Bye bye, Tocai


After years of wrangling over rights to use the name, the classic local white wine of Friuli in Northeastern Italy has definitively dropped “Tocai” from the wine label, succumbing to claims of unfair appropriation by the makers of the great Hungarian dessert wine Tokaji.

It has taken a while, but bottles of just-plain Friulano, shorn of its Hungarian-accented adjective, are now easy to find in wine shops around the world; and guess what: It tastes just as good as ever. Of course this should be no surprise, as only the name has changed, not the blend or the tradition.

As I reported in the July 13, 2005 30 Second Wine Advisor, “Losing Tocai,” Hungarian wine growers persuaded European Union regulators that both Friuli’s Tocai and Alsace’s Tokay Pinot Gris were 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.

The Friulani mustered their own historical legend in a bid to fight back: Local lore has it that a Friulian princess in medieval times was sent off to Hungary for a noble wedding, taking Tocai vine cuttings as part of her dowry, and those fine Italian vines became the ancestors of Tokaji. Curiously enough, a similar tale was told along the Rhine about a beautiful Alsatian princess who also purportedly provided vines to the Magyars.

The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg didn’t buy it, handing down a order “for reciprocal protection of wine denominations” between the European Union and Hungary, which dropped the hammer on competitive Tocais and Tokays on March 31, 2007.

Tocai Friulano

I spotted a Friulano without the Tocai at a local wine shop the other day, and willingly dropped a double sawbuck for a flask of Tenuta di Blasig 2010 Friulano, made at a 224-year-old winery in Friuli’s Isonzo region by seventh-generation owner Elisabetta Bortolotto Sarcinelli, who, the winery website says, ” is aided by a team of people passionate about wine, almost all of whom happen to be women.”

Tenuta di Blasig specializes in single-varietal wines (other than its Rosso red blend), many of them made from historic indigenous grapes such as Malvasia Istriana, Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso, Verduzzo and, of course, Friulano. It’s a fine Italian white, rich yet dry and tart, fine with food. You’ll find my tasting notes below.

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