If you picture a place where someone might yodel one minute and burst into an aria from Barbieri di Seviglia the next, where ravioli filled with sauerkraut may be offered on a restaurant menu (I'm not kidding), and where Mediterranean fig and olive trees flourish right next to Alpine ski slopes, that place is the Alto Adige.
As a result of being wedged into the Alps between Austria and Northern Italy, the region's political and social history can be baffling to the outsider (and apparently even to native residents on occasion). Part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire for generations, Alto Adige (or Sud Tyrol as it's sometimes called) grudgingly became part of Italy at the end of World War I. Today, Italian que sera sera and Austrian zeitgeist occasionally collide in Alto Adige, but more often live together in relative harmony. Some of the younger folks I talked to espoused a more global perspective: 'My friends and I think of ourselves first as Europeans, then as Italians, and lastly as Tyroleans,' one thirty-something year old woman told me.
Contemporary Alto Adige wines are as diverse as the region's socio-political makeup. Some vinos are pure Italian in style and grape selection, others the embodiment of Germanic-Austrian wein, and quite a few of them reflect a completely international approach. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this multi-cultural range is how good the wines have become. Alto Adige may be one of Europe's smallest wine growing areas, with approximately 12,600 acres of vines, but in terms of quality, it is increasingly looking more like Goliath than David. Critics have begun to take notice of this little region too: in 2006, 19 different Alto Adige wines qualified for Italy's highest distinction, the Tre Bichierri awards presented by the Gambero Rosso Annual Wine Guide. And the fact that 98.8% of Alto Adige's vineyard area is registered for the production of DOC wines tells us something about the potential vinous quality here.
But the overall excellence of Alto Adige's wines was but one of the revelations I experienced during a visit to the Alto Adige earlier this fall, when the grape harvest was in full swing. I found plenty of other surprises along the way.
I was completely taken aback by the extraordinary diversity of grape varietals that are successfully raised in the Alto Adige, some 20 in all. I'm hard pressed to come up with any other delimited wine region in the world where Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon flourish more or less side by side, as well as Cab Franc, Merlot, and the two native red varietals Schiava (aka Vernatsch) and Lagrein (about which more later). White wine grapes, which account for 45% of the vineyard area, are an equally astonishing mix including Pinot Bianco/Pinot Blanc (the most widely grown white grape), Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Müller-Thurgau, Sylvaner, and small amounts of Moscato Giallo, Riseling, Kerner and Grüner Veltliner.
How to account for this remarkable diversity? It's the old 'location, location, location' thing. Situated on the southern side of the Alps, Alto Adige lies halfway between the northern hemisphere's most northerly and most southerly limits for wine-growing. The enormous range of different vineyard altitudes (from 750 to 3250 feet) creates a vast assortment of microclimates. At the northern edge of the region, the Alps act as a barrier to inclement weather whistling down from the north and the Atlantic, while in the south, the Adige Valley is wide open to hot weather seeping up from the Mediterranean. The capital city Bolzano is overall a hotter place in summer even than Palermo, but temperatures are usually kept in check by the Ora, a dry, cooling wind blowing off Lake Garda. Thus, the Adige Valley is ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon and other heat-loving grapes, while white grapes and Pinot Noir are nurtured by the more temperate climes of the higher altitude vineyards. With 300 days of sunshine annually, the entire region experiences a long ripening season, resulting in fruit with intense aromas and flavors.
Considering the many different microclimates here, one thing that isn't a surprise is that the region, though small, is divided into seven DOC sub-zones under the overarching appellation 'Alto Adige' (sometimes called 'Sudtirol'-no one claims that things are entirely simple in this bilingual, bi-cultural region):
Alto Adige (Sudtirol): This appellation encompasses 69% of the region's vineyard area and is by far the most important DOC distinction when it is accompanied by the name of a grape. It can also be used on labels of sparkling wines and on generic 'Alto Adige Bianco' (aka 'Sudtirol Weiss') without being followed by the name of a specific growing area.
Alto Adige Santa Maddalena: Set against the dramatic backdrop of the Dolomites, this small hamlet is Alto Adige's most picturesque vinescape. In the 1930's Santa Maddalena wines fetched prices similar to high-end Barolo and Barbaresco. It is traditionally made from Schiava grapes, and may also contain up to 15% of Pinot Noir or Lagrein. Santa Maddalena accounts for more than 5% of Alto Adige's total production.
Alto Adige Valle Isarco: Representing about 5% of the total vineyard area, this cool winegrowing zone extends from the Brenner Pass to Bolzano, and is most known for aromatic, fruity white wines.
Alto Adige Meranese: Slightly cooler than the Bolzano region, the Merano Valley basin is recognized for its light, fruity Schiava, generally labeled 'Meranese.' With about 395 acres under vine, it produces about 3% of the total.
Alto Adige Terlano: The white wines from these south-east facing vineyards have been critically acclaimed for many generations. Look for Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Sylvaner, Riesling, Muller Thurgau, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris/Grigio. The generic label 'Alto Adige Terlano' without mention of a grape variety must contain at least 50% Pinot Blanc or Chardonnay. Warmer sites are planted with red varieties and labeled 'Alto Adige Cabernet', etc. The Terlano appellation covers about 3% of the region's total.
Alto Adige Colli di Bolzano: This tiny region (about 25 acres, representing 0.2% of the total) covers approximately the same production area and the same grape varieties as Santa Maddalena, but the vineyards are generally higher.
