At the top of a hill in Corno di Rosazzo, just steps across the border from the Collio into the Colli Orientali del Friuli zone, lies the estate known as I Clivi (“the slopes,” in ancient Italian). I Clivi occupies one of the more privileged sites in the COF zone, with vines rooted in a soil base rich in calcareous marl, known locally as ponca (or flysch), an ideal environment for traditional Friulano varieties and a terroir that lends an intensely mineral signature and compact, focused acid structure to the wines grown on the property.
Arriving at sunset on Tuesday, we were greeted on the front terrace of the winery by Mario Zanusso, the current winegrower at I Clivi. Mario is a handsome guy, at once quiet, intense and somewhat reserved — not at all unlike the wines we would taste with him a short while later. Walking and talking with him, I got the sense that he’d be just as much at home taking in a Ramones gig at CBGB (if only we had a time machine) as he seemed in the hills of Rosazzo.
The vineyards at I Clivi, as are much of the high quality sites throughout Colli Orientali del Friuli, are laid out on terraces cut into the hillsides. The slopes here, though not exactly gentle, are not insanely steep, at least not when compared to more precipitous viticultural areas such as the Mosel or Northern Rhône. While I’m sure that, for some producers, ease of mechanization plays into the maintenance of the terraces, Mario explained that their genesis sprang from a more primal need, as the friable nature of the ponca-rich soils make the landscape highly prone to erosion. The terraces, at a very practical level, help to keep the vineyards in place in a landscape where heavy rainfall might otherwise, over time, lay bare the roots of the vines.
I was so intent on capturing the beautiful view of the sunset (something for which my camera is not particularly well suited) that I totally neglected to snap a few shots of the old vines on the steeper, terraced vineyards at I Clivi.
The Zanusso family owns a total of twelve hectares of vineyards, eight of them directly surrounding the winery and falling in the Colli Orientali del Friuli zone, and another four situated in the Collio, just over the next line of hills, immediately adjacent to the border between the COF and Collio DOC areas. Farming at the estate is certified organic and nearly all of the wines are estate bottled, though Mario’s keenness for Ribolla Gialla has led him to purchase some fruit from growers in nearby Goriška Brda (Slovenia) while waiting for his own young vines of Ribolla to come of age.
In both the vineyards and the cellar, I think that the approach at I Clivi can best be described as rational. Respect for nature is maintained, farming is certified organic, but no particular doctrine or credo is followed. In Mario’s own words, “The first thing is that the wine is good. We don’t need to obey some [set of] rules.” Some of his wines are fermented on their native yeasts, others not, depending on the needs and characteristics of the vintage and each cuvée. Mario uses a light hand with sulfur, adding a bit at crush when the fruit is most susceptible to oxidation, most of which is consumed during fermentation, then adding just a dash at bottling for the sake of stability.
With one technical exception (which I’ll explain shortly), all of the white wines at I Clivi are fermented and aged solely in steel and without skin contact. Though the family does farm some modern varieties (Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon), Mario holds a strong preference for local varieties. They are also blessed with having a high proportion of old vines on their property, as Mario feels that the old vines draw greater minerality into their wines. The white wines all undergo extended lees aging, including a practice the Zanussos adopted from Burgundy – and here’s that exception to the steel-only rule at the estate – in which the lees, immediately after fermentation, are removed from the wine and “aged” in barriques for one month before being reintroduced to the wine.
Leaving the cellar for the cozier confines of the family’s tasting room, we were joined by Mario’s father, Ferdinando Zanusso, who slowly but surely took the reins as we sat down to taste and discuss the wines. One could quickly fathom from where Mario inherited not just his looks but also his intensity, as Ferdinando is the kind of man who imparts as much information and intention with a quick look, gesture or phrase as many people take minutes and paragraphs to convey. In earlier phases of his life, he spent time in Africa with the United Nations and also worked in the maritime transport field before settling at I Clivi, where he and Mario have been producing wines since the 1996 vintage.
