Article By: Harvey Finkel
I was surprised and delighted by the Alto Adige when I first visited twelve years ago. This beautiful alpine corner of Italy does not at all conform to one’s usual expectation of that delightful land, as registered by more southerly regions. Here are the picture-postcard peaks and valleys of the Dolomite Alps. The prevailing languages are atypical German and Italian. In two or three isolated valleys dwell woodcarvers of prodigious skill who prefer Ladin, an antique Latinate language heard nowhere else. The most notable crop of the Adige Valley floor is apples. The pasta, broad and short, is napped in sauces based on butter rather than olive oil. Dumplings and speck are standard. Vines cling to vertiginous slopes: one might fear their tumbling down. Skiing is superb. The Alto Adige was Austrian until 1919, called Südtirol (South Tyrol) ’til then, when ceded to Italy in the settlement following the Great War. From this heritage, we get a semi-autonomous subregion of Italy, the northern portion of Trentino-Alto Adige, culturally more Germanic than Italian, whose wines are largely made from French grape varieties. It is the most northerly and one of the smallest wine-producing regions of Italy. It also maintains an enviable consistency of high quality. An unequaled nearly 99 percent of the wines are rated DOC.
Boston recently received a large delegation from the region, conducting a seminar on its white wines and bearing tasting samples from 2O wineries of its whole production spectrum. The group left with reputation enhanced. The seminar clearly demonstrated that the laudably crafted dry white wines, as much as seven to nine years old, retained their youthful vigor. Not a sign of senility to be found. Taking that pleasing prospect as our starting point, let’s review the vinous status of the Alto Adige.
Wine has been produced here since before the Romans came, probably for 3OOO years. The modern era may be said to have begun about 3O years ago. Most of the vineyards occupy slopes of the Y-shaped valleys of the Adige and Isarco rivers. The city of Bolzano lies at the nexus of the Y. Vines generally grow between elevations of 6OO and 33OO feet. Elevation, soil, exposure, and microclimate vary, giving the vignerons choices of where best to plant which variety: most reds in warmer areas, whites and pinot nero on cooler slopes. The cold-loving German varieties congregate in the Isarco Valley well to the northeast of Bolzano. Although traditional pergolas are giving way to vertical (Guyot) trellising, excellent wines still spring forth from pergola-trained fruit. Soil may be red volcanic porphyry, white marine limestone, mixed glacial moraine of gravel, sand and clay, or weathered primitive rock – a geological history of Earth. The valley floor is one of Italy’s hot spots in summer. The heights are cool. A wide day/night temperature variation preserves enlivening fruit acids. The Ora, a dry, cooling wind from Lake Garda, tempers summer heat, and the Alps shield the vines from winter’s northerly blasts. The sun shines on the vines a remarkable 3OO days per year. Annual rainfall ranges from 2O to 32 inches.
The Alto Adige is making its mark chiefly by its array of lively, flavorful, bracing, and age-worthy white wines, which have moved from a minority a few years ago to now constituting 55 percent of the total production of 3.5 million cases from 13,1OO acres of vines. There is little if any room to expand plantings. Reds, of course, make up 45 percent. Many are fine and worth seeking, as we’ll see. This is a region of small growers: 5OOO of them working family plots of old vines. Almost three-quarters of the wines are made by cooperatives, here the most talented and best equipped of any I’ve encountered the world over. Of the 16O wineries, 15 are cooperatives, 4O relatively large and 1O5 small private establishments. One-third of production is exported, chiefly to Germany, the US and Switzerland.
Grouping grape varieties and their wines by color Beginning with whites, I’ll proceed from most to least planted. Most wines are varietal, and are named as such, often with addition of a word indicating rank in the quality/price hierarchy, location of vineyard or winery, or trademark (sometimes the name of a castle, which may or may not exist). Maturation is largely carried out in stainless steel and neutral wood. Barriques have, of course, invaded. When used with restraint, they do no harm. Excess, however, would risk destroying freshness by imposing oaken barriers between us and our wines. On the whole, I’ve had little cause for complaint.
The grape skins develop color. This enjoyable wine bears little resemblance to the unaccountably popular, often overpriced stuff grown on the flats of Veneto. This wine is characterized by palpable texture and viscosity, concentrated fruit, and a hint of spice.
Italian’s name, Traminer Aromatico, is so much more musical. It may have originated here, near the village of Tramin. Nicely balanced complex of flowers, fruits and spice. Not as extravagant as some from Alsace; not as wimpy as those from elsewhere.
Many excellent exemplars. Although Chardonnay likes oak, some of the unoaked cuvées couldn’t be more delicious.
Weissburgunder to the Teutons. May be the unsung hero of the whites. Certainly some of the world’s best of this variety: focused, complex, polished, long, astonishingly durable.
Some of the finest Sauvignons I’ve drunk are grown here. Imagine the dash and intensity of New Zealand combined with the suave elegance of France.
Shaded by riesling in Germany, high-grown Müller-Thurgau wines here can be impressively fragrant and racy.
Germanic varieties (sylvaner, Kerner, riesling, veltliner) and moscato giallo occupy very small plantings. Sparkling wines made by traditional method from chardonnay and pinots bianco and nero account for fewer that 2O,OOO cases. Blends, white or red, exist at both the low and high ends, the former for expediency, the latter reaching for quality and complexity. But just as waves may either reinforce or damp one another, combining wines may add multifaceted interest or risk blended blandness that loses varietal verve.
The most planted grape in the Alto Adige. The Italian name of this indigenous grape schiava means “slave girl”. In German, it’s known as ‘vernatsch’ hereabouts, and as ‘trollinger’ north of the Alps. Its sometimes biblically huge berries and bunches yield a light red wine popular in Austria, Switzerland and Germany. For light lunches.
Another native, a far more interesting one. Can make creditable rosé (rosato or kretzer), but shines as a dark, fruity (berries and plum), spicy red wine (scuro or dunkel). Beats Zinfandel at its game. Works with barrique aging.
Pinot noir here, seldom called blauburgunder or spätburgunder, can be elegant, satisfying, and age-worthy, especially when grown on the eastern slopes, most notably near Mazzon.
Bordeaux varieties (merlot and the two cabernets) may be bottled individually or blended with one another or with Lagrein. Although fine wines, they do not especially exploit the local terroirs.
In German, sounds like a Strauss opera: Rosenmuskateller. The grape is suspected to have originated in Dalmatia or in Sicily. Grown in very small quantity at warm sites, this sweet red wine smells and tastes enticingly of roses. You can have your daze of wine and roses all in one.