Wine Without Borders

The Keber family makes provocative white blends in Italy’s Collio region and a stone’s throw away in Slovenia
Wine Without Borders
Edi Keber (right) and his son, Kristian, are giving the wines of Collio and Brda a bigger stage. (Robert Camuto)
Dec 12, 2016

The hills of Collio in northeastern Italy are an awe-inspiring patchwork of steep, terraced vineyards, forests and fruit orchards that wind through 25 ancient towns along the Slovenian border.

The area is a dizzying blend of microclimates, grape varieties and culture at the dividing line between Italy’s Friuli region and central Europe.

Mediterranean and continental climates collide with warm southern gusts from the Adriatic Sea and the chilly Bora wind from the north. Hillsides of marl soils, known as “ponca,” are planted with international white varieties such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, along with local grapes including aromatic Friulano, fresh Ribolla Gialla and rich Malvasia Istriana.

For centuries, the border between countries has moved one way or another. Among families, many here speak Slovenian, others Italian and still others regional dialects.

But when you ask someone how they identify, the answer is invariably, “I am from here.”

The Keber family, which long ago migrated from Austria and has farmed and made wine in Collio for 350 years, is all about “here.”

Edi Keber, 56, took over winemaking on the family farm north of Cormòns 29 years ago. Within a decade, he replaced his father’s international varieties with local grapes. Like most producers, he made a range of wines, and he became known for his Friulano.

Then in the 2008 vintage, the year he handed off winemaking to his enologist son, Kristian, the two decided to make only one wine—a local blend featuring the Collio appellation prominently on the label along with the family’s signature brushstroke “K.”

“I renounced my business to make wines of our territory, for our future,” says Edi, an energetic fireplug who is one of Collio’s biggest evangelists. “Why in Champagne do they make Champagne? Why in Chianti do they make Chianti? Territory is greater than man.”

Collio is not a prominent brand. Many of the area’s 120 winemakers minimize the name on their labels or simply declassify their wines as IGT bottlings. Part of the problem is identity: The appellation allows a dozen white grapes in unlimited combinations, which complicates consumer understanding.

But the way Kristian, 28, sees it, Collio terroirs and grapes are so diverse, the winemakers’ best solution is to make one signature blend.

“We are the exact opposite of Burgundy,” he says at the top of an organic vineyard planted with Friulano, Ribolla and Malvasia, which make up the Edi Keber Collio white (2013, 89 points, $32). “Our concept is more like Châteauneuf-du-Pape—to work with many varieties.”

The Kebers produce about 4,000 cases annually from 30 acres of vineyards. Working with fully ripe grapes, they ferment the mix of varieties together in cement tanks and wood casks and release the wine in May. In hopes of making the blend even more complex, Kristian has collected and propagated cuttings of six local, obscure varieties he is testing for future use.

“I am studying the older varieties that were here 100 years ago,” he says. “The more different vines you have, the more you can play with your soils.”

In 2012, the Kebers marked another milestone. From that vintage, they started making a white blend from Slovenia’s Collio counterpart, Brda, using a cousin's cellar and 5 acres of family vineyards located less than two miles away.

Brda and Collio have the same mix of terroirs and grapes, and many winemakers have vineyards on both sides of the border. But under appellation rules, Collio-designated wine must be made in Collio and Brda wine in Brda. Typically, grapes are transported from Slovenia to Italy for addition to declassified wines. But the Kebers are recognized as the only operation producing both Collio- and Brda-designated wines.

Kristian makes less than 200 cases a year from the Brda vineyards, which are planted half to Ribolla, along with Friulano and Malvasia. The resulting Kristian Keber Kmetija Brda is a pale “orange winemacerated on its skins for 12 days, fermented with indigenous yeasts and aged in oak casks for two years.

Still, making wine in two countries isn’t enough for the Kebers. Edi is working to try to convince wine producers in both appellations to merge into the first international appellation. “It’s a dream,” he says, “that one day there will be one big territory with Collio and Brda together.”

So far Keber’s cross-border diplomacy has met resistance from his own generation. Instead he holds out hope for Kristian’s peers, who have grown up in an open Europe.

“His generation understands,” he says, optimistically. “It’s a generation that doesn’t have an idea of borders.”


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