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Alto Adige: Italy's Northern Gem
By Ed McCarthy
Sep 10, 2013
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Italy is an amazing country in many ways, and this is definitely true when you consider its wines.  I am intrigued by how different each of its 20 wine regions are (Italy’s 20 political regions, including the islands of Sicily and Sardinia, are conveniently also its wine regions).  One sub-region, Alto Adige, particularly fascinates me.

Italy is surrounded by France, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia along its northern border, and each of these countries has influenced the wines, food, languages and the customs of the various northern Italian regions that they border.  Nowhere do we see this effect more clearly than in Italy’s northernmost region, Trentino-Alto Adige, whose northern neighbor is Austria (also, to a small extent, Switzerland, but the high Alps create a formidable barrier between Alto Adige and that country).

Without knowing the history, one would wonder how Trentino and Alto Adige are even parts of the same region.  When Austria was on the losing end of World War I, in 1919 it ceded the region it called the South Tyrol to Italy, now known as Alto Adige (named after the Adige River, which flows through it).  German, the language of Austria, still predominates in Alto Adige, although most residents speak Italian as well, and many speak English.  Italian–speaking Trentino, directly south of Alto Adige, was annexed to the region in an effort to make Alto Adige more “Italian.”  Residents of other regions in Italy were enticed to move to Alto Adige (most of whom settled in Bolzano, Alto Adige’s capital city).  All street and road signs in Alto Adige are in Italian as well as German.  But despite these efforts and those of the late dictator Benito Mussolini to Italianize Alto Adige, the region remains resolutely Austrian, including its wine and food.

Alto Adige is one of the most dramatically beautiful wine regions in the world, dominated by the Dolomite Mountains (part of the Alps), on both sides of the Adige Valley, where most of the inhabitants live. 

One of the unusual aspects of wine production in Alto Adige is that about two-thirds of the wine is made by co-operatives--because small farmers dominate, and only a limited number of growers are large enough to make their own wine.  The co-operatives are excellent, on the whole, and their wines are great values.  One of the largest co-ops is San Michele Appiano, which also makes wines using the Castel San Valentino label.

The region’s leading large independent producers are Alois Lageder (perhaps the best-known), J. Tiefenbrunner, J. Hofstätter, Josef Brigl, Kettmeir, Peter Zemmer, Franz Haas, and Wilhelm Walch (a.k.a. Elena Walch).  Most of these producers make wine both from native and international grape varieties; the co-operatives tend to favor wines made from native varieties.

Judging by the wines from Alto Adige seen in the U.S.--typically Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Sauvignon, and Chardonnay--one would imagine that the region’s wines are mainly white.  Actually, until recently, red wines predominated, because most of the wine made here was consumed in Austria, Germany, and Alto Adige itself, and these consumers drink more of the red wines of the region. 

Although I do enjoy and admire many of its white wines, I happen to like Alto Adige’s red wines as well.  The indigenous red Schiava (Vernatsch in German) is the region’s main variety, red or white.  Better known in its regional wines, such as Santa Maddalener and Lago di Caldaro, the Schiava variety makes a delightful, light-bodied, inexpensive red wine that is highly popular in Alto Adige. 

Lagrein, another indigenous red variety, makes more robust, earthy wines than Schiava, and can be found more readily in the U.S.  A fine Lagrein Rosato also exists.  Pinot Noir (a.k.a., Pinot Nero) also does well in Alto Adige.  Look for Pinot Nero wines from J. Hofstätter’s estate, especially its Villa Barthenau Sant’Urbano Pino Nero.  Hofstätter also produces a very good Lagrein.

But it is its white wines that have put Alto Adige on the international wine map.  Indeed, Some Alto Adige white wines are among my favorite wines in the world.  For example, Tiefenbrunner‘s Müller-Thurgau, Feldmarschall Vineyard, is an astonishing wine from a variety that produces rather pedestrian wines in its country of origin, Germany.  The vineyard’s location, 3,300 feet high--one of the highest in Europe--as well as its dense planting and low-yields undoubtedly contributes to its quality.  The Feldmarschall Müller-Thurgau has an intensity of flavors and complexity that I have never seen in any other Müller-Thurgau.  It is at its best with at least five years of ageing, and will be fine for ten years or more.

Alto Adige apparently offers a meso-climate that is particularly conducive to many of Germany’s and Austria’s white varieties.  I am not a particular fan of Gewürztraminer, but I do enjoy Hofstätter’s Kolbenhof Vineyard Gewürztraminer, and other
Gewürztraminers from the Isarco Valley in northern Alto Adige; the Isarco Valley Gewürztraminers manage to taste quite dry and lively but still retain the renowned floral character of the variety.

Another varietal wine that I had been underwhelmed with, Pinot Blanc--in examples I had tried from Germany, France, and California--took on new meaning for me when I first tasted Alois Lageder’s Pinot Bianco Haberlehof Vineyard.  This delicious wine made me a fan of Alto Adige Pinot Biancos.  Lageder also makes a fine Pinot Grigio from the Benefizium Porer Vineyard.

Add me to the list of the many wine consumers that have been disappointed with Sauvignon Blanc wines on too many occasions.  If you really want see what this varietal wine is capable of (in addition to the many good Loire Valley Sauvignons, such as Sancerre), try Elena Walch’s Sauvignon Castel Ringberg Vineyard for its intense Sauvignon varietal character, which is typical of Alto Adige Sauvignons.  Walch’s is one of the best of the region.

 If I had to name one part of Alto Adige as my favorite for its white wines, it would be Valle Isarco in the north, near the Austrian border.  The cool climate and hilly terrain make the Isarco Valley ideal for white Germanic varieties.  I never thought that Kerner was a serious white variety until I visited the Isarco Valley.  Now I love Kerner wines.  Other white varieties that thrive in Valle Isarco are Sylvaner, Müller-Thurgau (my other favorite, along with Kerner), Pinot Grigio (aka Rülander, its German name), Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon, and Veltliner (aka Gruner Veltliner, outside of Alto Adige).  Pinot Bianco and Chardonnay are also grown, but are not Isarco Valley’s strengths.  Likewise, some Riesling wines are made--but are not of the high quality of those in Germany and Austria.

Abbazia de Novicella is the gem of Valle Isarco.  This working Augustinian monastery, the northernmost winery in Italy, on the whole produces the finest white wines from Germanic varieties in Alto Adige, in my opinion.  Both its standard whites and its premium whites (called “Praepositus”) are worth seeking out. Novicella’s outstanding Kerner “Praepositus” is one of my favorite Italian white wines.

Another standout winery in Isarco Valley is Cantina Valle Isarco (a.k.a. Eisacktaler Kellerai ), one of the top co-operatives in Alto Adige.  It makes excellent whites from Germanic varieties at real value prices.

Just writing about these exciting white wines from Alto Adige makes me yearn to drink them, and to re-visit picturesque Alto Adige, one of my favorite wine regions in the world.