A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Ribolla Gialla (Robola) - Friuli-Venezia, Italy and Cephalonia, Greece

Ribolla Gialla has many different homes but can still be difficult to locate.  I was somehow able to find three different bottles of Ribolla, all of which were from three different countries.  Oddly enough, those were the only three bottles of Ribolla I was able to find.  It's very rare for me to find an unusual grape variety with that kind of limited availability but with that kind of geographical distribution.  That's how it worked out, though, and now that I've pulled the cork on all three bottles, I'm here to tell you what I know about the grape.

It is thought that Ribolla Gialla (so called to differentiate it from Ribolla Verde, an inferior mutation of the grape) originally came from Greece and arrived in northeastern Italy by way of Slovenia.  It's not a coincidence then that the three bottles I was able to find were from Greece, Italy and Slovenia.  Today it is most well established in the Friuli-Venezia region of northeastern Italy and the recorded history of the grape really begins at some point after its introduction to this region.  In 1289 the grape is mentioned for the first time in a vineyard land contract and in 1402, the city of Udine passed a law making it illegal to adulterate wine made from the Ribolla grape.  In the 14th Century, the grape makes its literary debut as Giovanni Boccaccio lists indulgence of Ribolla wines as a sin of gluttony in one of his works, and, several centuries later, Italian writer Antonio Musnig lists Ribolla as the finest wine made in Friuli.

Life was good for the grape up until the 19th Century when phylloxera hit.  Like so many regions across Europe, Friuli-Venezia was hit hard by phylloxera and the vineyards were decimated by the louse.  And as in so many other regions, after phylloxera was contained, when the locals decided to replant their vineyards, many of them opted to plant grapes other than the ones that had such historical success in the region.  Friuli in particular looked to France for their grape varieties and much of the land was replanted to Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris (subsequently Italianized to Pinot Grigio).  By the 1990's, fewer than one percent of DOC level wines in Friuli contained any Ribolla at all. 

The grape has rebounded somewhat in the past decade or so, though it still is not widely planted.  Bastianich and Lynch lump the grape in the "others" section of the "Key Grapes" part of their profile of Friuli in Vino Italiano.  In Slovenia, where it is known as Rebula, the grape is limited mostly to the Goriška Brda region of Primorska which is essentially the eastern extension of the Collio region of Italy into Slovenian land.  In Greece, where the grape is called Robola, it is grown almost exclusively on the island of Cephalonia off the western coast of the country.  Interestingly, most resources on Greek wine don't indicate that their Robola is the same as Italy's Ribolla, though they are almost certainly one and the same.


After doing a little more research on Greek Robola, it turns out that the case may be much less clear than Jancis Robinson & Co. indicate in The Oxford Companion to Wine.  In his excellent book The Wines of Greece, Konstantinos Lazarakis mentions that Robola may be a catch-all term for many different white grapes that aren't necessarily related to one another, in much the same way as Vernacchia is used in Italy to represent a host of different grapes in different regions.  One genetic study in California found that the Robola they tested was genetically identical to a grape called Thiako.  A similar study in Athens found that the Robola they tested was actually the Goustolidi grape, which is completely different from and totally unrelated to the Thiaka grape.  Further, there are distinctive amepelographical differences between Ribolla Gialla and the Robola found in Greek vineyards that would indicate that they are two (or three or four) different grapes.  Without any definitive DNA testing, it's hard to say at this point, but hopefully future research will clarify the issue.

As mentioned at the very top, I picked up three wines for this post, but only two were really worth remarking on.  The third was a 2000 Movia Ribolla from Slovenia.  The color gave this wine away really before I even tried to taste it.  It was a deep amber gold which you can see in the photo at right.  I don't usually take pictures of the wine in the glass, but this color was so remarkable I felt I should try to show it.  The nose was totally shot as well with a little nutty aroma and some butterscotch but mostly it was just a total blank.  I drank a few glasses of it anyway because I paid $25 for the bottle and figured I'd give it a shot.  The fruit was completely gone and there was just a hint of nuttiness left here.  If you were in an especially charitable mood, I guess you could describe it as minerally but in reality it was just an old bottle that should have been pulled from the shelf years ago.

The next wine that I tried was a 2009 Volpe Passini Ribolla Gialla from the Delle Venezie IGT which I picked up for about $18.  In the glass, the wine had a medium lemon color and a shy nose.  There was a little bit of peachy fruit, but this was another total blank.  I was starting to wonder at this point if the other wine was really shot or if this grape just didn't have much character.  On the palate the wine was on the lighter side of medium with fairly high acidity.  Again, the palate was pretty flavor neutral with some lemony notes and citrus peel flavors and a little bit of nuttiness that reminded me of hazelnuts.  The wine had a nice, clean minerally finish to it.  All in all, I can't say that this wine really appealed to me that much.  There was definitely a clear difference between this wine and the one that was obviously over the hill, but they were actually closer to one another than I would have liked to see.  "Mostly neutral" is my sum-up note and I guess I'll stick with that.

Never one to give up on a grape before giving it every chance to win me over, the next wine that I tried was a 2009 Gentilini Robola from Cephalonia, Greece, which I picked up from my friends at the Wine Bottega for about $20.  In the glass, the wine was a pale silvery lemon color with some green tints to it.  The nose was fairly open with grapefruit and lemon peel aromas with a whiff of stone fruit lurking the backgroun.  On the palate, the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity.  There was a lot of nice lemon-lime fruit with some citrus peel and a clean finish.  This wasn't terrifically complicated, but it did what it did very nicely.  The light lemony fruit was really carried by the snappy acidity and the minerally backbone.  Of the three wines that I tried, this was the hands-down winner and was the only one of the three that I would consider buying again.  This strikes me as a seafood kind of wine that wouldn't be too out of place with white-meat chicken dishes as well.  It's subtle and acidic enough to also make a very nice aperitif or a wine to just enjoy on a hot day.

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