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Tocai for the full guy

Part 10 of a 2007 Italian travelogue

by Thor Iverson


We’re sitting around a table, debating politics. Which we’ve been doing for…oh, about four hours now. Technically, we’re having lunch. But it’s quite dark outside, the dinner hour – even the late Italian one – has already arrived for many in the neighborhood, and neither the wine nor a regularly-replenished supply of hearty, crusty bread has stemmed. The crusty remains of a rich, Friulian style bean soup solidify along the interiors of our bowls, long since abandoned and forgotten amidst an occasionally heated conversation.

It’s not the typical form of a wine visit, perhaps, though pretty much everything about it does seem quintessentially Italian. But at the moment, we’re less worried about form than by the possibility that we might be invited to stay for dinner…the impossibility of which is confirmed by our legume-distended stomachs. Thankfully, the debate – which, in truth, has been a little more like an extended interrogation – finally comes to a close, and we struggle out the door and into the night.

Um…dessert, anyone?


Galea in the house

Rouge’s Galea

A cut below

The Zanusso family – patriarch Ferdinando and son Mario – of i Clivi isn’t the sort one meets everywhere on the wine trail. They share a sort of wearied yet intense worldliness that’s, at least on the surface, very much unlike the popular image of the traditional farmer/winemaker, and in fact at first glance they appear to be a little more akin to hobbyist winegrowers, whose fortunes were made in another industry. It is true that they’re fairly new to the game. Ferdinando, for example, comes from a long career spent in the world’s most troubled locales, working for international organizations (there’s that world-weariness), and they’ve only been involved with the property since 1996.

But the first glance is mistaken. Interlopers often bring passion of similarly focused intensity to their oenological careers, but all too often their gaze is firmly focused in the direction of internationalized modernity…all the newest containers, machinery, and techniques. The world rather than one’s immediate neighbors as organoleptic competitors. Consultants, flashy design, and marketing campaigns. Little of that applies to i Clivi.

Instead, they’ve pursued the “modern-traditional” path – handwork in the vineyard, natural yeasts, organic viticulture, increased vine density, and so forth – that characterizes the serious forward-into-the-past movement practiced many of Europe’s most exciting winemakers. The wines are clean, precise, and modern-by-practice, to be sure – no sloppy flaws, no inattentive mistakes, no goofy experimentation – but their purpose is simple and clear: to represent their terroir and their varietal composition without interference. And also to represent the house style? Well, if there is one – and it’s true that their wines do seem to show points of differentiation with their neighbors’ efforts, though it’s also true that they share vineyard sources with no one, and thus it’s hard to be sure of the source of those differences – it’s a naked, almost transparent, yet not particularly light skeleton that bares its frame and its surfaces to the world.

There are only four wines. The first, and simplest, is a verduzzo made for early drinking; we don’t taste this. The rest are named for their geographies. The “home” vineyard, known as Galea – an historical name meaning a galleon or a helmet – is planted to tocai, merlot, and the aforementioned verduzzo on flysch de Cormòns soil. (Ribolla gialla is being planted, though nothing will come of it for a while.) The other source of vines is to the south, on the other side of a hill: Brazan, a shortening of Brazzano di Cormòns, also planted primarily to tocai, but on a more acidic soil.

Tocai, did I say? Yes: tocai friuliano, one of the grapes on which the reputation of Friulian winemaking is built. And a name that’s soon to be lost. Like tokay-pinot gris in Alsace, the name has fallen victim to the greater historical precedence of Tokaji in Hungary, and so the grape has been renamed…or rather, un-named. After much debate, the name that appears to have been chosen is “friuliano.” Ferdinando argued for, and still prefers, “toi” (“cut” in the Friulian dialect), and isn’t shy about saying so. “‘Friuliano’ says nothing. It has no character.” I agree with him. The new name is overly generic, geographically unspecific, and bound to lead to confusion. (I’ll continue to use the old name, which has a little time before its legally-mandated disappearance, in this article.)

The Zanussos are trying to keep Galea’s vines on their own roots, but they don’t know if they’ll win that battle. In both vineyards, however, the persistent worry is a surplus of maturity, rather than its opposite; in one recent vintage, the tocai surpassed 15% in September, leading to elevated and unwanted alcohol levels.

Viticulture, as previously mentioned, is organic (“we live in the middle of a vineyard,” says Mario, “so we like to keep it clean.”) Wines are raised in a mixture of stainless steel and oak, and hand-bottled with no pumping, straight from the tank. Little else is done to control the process; Mario says they’re “in no kind of rush, slowing down [their] internal pace” so as to better “respect the time of the wine.”

