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A bone in the nose

The wines of I Clivi

by Thor Iverson

[clivi bottles]
A tasting of and dinner with the wines of I Clivi, hosted by Mario Zanusso (from the winery) and Jeannie Rogers (the importer) at her restaurant Il Capriccio, in Waltham, MA. And a note: there is an extensive tasting at the winery, from November of 2007, that will eventually follow these notes. Stay tuned.

When I arrive, Mario is not long off the plane, and to be honest he has that telltale dazed, glassy-eyed look that inevitably follows such voyages. He’s sipping on a restorative martini, which wouldn’t necessarily be my pick-me-up of choice, but he manages to remain fairly alert until the tail-end of the evening.

For the first twenty minutes or so, it’s just me and Mario, so we chat for a while about matters various and sundry. He explains that his wines have “some similarities with Hermitage blanc,” though they’re much lighter in feel. Still, weight is an issue, and last year’s 16% tocai (despite being picked two weeks early) was a signal that warmer global temperatures aren’t going to leave Friuli unchanged. Clivi has had to modify their pruning techniques to lower ripeness, which has slowed down the grapes a bit, leading to a better balance.

In the near future are two hectares of ribolla gialla, but for now there are ten hectares of their own grapes, with some additional grapes purchased, and a total production of between 25,000 and 30,000 bottles.

Eventually, the other guests arrive, and we move to the table. With a procession of Il Capriccio’s typically excellent fare, we taste quite a lineup of wines. Here are the notes, interspersed with Mario’s commentary.

The Galea vineyard is eight hectares (seven of them new) planted mostly with tocai friulano plus a little merlot, and facing south-southeast, which means it receives sun all day. The vines are between 60 and 70 years old, at a density of 2500 plants per hectare. While chemicals are avoided if possible, there are occasional applications of both copper and sulfur. Grass is left between vine rows, and there is neither fertilization nor irrigation. This is also the site of the family home, so the desire for organic cultivation and a lack of chemical treatments has an obvious motivation outside of the needs of the grapes. Everything, including spraying, is done by hand.

“We like the plants to suffer,” opines Mario. The 2002 is, at the time of this tasting, newly-released. 2002 was a rainy season, and though it’s perceived with difficulty by observers, Mario is happy with the outcome, saying there’s a pleasant “lightness” to the wine. In addition to the majority tocai, there’s around 10% verduzzo in this wine.

i Clivi di Ferdinando Zanusso 2002 Galea Colli Orientali del Friuli (Friuli-Venezia Giulia) – Rain-churned dust, shells, and hazelnut with…marshmallows? If so, they’re natural, unsweetened, and slightly green. It’s a difficult descriptor to use, because it suggests the wine is synthetic when in reality it is almost completely the opposite; marshmallow is, here somewhat of a textural descriptor…but then again, not entirely. If anyone has ever tasted real marshmallow (from the plant), they’ll know what I’m talking about. The wine moves from Mario’s suggested lightness to greater weight and fatness on the midpalate, then recedes again, while at the same time building an edifice of spice and complexity on top of its foundation. Very tight, but balanced, with acid perhaps a bit more present than in other vintages. The finish is very, very long. After an hour or so in the glass, floral notes emerge. This should be a beauty, one day. (7/07)

When asked about yeast, Mario notes that, “natural yeasts take longer to attack complex sugars…and old vines” (which they have) “produce complex sugars.” For added complexity, this is fermented on the lees (for two years), and bottled without racking. Post-bottling, there’s an additional year of aging before release.

The 2001 Galea is more marked by verduzzo, which is a darker grape that contributes more color and tannin to the wine.

i Clivi di Ferdinando Zanusso 2001 Galea Corno di Rosazzo Collio Orientali del Friuli (Friuli-Venezia Giulia) – Strong anise up front (which Mario identifies as the verduzzo). Bigger and more forward than the 2002, showing ripe tangerine rind and bitter orange soda on the finish. It nestles the palate for a time, then turns more angular on the finish, which is shorter than that of the ’02. For whatever reason, I find this wine a half-step behind the 2002 in quality, though I think it will age just about as long. (7/07)

1999 was a dry season…dry enough to be labeled a drought year…and grapes were drying on the vine. Rain in September helped reestablish balance, but the grapes pushed themselves beyond 14% alcohol anyway. Mario thinks the ’99 Galea is “too heavy and overwhelming,” with “too much power.” He’s probably right.

