Alto Adige/Südtirol meet wine lover, wine lover meet Alto Adige (aka Südtirol). Now the two of you may not have ever met before or perhaps you just met in passing, but it’s about time you get to know each other better! That is why I am so excited to be writing this post. You see I love introducing you to new things. Now you may be saying, wait a minute, Alto Adige is not a new thing, and you would be right, but what is new is the newfound passion for producing fresh vibrant white wines and deep inky reds from both local and international varieties.
Recently I was invited to attend a trade tasting put on by EOS (aka Export Organization South Tyrol), sounds romantic doesn’t it? Anyway what I found was some great wine.
Before we get to my top picks lets review a little more info about the region.
Alto Adige (aka Südtirol for you German speakers) is the northern most province of Italy, an area bordering the Southern Alps of the Austrian Tyrol and known for its contrasts of Palm trees and snowy Alpine peaks. This area of Italy was until as recently as World War 1, part of the Austrian Empire, hence the predominance of German-speaking locals and the use of German names. Alto Adige winegrowing history is said to date back as far as 3,000 years. Now that sure the heck beats the pants off of anything we Americans have to offer in the way of wine history.
The geography of this region of Italy is mountainous to say the least with about 86% of the total area lying above 3,300 feet (1,000 meters). The valley floors make up a scant 4% of the area. If one is to look at a map you would notice that the valleys follow the Adige and Isarco rivers south from the Alps to Bolzano where they converge to form a Y-shaped growing area that is Alto Adige. The Alps to the north protect the grapevines from the cold north winds. While at the southern end of the region the valley opens up allowing warm, humid air masses from Lake Garda to the east and the Mediterranean Sea to the west to influence the area resulting in a Mediterranean growing climate for the vines. There are however many varied mesoclimates owing to the subdivisions of the valley landscape, differing aspects and altitudes of vineyards (between 600 and 3,000 feet or 200 to 1,000 meters). For example the warm summer air accumulates in the Bolzano basin while in the Isarco Valley to the northeast are more influenced by cool alpine air.
As you can imagine soil plays an equally important role in this area that was formed by volcanic, tectonic and glacier activity. The soils consist of gravel subsoil on the slopes of the mountains and alluvial soil on the valley floor. Add to this the primitive rock such as granite, slate, limestone, gneiss and porphyry and you have almost ideal conditions for the production of world-class wines.
So needless to say this is a region that has a lot going for it as far as wine production is concerned.
Here is a break down of the most important sub regions with in Alto Adige:
Bassa Atesina- located at the base of the y shaped valley along the eastern banks of the Adige River. It is influenced by Lake Garda and late-ripening varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot tend to produce the best wines from this region.
Oltradige- located northeast of Bassa Atesina on the western bank of the Adige River. Here the gentile hills around Lake Caldaro are best suited for the Schiava grape (more on this grape later). The best whites from this area come from the foot of the Mendoal mountains.
Bolzano- located around of the town of the same name, just northeast of where the rivers Adige and Isarco converge. This warm valley basin is the home to Lagrein (a grape) and Santa Maddelena (a wine).
Adige Valley- located northwest of Bolzano on both banks of the Adige River. Red porphyry (volcanic) soils produce world-class white wines.
Merano- Region located around the town of Merano where the Adige river turns west. This almost idyllic landscape produces some elegant wines.
Isarco Valley- Region to the northeast of Bolzano, it straddles both banks of the Isarco river. Home to such grapes as Mueller-Thurgau, Sylvaner and Kerner which produce pure acid driven white wines.
Val Venosta- Located on the banks of the Adige river at the base of the Italian Alps. Wines from this region tend to be mineral-rich and indicative of their growing conditions.
Production is dominated by fifteen cooperative wineries that produce 70% of the regions wine. The remaining 30% is produced by independent wineries and winegrowers.There are 20 grape varieties that make their home in Alto Adige, all thanks to the variety of terrior it offers. Lets take a look at the main players. There is no other region in Italy that offers such a wide variety of white wines.
The trend here is twofold:
1) Focus on autochtonous varieties such as Lagrein and Gewürztraminer. The one grape in decline is Schiava, whose plantings have decreased by double-digit percentages. Perhaps because the wines produced by this red variety are not in keeping with the continued international trend for fuller bodied, darker, tannic red wines.
