Friday, March 4, 2011

Brilliant Friulian Wines of Sant'Elena

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The 19th century Sant'Elena vineyard estate is situated in Friuli by the banks of the Isonzo River in the northeastern corner of Italy bordering Slovenia. It was established before Italy became a republic—during a period when the region was successively occupied by the Hapsburgs, the Venetians, the Austria-Hungarian empire, and the Slavs.

Today, Sant'Elena is a modern wine estate, owned and run by the Nocerino family, famous for introducing the wines of Angelo Gaja, Fontodi, Felsina, Braida, and other top Italian wine producers in the US. A new winery was built and vineyards have been replanted over the past decade. It strives to produce wines that are strongly identified with the region.

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For example, Sant'Elena's 2006 "Quantum L'Autoctono" is from 100% Pignolo grapes, a variety indigenous to the region. After harvest the grapes are left to dry for 60 days to concentrate and develop intense flavors. After this process called appassimento and surmaturazione, the grapes are fermented. The wine is aged for three years in new French oak before bottling. Evolving slowly in the glass, this powerful wine offers layers of dark fruits and spices. Robust and elegant, this is the noble red wine of Friuli.

Another unique wine is the 2008 Traminer "Aromatico". This produced from 100% Traminer from vines farmed for low yields. It takes a whole vine to produce just one bottle of this wine. Exotic scents of jasmine and tropical fruits. Intense, richly flavored. Very nice.

But the wine that opened me to the brilliance of Sant'Elena is their 1999 Merlot. At just $15 this is one of the greatest wines values I've come across. As in St.-Emilion, this Merlot was grown on the right bank of the Isonzo River of Friuli, in stony alluvial soils. Crafted with the help of Carlo Ferrini, Italy’s top oenologist. After a decade it has evolved into a refined, mature wine that evokes classic Saint-Emilion flavors of cassis, tea leaf, cigar, and dried berries. A surprising discovery and a real eye-opener to the possibilities in Friuli.