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Alto Adige: Warm Up with Northern Italy's Mountain Wines
By Jessica Dupuy
Jan 17, 2024
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While the winter landscape outside may be cold and frigid, the lighter-styled red wines of Alto Adige are just the ticket to warm the spirit.  Nestled against the borders of Austria and Switzerland lies the dramatically Alpine wine region of Alto Adige.  Located in the northeastern corner of Italy, Alto Adige spans a series of stunning mountain ranges and valleys, most notably the peaks of the Dolomite Mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Vineyards climb alongside these steep limestone and dolomite slopes, ranging in elevation from 1,000 feet up to 3,300 feet in elevation.  Despite the cooler mountain climes, Alto Adige vineyards also benefit from warming breezes from Lake Garda and the nearby Adriatic Sea.  The region is centered around the Adige River which gives Alto Adige its name.  Picture-perfect mountain towns like Bolzano, Merano, Cortina and Trento dot the postcard-worthy landscapes.

This unique geography shapes Alto Adige’s array of wines.  While lean, mineral-driven white wines like Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Kerner and Sauvignon Blanc have become signature exports, the region also crafts elegant, food-friendly reds that balance delicacy with Alpine intensity.  Among the red varieties that thrive in the high-altitude vineyards, Pinot Noir, Schiava and St. Magdalener stand out for their lighter styles that sing with the purity of the Dolomites.  Despite their transparency and medium body, they carry bright fruit and a delightful herbal spiciness that pairs beautifully with the region’s Tyrolean-inspired cuisine.

Pinot Noir finds an ideal home here, yielding light-bodied reds with vibrant acidity and flavors of tart cherry, wild berry, spice and fresh earth.  The variety thrives in Alto Adige’s cool climate, high elevation sites that allow for a long, slow ripening period.  Yet despite their delicacy, Pinot Noirs from top Alto Adige producers like Elena Walch and Alois Lageder carry intensity and structure.

Schiava, also known as Vernatsch, is Alto Adige’s signature red grape, accounting for around a third of the region’s total wine production.  These thin-skinned berries yield pale, translucent red wines bursting with crisp red fruit and delicate herbal notes.  As an apéritif next to a crackling fire, enjoy a glass of this pale, delicate Schiava bursting with fresh red berries and spring herbs.  Schiava is meant to be consumed young and chilled, usually within one to three years of the vintage.  With just moderate alcohol and soft, round tannins, their simple charm shines when served with local speck or roast pork.

St. Magdalener, named after the village of Santa Maddalena, represents a small but exciting niche.  When the frigid winds howl, uncork a youthful St. Magdalener, with its notes of cracked pepper and tart cherry fruit.  Typically a blend based on Schiava with other local red grapes like Lagrein, Pinot Noir or Cabernet, St. Magdalener combines the peppery perfume of Schiava with added weight and structure.  These savory medium-bodied reds strike an ideal balance between lightness and intensity.

What makes Alto Adige such a prime location for crafting delicate reds?  The combination of high altitude, abundant sunshine with hot summer days and cool nights helps grapes retain bright acidity and aromatics.  Alpine air circulation ensures grapes stay healthy while slowly developing flavors, without overripening.  Alto Adige is also uniquely influenced by two vastly different climates: the cool peaks of the Dolomites alongside the balmier, Mediterranean air from nearby Lake Garda and the Adriatic Sea.  Vineyards tucked into valley slopes benefit from these dual air currents.

With their zesty acidity, subtle tannins and aromatic red fruit flavors, the red wines of Alto Adige are perfect for the region’s cuisine featuring Austrian and Germanic influences like dumplings, sausages and sauerkraut.  Their vibrant style and medium body work beautifully with salmon, poultry and veal dishes as well.

While the winter months may find many of us bundled up by the fire, the red wines of Alto Adige radiate warmth and brightness year-round.  With their vibrancy, balance, and subtle power, the red wines of Alto Adige are ideal for chilling winter nights.  Despite the season’s chill, these high-altitude wines dance across the palate, sending spirits soaring as high as the Dolomite peaks under sunny skies.  When you crave red wines as bright and uplifting as an Alpine winter’s day, discover the luminous reds of Alto Adige.