2) The new focus on international varieties, especially aromatic whites. Intensely aromatic varieties such as Sauvignon and Kerner are gaining significance, while the role of Pinot Bianco is decreasing. As far as red varieties are concerned Pinot Nero and Merlot seem to be setting the tone.
White Varieties (54% of production):
Pinot Grigio (11% of plantings) is the most planted white variety in Alto Adige. It displays different characteristics depending on where it
is cultivated. From lean, fresh in the Val Venosta to a mineraly quality in the Adige Valley to rich and bigger body in Bolzano and the Oltradige.
Chardonnay (10% of plantings) It was in the early 80’s that this variety rose to prominence owing to the international craze of mono varietal wines. In Alto Adige it displays a range of characters from fresh, fruity and linear qualities when receiving stainless steel treatment to a more complex and textural richness when fermented in small oak barrels.
Pinot Bianco (10% of plantings) Exhibits aromas of apples and is usually higher in acid. Best examples do not see oak allowing them to retain their fresh vibrant character.
Gewürztraminer (7% of Plantings) This aromatic variety is closely linked to Alto Adige as it takes its name from the village of Termeno. Two hundred years ago it was the most planted variety in the region but because of its low yields and susceptibility to frost and diseases it almost disappeared from the scene. However it is now back and producing wines with a bevy of aromas ranging from rose petals, cloves, lychees and tropical fruits. It also exhibits an intense color, higher alcohol and oily texture.
Sauvignon Blanc or refered to as just “Sauvignon” in Alto Adige (4% of plantings) It was not introduced to the area until the 19th century, when it was planted with its Bordeaux sibling Semillion. The best plantings are found along the terraces of the Adige River, from Salorno up to Merano. Here the variety shows of intense aromas, crisp acid, and freshness. I found the examples I tried to be quite impressive. (See my notes below)
Mueller-Thurgau (3% of plantings) The grape expresses the following characters: in the Isarco Valley a scent of elder flowers, in the warmer Bassa Atesina notes of nuts and stone fruit, in the Val Venosta more mineral notes and fresh apples. Incidentally the variety is grown in Alto Adige’s highest vineyards at up to 3,300 feet (1000m), giving the wines a very crisp, crystal structure.
Kerner (.5% of plantings) this is a hybrid of the German grapes of Trollinger and Riesling named after the poet Justinus Kerner. Planted mostly in high elevation vineyards of the Isarco Valley and the Val Venosta. Wines are steely, spicy with subtle hints of nutmeg. This is a variety to watch in Alto Adige as it is finding quite a fancy.
Red Varieties (46% of production):
Schiava (31% of plantings) this is by far the most planted variety (both red and white). The wines made from this grape tend to be light, everyday wines, low in tannins with only moderate alcohol. The famous Santa Maddalena is regarded as fuller in body, the Lago di Caldaro softer, and the Meranese spicy. The grape can be found as a single variety wine labeled Alto Adige Schiava and Schiava Grigia or more commonly as a classified zone wine such as Santa Maddalena, Lago di Caldaro, Maraner, Colli di Bolzano, and Klausner Laitacher
Lagrein (8% of plantings) the wines made with this variety show rich aromas of berries, fresh macerated cherries and violets; on the palate, soft tannins and low acid. These characters are a good fight with current international trends. A rosé version is also made and is known as “Lagrein Rosato”. This is a variety to watch and should appeal to many an international palate. See my notes below.
Pinot Nero (5% of plantings) The arrival of Pinot Nero (aka Pinot Noir) did not happen until the mid-nineteenth century. Today the vine produces wines with good structure that resemble their cousins in Burgundy. A typical Alto Adige Pinot Nero has a rich and intense aroma of dark barriers, spice and floral violet notes. Truly interesting and note worthy wines.
Merlot (4% of plantings) arrived in the area about 120 years ago from Bordeaux along with its best friend Cabernet. To be found in mostly warm locations on deep chalky soils. Produces full, meaty with soft and ripe tannins. Since 1995 the area under vine has more than tripled.
