So where are we?” enquired Vinnie, although I had the distinct impression that he wasn’t really interested. “Aquileia,” I replied. It was clear that this meant nothing to my trusty corkscrew and to be fair, looking around us, there was nothing to suggest that this was a place of significance. Today, it is a village of 3500 souls but it was not always so. It was founded by the Romans in 181BC; over 300 years later its population had grown to over 100,000 and it had an imperial residence and a mint. So how did a thriving ancient city of that magnitude and importance disappear so completely? The short answer is Attila the Hun.
The Huns were a nomadic tribe whose origins are obscure but one thing that all writers seem agreed upon was their skill in horsemanship and archery which combined to produce a formidable war-making machine that threatened the already crumbling Roman Empire. Under the reign of Attila, from 434 to 453 AD, their dominion reached its apex, stretching from the Caspian Sea to the North Sea and the Baltic. He invaded northern Italy in 452 and Aquileia made the mistake of holding out too long against him so that when it fell Attila took fulsome revenge, razing the city to the ground. This, together with subsequent invasions by other tribes, forced the inhabitants of the area to seek safety by moving to the islands of a nearby lagoon and those are the origins of Venice but that is another story.
In the village, under the floor of the church of Santa Maria Assunta you can now see wonderful mosaics dating back to the 4th century. For hundreds of years these had remained concealed under successive floors installed during various reconstructions; these were only exposed by excavations just over 100 years ago. But we were here for other purposes – it is only in the village and the immediately surrounding area that wines are allowed to be labelled Friuli Aquileia DOC.
For three generations the Tarlao family have been caring for their land on the flat alluvial plain, lying only two kilometres from the Marano lagoon at the northernmost tip of the Adriatic. In the past, wine was produced solely for sale in the restaurant but today you can buy their wines much more widely. From seven hectares of vines they now produce around 30,000 bottles of wine per year of which 70% are white. It has been a slow evolution. The first wine to be bottled was produced by Sabino Tarlao in 1999 but things have been changing a little faster since his son, Francesco, became involved in 2009. He has studied oenology and worked in both Argentina and the United States and so he brings a different perspective to the project. However, that does not mean he is looking to change the fundamentals of the business – very much the reverse. He seeks to build on what has gone before refining and improving where he can.
Nothing illustrates this better than the first wine we tasted. Poc Ma Bon or Little But Good is made from grapes from 50-year-old vines of Pinot Bianco. So far very traditional but then Francesco adds his twist for there is a brief maceration to add colour and perfume and then the wine is matured 80% in steel and 20% in oak. The result is a pale straw colour with a bouquet redolent of green apples and pears. On the palate there is good acidity and salinity that would make this a perfect match for spaghetti alle vongole.
Ardea Alba is a new addition to the range and is, again, 100% Pinot Bianco, only this time it is both fermented and matured in wood, spending 10 months on the lees before being bottled. We sampled the 2020 which had a medium straw colour with apples and vanilla on the nose. On the palate is a good acidity and the flavour of pears. This would accompany pork dishes very well.
The last of the white wine we tasted is called Nineve and is made from Malvasia Istriana. Again, this wine is matured 80% in steel, on the lees, the balance in oak barriques. The resulting nectar has a medium straw colour with delicate hints of green. The bouquet has passion fruit and the mild flavour of Amalfi lemons whilst in the mouth there is a medium acidity and the taste of elderflower with a salinity that is almost spicy. This is a big full wine that would go well with salmon or swordfish. A word of warning – at 14.5% ABV this is possibly not a wine for lunchtime.
The red that we tasted was nothing short of a masterpiece. It is made from a very local grape called Refosco dal Peduncolo which does particularly well in these rich alluvial soils. But there is more to it than just the terroir. Francesco works his magic by allowing around 20% of the harvest to dry for some weeks before being pressed – apassimento the Italians call this process. Dry the grapes for too long and the sugar content will be too high so judging the perfect moment is all about skill and experience. The wine matures for a year in barrique followed by a year in the big botte grande and lastly a year in bottle. In effect, this is a riserva and all the love and care put into this wine results in a rich, deep ruby colour and a bouquet big with cherries and vanilla. The flavour in the mouth is full of bitter cherry with a perfect balance of tannins and acidity and a long finish. This is definitely a wine to enjoy with red meat, mature cheese or just on its own as a vino di meditazione.
Next door to the winery is the family restaurant in a particularly interesting building. Francesco’s mother does all the cooking with the restaurant specialising in grilled meats. What better place to enjoy local cuisine and great wines!