Here are 5 Alto Adige Reds to warm you through the season:

2020 Kurtasch Kellerei / Cantina Sonntaler Schiava
The Kurtatsch Winery in Alto Adige's Südtirol region has long been one of my favorite producers, crafting expressive wines that shine with Alpine character.  Their Schiava Sonntaler 2020 offers a masterclass in this delicate native red grape.  From the winery’s prized Vernatsch Alte Reben vineyard planted with 60-90 year old vines, this single vineyard Schiava bursts with vibrant red fruit.  On the nose, aromas of fresh raspberry, wild strawberry, and cherry mingle with a mineral undertone.  The palate brims with juicy sour cherry and red currant flavors, underscored by white pepper spice.  Despite its transparency, the Sonntaler grips the palate with lively acidity and fine-grained tannins that carry through the smooth, fruit-forward finish.  With balanced intensity and length, this refined Schiava shows both the charm of the variety as well as the deft hand of one of Alto Adige’s top winegrowers in Kurtatsch.  95

2021 Pfitscher Fuxleiten Pinot Nero
The dramatic peaks of Alto Adige provide an unexpected haven for Pinot Noir, offering high altitude, Alpine terroir where this fickle grape can thrive.  The 2021 Fuxleiten Pinot Nero shows the potential for elegant, fruit-forward Pinot in this mountainous corner of Italy.  Intense aromas of red cherry, ripe strawberry and notes of baking spice leap from the glass.  Crafted from grapes grown in the Montagna subregion, one of Alto Adige’s premier sites for Pinot Nero, this ruby-hued red unleashes flavors of juicy cherry, blackberry and plum accented by subtle smoke and mineral tones.  The palate feel is smooth and round with fine-grained tannins that carry through the harmonious, lingering finish.  With its depth of fruit and balanced structure, the Fuxleiten speaks to how Pinot Nero has found an ideal home in Alto Adige’s high-altitude vineyards.  Approachable now yet with the intensity to develop gracefully through 2031, this is Alpine Pinot Nero at its best.  93

2022 Franz Gojer St. Magdalener, Vigna Rondell
The 2022 Franz Gojer St  Magdalener Vigna Rondell is a refined and complex expression of this Alto Adige native red.  Modeled after the elegance of Burgundy, this special St. Magdalener comes from Gojer’s Rondell vineyard in St. Magdalener, a prime south-facing slope with well-drained sandy soils ideal for cultivating depth and structure.  A blend driven by Schiava and rounded out with Lagrein and Pinot Nero, the Vigna Rondell unfurls intense Bing cherry and fresh raspberry aromas, underscored by peppery spice and a floral lift.  The palate delivers a bright core of tangy red fruit layered with notes of pine forest and damp earth, carrying dense but elegant tannins through the long, mineral-laced finish.  Graceful yet authoritative, this sophisticated St. Magdalener from one of Alto Adige’s pioneering estates offers the complexity to complement hearty meat dishes now yet also promises years of positive evolution in the cellar.  93                

2020 Castelfeder Alte Reben Schiava
The 2020 Castelfeder Alte Reben Schiava showcases Alto Adige’s signature red variety with vibrant transparency and juicy berry fruit character.  From the Giovanett family’s estates in the Neumarkt region, this Schiava comes from old, low-yielding vines that lend added concentration to the wine.  Brilliant ruby red in hue, the Alte Reben fills the glass with aromas of fresh cherry, raspberry and spring flowers.  On the palate, flavors of ripe strawberry and cranberry mingle with notes of black tea and cloves, carrying smooth tannins through a fresh, fruit-forward finish.  Castelfeder’s deft touch balances richness of fruit with a weightless body and vibrant acidity akin to Beaujolais in its friendly drinkability.  With pale color yet bold flavors, this Schiava speaks to the grape’s ability to transmit this alpine terroir with transparency, vibrancy and charm.  93

2018 Barthenau Pinot Nero, Vigna S. Urbano
Showcasing graceful maturation, the 2018 Barthenau Pinot Nero Vigna S. Urbano reveals intriguing secondary notes accenting its core of vibrant red fruit.  Grown in the Barthenau estate’s prized S. Urbano vineyard surrounding the winery, some vines here date back 65+ years.  Muted garnet in the glass, aromas of dried cherry and raspberry mingle with wilted rose, peppercorn and hints of leather.  The palate delivers a concentrated core of sour cherry and pomegranate flavors, accented by forest floor hints of mushroom and pine needle.  Elegant in acidity and fine tannins, the flavors linger long on the mineral-tinged finish.  With six years of maturity lending aromatic intrigue, this refined single vineyard Pinot Nero shows both depth and delicacy—a testament to the graceful longevity Alto Adige’s high-altitude environs.  95                         

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