I have long admired Alois Lageder for his commitment to quality wines, biodynamic farming and energy efficient facilities. He and his team make the style of wines I love--intense, structured and pure--so I jumped to the chance to taste wines with him one morning last month. Lageder’s winery and vineyards are located in the very interesting area of Sudtirol-Alto Adige, just north of Verona. “It is where the north and south come together,” he explained.” We have the cool air of the Alps and the warm sun of the Mediterranean.” It is Italy’s northernmost wine region, situated on the borders of Switzerland, Lichtenstein and Austria, and though it is one of the smallest wine regions in Italy, it nevertheless boasts the largest percentage of vineyard area classified as DOC.
You may have noticed that the region is called Alto Adige as well as Südtirol. That’s because it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I. In fact, according to the website of Consortium for the Protection of Alto Adige Quality Wines, it is the oldest “Germanic” wine region. Seventy percent of the population still speak German as their first language, so things have changed only within limits during the century since the outbreak of World War I.
The Lageder family has been involved in the wine business since the 1920s when Johann Lageder began trading in wine (while also tending to the business of his wheelwright workshop in Bolzano). His son, Alois, bought the first vineyard. His grandson, likewise named Alois, increased the family’s vineyard holdings throughout the region. Subsequent experiences with the differing characters of wines sourced from these disparate vineyards led to an ever-increasing appreciation for the role of place, i.e. terroir, in winemaking.
Alois III bought the Löwengang estate in 1934 and built a winemaking facility. He also brought in international grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to add to indigenous varieties already grown in the region. He died suddenly in 1963, effectively leaving responsibilities to his widow Christiane Rössler, his eldest daughter Wendelgard, and her husband Luis von Delleman, who is still the winemaker. They were the first to bottle wines under the family name. When the current Alois assumed leadership at the age of 24, he worked with his sister and brother-in-law to modernize their operations and change the perception of Alto Adige as a region of simple, mass-produced wines.
A key moment for Alois IV in his quest for quality was meeting Robert Mondavi in 1981. “He was a great mentor for me,” said Lageder. It was because of this meeting that he bought his first barrels for barrel fermenting Chardonnay. “Chardonnay became very important for us. It opened doors for us in important restaurants in Europe.” Lageder added new vineyards and a modern winemaking facility in 1995, and embarked upon perhaps his most demanding goal of converting all their estate from conventional to biodynamic farming.
Lageder is passionately dedicated to biodynamic practices for his vineyards. “We do as little as possible in the cellar; most of our work is in the vineyard,” he said. “It is the whole premise of our business.” The 123.5 acres of estate vineyards are farmed biodynamically, and they encourage their long-term contracted growers to convert to biodynamic practices as well. “Three years ago, we started working with our growers to motivate them, to show then that this is the right way,” said Lageder. “Twenty-five percent have converted to biodynamic viticulture. They saw our vineyards in good shape, even in bad years. You can see a different energy, stronger bunches of grapes, and enhanced vitality reflected in the leaves.”
In the broader wine world, biodynamic farming is controversial. At the most skeptical extreme, it is viewed either as a quasi-religion or an outright hoax. According to the Biodynamic Association based in Wisconsin, “Biodynamics is a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, gardens, food production and nutrition.” The practice was introduced in the early 1920s by the Austrian writer, educator and social activist Dr. Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), in a series of lectures to farmers who were concerned about the negative effects on their plants and livestock of chemicals introduced to farming after World War I.
It is not misleading to think of biodynamics as organic agriculture with a spiritual component. The ideal biodynamic farm is self-sustaining, requiring no additional resources to be brought into the farm to support it and sending no waste products out for disposal. Surely, there’s nothing wrong with that as a principle, if it can be practiced effectively. The parts of the practice that are most frequently criticized are the reliance on planetary positions for management decisions such as planting or harvesting, and also the use of minute doses of “preparations” (akin to homeopathic tinctures) composed by stringent guidelines for the purpose of revitalizing and healing the soil.
I have seen research papers showing that growing grapes organically and biodynamically does indeed improve the quality of soil and grapes, but until this year, I had not seen research indicating improvements in finished wines. Granted, I could well have missed previous studies, but was very impressed by the report of a six-year field trial conducted in McLaren Vale, South Australia. The purpose was to compare the effect of organic, biodynamic, low-input and high-input conventional farming on soil health, fruit production and wine quality. The rather unsurprising results were that soil health was most improved with biodynamic practices and soil health was least improved by high-input conventional practices. Equally unsurprising: Biodynamic farming was the most costly. However, the most novel and striking finding resulted from a blind tasting by a panel of McLaren Vale viticulturists and winemakers. The published report indicated that, “The wines from organic and especially biodynamic grapes were consistently described being as more rich, textural, complex and vibrant” than low-input and high input conventional grape wines.
To my taste, the following Lageder wines confirm this finding:
The grapes for Haberle Pinot Bianco 2013 ($23) are from a grower’s vineyard, which is situated at 1400 feet, with vine age of 18 to 46 years. The wine is friendly and engaging with forward pear, banana, floral aromas and creamy, floral, pear flavors braced by mouth-watering acidity.
Twenty percent of the Porer Pinot Grigio 2013 ($25) from biodynamic grapes was aged in large neutral barrels; the remainder in stainless steel. It is a lean and subtle, yet intense wine showing delicate pear fruit.
The Löwengang estate biodynamic vineyard Chardonnay 2010 ($48) was 100 percent barrel fermented and was kept one year on its lees, which were stirred until March or April. It is an elegant wine with restrained apple, pear fruit laced with vanilla, bright, crisp acidity and a long finish. It has sufficient structure, balance and complexity to continue to develop in the bottle.
The Lagrein grape variety is rich in anthocyanins, which means plenty of color. “We have to be careful not to extract too much color,” said Lageder, “so we use free-run juice only for the rosé.” The Lagrein Rosé 2014 ($18) has very forward, strawberry, candied fruit aromas with strawberry, red cherry flavors and citrusy acidity. It is meant to be consumed within two years.
Schiava 2014 ($15) was kept on the fine lees as long as possible to soften the wine, then bottled in April. It had a light, floral, berry aroma. In the mouth it was light and floral, crisp and fresh. Lageder recommended chilling it a bit before serving.
The Krafuss vineyard at 1500 feet elevation is dedicated to Pinot Noir. Since 2013, the grapes are biodynamically farmed. The Krafuss Pinot Noir 2010 ($50) was fermented in stainless steel and aged in cement tanks. It is elegant and linear with floral, cherry, and raspberry fruit that shows vibrant acidity and moderate tannins.
Biodynamically grown grapes for Conus Reserva Lagrein 2011 ($30) are sourced from chalk soil with glacial deposits on an east facing slope at 1500 feet. The wine has a very dark ruby black color with rich, floral, black cherry flavor wand crisp acidity, finishing with chewy tannins.
Löwengang, Cabernet 2011 ($57) from biodynamically grown grapes shows spicy, herbal, cassis fruit that is quite intense in the mouth, full bodied and well balanced.
The wines of Alois Lageder are imported by Dalla Terra Winery Direct, and these attentively grown and made wines definitely deserve your attention.