varieties. While many of these have abundant charms, the Collio DOC is undoubtedly one of the most prestigious jewels in the FVG’s crown.
Now it’s time to show why the Collio epitomises La Dolce Vita.
The Collio is a small territory where you can travel by car from one end of the crescent to the other in thirty minutes. Furthermore, of the total surface area of 7,000 hectares, only 1,300 hectares are vineyards.
Collio means “hilly”, and the DOC only allows vines to be grown on the hillsides to ensure quality. Flat land is excluded from the DOC, and the pursuit of quality, not quantity, is the hallmark. The natural landscape remains extensive and unspoiled, featuring incredible biodiversity of flora and fauna, not least in the amount of woodland.
Birthplace of modern white wines
During the 1960s, Collio rose to prominence in Italy because it was one of the first places to create the modern, high-quality white wines we take for granted today. Indeed, Collio was the first territory in FVG (and the third in Italy) to receive DOC status in 1968.
Pioneers such as Mario Schioppetto adopted temperature control, stainless steel and oak barrels to focus on quality rather than quantity. That was revolutionary then, and now it’s commonplace. But the spirit of excellence and individuality remains at the forefront, evidenced by amphorae, concrete eggs, orange wines, sustainability, and more.
Creating new vineyards in Collio is banned, so there is no ability for vineyard area expansion. One of the reasons for this forward-thinking is to preserve the landscape and its exceptional biodiversity. Commercially, this ensures that Collio must compete on quality rather than growth in quantity, and its current production of around 7 million bottles annually is likely to stay the same – just a drop in the FVG ocean.
The chart below shows 87% of the Collio vineyards are devoted to white varieties, with only 13% for reds.
There are a dozen white varieties authorised.
Every winery in Collio grows Friulano; other natives are Ribolla Gialla and the rare Picolit.
Meanwhile, the non-native varieties are widespread and have been here for centuries. Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Malvasia Istriana, Pinot Bianco, Traminer Aromatico, Riesling Renano, Riesling Italico and Müller-Thurgau are all authorised. In Collio, the absence of Glera (for Prosecco) is notable.
68% of the vineyard area is occupied by just four white varieties: Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Friulano and Ribolla Gialla.
The wines are dry in style, the only exception being sweet Picolit. As usual, varietal wines must contain at least 85% of the stated variety, though 100% is typical. In recent years, Friulano and Ribolla Gialla natives have received renewed attention. Meanwhile, it may be surprising that Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc from the Collio are distinctive wines with a clear sense of place!
In addition to the monovarietal wines, Collio Bianco is a blended dry wine that, theoretically, can include any white variety except for Picolit. It’s a high-status demonstration of blending and deserves a more distinctive name.
In contrast, the five authorised Collio red varieties are all French. Merlot and Cabernet Franc have been here since Napoleon. There’s also Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère, and Pinot Nero. As well as varietal reds (min 85%), Collio Rosso is a blend of any of these reds (except Carmenère) in any proportion. While FVG grows native reds elsewhere (e.g. Pignolo, Schioppettino, Refosco, and Tazzelenghe), none have authorisation in Collio DOC.
With twelve white and five red varietal wines authorised, plus the two Bianco and Rosso blends, there are plenty of choices for the winegrower and the wine drinker. However, perhaps this is where the Collio territorial identity becomes vital commercially – no grape variety or wine can stand as a signature for “Brand Collio”. Though the whites are the most prestigious wines, their diversity and excellence are such that no one variety dominates.
The DOC has few stipulations besides the territory and grape varieties, except for the usual technical alcohol, extract and acidity limits. However, Rosé or sparkling wine categories don’t exist in the Collio DOC regulations, so those styles use a different appellation.
However, there is a Collio Riserva level for white and red wines. This requires a minimum of twenty months of ageing for the whites or thirty months (including six months in barrel) for the reds. Otherwise, winegrowers can choose how to make, mature and bottle their wines according to their desires.
