In Italy, the variety grows only in Friuli Venezia Giulia, where it is made into dry, still, sparkling, off-dry and oxidized orange wines.
Friuli-Venezia Giulia sits northeast of the Veneto and southeast of Trentino-Alto Adige. The three are collectively known as the Tre-Venezie, making up the northeastern corner of Italy. Slovenia borders to the east, Austria to the north and the Adriatic Sea to the south. The terrain is predominantly mountainous (40%) and has grown many non-Italian varieties since phylloxera wiped out its vineyards in the late 19th century. The climate is similar to northwestern Italy in that summers are hot and winters are cold and harsh, but fog is less of a problem and hail more frequent. There are unpredictable variations in the weather from year to year so vintages are important. Most soils are on glacial moraine, a gritty mixture of sand, gravel and sediment deposited during the Ice Age.
Ribolla, a white grape variety native to Friuli, also known as Ribolla Gialla, is not to be confused with the less common Ribolla Verde. In Italy, the variety grows only in Friuli Venezia Giulia, where it is made into dry, still, sparkling, off-dry and oxidized orange wines (1). Ribolla Gialla shows its best when grown in ideal hillside vineyards, by limiting yields and by making the wine like any other white wine, with low fermentation temperatures that help the variety express its delicate aromas.
The best and easiest to find are labeled Colli Orientali del Friuli (COF) or Collio Ribolla, which are the only DOC's that contemplate monovarietal Ribolla. Two recognized grand crus for the variety, wines that have been famous and sought after throughout history, are Rosazzo in the COF and Oslavia in the Collio. Ribolla from Oslavia, where vineyards are at higher altitudes and in a cooler microclimate, are mineral, lemony and have higher acidity. Ribolla from Rosazzo, a warm microclimate is generally deeper and richer than most. Both are characterized by the variety's telltale nuance of white pepper, but is never found if yields are too high. A well made Ribolla wine will also have a fresh buttercup, tangerine and lemony-pepper zing with bracing acidity. Best comes from soil low in clay content, well drained, and rich in mineral salt. When grown in flatland vineyards, it produces a prodigious number of grapes unless curbed by ultra-rigorous pruning or stress; short of that, the wine is watery, insipid and mind-bendingly acidic.
Ribolla Gialla has become a favorite of experimentally minded producers, that have decided to treat this white grape as if it were a red variety, subjecting it to months (up to four) of maceration on the skins and often aging in porous terracotta amphoras, which result in reddish-amber tinged, oxidized “orange wines”. This is a very traditional way of making wine in centuries past where Georgians have been making wine this way for thousands of years (1). Friuli producers have also decided that Ribolla Gialla's naturally high acidity makes it a perfect candidate for sparkling wine production, wines that have recently been gaining popularity. Made into dry easy going sparkling wines using Charmat method, or as more complex sparkling wines using Metodo Classico, second fermentation in bottle. Off-dry and sweet versions of ribolla were once a typical local accompaniment to boiled or roasted chestnuts, but they are uncommon nowadays.
It is an extremely ancient cultivar native to the hills of Gorizia but also common in nearby Slovenia's Goriska Brda.
In Slovenia some call it Rebula, but it is incorrect, for there are distinct Ribula varities and Ribula biotypes in Slovenia and Croatia, for example, Rebula, Rebula Briska, and Rebula-Old are homonyms not synonyms (1). In any case, relative to the possible relationships and similarities of Italian Ribolla Gialla and Slovenian Rebula (and its many subvarieties), a recent study revealed that Ribolla Gialla and Rebula Briska share an identical SSR profile at eight out of nine loci (2). Ribolla Gialla is also distinct from both the similarly named Rébola of the Romagna portion of Emilia-Romagna, which is identical to Pignoletto and from Ribolla Spizade, a synonym for Glera Lungo. Recently, Crespan, Giannetto, Meneghetti, Petrussi, Del Zan, and Sivilotti (2011) proved that Ribolla Gialla is completely unrelated to Schioppettino, once called Ribolla Nera.
Ribolla's first historically documented appearance in Friuli is in a deed of sale written by notary Ermanno di Gemona in 1299. Another legal document from 1376 concerning a land sale near Barbana in the Collio specified that the farmer had been producing “sex urnas raboli.” The Germans loved this wine, so much that when Trieste was annexed to the Hapsburg empire, Duke Leopold III of Austria demanded “one hundred urns of the best ribolla wine” be delivered to him annually. The city of Udine demonstrated its respect for the wine by specifically legislating against its adulteration in 1402. The grape lost ground steadily in 19th and 20th centuries in the wake of the phylloxera epidemic and Friuli's subsequent enthusiasm for non-native (French) varieties when vineyards were replanted.
Friuli was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I and has been ruled by the Romans, Lombards and Byzantines. As a result the cuisine of this region includes flavors and styles from many cultures, including Hungary, Austria, Croatia and Slovenia. The pride of Friuli is the proscuitto from the town of San Daniele. Another favorite is aged Montasio cheese, which is grated, mixed with cornmeal, fried flat and crisp, in a preparation known as Frico. Outside of Friuli, California is making some interesting Ribolla's. Arnot- Roberts, Forlorn Hope, Grassi, and Ryme Cellars make interesting examples.
(1) D'Agata, Ian. "Wine Grapes of Italy"
(2) Rusjan, Jug, and Stajner 2010