Pinot Grigio is the largest-selling imported wine in the United States. In many restaurants and bars, it has even replaced the ever-popular Chardonnay as the “go-to” white wine for lots of customers. The wine is known in Italy (and in parts of California) as Pinot Grigio; in France, its original home, the grape variety is called Pinot Gris, and that is the wine’s name in Oregon and Washington State. But Italian Pinot Grigio is by far the most well-known name of Pinot Gris in the U.S.
Popularity has been its downfall in many ways. Large producers in Northeastern Italy, led first by the Santa Margherita cooperative, have produced massive amounts of the wine to feed the huge U.S. market along with other countries. Pinot Grigio really boomed in sales in the U.S. during the 1990s and the first decade of this century. Sadly and inevitably, most of the Pinot Grigio wines sold in the U.S. declined in quality, mainly because of over-production and poor sourcing. I find it difficult to enjoy most of the Pinot Grigio wines available in the U.S. today.
Since 2017, efforts have been made to upgrade Pinot Grigio’s image in Italy; it had been categorized with the general “IGT delle Venezie,” but now it carries the stricter production appellation of Pinot Grigio delle Venezie D.O.C., and maximum yields allowed are now 17% lower than before.
I was reminded of how good Pinot Grigio can be when I recently drank a glass of Marco Felluga’s Pinot Grigio. Actually, Marco Felluga has two wineries; many of his better wines come from his Russiz Superiore estate and bear that name on its wine label. His other wines use the Marco Felluga name. The two estates are located in the Collio region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia--commonly called Friuli--in the extreme northeastern part of Italy, next to Slovenia. (Marco’s older brother, Livio Felluga, already owned the great Livio Felluga winery in Friuli prior to Marco’s arrival on the wine scene but I am addressing Marco Felluga’s wines here).
The Russiz Superiore Pinot Grigio 2017 I tasted was a knockout; it had a deep golden color (unlike the pale Pinot Grigios commonly being sold). Marco Felluga’s Russiz Superiore Friuli Pinot Grigio Collio 2017 has good acidity, with rich, deep, delicious, spicy flavors, including pear, citrus, and apple. It is a dinner wine more than just an apéritif. Marco Felluga’s Russiz Superiore wine restored my faith in Pinot Grigio! It is available retail in the $26 to $28 price range, more expensive than most Pinot Grigios on the market, but so much better, and a bargain, considering the quality of the wine.
Like most wineries in Friuli, Marco Felluga’s white wines are the emphasis in this cool region, where many of the best vineyards are in the mineral-rich foothills of the Alps. Friuli currently produces about 77% white wines, but it does manage to make about 23% red wines, with Merlot leading the way, along with indigenous varieties.
I had six wines recently at a tasting of Marco Felluga’s wines, four white and two red. The white wines included two in which Pinot Bianco played a role. Pinot Blanc is a very important wine variety in Friuli. In fact, Marco Felluga’s key aim in making wine has been to promote Pino Bianco; Marco believes that Friuli makes better Pinot Blancs than anywhere else on earth--and I agree with him, but I also would include the neighboring Alto Adige province, just west of Friuli. (Both Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc are stable mutations of Pinot Noir). Sadly, I did not get the chance to taste Marco Felluga’s 100% Pinot Bianco at this tasting--probably because Pinot Blanc is an unheralded grape variety in the U.S., usually reduced to playing a supporting role in white wine blends. (I checked, and, unsurprisingly, the importer/distributor, Winebow, is not importing Marco Felluga’s Pinot Biancos into the U.S. at this time.)
The first white wine blend I tasted, under the Marco Felluga label, was the Collio Bianco “Molamatta” 2015, 40% Pinot Bianco, 40% (Tocai) Friulano, and 20% Ribolla Gialla (the last two varieties are indigenous to Italy, and are found mainly in Friuli). It is a complex, lovely wine, golden yellow in color, with aromas of tropical fruits and a touch of vanilla. It is ready to drink now. It retails for $24.
The second white wine blend, Russiz Superiore Collio Bianco “Col Disôre” 2013, 40% Pinot Bianco, 35 % (Tocai) Friulano, 15% Sauvignon Blanc, 10% Ribolla Gialla, has floral aromas, with a touch of citrus, mainly grapefruit; it has a deep straw color, with golden highlights. It is very fresh, bright, and lovely now, with a soft, velvety texture; it will be fine for a few more years. It retails for $34.
The Russiz Superiore Collio Sauvignon Riserva 2013 is 100% Sauvignon Blanc. 30% of the wine was fermented in oak barrels with the remaining 70% fermented in stainless steel; the combined juice was aged in oak barrels on its lees for three years before being bottled. The Sauvignon has aromas of apricots, peaches, and herbs. It is medium-bodied, more resembling a French Sauvignon Blanc than one from New Zealand. Excellent structure and balance, a wine to enjoy with poultry and vegetables. About $34 retail.
The Russiz Superiore Collio Cabernet Franc 2016 is made from 100% Cabernet Franc. This variety (along with Merlot) is more successful in this cool region than the later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine was aged in oak casks for 12 months and then aged for a minimum of six months in the bottle before it was released. This Cabernet Franc has an intense, complex aroma of black cherries and blackberries, with a hint of green pepper. It can be consumed even now, but can age for several years. Retails in the $26 to $29 range.
Russiz Superiore Rosso Riserva “Degli Orzoni” 2001. This wine, a real treat, is made only in certain excellent, warmer vintages from a plot of land on the estate that is especially suitable for red wine production. The 2001 is 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, and 10% Cabernet Franc. The wine was aged in small oak casks for two years and aged in the bottle for about 12 months. It is deep ruby-red in color with touches of purple. It has aromas of red currants, blackberries, spices, and forest floor. It is a powerful, balanced wine with an extraordinary, long finish. Quite a spectacular wine. It seems to be at its peak now, but can probably stay on this plateau for at least a decade. Unavailable commercially, I’m afraid…but it might be worth a trip to the Russiz Superiore Estate to get it!
Livio and brother Marco Felluga once worked together in Livio’s winery (Marco since 1956). In the mid-1970s, Marco left to form his own winery (practically a tradition in Italy). Livio Felluga passed away two years ago, at the age of 102! Marco is now in his 90s; his son Roberto is running the Marco Felluga/Russiz Superiore wineries, with Roberto’s young daughter, Ilaria, trained in winemaking, next in line. In Italy, family wineries usually remain in the family.
I list 21 outstanding wineries in Friuli (my favorites, at least) on page 195 of my book, Wine for Dummies, 7th ed. (co-authored by Mary Ewing-Mulligan MW) for your further exploration of this wonderful region. This column was inspired by the amazing 2017 Pinot Grigio I tasted from Marco Felluga’s Russiz Superiore estate. If you want to taste true Pinot Grigio at its best, I urge you to try it.