Feb 20, 2014 01:18PM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
Of the thousands of grape varietals grown worldwide, how many can you say you’ve tried? Can you count Ribolla Gialla among them? I’m guessing not too many said yes, but likely not because you’ve passed on numerous chances to try this esoteric European varietal. Quite the opposite. In its home of Friuli Venezia-Giulia, Italy, it accounts for a relatively small percentage of production. Of that, an even smaller amount is exported to the United States. Thus, it seems to rest quietly on few wine store shelves or restaurant wine lists, begging for an opportunity to show its worth. Its light bodied, fl oral, and citrusy nature has much competition among well-established varietals and among small wine stores, owners can’t always take chances on wines that may not sell.
Enter Giorgio Colutta’s stellar sparkling Ribolla Gialla to prove that sometimes, when all else fails, just add bubbles! With its soft, friendly nature and barely off-dry palate, it fits in a category just outside of Brut (dry) that appeals to a growing number of consumers looking for wine sparkling or otherwise that is functional at the dinner table and on the couch. As the lone representative of this varietal at several retailers, it carries a large burden, but will reward its drinkers tenfold if given the chance.
It is produced using the Charmat method, the very same method used to give Prosecco its bubbles. After the wine completes its alcoholic fermentation, it is moved into large pressurized stainless steel tanks in which a secondary fermentation takes place. Selected or indigenous yeasts then “eat” the grape sugars producing carbondioxide, which is subsequently trapped in the wine, as it has no place to escape. As opposed to Champagne, it is aged minimally, usually less than six to eight months in bottle before release. For wines like Prosecco and Ribolla Gialla, preserving the youthful, fresh, and fl oral nature of the grape is paramount.
The grape itself is thought to have been in existence since the 13th century, originating in Greece and over time making homes in both Slovenia and Italy. As was the misfortune of many European varietals in the late 19th and early 20th century, the plant louse “phylloxera” devastated Ribolla Gialla plantings. Many took the opportunity to replant with French varietals like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Merlot to give them the opportunity to compete on an international level.
Regional varieties remained just that and were mostly grown and consumed locally. In the late 20th and early 21st century, interest in the wines of Friuli Venezia-Giulia grew, sparking a continuously rising number of new Ribolla Gialla plantings, and experimentation by local producers. In the past decade, there’s even been a small group of Napa Valley producers led by George Vale, cofounder of Luna Vineyards, who have tried their hand at growing this grape in California with varying levels of success. No one, however, expects this little known, finicky grape to ascend to super stardom, but the potential to make great wine under the radar from a unique varietal exists.
Young, adventurous wine-drinkers from the millennial generation are proving more and more that they are willing to drink outside the box, and fill their glasses with wines from little known places all over the world.
Over the past decade, the United States has surpassed both France and Italy in total annual consumption, drinking a staggering 324 million cases last year, roughly 13 percent of the worldwide total. What’s more intriguing is the apparent willingness of the millennial and baby boomer generations—the two most prolific demographics—to explore both different grape varieties and regions. Near the top of the growth trend is sparkling wine, with consumption jumping 15 percent in the last five years. Furthermore both Moscato d’Asti from north-western Italy and Prosecco from north-central Italy have also seen a serious uptick in sales. This is an exciting time for American wine-drinkers and producers of little known grapes like Ribolla Gialla alike, as our exposure to new and interesting wines from around the world will almost certainly grow in the coming years.
If you’d like to seek more examples of Ribolla Gialla, I recommend Vinnae from the producer Jermann, one of the top in the region. Dry, crisp, and mineral-tinged with a zesty finish, it is blended with small portions of Riesling and Tocai for balance and added floral character. For something a little less traditional, try Movia from Slovenia, where the grape goes under the name Rebula. It is aged in wooden barriques for 18 months, lending it flavors of toffee and caramel with an abundance of dried fruits and almond.