Alto Adige Val Venosta: This valley extends westward from Merano to the Resia Pass, and has been producing wine for eons. Comparatively tiny (64 acres, 0.5% of the total), it is recognized for Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris/Grigio, Müller Thurgau, Riseling, Kerner, Gewürztraminer, Schiava and Pinto Noir.
Lago di Caldaro (Kalterersee): This is the one region that does not carry 'Alto Adige' on the label. It accounts for approximately 13% of Alto Adige's production, and extends into northern parts of the neighboring province of Trentino. Like Santa Maddalena, this region's wines are usually Schiava, but they tend to be lighter in body and may contain small amounts of Lagrein or Pinot Noir.
Wine cooperatives the world over have traditionally been associated with wine that may be utilitarian but is seldom exciting. The overall high quality of the wines turned out by Alto Adige co-ops was an eye-opener. Among Alto Adige's wineries, 40 are commercially viable larger estates, a hundred or so are small private properties, and 16 are co-ops, which account for almost 70% of the region's wine.
A typical cooperative will have several hundred members, each of whom individually cultivates a plot that averages less than 2.5 acres. I visited a number of co-ops in several different appellations, and found many of their wines impressive indeed. Helmuth Zozin, the talented winemaker at Cantina Caldaro (Kelleriei Kaltern), speaks for most of his colleagues when he says: 'Fruit dominant, obvious wines clothed in an intense mantle of oak is not the style we seek. The strength of Alto Adige lies in the finesse we can achieve thanks to the interplay between warm days and cool nights, as well as the mineral character of the terroir.'
Before visiting the Alto Adige I knew a little bit about Lagrein (rhymes with 'the wine'), and had tasted it a couple of times over the years, without being particularly impressed. I am now a convert, ready to worship at the Lagrein temple-but only when it is good, of course, for inferior Lagrein can be unpleasant indeed. Alto Adige's most prominent native red grape, Lagrein yields impressive wines only when grown in warm sites. Furthermore, it is a vigorous vine with profuse vegetation that needs careful attention in the vineyard. Lagrein was traditionally trained on pergolas, but contemporary producers are increasingly switching to the Guyot vine training system. Wine making techniques are likewise changing. While Lagrein has long been valued for its deep color and tannins, most dynamic vintners today have shortened maceration times and are using barriques to achieve rounder, less aggressive flavors.
Lagrein may have a light to medium body, and may even be vinified as a rosé, but its natural character is dark and rich in both color and flavor, as well as being highly perfumed. It is sometimes blended with Cabernet and/or Merlot. One of the revelations was how often it resembled Syrah--and now I learn that in fact Lagrein may have a Syrah parent somewhere in its lineage (Teroldago is certainly a relation, and DNA testing is underway now to see if Syrah begat Teroldago).
As with Lagrein, in previous encounters I'd always found Müller Thurgau okay, though never inspired. I'd heard of Tieffenbrunner's 'Feldmarschall von Fenner' of course, but somehow never tasted it before this trip. It's made from 100% Müller Thurgau, and the moment the glass left my lips my opinion of this grape went from ho-hum to wow! I don't think it's hyperbole to state that Feldmarschall, with its broad spectrum of spicy, floral and mineral aromas, its poignant delicacy on the palate, and its intense, racy finish, is the world's finest Müller Thurgau. The grapes for it grow 1,000 meters above sea level, on a remote plain sheltered from ill winds by a cliff that appears to hold the vineyard in a protective, stony embrace.
Gewurztraminer is a wine I tend to like (in limited doses) even when it's blowsy and overwrought, though I do much prefer it finely balanced and dry. Imagine what a pleasant surprise it was to discover that Alto Adige Gewurz is virtually always vinified dry! I now understand why Gewurztraminer is the most popular white wine in Italy (surprise: number one not, by a long stretch, Pinot Grigio, the very mention of which tends to make Italians snicker and mutter about the 'American market').
The ageability of certain Alto Adige white wines came as a major surprise. Among the impressive older wines I tasted were the 1997 Löwengang Chardonnay from the region's superstar producer Alois Legeder, a wine that was mellow and creamy, with plenty of vigor still coursing through it. None of the older Alto Adige wines I encountered, however, were as astonishing as at Cantinao Terlano.
The wine growing village of Terlano is located in the middle of the Adige Valley between Bolzano and Merlano at 248 meters above sea level. It's an ancient viticultural region: archeological findings indicate that wine was being made here around 500-400 BC.
The Terlano Winery is one of the region's oldest co-ops, founded in 1823. Today it numbers 100 members, each with about 1.5 hectares of vines. The renowned aging potential of Terlano wines is due primarily to the high mineral content of the soils, which impart to the wines both striking freshness and a full body (the vineyards lie on an unusual base of volcanic rock studded with large mineral deposits of red quartz porphyry. The soil's high mineral content is said to be one of the major reasons the wines age so well).
Among the extraordinary wines that convinced me everything I'd heard about Terlano was true, was a 1992 Sauvignon Blanc that conveyed the sensation of sun shining on wet rocks and was stunningly complex and long. But the most astonishing of the old wines I was privileged to taste was the 1969 Terlaner, a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco and Sauvignon that was still the same gold color as the 2003 vintage. My tasting notes exclaim: 'Truffles, melted butter, honey!! The first sip and I feel like a bee swooning in nectar.' Please forgive the overexcited prose, but there was something of the miraculous about this old wine. One of the ancient sages (Plato, perhaps?) said it best: Vinum bonum deorum donum-'Good wine is a gift of the gods.'