The Alsace of Italy. Where the Mediterranean meets the Alps. Italian wines made by Germans. I could continue with some of the comparisons and contrasts that have been used to describe the wines of Alto Adige or Südtirol, but high quality, terroir-driven and reflective of origin, comparatively small production, and very enjoyable are the more important descriptors.
On March 9, Glenn and I had the pleasure of attending a presentation of the wines of Alto Adige at the Top of the Hub. The day started with a panel discussion and guided tasting of eight distinctive and age-worthy white wines from the appellation. The seminar was moderated by Michael Apstein, MD and featured a panel representing both cooperatives and wine estates. Klaus Gasser of Cantina Terlano, Wolfgang Klotz of Cantina Tramin, Urs Vetter of Alois Lageder, and Tobias Zingerle of Kaltern-Caldaro were engaging and sometimes funny as they explained Alto Adige’s history, winemaking, and culture.
Often referred to as Trentino-Alto Adige, the region is making a major effort to distinguish itself from its southern neighbor. Having become a part of Italy less than 100 years ago, the German influence can still be seen in the culture and language, and while Trentino is Italian and has relatively large scale production, Alto Adige can be characterized as “small, sunny, and specialized.” Trentino and Alto Adige have different climates and the size of their production is vastly different. Alto Adige is geographically smaller and the yields and production are significantly lower. The wines of Alto Adige reflect the many microclimates of the appellation created by sun exposures and proximity to Alpine lakes, its major diurnal temperature swings, and 300 days of sunshine.
There are hundreds of small growers and the agriculture can be described as family-oriented, with vineyards – many planted with 60-80 year old vines – being handed down through the generations. With so many wine growers owning as little as two to three acres, cooperatives have a very important role in wine making. Dr. Apstein encouraged the audience to let go of the perception that cooperatives produce poor quality wines; in Alto Adige the cooperatives have become very good at determining the quality of wines and bottling and labeling them accordingly.
Traditionally, Alto Adige is a red wine region, and that is still evident in the fact that nearly 25% of the land under grape cultivation is dedicated to Schiava. But that is starting to change. In fact 55% of the appellation’s 13,100 acres is devoted to white grapes, with Pinot Grigio, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc the most planted varietals. While some may think that Chardonnay was planted recently to meet international demand, it actually arrived in Alto Adige more than 200 years ago. In that time wine growers have experimented with the best locations to grow the grape, finding that the varietal does particularly well in limestone soils and thrives where there is diurnal temperature variation.
About ten years ago, some grape growers began switching to biodynamic agriculture. There was a lot of skepticism, but as the quality of the grapes, as well as their ability to maintain quality even in years with poor weather condition, increased, more growers and winemakers became believers.
We had the pleasure of tasting eight incredibly well-made wines that reflected the distinctiveness of their origin and demonstrated that wines from Alto Adige have significant ageing potential. Even though I wrote “wow” in my notes a couple of times, I would be hard pressed to pick my favorite(s), since I thought all of them were delicious. All of the wines are DOC Alto Adige, except for the Franz Haas Cuvée, which is classified as an IGT.
2007 Nals Margreid PinotGrigio Puggl
This single vineyard wine has lots of structure and is fairly big, with really mouthwatering acidity and a touch of heat. With half of the wine vinified in oak and half instainless steel, I found the oak to be perfectly integrated. Palate shows apple, lemon, and minerality. Suggested retail $24
2004 Franz Haas Cuvée Manna
A blend of Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Gewürztraminer grown in different vineyards within about a five mile radius. The wine was both unusual and intriguing. Gooseberry, stone, and lime. The Riesling comes through in the finish. Suggested retail $40
2006 San Michele Appiano Pinot Grigio Sanct Valentin
A beautiful, ripe, concentrated wine with lots of pear, apple, and spice. A long finish. Suggested retail $35.99
2007 Caldaro Sauvignon Castel Giovanelli
This biodynamic Sauvignon Blanc is one of the best that I have had in recent memory. Tropical fruit and peaches on the nose. A very distinctive, rich wine with a viscous mouthfeel and long finish. Suggested retail $48
2005 Terlan Nova Domus Terlaner Riserva
A blend of Pinot Bianco (60%), Chardonnay (30%), and Sauvignon Blanc (10%), this is another rich and viscous wine with citrus, tropical fruit, and spice. Suggested retail $55
2002 Alois Lageder Chardonnay Löwengang
The Löwengang vineyard has a southeastern exposure and benefits from the Ora wind. Ripe apple and vanilla on nose and palate. Though it is not as acidic as the previous two wines, there is still quite solid acidity present. Lush with a long finish. Suggested retail $40
2006 Peter Zemmer Gewürztraminer Reserve
The aromatics jump out of the glass: lychee, pineapple, vanilla, spice. It is both soft and acidic at the same time. Fermented with indigenous yeast, the fermentation for this vintage stopped naturally at 6 grams/liter of residual sugar. Suggested retail $29
2004 Tramin Gewürztraminer Nussbaumer
Compared to the Peter Zemmer Gewürztraminer, this wine is more reserved. Baked apple dominates with only some lychee. Quite sweet and a bit funky. Suggested retail $35
Though I have been guilty of the occasional hyperbole, it is not a stretch to say that the Alto Adige tasting was the best wine tasting I have attended. Cornerstone
Communications did an impressive job organizing both the seminar and the walk-around tasting. All of the print materials were informative, thorough, and beautifully designed – all of which made for a memorable day enjoying these distinctive wines.