[i Clivi bottles]

Clivi wonder
The brazen galleon

We takes seats at a cool outdoor patio overlooking Galea, with the wines in front of us having achieved a natural ambient temperature that’s just a touch too cold for their full aromatic effect. However, we’ll taste nearly all the wines inside, later, and so the notes that follow are a synthesis of impressions as the wines warm and develop over the course of an afternoon.

Galea (the white version) and Brazan are tasted, for the most part, by vintage and in pairs. Since I’ve tasted them before in vertical form, noting their terroir-derived commonalities, this is an interesting way to observe the effect of each vintage on each wine. Both are at least 90% tocai, with variable additions of verduzzo and malvasia, depending on the year and its conditions.

i Clivi di Ferdinando Zanusso 2003 Galea (Colli Orientali del Friuli) – A little bit sulfurous at the moment. The nose is heavy and alcoholic (it was, as everywhere else, a very hot year for grape-growing), and not showing much under its twin assaults of lead and SO2. The finish suggests mint, but it’s tight. Solid, fat, long, but formless. However…after two hours in a warm (that’s European “warm”) room, a little bit more has emerged, including some ripe melon and a harder edge to the structure. It’s still a fat, flabby wine, though.

i Clivi di Ferdinando Zanusso 2003 Brazan (Colli Goriziano) – A little better than the ’03 Galea, with a more cohesive form. Grapefruit and other assorted citrus rinds are present, along with some alcoholic numbness of the finish. It’s big. After a few hours of air and warmth, the nose is much improved, adding fig, melon, and cantaloupe to the fruit salad. But while it’s the more drinkable of the ’03 whites, at least at the moment, it’s still fundamentally deformed by its vintage.

i Clivi di Ferdinando Zanusso 2001 Galea Corno di Rosazzo (Colli Orientali del Friuli) – While it appears to broaden in the glass, in fact this wine is a lot less forward than it was a year earlier, so those holding some will now likely need to wait out its maturation. Herbs and a fine minerality are at the core, with a crescendo to a feathery finish that, nonetheless, remains full of mineral solemnity.

i Clivi di Ferdinando Zanusso 2001 Brazan Brazzano di Cormons (Colli Goriziano) – Waxed peaches. Quite flowery. Texturally, waves of luxurious satin envelop the tongue, and get sexier with each passing minute. While this isn’t fully mature, it’s drinking beautifully right now.

i Clivi di Ferdinando Zanusso 1999 Galea Corno di Rosazzo (Colli Orientali del Friuli) – From a warm vintage in which some of the berries started to desiccate, then recovered some of their plumpness just before harvest. This has opened a bit since my previous tasting, and the dominant characteristic is that of honey without its sweetness, lightly dusted with dried sage. Long and round, but still too young. There’s a very mild and pleasant oxidation on the finish, which I find to be entirely typical of these wines, and in fact hardly unknown among tocais in general.

i Clivi di Ferdinando Zanusso 1997 Galea Corno di Rosazzo (Colli Orientali del Friuli) – Mostly open, but I still wouldn’t say it’s on the far side of maturity. Wax and oxidation layered with late-autumn leaves and a long, sandy finish. Letting its hair down, and those with a quantity will want to start sampling from their collection.

i Clivi di Ferdinando Zanusso 1997 Brazan Brazzano di Cormons (Colli Goriziano) – Reddish fruit at the core, surrounded by wet wax and bronzed, metallic jacket. A triangular wine, drinking as well as it’s ever going to…which makes it the rare Clivi white that’s truly ready.

i Clivi di Ferdinando Zanusso 1997 Galea Rosso Corno di Rosazzo (Colli Orientali del Friuli) – 100% merlot, planted at 2000 vines per hectare. Earthy/gritty tannin, granular cherry and strawberry, and then a finish with the rough, friction-y texture of old leather. A bit of whiskey barrel sweetness emerges on the finish, but the wine isn’t hot. It is, however, in need of drinking.

At Clivi, the red usually needs time (its closed period is especially difficult), and while it’s a very nice wine, it’s the one that seems most in need of better vine maturity. The Brazan, while structured in the context of most of the world’s white, is here the more appealing, easier wine of the two vineyard-designated whites, bringing more upfront fruit to the palate without piling quite so much rigid baggage on top of it. The Galea is the most ageable and restrained of the trio, and while it can be almost impossibly difficult in its youth, age most definitely has its rewards.

Stuffed from head to toe with wine, food, and passionate debate, we stagger back to our hotel. Dinner, taken just before bed, is a few succulent slices of lardo wrapped around grissini. Or what we’ve come to call “a light snack.”

Disclosures: lunch…and much lunchtime argument…provided by winery.

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Copyright © Thor Iverson