As we say goodbye to Summer and welcome the promise of a cooler fall season, some people start to look forward to the shimmering changes of fall foliage, the first day to break out a light jacket, and even the arrival of all things flavored with pumpkin spice. As a Texan, the end of the summer solstice on the September calendar rarely syncs with anything near what would qualify for fall temperatures. (At last glance, the weather is calling for at least another week of temperatures well above 90 degrees F.) For me, the only thing that signifies a shift from summer to fall is an escape from the Texas heat. Preferably to a place that includes looming mountain ranges and chilly nighttime breezes. This year, I found that escape in the northern stretches of Italy, beneath the jagged peaks of the Dolomites in the Alpine wine region of Alto Adige.
A truly blended culture, Alto Adige, or Südtirol (South Tyrol) as known by its German-speaking locals, is an Italian wine region bordering both Austria, and Switzerland in the European Alps—just more than an hour south of Innsbruck). It has been a hub for travel and trade in northern Italy for centuries, but in the wine world, it’s known as the home to crisp, clean mountain wines made from everything from Pinot Bianco, Gewürztraminer, Kerner, Sylvaner, Lagrein, and Schiava.
Although technically located within Italy, this area was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until after World War I. As such, you hear a lot more German spoken in this quaint area than Italian. (In fact, about 70% of the people in the region speak German and rarely Italian.) Despite its alpine location, the region’s proximity to both the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas creates unique climatic conditions with the Dolomites and Swiss and Austrian Alps creating a rain shadow effect, protecting against harsh winter conditions and the Mediterranean breezes warming the region to be one of the hottest in Italy during the growing season. Heat and humidity during the day are balanced by cool temperatures and mountain breezes night, making for beautiful conditions that yield a refreshing balance in the wines.
Throughout its rolling valleys and mountainous hillsides, Alto Adige’s vineyards are planted at elevations ranging between 600 and 3,300 feet in soils that are calcareous and limestone-based near the Dolomites, and porphyric and morainic in areas where glacial deposits are more dominant. Interestingly, the region is also the center of apple production in Italy and one of the major suppliers to the European continent. The valley floors are filled with apple orchards while the vineyards are more predominantly found hillsides and terraces.
With about 5,000 wine growers farming around 13,000 acres, Alto Adige is one of Italy’s smallest wine regions, yet with more than 98% of the wines produced at DOC level, it is certainly one of the country’s most serious regions in terms of quality. Overall there are about 200 wineries including 13 cooperative cellars. The key to this region is understanding that vineyard plots are actually quite small, averaging less than 1.5 hectares per grower. By virtue of this fact, the region has relied in large part on the co-op system for quality producers to develop a solid brand. Nearly 70% of the wine in Alto Adige is co-op produced.
With the city of Bolzano as its hub, Alto Adige has three main growing sub-regions including the Valle d’Isarco to the northeast, Val Enosta to the northwest, where the majority of the apple production takes place, and the Oltradige valle, which is the largest and includes villages such as Appiano, Caldaro, and Tramin, which are considered some of the most premium spots for winegrowing.
Considering its unique climate, Alto Adige is reputed for producing nearly two dozen different grape varieties with white grapes found primarily on the Dolomitic limestone and red grapes in the poryphic soils.
The White Wines
With its unique climate and abundance of calcareous soil, Alto Adige is noted for its elegant and vibrant white wines. Warm, sunny days and cold nights create perfumed aromas and fresh acidity in varieties such as Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Sylvaner, Kerner, Müller-Thurgau, Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Gewürztraminer, which many believe originated in this region. White wine production accounts for about 60% of the overall region with the villages of Appiano, Caldaro, and Tramin producing remarkable Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, and Gewürztraminer, while crisp, mineral-driven offerings of Sylvaner, Kerner, and Riesling shine in the Valle Isarco.
The Red Wines
Accounting for about 40% of the region’s production, Alto Adige’s red wines do include recognized international varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Nero, which seems particularly wells suited for the mountainous environs. But the true gems are in the region’s native varieties Schiava and Lagrein, two independently unique grapes whose characteristics fall on opposite spectrums from the each other. Surrounding the city of Bolzano, which is considered one of the warmest parts of the entire region, the St. Magdalener DOC sits on the steep slopes to the northwest of the city followed by the area of Gries further to the west. This is where you’ll find the lion’s share of Schiava and Lagrein plantings.
The silky, aromatic Schiava is light and nimble on the palate, marked by rich floral notes and accents of strawberry and cherry. The best examples usually come from vines in the St. Magdalener DOC and Lago di Caldaro sub-regions where the alpine influences foster lovely fruitiness and freshness within the grapes. These are high-toned wines that are beautifully versatile with food pairings. (Note: You’ll also find Schiava made in Germany’s Baden-Wurtemburg region under the name of Trollinger.)
