The wine of Ramandolo, a sweet wine, is quite unique for a number of reasons: the zone of Ramandolo is in Friuli's only DOCG (denominazione di origine controllata e garantita) area. The grape variety used in the wine is verduzzo giallo - an autochthonous variety not grown anywhere else in the world other than in the north-eastern part of Italy. In fact, Friuli has the highest number of authocthonous grape varieties of any part of Italy - eight. Verduzzo giallo also possesses a greater degree of tannin in the skin than other white grapes which gives the wine a more astringent taste which is both pleasing and unusual. This tannin helps to balance the sweetness. As a result of the presence of this tannin, the wine is made as if it were a red wine. It is thus a red wine in all but colour. The climate in this region of Italy is not generally conducive to good wine-making being rather damp. In fact, Musi, nearby, is Europe's wettest place Note 1The rainfall in the year to 31 December 2004 as recorded by the Osservatorio Meteorlogico Regionale dell'ARPA FVG was 3.527,6 mm. Compare that to Paris and London with both less than 700mm per annum.
. The area for Ramandolo wine is small — only about 60 hectares. Many of the vineyards are situated on the slopes which form an amphitheatre above the town of Nimis and from various vantage points provide an extraordinary view over the plain leading down past Udine all the way to the Adriatic. Many of the vineyards are too steep to be worked by machine. Verduzzo giallo has acclimatised itself to the area, the most northern part of Friuli Venezia Giulia (FVG), and no wine is made further north than this in the eastern part of Italy.
The bells of Ramandolo church — the Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista — can be heard twice a day throughout the valley and hills. The situation of the church itself is unusual being built on its own overlooking the valley. The older houses are built in the classic mountain style — with stones from the river bed — carried down by the river Torre from the mountains behind. It is always interesting to see how the architecture changes as one progresses up one of these valleys. The stones used to construct the town buildings becoming larger as one proceeds up the valley, towards the moraine, giving the houses a more rustic feel.
The Friuli-Verduzzo-Ramandolo clone is very old, possibly even pre-Roman. There are even archaeological remains of grapes in the area dating back 6,700 years. The origins of the wine itself can be traced back centuries. It was offered to Pope Gregory XII, when Ramandolo was mentioned on the list of the wines served at the Council of 1409. Other documents mention Ramandolo in 1600, speaking of this wine in a competition for sweet wines in Venice.
More recently, immediately after the second World War, many of the people from the area emigrated. About this time the Cooperativa Agricola di Ramandolo (CAR) was formed. The CAR also managed the Trattoria Ramandolo next to the ancient church whose belfry is clearly visible from most parts of the territory. Many people from all around the area, particularly Udine and Trieste, visited this trattoria especially on Sundays, arriving on their Vespa scooters. People came to the area, not just for the cooler weather and fine vistas, but also for the unique wine made in the area and the few wine producers who existed at that time made a good busness selling it to these weekend visitors. Then it was known as Verduzzo di Ramandolo. It was at this time that one of the cooperative's members, Giovanni Dri, started a process of bringing his vineyards into order and producing Ramandolo commercially. Then a young man, he had the idea of bottling the wine so that customers could take it away with them and he also started to make sales trips in the region selling his wine.
However, viticulture was never the point of reference for most people after the Second World War as there simply weren't sufficient people to look after the vines and the farms were in large part mixed farms with some farm animals — cows, chickens, and pigs. This is still the situation today with a few of the producers. The production from these aziende were mixed: cheese, vegetables and wine. Wine, which for the most part during this period, was sold to other wine producers or to private clients. During this period there were also many army barracks in the area (the border with the former Yugoslavia is only some 5km away) and these made up many of the first enthusiastic private clients for Ramandolo. An enthusiasm they carried with them when they returned home. This type of private client was particularly fortunate for the area. Then up until the 1970s much of the viticultural heritage in this part of Friuli was lost, the earthquake of 1976 — the worst in Italy's history and centred on Gemona around 10 kilometers away — devastating the agriculture in the region. It wasn't until the 1980s that the foundation of the more modern wine-making period started - a period which is still developing today.
Ramandolo — the first and only cru in Friuli
Much of the whole area of vineyards in Ramandolo is very fragmented with very few owned entirely either by an individual or even his or her family. A large part are also sub-let to different producers who then become responsible for their maintenance. Some vine-growers simply sell their produce direct to producers who will then vinify the wine and sell it under their own name.
