I’m not entirely sure why some of the best wines in the world are made by people who are more than a little crazy, but there are enough wacko winemakers out there to make it clear that the connection between great wine and reclusive eccentrics is more than mere coincidence.
Even more telling are the number of these “eno savants” (to perhaps coin a phrase) that live in Friuli, in northeast Italy.
Once upon a time, there was no Italy, there was only the river Isonzo, winding its way down out of the Alps towards the Adriatic sea. From the high peaks it looped and loped, laying down beds of granitic gravel to make a sloping country which sprouted many things. Protected from the harsh continental weather by the Alps, and warmed by the humid breezes off the Adriatic, this mild region naturally attracted the various nomadic people that passed through the region, some of whom knew a good thing when they saw it, and settled down.
Some of the earliest settlers of the region were likely Celtic peoples who brought with them not only the skills of cultivating grape vines, but the inventive skills of aging their wines in wooden casks, a technology which surprised and delighted the Greeks and the various other Mediterranean cultures who came to trade in the 4th century B.C.
The region that would eventually become known as Farra d’Isonzo to those who live there, passed through the hands of many an empire before it settled down into the little nook of Italy that it represents today. But throughout the centuries Friuli has always been known for two things: grapes, and people who do things their own way.
Fulvio Bressan represents the 9th generation of winemakers carrying the Bressan name and working a small plot of land in the Farra d’Isonzo since 1726. And given the way he runs his winery, you would think that he might just be channeling all 9 generations of prior expertise, with little care for how the rest of the world might make their wines.
OK, so he does make one concession to modernity, which entails fermenting his wine in stainless steel tanks which he cools with water from his well. But apart from that, Bressan is as old school as you can get, down to the fact that he seems to run the family estate nearly single-handedly.
The Bressan recipe for wine is as simple as it is maddeningly extreme. Take lots of old vines growing various indigenous varietals, as well as Pinot Noir. Dry farm them with the most extreme pruning methods possible, to the point that each vine bears only one or two clusters of fruit. Pick after personally tasting every single cluster to make sure it is ripe, then cut off only the shoulders and the most perfect clumps of berries on those clusters and throw them into the tank, leaving the rest to be made into jam or grappa.
Ferment the wine for months with only ambient yeasts after a month-long maceration period, letting the wine do its thing as long as necessary in the tanks, including malolactic fermentation after the juice has been pressed off the skins. After this secondary fermentation, the wine is transferred to 2000 liter, ancient oak casks, where it receives regular battonage (a process where the particles of yeast that settle to the bottom of the cask, known as lees, are agitated and stirred around in the wine). Fining and filtration are also eschewed.
After that, it’s anyone’s guess. The cellar dissolves into alchemy. Bressan regularly mixes vintages, forgets casks of wine, makes special blends never to be repeated, and generally disregards all the modern traditions of winemaking and bottling (no doubt breaking some laws in the process, but hey, this is Friuli, not Brunello). Some of the labels are handmade, some don’t bear any vintage date whatsoever, and those that do are never guaranteed to be correct. The wines are released and sold when Bressan damn well pleases, and in such minute quantities (as small as 20 to 40 cases for some wines) that most people have never even heard of them.
Which doesn’t bother Bressan one bit.
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of dried herbs, raspberries, woodsmoke, and dried meat. In the mouth it is gorgeously textured, smooth to the point of being otherworldly, with a mysterious concoction of cranberry, raspberry, cedar, incense, wet leaves, and leather flavors that linger for a long time. With more time and air, this wines fruit becomes more crystalline even as the sharp acids mellow to a tangy note amidst the earthy qualities. Quite distinctive, this wine is not for everyone, but those who are looking for personality will find it here in spades.
Of the things that I drank this with tonight, I thought it did best with the prosciutto and fresh burrata on warm foccacia.
Overall Score: around 9
How Much?: $37
This wine is sometimes available for purchase on the Internet.