Sunday, 29 April 2012

Wines of Alto Adige

Wines of Alto Adige and Trentino

The regions of Alto Adige, sometimes known as South Tyrol, tends to have different traditions, cuisine and even landscape to other regions of Italy. Alto Adige looks towards its northeastern European neighbours for inspiration, Slav, Austrian and Hungarian influences can all be seen in the regions way of life, traditions and cuisine.

The Wines of Alto Adige

Most of the wine growing of the Alto Adige region is located in the valley around the river Adige, with smaller pockets of wine production around the Adiges tributary, the Isarco, and along the steep terraces to the north of the village of Bolzano. Much German is spoken here and both German tradition and strong German influences can still be seen today, especially in the regions wine production. The regions native grape varieties for instance, include Riesling, Silvanner, Mullar-Thurgau, Traminer, Trollinger and Vernascht, most of which are still grown and produced today. Alto Adige even produces wine in a Germanic style, rather than an Italian one. The way in which the regions vineyards are designated shows a German influence, almost all wines are classified "quality wines"  like in Germany, but here they all have a generic DOC status. Even the grape harvesting shows the influence of German wine making techniques, the region uses the Auslese practise of picking only selected ripe grape, then making further sweeps through the vineyard picking any that have turned to ripe, this is a very accurate but extremely labour intensive method, and often it may take up to three weeks to harvest an area that most other vineyards would do in a day.

The centre of good quality wine production lies along the upper reaches of the river Adige, on a mountainside terrace above the river valley between Bolzano in the north and Ora to the south. Other smaller centers of quality wine can be found in Teslan, Meran and St. Magdelena and on the left bank of the Adige at Mazzon. Despite the regions heavily Germanic influence on grape varieties, many of today's best wines are produced using native French grape varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (known in Alto Adige by its German name Spatburgunder). This has happened, as it has with many other Italian wine regions, as a result of the leap forward in quality wine production in the 1980s. Some more traditional Italian grape varieties have achieved some of the limelight in recent years, they have yielded some truly convincing wines that have earned them considerable popularity with consumers all over the world. The Lagrein, a native Italian red grape variety, has been producing some magnificent wines over the last ten years, when growers began to use it for single varietal red wines, rather than the thin, insipid, unremarkable Rose wine Kretzner, which the variety once was used for. Lagrein has a long history in Alto Adige that dates back to the 17th century, Lagrein variety is believed to take its name from the Legarino valley in Trentino where the grape variety was believed to have originated. The rise of the modern French varieties threatened to eclipse Lagrein, but over recent years, and in the hands of some truly gifted Italian winemakers, Lagrein has shown itself to be capable of making some powerful wines, with intense colour and flavour and a impresive balance between soft fruit flavours and hard tannins. Remarkably, one of the best vineyards for producing Langrein is the Gries vineyard in Bolzano, an isolated, flat site in the middle of a densely built up city.

Another interesting and very Germanic trait of the Alto Adige region is the importance of large wine houses and cooperatives in developing modern, good quality wines. Unlike the rest of Italy, who's cooperatives are mainly concerned with churning out mass produced, very generic and usually poor quality wines to satisfy demand, some of Alto Adige's cooperatives are leaders in their field, producing top quality wines which fetch very high prices.

The most widely planted grape variety in Alto Adige is the red variety Vernatsch in its many different guises, Schiara in Trentino or Trollinger elsewhere and in Germany. Vernatsch is used to make a wine known as Kalterer See, which owns possibly the most double-edged reputation of any wine in existence. Kalterer See was possibly Italy's most imported and best known wine, but simultaneously became the epitome of the decline in wine quality that took place in the 1970s. When people spoke of the Alto Adige "wine lake" they had in mind the huge quantities of mass produced, characterless Kalterer See Auslese wines, which very rarely, indeed if ever, lived up to their quality wine status. A striking change has come about in the fortunes of Kalterer See and its neighbour St. Magdelener - both of whos red wines are made from the Vernatsch grape variety and grown in the vineyards to the north of Bolzano. Improvements in production methods, wine making techniques and a more quality focused ethos among regional wine makers has  led to both regions producing quality dry wines with pronounced aromas and a light, but characterised, soft bodied wine.

Lets take a brief look at the regions wines -

Kalterer See Auslese and
Vernatsch Alte Reben

Kalterer see was for many years the culprit for the Alto Adige "wine lake". Kalterer see produced vast quantities of drinkable, uncomplicated, often pale and characterless wines with a sweet after-taste. These wines where responsible for the poor image of the regions wines.

The variety used to make these wines is Vernatsche, over recent years this variety has seen somewhat of a rebirth due to a band of talented, quality-focused winemakers, including some cooperatives who decided to make quality, rather than generic, Kalterer see wines. Many winemakers however now market their Kalterer see wines under their varietal name Vernatsche, in order to disassociate their wines with the poor quality Kalterer see wines of old.


Modern Lagrein can be a deeply coloured wine, with deep aromas of wild berries, good body and even a reasonable capacity for ageing. Nowadays, many Lagrein wines are barrique-aged (in large wooden casks), it seems incredible that up until fairly recently wine producers only used the Lagrein variety to produce the insipid rose wine Kretzer. It was thought, up until recently, that only the Gries vineyard of Bolzano was capable of growing and producing good quality Lagrein wines, but a number of winemakers in the Upper Adige region have proved this to not be the case.

Pinot Noir (Pinot Nero)

This native French grape variety is considered one of the worlds most difficult grape varieties to grow. Pinot Nero has failed miserably to produce any good quality wine in Italy, other than in the Alto Adige region. Here, especially around the banks of the Adige, magnificent Pinot Noirs are grown, producing relatively low yields, Pinot Noir produces intensely coloured, full-flavoured wines with an amazing bouquet and excellent potential for ageing.

Sudtiroler or Alto Adige
(Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco)

Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco used to be confused with each other in Alpine regions and northern Italy, many people even believed them to be the same variety for many years. The wines which feature under the designation Sudtiroler or Alto Adige have been grown in the region for over a hundred years, but it is only with the advent of modern wine making techniques and maturation that have led to quality wines being produced here. Sudtiroler Chardonnay and Pinot Bianca are fruity, yet full and powerful white wines> Nowadays, many of these wines are Barrique fermented which particularly suits Alto Adige Chardonnays resulting in a very drinkable, quality white wine .

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