The hillsides of Ramandolo are largely protected from the cold north winds by Monte Bernardia. They are completely exposed to the South. Thus, the winter months tend to be quite mild. In the summer and through to the autumn, the hillside temperatures tend to be 2-3 degrees less than that of the plain and during the night the temperature decreases rapidly which concentrates the flavour in the grapes during the last part of ripening in September and October and helps prevent the onset of rot. Noble rot may also come to verduzzo, which is different than other grapes — Sauvignon, Semillon, Riesling, and Traminer— because the skin is much thicker, so rot doesn't attach itself easily. This resistence to rot permits a late-harvest cultivation where the grapes can be brought in as late as December and this allows a natural drying of the grape on the vine giving a concentration which adds to the aroma and also the structure of the wine. The topology of the area in this natural amphitheatre yields a relatively cold night and, inversely, a relatively hot day. As referred to earlier, the rainfall is significant but many (not all) of the vineyards are in the hills (which are some 300m above sea level) where the rain drains off quickly. It is the perfect mico-climate for Verduzzo Friulano (V. Giallo) combined with the lime-rich soil (fleisch of Cormons) or a composite of chalk and lime. Giovanni Dri has observed that the best wines are not always made in times of the long hot summers — another indication of the peculiarity but also the uniquenes of the grape and the terrain — as if the two collaborate in a secret synergy. He has observed that when the summer is short, when it gives way to an early coolness in the autumn, this can provide optimum conditions for growing the grapes.
Ramandolo is like a red wine, it only lacks the colour. To make Ramandolo the wine-makers use similar techniques as if they would make a red wine, particularly in the ageing of the wine. A wine that, according to winemaker Dario Coos, has "the need of two to three years to age and to express itself." Ramandolo needs to be fermented on the skins for a short time only and it needs wood to round off the tannins and bring out their more noble characteristics. The management of the tannins plays a key role in the production of the wine. Wine-makers must choose the best tannins which improve the ageing of the wine. Ths is difficult to do — extracting the right tannins and polyphenols — and it is a question of what one desires to make and good judgement. Thus, one needs a perfect balance between four ingredients: acidity, sweetness, tannin and alcohol. Unusual for a white wine where normally only three of these elements are required.
To make a sweet wine is complicated. It requires a concentration in the fruit with the acidity to support it; the grapes need to be mature but also there needs to be a part slightly less mature in order to give the wine some aromatic qualities which would otherwise be lacking. In Ramandolo the harvest involves two to three passes through the vines to arrive at the optimum mix of grape maturation; the drying of the grapes (whether artificial or natural) gives the major concentration to the wine. One must beware however that from October the acid in the grape can fall until November. In drying, the acidity in the grapes may also concentrate (if it is hot) or it will diminish.
In putting together all of this: a part which has been vinifed in steel without contact with the skins, a part which has been fermented with skins which augments the tannins and aromas, and a part of dried grapes (whether artifical or natural), one achieves Ramandolo. However, all of this without any ageing doesn't serve any purpose — the tannins need to evolve and the wine needs to stabilise to gain structure— it isn't to be drunk young. It is a wine that can age too. These tannins give Verduzzo Giallo about twenty times the anti-oxidant effects of other white wines such as Riesling and Chardonnay, for example. But the extraction of the tannins is done carefully, Dri: "Verudzzo has exhuberant tannins which one can only limit by fermentation in bianco. Because otherwise it would absorb the colour and the tastes too strongly.' Winemakers try to avoid any malolactic fermentation which might have a bad effect on the acidity possibly creating 'off' by-products caused by this process. In fact the only real problem for longevity of the wine is perhaps its lack of acidity.
Another problem in Ramandolo, given the climate which encourages excessive growth, is to give the vines the equilibrium they need to produce the best grapes for wine making. With over-production of fruit on the vine the grapes never properly mature, the tannins don't develop. With too little production the tannins are too excessive. The consciencious vine-grower thus needs to look at the proper equilibrium of each vine not just the vineyard as a whole. When making any part of a passito wine (natural or otherwise) one must supersede the natural maturation of the grapes and this causes all the effects to be concentrated — the good and the bad.
According to wine-maker Giovanni Dri: 'Ramandolo in international competitions would never shine because it is too different — even though it has its own pleasure, drinkability and freshness as a result of the tannins which balance the sweetness." It is not aromatic, however, and next to a Sauternes or an ice-wine it would "disappear". In attempting to correct some of these anomalies Dri has pioneered a late harvest Ramandolo which he has called Dicembrine. Normal wines are harvested in October. Dicembrine (which he started making in 1990) is left as late as December when the grape changes colour and becomes redder in maturation and the flavour becomes like honey. When the maturation period of the grape is slow like this, Dri maintains that also the acidity is higher.
The business model
The limits of commercialisation of Ramandolo are essentially down to human problems — too many producers producing too little wine to find any market where the cut-off for production quantities is such that suppliers might be unable to fulfill their quotas. That is no doubt one of the reasons why one of Italy's largest producers, Fantinel, have moved in. They will surely acquire many smaller producers unable to compete whilst these same producers are trying to combine agri-turismo to supplement their incomes. One commentator felt that the area would end up with 4 or five producers in about ten years time (instead of thirty).
It is certainly very difficult for producers to travel and sell their wines. They have already invested a substantial amount in the wine-making equipment and they have no money and little time to spend on marketing. There is, however, a younger generation making the wine — with the DOCG status came youth and enthusiasm. One stated objective is to bring people to the zone to buy the wine direct. Ramandolo has many of the attributes to make this possible. A welcoming population; good food and, of course, fine wine. But, the accommodation and eating establishments, whilst of a high level, are sparse. The area is more suited to day-trippers than wineviators from other European countries or even the United States. This said, there is no reason why this can't be part of a longer itinerary which would include parts of the Collio Orientali, for example.
