This article was published in The 30 Second Wine Advisor on Wednesday, July 13, 2005.

Losing Tocai

After well over a decade of wrangling, it now seems all but certain that the historic Northeastern Italian grape Tocai Friulano will be required to shed its first name after March 2007, after which it will likely be labeled as just-plain "Friulano."

A similar fate awaits the Alsatian Tokay Pinot Gris, for the same reason: Hungarian wine growers have persuaded European Union regulators that both sound-alike names are too easily confused with the classic dessert wine Tokaji, which claims a geographical basis for its name, having been grown in the Tokaji region of northeastern Hungary for hundreds of years. (This Euro-debate is mirrored in similar litigation in California over the use of geographical terms like "Napa" in wines that contain no Napa fruit.)

Producers in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, with backing from the Italian government, had argued for an exception, based in part on local legend that a Friulian princess in medieval times had gone to Hungary for a noble wedding, taking Tocai vine cuttings as part of her dowry, so these fine Italian vines are in fact the ancestors of Tokaji. Curiously, a similar tale is told along the Rhine about a beautiful Alsatian princess who brought vines to the Magyars.

The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg didn't buy it. Last month, reports Veronafiere, organizer of the gigantic annual Vinitaly wine expo in Verona, the court finally ratified the long-embattled agreement "for reciprocal protection of wine denominations" between the European Union and Hungary, which would lower the axe on competitive Tokays and Tocais on March 31, 2007.

Italy isn't surrendering yet, Veronafiere reports, quoting an Italian agricultural official who said there's still hope that an exception ("derogation") could be allowed for Friulano if Hungarian officials agree. "... a diplomatic mission will travel to Hungary by the Summer in an effort to find an agreement that will also allow Italy to continue producing its own 'Tocai' without having to 'invent' another name."

Most observers don't see much hope that the Hungarians will go along. But one reality can't be regulated: Call it Tocai or call it Friulano or call it something else entirely, this aromatic regional grape won't change; and amid the lake of international-style Pinot Grigio that pours out of the Northeast, a few producers will continue the old ways with the distinctive old Friulano grape.

Here's a favorite from one of Friuli's most respected producers, Livio Felluga. It's a "benchmark" example of, er, Tocai, showing off the typical character of the grape in a fine, intense style.

Here's a link to the full text (in English) of the short Veronafiere report, headlined "EU-Hungary agreement valid: 'Tocai Friulano' name disallowed in two years' time."

Livio Felluga Livio Felluga 2001 Colli Orentali del Friuli Tocai Friulano ($24.99)

From the eastern hills (Colli Orientali) of Friuli-Venezia Giulia comes this "benchmark" Tocai Friulano, a clear, bright-gold wine that breathes rich and complex aromas of white fruit, banana oil, wildflowers and almonds. Flavors are consistent with the nose, full and round, white fruit, almonds and honey, dry and tart, with sharp, cleansing acidity forming a sturdy core. An odd "lactic" nuance like fresh milk creeps in as a flavor note as the wine warms in the glass, not unpleasant but certainly out of the ordinary. Lemons and honey and a hint of bitter almond linger in a very long finish. U.S. importer: Cliquot Inc., NYC. (July 7, 2005)

FOOD MATCH: I like Tocai Friulano with full-flavored seafood and fish dishes, veal or pork. It was good with a simple sauteed lemon sole, but the fish was almost too delicate for the richness and aromatics of the wine.

VALUE: At $25, we're moving into special-occasion territory, but this complex and balanced wine is fully a match for village White Burgundies, quality Rhone whites and other upscale whites at this midrange price point. (The price I paid was also well on the high side of the range, so you may be able to find it, or more recent vintages, for less.)

WHEN TO DRINK: Tocai Friulano isn't usually considered a wine for aging, and indeed, the winery has now released the 2004, so this '01 has been in the pipeline for quite a while. It's holding up well, though, and I wouldn't bet against this big boy gaining richness and complexity over still another four or five years, assuming very good cellar conditions.

The Livio Felluga Website is online in Italian and English. To go direct to the English-language home page, click

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