Cabernet Sauvignon (3% of plantings) for a long time plagued by under ripe aromas of bell pepper, it has thanks to the lowering of yields been able to produce aromas of cassis, blackberries and spice. The modern wines are ones of structure with hints of black pepper and paprika. These are some of the longest-lived wines of the Alto Adige.
The potential of this are is not to be underestimated and the wines are worth exploring as there seams to be a wine to suit almost any occasion or palate. Even quality sparkling wines are produced here.
Here are some of my recommendations that I compiled after attending an Alto Adige focused tasting.
Abbazia di Novacella, Valle Isarco Kerner DOC 2008 $24
Nice floral nose, dried flowers, peach. Nice texture but could use a little more acid. Very pretty wine
Terlano Sauvignon Blanc Quarz 2007 $55
Petrol nose, wet stone with undertones of apple. Fresh acid with hints of citrus, apple. Nice texture with a long finish. Very reminiscent of older vintage Sancerre by Dagueneau.
Colterenzio Sauvignon Lafoa 2007 $62
Classic Sauvignon Blanc nose with slight hints of jalapeño and ripe peach backed by wet stone. Great acid giving lift to fruit. Seamless!
Cortaccia Mueller Thurgau DOC 2008 $16
Very floral nose with medium intense aromas of canned apricots and peaches. Fresh lively acid. Flavors of melons, citrus and peach. Lacking the bitter notes usually associated with this variety.
Cantina Valle Isarco Riesling Aristis 2008 $26
Typical Riesling nose with white flowers and apples. Prickly palate, sour apple, good structure and tart acid. Reminiscent of an Austrian Riesling.
Abbazia di Novacella, Pinot Nero Praepositus DOC 2005 $45
Aromas are earthy with dusty cherry and cranberries. Hints of oak influence that are nicely integrated. Flavors of black cherry, smoke, earth, and mushroom. Big tannins for a Pinot Nero.
Cantina Bolzano, LAgrein Riserva Prestige 2007 $44
Very elegant nose showing dark fruit less primary and more oak aromas of vanilla, clove and cigar box. Very rich mouth feel, silky tannins, and good acid lend a nice balanced structure. Flavors of dark fruit, cinnamon, clove, black cherries and chocolate round out the wine. Very new world in style.
Colterenzio, Lagrein classic 2008 $18
Nose of red fruit punch, panettone and candied cherries. Palate has good acid and tannins with flavors of black cherries and cassis. The finish is medium plus in length and shows good balance. Good value.
Colterenzio, Cornelius 2003 (Merlot and Cabernet blend) $59
Nose showing some age and complexity. Notes of plum, blueberry, and cedar chest with some earth undertones. Favors of smoky cherries, red plum and clove. Soft ripe tannins and balanced acidity help the wine finish with complexity and good length. Shows that these wines are age worthy.
Cortaccia Winery, Lagrein Freienfeld DOC 2004 $33
Aromas of coffee bean, black currant, blackberries, smoke with a slight rustic character. Elegant texture on the palate with grippy tannins and excellent structure. Flavors of black fruit, liquored cherries, cloves, vanilla and smoke. Finish is big and long. Still very youthful for its age.
Alois Lagedar, Pinot Noir Krafuss 2005 $45
Old world nose with some seductive funk combined with smoke, coffee, cherries and strawberries. Spicey flavors of sour cherries, smoke, tar and oak. Tannins are grippy with good acid giving lift to the fruit. Persistent finish.
Alois Lagedar, Lagrein Lindenburg 2004 $30
Aromas of milk chocolate, dusty blackberries and vanilla. Big wine on the palate with flavors of cherry, chocolate, smoke and dark fruit. The tannins are chalky with balanced acid and alcohol. This will appeal to new world palates.
Peter Zemmer, Pinot Nero 2007 $18.99
Mushrooms, earth and dried red fruits with hints of dried roses on the nose. Flavors of smoke, cherries, plum, and oak char. Ripe tannins and zesty acidity with moderate alcohol. Nice complex finish that is very persistent. Great Value!
I found both the Pinot Nero and Lagein wines to be very interesting. There were two distinct styles represented; new world and rustic. I found appealing examples of both. There are clearly wineries that have modernized their production techniques and those were the wines that stood out for me. This is an area that produces some great wines that should appeal to wine lovers. Personally I find the aromatic whites to be the most exciting examples coming from Alto Adige.