Friuli with frills: a weekend tour of Italy’s white wine heartland

The Picech family’s cosy B&B, known simply as Casa Picech, sits at the top of the sleepy winemaker hamlet of Pradis. It looks down over the historic Mitteleuropa town of Cormons, unofficial capital of Friuli’s Collio region, where some of Italy’s greatest white wines are produced. As I open the wooden shutters of my room, the early morning sun floods in to reveal an idyllic pastoral landscape. There’s layer on layer of rolling hills, the lower plains covered in a light mist, slowly revealing never-ending graphic lines of vines whose leaves are glowing autumnal red and orange.

The grape picking here is just coming to its end, and for the locals, the most important news of this post-lockdown era is that the harvest looks like being the best so far this century. Additional cause for celebration is that tourism seems to have bounced back, drawn by the mix of wine tasting, great cuisine, hiking, biking and festivals that make an autumn break appealing. Visitors just need to be prepared to show an NHS health pass (or European pass) when dining or drinking indoors, watching a concert or checking into accommodation, and wear a mask in shops and on public transport.

Roberto and Alessia Picech make a serious fuss of their guests, beginning in the evening after checking in, when this talented winemaker, whose vineyards surround the B&B, opens his latest crisp whites, made from the distinctive native grapes. Then at breakfast, Alessia prepares a feast of local specialities: smoked ham and salami from the local artisan prosciutteria D’Osvaldo that rivals more well known San Daniele or Parma ham, and tasty organic cheeses and yoghurt from the nearby Zoff farm and dairy, which she advises us to visit. This is not our first stay with the Picech family, and the region was top of the “return to” list when we came out of lockdown in Venice, where we live. So far, a break here feels little different to before the pandemic.

Down in bustling Cormons, first stop is the local tourism office, located on a grand piazza lined with stately pastel-coloured mansions and a towering church tower with distinctive green onion dome. The office suggests a range of eco-ways to explore without a car; the surrounding hills, vineyards and forests can easily be seen on a rented electric Vespa (€60 per day) or e-bike (€35 per day), all in Collio’s hallmark bright yellow. And for walkers setting off on the well-marked hiking paths, there is the new initiative of Collio Windows, dozens of wooden picnic tables set inside a giant yellow window frame, each one looking out over a spectacular vista as far as the border with neighbouring Slovenia, with directions to a nearby winemaker, osteria, artisan brewer or farm to visit (via a QR barcode on the picnic table).

Next door to the tourism office is the legendary Enoteca di Cormons, where everyone meets up – a packed locale that I remember heaving with a mix of raucous winemakers trying out each other’s vintages and tourists busily tasting before deciding which wineries to visit. Today, social distancing means far fewer people, the marble-topped bar is sadly off limits with table service only, and the remarkable wine list is only viewable by scanning your smartphone. But our usual waitress, Federica, is still here, as friendly and helpful as ever. “Many tourists have returned here, and I find that everyone accepts they must follow the new rules so we all avoid another lockdown,” she says.

There is the same positive vibe when we sit down for lunch at the nearby Al Giardinetto, a historic trattoria that has been run by the Zopolatti family for 120 years. It makes such a change from the past doom and gloom to hear Giorgio Zopolatti declare that, “since our June reopening we have broken all records, and I would say that 30% of our guests are new tourists, who have never been here before; I am sure they will become loyal new customers. So the future finally looks very positive.”

The last time I was here, Joe Jackson and his band were seated at the next table, enjoying a feast of chef Paolo’s Friulano cuisine, dishes such as goulash with spinach gnocchi, porcini and scampi soup, and in a nod to the territory’s Habsburg roots, kaiserfleisch – succulent smoked pork smothered with tangy freshly grated horseradish. Jackson’s band had just performed at the Cormons Jazz & Wine Festival, a brilliant event that takes place from 21 to 25 October, spanning not just concert halls but intimate performances in wineries.

Also around this time the Roman city of Cividale is transformed into a huge open-air antiques market on the last Sunday of each month, teeming with bargains; and the nearby Natisone Valley hosts a foodie festival dedicated to chestnuts at weekends (the last on 23-24 October). During the Cantine Aperte weekend celebrating San Martino’s festival (6 to 7 November), winemakers across all of Friuli open their cantinas to present their wines and regional cuisine.

The road out of Cormons in the other direction from the Collio and Slovene border leads up towards Austria and the Julian Alps, into the Eastern Hills (Colli Orientali), less visited by tourists, but where there are again some terrific wines to discover, including potent red refosco and pignolo. To get an idea of where the different wineries are, we visit the Collio Orientali’s tasting academy, housed in a majestic 17th-century villa, then head straight to the nearby cantina of Oliviero Visintini, who makes many of his wines using an ancient method with terracotta amphorae (wine aged in clay). He recommends we stop for lunch just down the road at Osteria Solder, whose garden terrace has breathtaking views, perfect to enjoy a plate of steaming pappardelle topped with a rabbit and sage ragù. Driving north we finally stop at Aquila del Torre, the Eagle’s Tower, an idyllic winemaker B&B that looks out over a breathtaking amphitheatre of vineyards and mountains.

The young owners, Michele and Sarah Ciani are committed environmentalists, proposing walking and cycling trips to discover the biodiversity of their lush wooded estate – and we walk through the forest to a high point for a picnic. This is the place to discover Friuli’s most famous wine, the luscious, sweet picolit, its explosive fruitiness perfectly paired with a creamy local goat’s cheese. From Aquila del Torre roads lead up into Carnia, the more mountainous part of Friuli, where gentle vineyards are replaced by wilder alpine scenery as the border with Austria approaches. One for another weekend break.