Collectively, the wines at I Clivi are among the most focused, mineral-intense, and, one could argue, tightly wound of any I’ve encountered during our week long exploration of Colli Orientali del Friuli, Those descriptors carry even greater weight than usual given that we tasted all of the wines at room temperature, where faults or imbalances, if any, are laid bare much more clearly than when chilled.
We tasted from the family’s very last bottle of 2009 Ribolla Gialla, all 11.3% alcohol of it, produced from the fruit of 15 year-old vines grown in Brda; a very clean, light and vibrant style, round in feel and lifted by its bright acidity and minerality.
The first of two examples of Friulano came next, the 2009 Colli Orientali del Friuli Friulano “Vecchia Vigna al Clivi,” which comes from 60 year-old vines immediately adjacent to the house and spent a year on its lees before being bottled in October 2010. Intensely salty, with a gorgeous balance between fleshiness and racy acidity. A 2009 Friulano “San Lorenzo,” from the Collio DOC, was richer, less mineral, more savory in its flavors, with an attractive vegetal undertone and a classic signature of bitter almond flavor on the finish.
One of my favorite wines of the evening (and in near final retrospect, of the entire trip) was the 2006 Colli Orientali del Friuli “Clivi Galea,” a blend dominated by Tocai (about 90%) with small proportions of both Verduzzo and Chardonnay. It spent two years on the lees in tank. Galea is a single vineyard on the home/COF side of the property with dry, marl-rich soil — a mix of chalk clay and limestone. Relative to the younger wines we’d already tasted, it boasted a higher alcohol level of 14%, a level now much more typical of the region, in this case a direct side effect of the hotter than average 2006 growing season. The wine was nonetheless perfectly balanced; redolent of fennel and loaded with stony flavors and textures, it was downright fantastic.
A bottle of 2007 Collio Goriziano “Clivi Brazan” was richer, darker and more evolved than the ’06 “Galea,” a facet influenced more by the rainy 2007 growing season than by the wine’s different place of origin, over the hill and into the Collio zone. Still, the wine was far from without its own charms; much more tropical and zesty on the nose, with aromas of lychee and hothouse flowers, along with a subtle peppermint scent.
Neither Mario nor Ferdinando are particularly fond of sweet wines, so thy opt to produce a Verduzzo — one of the two autochthonous vines of the region, along with Picolit, typically used for sweet, appassimento wines — in a dry style. In the words of my traveling companion Wayne, Verduzzo is “a red wine grape with white skin.” While that character is generally masked in sweet expressions of Verduzzo, it came through clearly here, with a tannic, grippy, somewhat aggressive texture that called out for food — roast pork or veal come to mind.
Arguably the most forward wine in the day’s lineup was the 2009 Colli Orientali del Friuli “Bianco Degli Arzillari,” a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon and Traminer. Not at all aromatically overbearing, as the presence of Sauvignon and Traminer in the blend might suggest, it was fleshy and quite pleasant. If forced to pick one wine that didn’t particularly call out to me, it would be I Clivi’s 2008 Collio Malvasia. A varietal expression of Malvasia Istriana, it was fat on the palate, from front to rear, creating an initial impression of sweetness yet finishing dry and mineral, with lingering flavors. Again, it wasn’t my fave but is was still a very good expression of Malvasia.
As the evening progressed and our tasting wound down, Ferdinando offered us one last taste, of the only red produced at the estate, the Colli Orientali del Friuli Merlot “Clivi Galea,” in this case from the 2003 vintage. Regardless of country and region, the Merlot vine loves clay and there’s clay aplenty in the ponca soils of the Galea vineyard. Classically red-fruited and elegant at first taste, it took on a smoky character on the finish, where it showed quite a firm spine. Food came to mind once again, this time roast beef with pesto….
Bidding Signore Zanusso arrivederci under starry skies, I was ready for dinner, dreaming of sleep and, most of all, still savoring the intense, lingering impressions left by the wines and the particular passions of a father and son growing wines in the Friulano hills.