Ramandolo with food
The colour and sweetness of the wine varies according to the amount of dried grapes added — the colour deepening with the effects of drying; the sweetness increasing similarly. The aromas, which gain according to the amount of passitura are redolent of apples, apricots and chestnut honey. On the palate it has a strong character, largely due to the tannin component with a very light perfume (it is not an aromatic wine). Apple flavour is thus the main descriptive, then honey, almond and apricots and some nuances of tropical fruit — especially wines from the hillside localities and where there is a greater passitura component.
It goes with a whole variety of foods as a result of the underling tannic taste — so as an apperitif, with antipasti, and also paté and foie gras. With cheese it is very good — for example, Gorgonzola. It is excellent with prosciutto crudo di San Daniele, ripe figs, salami (from Nimis), matured cheeses (Montasio), smoked trout even, and, of course, the local Uessuz biscuits. However it is not a match for very sweet foods where it tends to get lost.
It is a particularly interesting time to see how the producers develop and solve some of the problems inherent in producing this complex sweet wine — refermentation, the wines' acidification, and potential precipitation being just a few of the pitfalls — not to mention the normal difficulties associated with the weather. Whilst some producers are already producing excellent wines, and the overall quality is high, some lack the experience, technical and wine-making skills required to maximise the quality in the zone. However, there is a lot of cooperation between producers which has helped considerably in improving winemaking techniques. For the consumer, there is currently some confusion over the bottling and labelling of Ramandolo which may take a year or two to sort out. At the present time some producers use a natural late harvest to concentrate the sugars in the grapes, whilst others add a percentage of artificially dried grapes (dried indoors in a well-ventilated area). The wine can be made up from any proportion of these grapes but usually no dried grapes go into the 'Classic' Ramandolo and from ten to forty or even fifty percent for the sweeter variations. They also produce a wine entirely from the artificial drying of the grapes which they call passito, from the noun appassimento. These Passito wines tend to produce a more complex wine with significantly more aromas of fruit and honey and are generally more adpated to ageing well. There is not much to guide one in identifying the liquid in the bottle as they are nearly all simply called 'Ramandolo'. So, one needs to rely on specific knowledge of the winemaking or colour (appassimento wines are naturally darker in colour) or alcohol content: the process of drying concentrates the sugars providing an increase in alcohol. 'Classsic' or non-passito wines are lighter in appearance, have a lower alcohol content (although never below the DOCG regulation of 12%) and are less sweet with usually more pronounced tannins. Ramandolo classico as these wines are termed, tend to be bottled in the normal 75cl bottle sizes whereas those made with a proportion of dried grapes are often in 50cl or even 37.5cl bottles. These latter whilst being more fruity on the palate are perfect for pre-prandial/post-prandial apperitifs and can match some light pastries but are not so good with cheese.
The area of Ramandolo is well worth a visit and the wines are quite unique. They are definitely worth hunting down and adding to your cellar. The area will undoubtedly change in the future providing more accommodation (agri-turismo) and it is a fascinating place to visit. Try a bottle and you'll be half way there - "to drink a glass of Ramandolo is to drink a bit of Friuli", so the saying goes.
Interviews with the winemakers
If you interested to hear more, then we have some interviews with some of the winemakers (in Italian).
Ho visitato Ramandolo nel luglio del 2005 col l'intenzione di fare delle ricerche per un articolo.
Durante la mia visita ho avuto l'opportunitá di incontrare molti dei produttore locali ed ho registrato alcune delle nostre conversazioni. Riascoltandole sono arrivato al conclusione che queste danno una visione unica di un mondo che senza dubbio cambierá nel futuro. Parlando con I produttori del vino connosciuto come ramandolo mi rendo conto di come le loro vite sono inestricablamnente connesse con lo sviluppo del'area e il progresso fatto nella produzione del loro vino, un area che dal 2001 — diventata di 'denominazione di origine controllata garantita'. Ho deciso di presentare questi conversazioni senza una introduzione perche' seguono una sequenza naturale nello spiegare la storia e le esperienze personali dei vignaioli nonché la descrizione di come viene fatto il vino e le loro speranze per il futuro. Questo non é una programma nel senso ordinario del termine e le conversazioni sono presentati senza artefici.
Qui ascoltere delle voci di Dario Coos, Alberto 'Bertino' Micossi Ivan Monai, Giovanni Dri, Walter Micossi, e Massimo Vidonni.
Potete ascoltare ogni singolo segmento come indicato qui sotto.
Dario Coos: L'antica storia di Ramandolo
(cerca 2 min)L'antica storia di Ramandolo
Alberto Micossi: la storia della azienda prima della seconda guerra mondiale
Ivan Monai: Ramandolo, dopo la seconda guerra mondiale
(cerca 3 min)Ramandolo, dopo la seconda guerra mondiale