Lagrein is one of the most important red grapes to the Alto Adige region, if for no other reason than because it is one of the area’s true native grapes. The wines offer significant concentration of color backed by notes of tart black berries and plum, bitter cherry, dark cocoa powder, and even a little meatiness. A fun alternative to big Cabernet Sauvignon, especially if you’re looking for a big wine with less aggressive tannin. Though not substantially age worthy, these wines do show better after a few years in bottle.
It’s worth noting that a significant number of the Alto Adige’s Lagrein and Schiava are planted using pergola. This system of training grapevines overhead on wires and wooden frames has been used in Italy’s Alto Adige (Sudtirol) and Trentino as well as Piemonte and Val d’Aosta for at least 150 years. The pergola system has received a bad rap over the years as a way to boost yields for producing wines in great quantity, rather than focusing on quality. But as quality has become a major focus in the region, much closer attention has been given to using the pergola system to attain better quality with grapes overall.
While many producers do use VSP or Guyot trellising systems, many longstanding producers are employing both methods to both honor tradition and improve quality. The advantage of pergola is that its leaf canopy can help shade the grapes from sunburn during ripening season and can allow grapes to hang longer if desired for certain styles of wine. But the caveat is that the tunnel-like canopy can trap quite a bit of humidity within the rows, making things like mildew a problem. This is why site selection is key. Sites that receive good wind from the mountains can mitigate the mildew and actually produce high quality grapes.
Included below are a few memorable selections from a visit to this magical region:
Alois Lageder 2018 Porer Pinot Grigio: The Lageder family has been making wines in Alto Adige since 1823 and today is led by the sixth generation, Clemens and Helena Lageder where biodynamic farming is a central part of the wine. The family owns more than 135 acres of biodynamic certified vineyards and more than half of their 80 contract growers throughout the region are also biodynamic. For the Lageders, wine should not be grown in a monoculture, but rather in a region of agricultural biodiversity—lucky for them, Alto Adige supplies up to 50% of the national Italian apple market. However, they have also forged a transhumance partnership with the local cheesemaker, allowing the dairy cows to graze in their vineyards in the winter, while in the summer the cows return to the mountain plains. The wines of Alois Lageder reflect the commitment to purity and authenticity the family puts forth in both the vineyard and the cellar. The 2018 Porer Pinot Grigio is a perfect example of this. A blend of three different aging processes from classic to skin contact and whole cluster maceration. A beautiful expression of on often dismissed grape variety. This wine offers notes of green melon, citrus peel, yellow apple, and a hint of bitter almond. Though fresh and crisp, the structure of this wine has a bit of grip that brings an added depth. 94 Points
Elena Walch 2018 Vigna Kastelaz Gewürztraminer: Located in the charming town of Tramin, the alleged birthplace of Gewürztraminer, the Walch family have a history of winemaking that spans 150 years. While Alto Adige was once considered a wine region focused more on producing large quantities of wine, Elena Walch was one of the pioneers of transitioning the focus to quality. By reducing yields, changing trellising systems to VSP, and paying attention to suitable varieties for the region, she was one of the first to encourage a new identity for the region. The Elena Walch Gewürztraminer is reputed for its alluring aromatics and surprisingly crisp, dry palate. The 2018 Vigna Kastelaz Gewürztraminer is a true beauty, with notes of peaches, summer flowers, and faint ginger and a palate that is silken, yet crisp, a result of harvesting some grapes earlier in the growing season before harvesting the rest to retain natural acidity in the wine. 94 Points
Kellerei/Cantina Terlan 2016 Vorberg Riserva Pinot Bianco: With a history dating back to 1893, the historic cooperative Cantina Terlan manages 420 acres of vineyard among 143 growers throughout the region. Terlano is a wine-growing village located halfway between South Tyrol’s main towns of Merano and Bolzano where the Adige river flows through a wide valley in a south-easterly direction. The village and vineyards nestle against the red porphyry rock of Monte Tschöggl on the left side of the valley. One of the region’s premier producers, Cantina Terlan excels with white varieties, with this Vorberg Riserva Pinot Bianco being an exceptional example. Offering notes of golden pear, ripe peach and pie crust, this wine leads with a vibrant lift and deepens in structure with pleasing creaminess. 94 Points
Cantina Valle Isarco 2018 Aristos Kerner: The idyllic, high Alpine Isarco Valley offers one of the most beautiful natural landscapes in Alto Adige, majestic mountains frame a vibrant green landscape dappled by chalet-style farmhouses, roaming cattle, castles, monasteries, chestnut groves and terraced vineyards enclosed within neat low stone walls. The vineyards of the wine are managed completely by hand along the steep slopes located at about 3,100 feet). The unique climate of this region balances hot summer days with very cool, fresh nights with light, gravelly soils rich in minerals that contribute to a unique vibrancy in the wine the 2018 Kerner is like silk-wrapped lightning in a bottle. Smooth and finessed with high notes of citrus, yellow apple, and mountain flowers, this wine with its linear brightness bolstered by alluring complexity. 95 Points