When this year I was once again invited to the huge wine competition, Councours Mondial de Bruxelles, I immediately began to organise my, we could say usual, subsequent adventures in a nearby wine region. Taking a look at the map, I decided, without hesitation, that it was now Friuli’s turn, mostly because of the sweet wines.

The CMB, perhaps needless to say, Belgian in name only due to its organisational team, has been taking place around Europe, like a kind of travelling circus, for the last decade, to the great delight of the 310 judges, who are characterised by serious professionalism; of course, you could not run a competition of this size in any other way. Numerous judges arrive from all around the world, by plane, train, car, and who knows, perhaps even by bike. This year, Lido di Jesolo near Venice was the venue for the wine competition and recreational activities. A local holiday resort with three endless parallel streets and at least a thousand hotels, preseason it was just the same as any similar place elsewhere in the world, nobody to be seen, closed restaurants, only three hundred, seemingly crazy, red-toothed wine-tipplers staggering every day to one of the selected eight hotels. After four days of unabashed lapping up of nectar, that is tiring work, Árpi Pintér, a photographer friend of mine (better known as @pixeltaster), arrived in a great burgundy jeep and, thanks to its new off-road tyres, we set off into the region roaring like a MiG15.

Where were the Russian soldiers?

We are standing at the top of a hill made up of three hillocks with the young count (no joking, he’s young too, about 23 years old and a count born and bred), surrounded in every direction by beautifully cultivated vineyards, to the east enormous rocky ridges, beneath us a small valley with a lovely small river just teeming with trout. On the other side of the river is Slovenia, signposted only by the massive, ochre-yellow casino. We are on the border of Colli Orientali and Collio, just like in Hungary, the village of Bogács sits on the western bordering ridge, from which you can see both the Bükk and the Eger wine regions. The Perusini family owns all three vineyards, together with their renovated two-hundred-year-old buildings (also available for rent), a fantastic restaurant and the four-hundred-year-old centre of the estate. It’s not a chateau, just a summer residence, corrects the countess when I try to find out more about the building’s function. From some points on the estate you can see across to the Rocca Bernarda castle, built in 1567 on a protruding point and dominating the area. The building and the working winery alongside it are now in the hands of the Order of Malta, but Teresa Perusini’s eyes mist over as she glances towards it. ‘Originally, it was my family’s, but my father and his brother grew so estranged that my uncle left his inheritance to the Maltese. Nowadays, I can only set foot in the building where I played hide-and-seek with my brother if I ask for permission in advance. In addition, the family palace in Udine was bombed in WWII and only two sections of its walls remain, which are now on display in Udine Museum. On display? How come? Of course, because of their fourteenth century frescoes.’ I stop my questions. The countess is an art historian, restorer and one of the best-known curators of the Venice Biennale. Although we can appreciate her pain, we are sure that she knows how lucky she is. The little river seen on the eastern side of the estate was the border between the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and Italy until 1918, and it’s thanks to this that the Soviet tanks stopped there.

Sweet wines in the eastern hills

Wherever you go in the region, you inevitably come across the name of the Perusini family. Giacomo Perusini (the Countess’s grandfather) saved the Picolit cultivar from extinction and planted the first vines, which now produce the region’s most well-known sweet wine. For a long time, we had thought that it was the same as Kéknyelű; this has now been disproved by geneticists, but the relationship between the two varieties is clearly close. The Colli Orientali del Friuli Picolit DOCG, however, is only one of the sweet wine appellations in the region. In the north, where the mountains curve towards the west, a tiny DOCG called Ramandolo nestles in the hills. Here the Verduzzo grape variety, filtered and dried, produces sweet wines often high in alcohol and capable of remarkable tannin structure. One person invented this mini DOCG, we could even say founded for himself, the very charismatic, white-haired, deeply wrinkled Giovanni Dri, the owner of Il Roncat. Ramondolo wines are well balanced and refreshing despite their sweetness. Another unmissable winemaker in the region has to be that of the Marco Cecchini winery, the Hungarian Attila Homonna (the Tokaj winemaker known for his most bohemian, but at the same time perfect, wines), art historian and also artist (mosaic creator), who together with his wife, open and relaxed, has also lugged his wines around in his suitcase to various corners of the earth. After we entered the winery, during the tasting, he calmly rolled a joint, lit up and waited for our reaction. A happy and free person, a man who left a senior management position in the interest of peace and quiet. He also produces Picolit and Verduzzo, although he doesn’t call the latter Ramondolo, rather selling it as Verlit.

Arrivederci amore

The few days we spent there turned out to be rather too short. We just rushed around Udine town centre, marvelled that there was no Crème Caramel in the restaurants, but there was Sacher Torte, ate the best ham sandwich of our lives (not surprising really, as the world famous San Daniele ham is produced here) in the charming little town of Cividale del Friuli and were the guests of Marco and Elena, whom we can thank for the whole trip. I wouldn’t recommend this region for those who are seeking the flavours of Tokaj in sweet wines; for everyone else, though, gladly and from the bottom of my heart! Just make sure you don’t make the same mistake as us and only take four days off work...