Alto Adige may be Italy’s smallest wine region but it produces some of the country’s finest wines. For publication in week of 13 March 2017.
Small wine regions seem to have a talent for winning awards for quality compared with much larger regions. The Margaret River region of Western Australia makes perhaps 2 per cent of Australia’s wines but wins about a third of all prizes. Oregon on America’s west coast produces about 1 per cent of the country’s output but wins a much higher proportion of awards.
Such is the case with Alto Adige, Italy’s smallest and most northern region. It is sandwiched between Austria and Switzerland and in parts has a Mediterranean climate amidst an Alpine landscape. Wines from Alto Adige, also known as Sudtirol, are four to five times more likely to receive a “three glasses” score — the highest — in the prestigious Italian wine guide, the Gambero Rosso, than wines from Piemonte or Tuscany. These last two are considered some of the premier wine regions in the world.
Why is Alto Adige not better known? Two in three bottles are consumed on the domestic market and most of the rest is sold to nearby countries – Germany, Switzerland and Austria. About 10 per cent goes to the United States. Winemaking is also a small-scale operation – about 5,000 growers tend a mere 5,400 hectares of vines.
About 70 per cent of all wine is made by 13 co-operatives. Small family-owned estates produce most of the rest, with the Association of Independent Winegrowers contributing about 5 per cent of the total. These three groups are represented by the Consortium Alto Adige Wines, which has a useful web site at http://www.altoadigewines.com.
DOC or “denominazione d’origine controllata” stands for the controlled designation of origin of food and wine in Italy. All DOC wines are subject to strict quality standards with maximum yields set for each grape variety, and minimum values established for things like alcohol levels and acidity. Alto Adige is the region with the most DOC wines in Italy, about 98 per cent of the total. All DOC wines bear a green “Sudtirol” insignia on the capsule to guarantee their origin and quality.
Peter McCombie MW noted that a vigorous reduction in yields in recent decades had improved quality significantly, which helps explain the high number of awards.
Alto Adige is divided into seven sub-regions. The warmest is Bassa Atesina, which is also the largest, producing just over a third of the region’s total. The most common varieties are Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Gewurtztraminer, Pinot Noir and Schiava. The last is one of the region’s three indigenous grapes and is also known as Vernatsch or Trollinger. Monastery records show the grape has been grown in the region since at least the 13th century.
Even though it is the warmest sub-region, Bassa Atesina is home to Alto Adige’s highest vineyards and these high altitudes produce lovely cool-climate wines. Muller-Thurgau vines grow at more than 1,000 metres near the village of Magre. The best Pinot Noirs come from the villages of Mazzon and Montagna, and Gewurtztraminer is experiencing a rebirth in Termeno.
Gewurtztraminer has a complicated history with uncertainty about its origins because it tends to mutate, but locals claim it as an indigenous grape. The German name Gewürztraminer means “spicey or perfumed Traminer”. Some grape historians claim the grape originated in the Alsace region of France, and is a mutation of Savagnin blanc (not Sauvignon Blanc).
The Adige Valley sub-region is north of Bassa Atesina and focuses on whites. Its output is small, at perhaps 5 per cent of the region’s total. A feature is the pink soils from weathered porphyry. Vines need to sink their roots deep to find moisture in these dry soils. The village of Tramin in the Adige Valley claims to be the home of Gewürztraminer and has some of the best vineyards dedicated to that variety.
When fully mature, wines made from this grape become rich and silky in texture with intense aromas and flavours of musk, rose petals, spices and lychee fruit. The Cantina Tramin co-operative makes a beautiful version, the 2015 Gewurtztraminer Nussbaumer, with aromas of rose and Turkish delight and a touch of ginger on the finish. It would pair beautifully with Asian food with ginger as one of the ingredients.
The Oltradige sub-region is the second largest, making about 31 per cent of all wine from Alto Adige. It is famous for its beautiful hills and valleys and historic castles. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are grown in the warmer areas, while Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurtztraminer and Pinot Noir ripen in the higher elevations. It is a popular tourist destination because of its beautiful lakes and scenery.
Bolzano is the capital of Alto Adige and the centre of the third-largest sub-region, contributing about 13 per cent of the region’s wine. The climate is Mediterranean rather than continental. Summers are very hot and winters relatively cold.
Indeed, Bolzano is one of the hottest cities in Italy during the summer, despite being only 70 kilometres from the Austrian border. The mountains trap heat in the broad basin of valley in which the city sits. More red than white is grown here, with a focus on the two indigenous reds, Schiava and Lagrein.
Lagrein is believed to be a relative of Syrah and Pinot Noir. The name suggests it originated in the Lagarina valley of Trentino, the region just to the south of Alto Adige. The Cantina Bolzano co-operative makes a formidable 2014 Lagrein Riserva Taber that is almost black in the glass with aromas of earthy hedgerows and blackberries. Some Lagrein can have rustic or coarse tannins but the tannins in this wine are supple and sophisticated. The wine lingers like the beauty of a summer sunset over the lakes. It needs to be consumed with meaty dishes.
Franz Haas makes an excellent Pinot Noir in the Bolzano sub-region, the 2014 Pinot Nero Schweizer. He ferments the wine in concrete tanks and stores it in the bottle for a year before release. It has classic sour cherry flavours, zingy acids, soft tannins and a long finish. Peter McCombie MW believes this region makes some of the best Pinot Noirs in Italy.