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The Best White Wine You've Never Heard Of
By Michael Apstein
Sep 11, 2018
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Although the Romans cultivated Ribolla Gialla and the Venetians supposedly used the wine made from it to settle debts, I could not have written this column 30 years ago because much of the area where it is grown was in then-Communist western Yugoslavia, now Slovenia, and off limits to Westerners. Furthermore, quality wine was not a focus under the Communist regime and growers were forced to sell most of their grapes to the government co-op, which turned them into an anonymous blend.  The epicenter of Ribolla Gialla or Rebula, as it is known in Slovenian, is the small Collio area of northeastern Italy spilling over into the Brda (pronounced ber-da) region of Slovenia.  There, among the steep hillsides (collio, as they are called in Italian and brda in Slovenian) the grape thrives.

The Slovenians, finally unshackled, were able to bring the wine back to its former glory. It’s a fascinating area of winding roads, a unique sedimentary soil, locally known as opoka (in Slovenia) or ponca (in Italy), and vineyards etched into the hillsides, the combination of which provides excellent drainage and limits the vines’ natural vigor.  Valeria Simčič, who along with her husband Marjan, owns the top Brda estate, Marjan Simčič, emphasizes the importance of elevation, noting that Rebula planted in the plains or even lower on the slope results in high yields, which in turn, results in dilute, innocuous wines. 

Whether in Italy or Slovenia, the topography is the same with the shuttered border-crossing military outposts the only reminder of the political divide of the past.  The remaining difference is that the Italian version is labelled Ribolla Gialla (yellow ribolla, pronounced, ree-bow-la jala) and the Slovenian one, Rumena Rebula (yellow Rebula) or more usually, simply Rebula.  Growers frequently own vineyards in both countries, which presented a problem for those on the Slovenia side in the past because they needed special government permission to take their tractors across the border.  The current difficulty for both the Italian and Slovenian producers is how to label a wine made from grapes grown in two countries, since many producers own vineyards on both sides of the border. 

There are basically two styles of Ribolla Gialla depending on how the winemaker decides to make the wine. The crisp and lively “classic” style results from traditional white winemaking practice of pressing the grapes and fermenting the juice, in the absence of skins, in stainless steel vats.   A denser--some would say richer or more complex, others might say heavier--style results when the winemaker treats these white grapes as though they were red and uses the traditional red-wine process of fermentation of the juice in contact with the skins in oak vats for days to weeks.  In the extreme case, exemplified by Radikon and a few other producers, the juice and skins ferment together for months, resulting in orange- or amber-colored wine. 

Saša Radikon credits his father for undertaking prolonged fermentation and aging in contact with the skins in the 1980s.  As he tells it, his father, Stanko, wondered why the wines made in the usual way for white wines tasted so hollow when the grapes themselves had so much flavor.  He concluded that by separating the juice from the skins, producers were discarding the best part.  (At that time, grappa producers were paying higher prices for these discarded skins since they contained so much flavor.)  Although many producers believe some skin contact enhances the flavor profile, few undertake such protracted skin contact as Radikon. 

Marjan Simčič, whose eponymous winery is one of the best in the region, has gradually reduced the amount of skin contact during fermentation over the last 20 years and has settled on 16 days, the same duration as for his red wines, though in weaker years he reduces it further.  Even for his “classic” Rebula, he allows a couple of days of skin contact but emphasizes that is not to extract flavor from the skins, but only to allow the natural yeast--he never uses commercial yeast--to multiply and start fermentation smoothly. 

At the ends of this spectrum of styles--think Jermann and Radikon--the resulting wines are very different, which, ultimately, I think presents a major problem for the category.  In short, there is simply no way for consumers to know what they are getting just by looking at the bottle.  A potential solution is to expand what Al Bagatto, a top-notch restaurant in Trieste, does with its outstanding wine list.  They put a barrel icon next to the Ribolla Gialla wines that were barrel-fermented. Producers could consider similar icons on their labels to alert consumers as to the style of the wine.  Until then, consumers just need to remember individual producers and which wines they prefer.  It’s no different selecting Rebula or Ribolla Gialla than any other wine: in the end, it’s producer, producer, producer.