One example of this winemaking freedom is that the Collio is the Italian homeland for Orange wines, particularly from the Oslavia enclave near Gorizia. While they have garnered attention since the late 90s, the winemaking techniques date back thousands of years. Suffice it to say here that, inspired by pioneers like Joško Gravner and Stanko Radikon in Oslavia, the orange wine producers in Collio make some of the world’s most outstanding examples.
The overall impression of the Collio is lush and verdant, with splendid vistas of natural woodland, vineyards, olive groves and cherry orchards.
The Collio has an essentially benevolent climate. Proximity to the mountains is cooler and more continental, while it’s warmer and more maritime towards the sea. As for the winds, the Adriatic sends the warm and wet Scirocco, while the cold, dry and fearsome Bora comes from the Alps.
There are also essential terroir differences due to topography. The hills of Collio are pre-alpine, undulating, cut by rivers, their valleys running in all manner of directions, with gentle slopes becoming occasionally steep. Hence, the manicured vineyards have different aspects, altitudes, exposures, and diurnal variations.
The Collio has a unique soil called Ponca. This is a stratified rock made from deposits left in a shallow turbulent sea that once lapped against the rising Alps. Ponca has alternating layers of sand and clay cemented together with calcium. The sands provide excellent drainage, while the marly clay instead retains water. This is a valuable combination during wet and dry spells!
Furthermore, the Ponca’s exact composition and mineral content varies according to location. Ponca is susceptible to water erosion, so while occasional vineyard terraces occupy the steepest slopes, it’s usually customary for the vineyard rows to follow the natural hill contours.
While there are no official subzones, each of the five main towns (Dolegna del Collio, Cormòns, Capriva del Friuli, Oslavia and San Floriano del Collio) differs by how these factors combine. The Collio terroir naturally extends into the neighbouring Colli Orientale but also cross-border into the Brda territory of Slovenia. Brda, like Collio, is a word meaning hilly. Stemming from a similar heritage, some Brda wines resemble Collio’s, while some wineries straddle the border with holdings in both countries.
The Consorzio Collio
The founding of the Consorzio predates the DOC in 1964 and now comprises about 90% of the growers and producers, with 270 growers and 178 member wineries. As usual, it’s responsible for the promotion and protection functions for the entire DOC, not just the membership.
Vineyard holdings tend to be small, so wineries are often in family ownership. Growers may supply wineries or be part of the local co-operative in Cormòns. Collio’s excellence hasn’t gone unnoticed in Italy; there has been investment from larger wine businesses elsewhere looking to add prestige and diversity to their existing portfolios. Equally, some Collio producers have expanded into neighbouring territories.
The Consorzio Collio has also been proactive in developing identity and sustainability. In 2009, the Collio DOC introduced an optional distinctive bottle exclusively for DOC Collio wines. This has a tapered 60° slope to the shoulders. Furthermore, recognising the need for sustainability, it’s also lightweight and made from recycled glass. This is refreshing in a world which still too often equates heavy bottles with quality. The Consorzio Collio is encouraging the SQNPI sustainable production certificate for members, though there are many organic and biodynamic producers, too.
For many reasons, Collio is a special and unique place, and I implore you to enjoy the Collio experience first-hand! As the sunsets here are legendary, why not take a glass or two of Collio wines at sundown and admire the view?
Meanwhile, Collio wines are available in the UK. Hence, following this article, there are three new pieces about the principal Collio white wines. These have producer/tasting notes and food suggestions. The first article is about Ribolla Gialla, while the second features Friulano. The third and final piece is about Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio.
Collio shouldn’t be a secret to UK wine lovers any more!
Consorzio Tutela Vini Collio
Via Gramsci, 2
34071 Cormòns (GO)
Thanks to the Consorzio Tutela Vini Collio and its members for their hospitality, warmth, and information. This enabled a deeper exploration of the Collio territory, its people and its inspirational wines.