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Italy is an incredibly diverse country, with regional differences in landscapes, climates, cultures, histories and economies. Despite such differences, seemingly all Italians share a love of wine.

Italy is typified by its famous red wines such as Chianti and Barolo. The country's white wines generally receive much less attention. Therefore, I was delighted when I was invited to join a small group of wine writers to visit Italy's Collio wine region where the focus is on white wines. The trip was an opportunity to experience a slice of the diversity that is Italy -- to experience wines, foods and a culture little known to me.

Collio is a small area in northeastern Italy, extending only 12 miles from west to east and even fewer miles north to south. Despite its small size, Collio has much to recommend it: an attractive landscape, intriguing history, impressive cultural diversity and white wines that are among the best in Italy.

After arriving in Munich, Germany, my wife and I had a 70-minute flight to Trieste, the only large city in northeastern Italy. The scenery crossing the Alps was impressive, as was the beauty of Collio's rolling landscape, followed by the Adriatic Sea.

Collio is an hour drive to the north and a different world from the city of Trieste. Collio exemplifies bucolic, having been named for its landscape, the Italian word colli means hillsides. Vineyards, orchards, fields and forests are scattered across those colli, and many hilltops are picturesquely capped by small villages. My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed our daily drives through the scenic countryside.

Collio offers a wide range of accommodations, including some at wineries. We stayed at Alloggio Agrituristico ("farmhouse accommodation") Zegla, which had been converted into a modern inn. The owners, the Keber family, took wonderful care of us, including baking delicious pastries to accompany breakfasts. And their Renato Keber winery produced one of my favorite wines. Collio is small enough to visit on day trips throughout the region.

Collio's restaurants, some of which are also connected to wineries, include several that are exceptional, such as Aquila d'Oro, La Subida and Luka Trattoria. Of course, they emphasize the regional cuisine, which intriguingly mixes central European, Slavic and Adriatic influences. Many ingredients are locally sourced. Food lovers will not be disappointed.

CULTURE AND HISTORY

Despite its small size, Collio and surrounding areas are surprisingly culturally diverse, as history has made Collio a crossroads between north and south, as well as east and west. The general region was influenced by the Romans and the Venetians, with its proximity to the Adriatic Sea.

Later, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which brought central-European influences. The area was greatly impacted by World War I, and was annexed by Italy in 1915. During and following World War II, lands in the region changed hands. Today, Collio borders the largely Slavic country of Slovenia. Wineries and people of Collio and adjacent Slovenia have much in common. Some vineyards even cross the border.

THE WINE

Most of the 100-plus wineries in Collio are small and family-owned, and the families often have lived on the land for generations. Family members do everything, from growing and harvesting the grapes to making and marketing the wine.

Family roots run deep in the region. One of our dinners was with several young winemakers from the same small village. Each presented a similar story about their family's winery: born there, raised there and now taking over for their parents. Jokingly, we asked, "Doesn't anyone ever move away from your village?"

The young owners looked at each other. I couldn't tell if they were wondering how to address a foolish question, or if they were trying to remember someone who actually had moved away. Finally one said, "Yes, there was a person from our village who left a few years ago (long pause). But she'll be back." The others nodded in agreement.

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The wines of Collio are surprisingly diverse thanks to varied soils, the hilly topography and seemingly every winery having its own unique approach to harvesting and winemaking. The primary white wine grapes include three that are uncommon elsewhere: Ribolla Gialla, Tocai Friulano (now called Friulano) and Malvasia Istriana.

Others include Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Most wines are made from a single grape varietal, but there is also a white blend called Collio Bianco. It traditionally has been a blend of Ribolla Gialla, Friulano and Malvasia Istriana, but now may include other varietals.

Red wines account for only about one-fifth of Collio's production, with the primary grapes being Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. These can be blended into Collio Rosso.

For years, Collio attempted to appeal to worldwide palates for grapes such as Chardonnay. But over the last decade or two, wineries have increasingly emphasized Ribolla Gialla and Friulano, i.e. grapes that some consider indigenous to the region. This has added to the uniqueness of Collio. Moreover, some of Collio's wines from more widespread grape varieties, such as Sauvignon Blanc, have a style that is unique to Collio.

It took a day for this American's palate to catch on to Collio's white wines, but after that I was fully engaged by their structure, acidity and complexity. The same characteristics allow Collio's white wines to be aged. My tasting notes describe a 2004 Chardonnay as "youthful" and a 1992 Tocai Friulano as a mature, but excellent wine that I'd be delighted to drink any day (and apparently, any decade). Wines of Ribolla Gialla and Friulano age particularly well.

Tastings at most wineries are free, but given the small size of the wineries, it is important to call ahead to arrange a visit. The proprietors of your lodgings can make arrangements for you. Several importers bring Collio wines into the U.S.

John Vankat writes about wine for the Arizona Daily Sun and Northern Arizona's Mountain Living Magazine. Contact him at azpinewine@yahoo.com.

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