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There is always a mad rush at Venice’s Marco Polo airport as new arrivals line up to catch the bus into La Serenissima. This time, though, I’m not following the crowds and, after picking up my hire car, I’m soon on the autostrada driving in the opposite direction.
I’m not heading for the traditional bolt-hole of local Venetians, who prefer to take refuge in the elegant villas of the surrounding Veneto countryside or chic mountain resorts high in the Dolomites. My destination is just an hour’s drive away, hidden away in the Friuli, a wild region that forms a rugged border with eastern and central Europe, unspoilt and undiscovered even by many Italians themselves.
Although we are far from the picture-postcard vineyards of Tuscany and Piedmont, the wines produced here, specifically in the rolling foothills of the Alps known as the Collio, are some of the finest in all Italy, stupendous whites from little-known grapes such as Ribolla Gialla and Malvasia, reds that range from classic Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to the local Pignolo, and a luscious dessert wine, Picolit, that rivals the finest Sauterne. Better still is that many Collio winemakers have recently opened up rustic bed and breakfasts, allowing you to stay close to the vines.
You won’t need a Michelin Guide to discover trattorias and osterias serving surprising, delicious, regional cuisine that is more Mitteleuropa than pasta and pizza. Tourists are still something of a novelty, so wander into a bar, and five minutes later, the friendly locals will be asking questions and then telling you the best winemakers and restaurants to visit.
Our road trip begins in the unofficial capital of the Collio, the vibrant town of Cormons, surrounded by hillsides clad with vineyards and just 10 minutes from the motorway exit. Although people don’t come here for cultural sightseeing – forget the usual round of museums, churches and castles – there is always something happening in the town, from their twice-a-year jazz festival to art exhibitions and the mid-November Cantine Aperte, where all the wine producers open up their cellars.
The key place to get your bearings is the Enoteca di Cormons, in the town’s main piazza, an immediate slice of local life, buzzing with activity at any time of the day or night. The Enoteca is a cooperative winebar of more than 30 of the leading Collio winemakers, where you can sample all their latest vintages by the glass, before checking out on the map which cantinas look worth a visit. My wife and I are booked in to stay the night at Terra & Vini, a smart combination of an old-fashioned osteria and chic B&B that was created by Livio Felluga, the region’s most important viticoltore. Felluga could be described as the godfather of the Collio, a dapper 96-year-old, always immaculately attired, who still turns heads as he walks down the street in Cormons.
Terra & Vini is run by his dynamic daughter, Elda, who over lunch turns out to be a mine of information about exploring the surrounding countryside. The young chef, Marco Boccotti, creates elaborate dishes and the Felluga wines we taste are simply a revelation: Terre Alte, a sumptuous blend of Sauvignon, Pinot Bianco and the local Friulano grapes, followed by Sosso, their renowned red, an intense combination of Merlot and Refosco. At the end of the meal, Elda offers to whisk us off to meet signor Zof, her cheesemaker, and to the secret address where her smoked ham is cured but the real fun of the Collio is hitting the Strada del Vino and making your own discoveries.
From Cormons, a narrow backstreet runs out of town into the vineyards, leading all the way to San Floriano del Collio and the border with Slovenia. We pass La Subida, a fabulous gastronomic restaurant and plush agriturismo that is the most luxurious address in the region. Josko Sirk, its impassioned owner, is as well-known here for his delicately-aged vinegar as he is for his wine.
Round every corner there seems to be another cantina but we carry on till we reach the Trattoria Dvor in San Floriano. This is quite simply the most magical place in the Collio, with a huge garden shaded by chestnut trees and unparalleled views over rolling hills. We found the wine better than the food, so you might just want a drink, but the trattoria is in the grounds of what was once a castle, long ago destroyed, owned by Baronesse Tracco, and it is possible to stay the night in the agriturismo, a comfortably renovated farmhouse.
In the nearby hamlet of Oslavia is one of Italy’s most renowned, certainly most idiosyncratic, winemakers, the reclusive Josko Gravner. You can’t miss his house as a series of vast amphoras fill the garden. He has dozens of these specially-made two-metre terracotta jars at his cantina, where he ferments each grape harvest for 18 months, part of a quite incredible seven-year period before they go on sale. His cellar isn’t open to the public, so you’ll have to seek it out in local restaurants or wine merchants, where prices begin at €50 a bottle.
Fortunately, it is possible to stop off for a wine tasting just down the road at the cantina of the Primosic family, who cultivate the surrounding vineyards. Marko Primosic could be called the king of Ribolla Gialla, the local grape that is rapidly becoming the signature wine of the Collio, and he even has a yellow Porsche outside with the slogan, “Think Yellow, Drink Ribolla Gialla” written on the bonnet.
Primosic suggests that, before going back to Cormons, we drive into Gorizia for dinner. This is one of those strange border towns, which was literally divided right down the middle in 1947 when Italy and the then Yugoslavia arbitrarily made their frontiers. Since Slovenia joined the European Union, it has been easy to cross back and forth to Nova Gorica, which tempts tourists with garish casinos, but an edgy atmosphere still hangs in the air.
Italian Gorizia is something of a surprise, though, with funky lounge bars such as Caffè Garibaldi and Majda, and one outstanding gourmet restaurant, Rosenbar, where the inventive cuisine of Michela Fabbro, one of the star chefs of the Slow Food movement, features dishes such as succulent baby squid stuffed with radicchio, or fillets of sole with a delicate ricotta and orange sauce, complemented by a bottle of Gravner’s unforgettable Ribolla Gialla – not yellow but a strange cloudy orange colour.
The next day we change base to the other side of the Collio, checking in at the snug B&B of Venica & Venica in Dolegna del Collio, two brothers whose family have been making outstanding vintages for more than 80 years. This is the perfect spot to unwind as the cantina and B&B are right in the middle of the countryside, and guests have use of a pool and tennis court.
For a tasting, though, we have booked an appointment nearby, at the winery of Graziano Specogna, whose wines feature in many of London’s top restaurants – although at very different prices than they are sold for here. Specogna is another typical Friuli character, a bear of a man, enthusiastic and welcoming, who won’t let guests leave until they have tried not just his wines but the salami and ham made on his farm. After a marathon degustazione, a hearty lunch is absolutely necessary, and we head off to another discovery, the Antica Trattoria Ferreghini in Mernico.
The menu features creative dishes that you’d never expect in such a rustic place – venison carpaccio with rocket and edible flowers; pork brawn with horseradish and pickled persimmon; chestnut gnocchi in wild boar ragù with grated black chocolate.
We make a final stop-off at Cividale. Founded by Julius Caesar, settled by the Celts and Lombards, this town was also a crucial outpost of the Serene Republic. The cathedral was designed by the great Venetian architect, Pietro Lombardo. Palladio contributed a palazzo, now a fascinating archeological museum. Most impressive is the Ponte del Diavolo, a bridge that crosses a river with an incredible aquamarine colour that is more Caribbean than Collio.
Enoteca di Cormans: www.enoteca-cormons.it. Terra & Vini, doubles from €95 (including breakfast): www.terraevini.it. La Subida, doubles from €90: www.lasubida.it. Trattoria Dvor, doubles from €100: tel: + 39 339877 1930 (no website). Primosic winery: www.primosic.com. Rosenbar: www.rosenbar.it. Venica&Venica, doubles from €95, www.venica.it. Specogna winery: www.specogna.it. Antica Trattoria Ferreghini: www.ferreghini.it. John Brunton hired a car from www.carrentals.co.uk, which offers a week’s hire from Venice airport from £118. For more information see www.turismofvg.it