A third style of Ribolla Gialla, in the form of a sparkling wine, has been gaining in popularity, comprising about 7 percent of the Slovenian production to almost 25 percent of it over the five years from 2012 to 2017, according to Professor Denis Rusjan, of the University of Ljubljana.

Whatever the style, even those that see little or no skin contact or barrel aging, the wines have a captivating and palate-caressing texture, offset and amplified by brilliant acidity.  The best of them have a depth, complexity and richness not usually associated with Italian white wines.  Though there’s an occasional Ribolla Gialla or Rebula that has a stated-alcohol of 14 percent, most of them, despite their richness, weigh in at 12.5 or 13 percent. They are substantial wines, in the best sense, capable of holding up to robust seafood stews but graceful enough not to overpower more delicate fish, such as branzino. In short, they are wines to savor, not to quaff.

My prejudice before tasting a range of them recently at a conference devoted to the grape held in Brda was that I would prefer the classic style over the skin-contact barrel-fermented ones.  Though that was generally the case, I was pleasantly surprised at the complexity, depth and balance of many of the wines that had seen skin contact and barrel aging.  That style of wine benefits enormously from a year or two of bottle age that allowed the tannins--both from the grape skins and from the barrels--to integrate into the wine.  That’s usually not a problem for consumers here in the U.S. because most of the wines commercially available on our shores already have a couple of years of bottle age.  Indeed, a barrel sample of Radikon’s 2017 Ribolla Gialla was harsh and practically undrinkable, whereas their deeply amber 2011--the current vintage on the market--was balanced and glossy.   In contrast, the classically-styled wines from the 2016 and 2017 vintages, such as Collavini’s 2016 “Turian” from the neighboring DOC, Friuli Colli Orientali, Jermann’s 2017 Ribolla Gialla labeled Vinnae (IGT Venezia Giulia), or Erzetič’s 2017 Rebula (Goriska, Brda) were deliciously refreshing now while conveying the unusual and welcome mouth-filling texture. 

I have listed below some producers who I can recommend.  Many of them make a range of wines, from the classic to the barrel-aged extended skin contact style so until they put icons on the label, inquiring when you buy a bottle is a good idea to know exactly what to expect.

Dolfo (their 2017 classic has purity, freshness and a welcome hint of bitterness in the finish), Erzetič (their 2017 classic Rebula has palate-awakening acidity the complements its richness), Ferdinand (a 2016 oak-aged Epoca was mineral-y and citrus-tinged, while their 2007 Epoca was mature and fresh), Gravner (like Radikon, known for orange or amber wine, may not be for everyone), Jermann (their vibrant and beautifully textured 2017 Vinnae is a blend of mostly Ribolla Gialla [90%] with Riesling and Friulano; the 2008, bottled under screwcap, has gorgeous development while maintaining freshness), Keber (similar style to Gravner and Radikon), Klet (a co-operative, but unlike the ones of the Communist era, this one focuses on quality), Radikon (as Saša Radikon is quick to point out, their wines are not to everyone’s taste), Edi Simčič (no relation to Marjan Simčič, it just happens that Simčič is a common Slovenian name), Marjan Simčič (their single vineyard bottlings under the “Opoka” label, are stunning and will convert those who have a prejudice against extended skin-contact wines), and Zanut  (whose classic style combines power and grace).
Ribolla Gialla or Rebula are not widely available, but they are worth the search.  Except for Radikon’s whose extended aging creates extra expense, most of the Ribolla Gialla or Rebula cost less than $40 a bottle, retail.

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Email me your thoughts about Ribolla Gialla or Rebula at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

September 12, 2018