i Clivi di Ferdinando Zanusso 1999 Galea Corno di Rosazzo Colli Orientali del Friuli (Friuli-Venezia Giulia) – Served warmer than I’d like. There’s a touch of volatile acidity here, and a slight prickle to the palate, which has a texture similar to that of linen. A bit fat, with perhaps a touch of heat (though that’s undoubtedly exacerbated by the temperature of the wine)…though this is clearly a big wine by any estimate, with juicy orange and greengage plum beating on each other like a large-barreled floor tom. Later cooling just mutes the wine, without really dealing with the more functional issues. (7/07)


“We’re not winemakers, but grape producers,” insists Mario. “We don’t want to mark the wine.” I ask Mario how he conceives the market for his wines, and he answers, “if you have personality, you will have your own market. It’s the difference that makes a brand, not being ‘better’.”

i Clivi di Ferdinando Zanusso 1997 Galea Corno di Rosazzo Colli Orientali del Friuli (Friuli-Venezia Giulia) – Dusty, with a beautiful mineral-driven nose. Later, there’s lemon verbena and mint, along with creamed apricot blossom and peach flowers. The palate is explosive yet silky, and the age lends a sensation (but not the actual presence) of sweetness. Gorgeous, and at a fine point in its maturity…though I don’t see any need for panicked consumption; this wine is still quite intact. (7/07)

From here, we switch to the Brazan bottling…also white, but from a different vineyard in a nearby village. The differences between the bottlings are stark, yet there’s a kinship as well. Varietal character? Winemaking signature? It’s hard to say without more experience.

Brazan is, typically, 90% tocai…the wine is, technically, a field blend and they’ve preserved the plantings as they are…from 70-year old vines on a steep hillside that, unlike Galea, sees a little shade in the morning. The soil is more “humid” (Mario’s word) than Galea’s, which means it suffers less from drought conditions, and the height and exposure mean that the site catches breezes from the Adriatic, which help keep the topsoil from harboring too-humid conditions. Vinification is the same as for the Galea (“the difference,” claims Mario, “is only the terroir”).

Brazan is “great with oysters,” according to Mario, but we don’t have the opportunity to discover this for ourselves. Galea, on the other hand, apparently pairs better with fat meats, duck breast and veal.

i Clivi di Ferdinando Zanusso 2002 Brazan Collio Goriziano (Friuli-Venezia Giulia) – Aromatically austere. When it finally opens – not an easy event to coax forth – it shows honeysuckle, dried mineral salts and hyssop. The balance is exquisite, the finish lingering and delicate, and the overall impression of the wine is beautiful and refined. Extremely impressive. (7/07)

Mario calls Galea an “autumn wine,” while Brazan is for “mid-winter.”

i Clivi di Ferdinando Zanusso 2001 Brazan Brazzano di Cormons Collio Goriziano (Friuli-Venezia Giulia) – Fuller than the 2002, with big, salty herbs, spice, tea, and ultra-ripe apple and a fuller, riper composition. And yet, there’s such amazing elegance retained. Long, with flawless balance even though it’s heftier. (7/07)

[galea rosso]
There is, in the Clivi cellars, a wine that’s spent six years in barrel, for reasons that remain unclear to me. Accident? Experiment? “Five or six people love it,” sighs Mario, who himself finds it “oxidized, orange and awful,” with intense levels of acetic acid. Mario continues: “there are people…the more [the wine is] full of defects, the more this sort of consumer loves it.” He grimaces with distaste.

Finally, as Mario drifts off into travel-induced lethargy, we get to the winery’s red. It’s from Galea, (nearly) 100% merlot from 50-year old vines, fermented in stainless steel and then moved to ten-year old barriques.

i Clivi di Ferdinando Zanusso 2000 Galea Rosso Colli Orientali del Friuli (Friuli-Venezia Giulia) – Grey and black earth are here less a foundation than a wrapping, like a soil-enclosed truffle cored with dried red, blue and black fruit that flow forth with a gorgeous, silken texture. The finish is long, dusty and exceedingly pleasant. A very polished wine, perhaps not with the inherent character of the whites, but fine in its own right. (7/07)

For me, this was a revelatory tasting. These are ageable wines of quality and individuality, not (at least yet) overpriced, showing great amenability to food but delicious on their own as well. They need time – all of them – to reveal their best qualities, but the rewards will be worth it.

Disclosures: wines provided by winery and/or importer, dinner paid for by importer and/or restaurant. All photos ©2007 Thor Iverson, label ©I Clivi.


Copyright © Thor Iverson.