Culture: The Many Faces (and Names) of Tocai Friulano
The story of Tocai Friulano is one of mistaken and muddled identity. After decades of protest from Hungary’s Tokaj region, where a wine called Tokaji made from the Furmint grape comes from, the EU finally imposed in 2007 that wines made from Italian Tocai Friulano must drop the “Tocai” on their labels. Italians complied begrudgingly with the labeling edict but stubbornly still refer to the grape itself as Tocai Friulano. Tocai Friulano—a white grape that usually produces a lean and dry mineral driven wine with slight bitterness—is grown everywhere in Friuli Venezia Giulia as well as parts of Veneto (where it is often called Tocai Italico). It’s made its way to the New World, notably to California, New York (in the U.S. the wine is still labeled Tocai Friulano) and Chile (where it sometimes goes by another alias altogether).
The West Coast is where Tocai Friulano goes to get weird. Idlewild Wines’ Sam Bilbro grows the grape on the northern edge of Russian River Valley, and sells some of that fruit to Arnot Roberts, Jolie Laide, Pax and others. Bilbro produces a wine in collaboration with Dan Petroski of Massican (who has made wines in Friuli for years) that goes through malolactic conversion and is unfiltered, so has more texture and compelling aromatics than one might expect from the neutral variety. Massican also produces a more traditional version and uses it in blends. Courtney Humiston of Delphinium Wine Company makes a sparkling version and Ryme Cellars produces a carbonic conferment with Sangiovese. Petroski has worked with Tocai Friulano from five vineyards across Napa and Sonoma and says the grape produces “one of the world’s best food-pairing wines.” But he has “a hard time holding on to acidity in these grapes,” so opts for early picks and lower alcohol.
Millbrook Winery in Hudson Valley was likely the first vineyard in New York to grow Tocai Friulano. Channing Daughters Winery in Bridgehampton on the South Fork of Long Island planted it in 1999 from cuttings obtained from Millbrook and makes both a still version and a sparkling pét-nat. Winemaker James Christopher Tracy also touts the wine’s food-pairing potential. Tracy teamed with Steve Mudd to plant some on the North Fork in 2005. Of the labeling incongruity, Tracy offers, “Friulians we know like that we still call it Tocai Friulano,” but he finds the whole thing a bit silly.
Tocai Friulano stowed away to South America disguised as Sauvignon Blanc, for which it has often been confused both in the vineyard and the glass. Upon closer study, Chilean viticulturists discovered that grapes they believed to be Sauvy B which they were labeling as such—were in fact Tocai Friulano. Now, it’s often labeled as Sauvignon Vert, another name for
Sauvignonasse—which is genetically identical to Tocai Friulano.
This article originally appeared in the August/September 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!
Last Updated: July 17, 2023