Posted on 07.10.19 #102

Alto Adige: mountain wines where different cultures collide

Waking up in Bolzano is a metaphorical bang on the head.  Breakfast – breads, meats and cheeses – is a very German affair, until they bring the coffee, which could only be Italian.  Stepping out into the attractive narrow streets of this mountain city, the signs are in Italian, but most of the locals seem to be speaking German.  Confused?  They aren’t.  Welcome to the Alto Adige.  Or the Süd Tirol, if you prefer.

Nestling in a valley, where the Alps become the Dolomites, this region – until the end of the First World War part of the Austro-Hungarian empire – offers much more than a unique cultural fusion: there aren’t many places that you will see bountiful citrus trees framed by snow-capped peaks.  This is a microcosmic world of contrast, where diurnal range defines the style.

With a high level of autonomy from Rome, the region runs on agriculture, boasting a healthy ecology of wine businesses – from small-scale growers, to family wineries and big co-operatives – alongside the fruit farming for which it is also famed.

It is always difficult to make generalisations about wine growing regions, but there are some fundamental basics here: the base of the valley gets really hot, making it perfect for the region’s indigenous red grape, Lagrein. The surrounding slopes enjoy lots of sunshine, with crisp, cool nights.  Another native red, Schiava, tends to sit at the base of the slopes, whilst further up there is Pinot Noir alongside the whites – mostly Pinot Grigio, Gewürtztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay, with some Sauvignon – that make up the majority of the Alto Adige’s production.

Finding myself in the same place as The Buyer’s contributing editor and chef-to-the-stars, Roger  Jones – for the biennial Alto Adige/Süd Tirol wine summit – we decided to divide our focus.  Taking on the notorious muscular tannins of Lagrein and the sometimes-searing acidity of Schiava fell to me, leaving Roger to luxuriate in the floral charm and complexity of those mountain whites, accompanied by 3-Michelin starred canapés.  It’s a tough life being a superchef …

Lagrein is the city-dweller of grapes, with the vines hanging alongside apartment buildings and shops in small plots around Bolzano’s centre.  The grape likes it hot, requiring a long ripening season of summer sunshine to tame its fierce, furious tannins.  ‘Wine Grapes’  suggests Lagrein is “a progeny of Teroldego, a grandchild of Pinot, and a cousin of Syrah”.  Something of a bastard child, it is also a bit of a bastard to grow.

“If it’s not ripe, it’s a nightmare.  It needs very careful management of the tannins”, says winemaker Lukas Mumelter at Weingut Griesbauerhof, “we need the city heat for it to ripen, most especially the seeds, otherwise there are bitter green flavours.  We use 20% new oak, but we have to choose very carefully, as French tonnelleries do not have experience with Lagrein”.

Most Lagrein is still grown on traditional pergola systems, to provide a higher leaf surface, but there has been a move towards Guyot systems in recent years.  “When we reach 40 degrees in the city, it can be 45 degrees under the pergola.  If there is no wind, the heat gets stuck under the canopy”, Mumelter tells me.

Griesbauerhof, now in a seventh generation of family ownership, has 4.5 hectares of vines on the edge of the city, producing reds on the flat and whites into the hills, with a total output of around 35 thousand bottles.

Closer to the city centre, at Muri-Gries, the centuries-old vineyard alongside a monastery is boxed in by residential development.  Several dozen monks still live here, tending to the grapes.  They have witnessed the move from quantity to quality since the 1980s.  

Despite being home to a 16th century wine press, Muri-Gries only made its first varietal red wine in 1989.  Having come close to extinction in the 1970s, as international varieties took over, Lagrein was almost exclusively used for rosé and blending across the region until its character and structure were fully realised.  At Muri-Gries, rosato is once again a popular style, accounting for around a  fifth of its production.

In recent years, Lagrein has become increasingly fashionable in export markets, gracing some of the world’s finest Italian-focused wine lists.  It is easy to see why, as the best examples reveal real structure and depth, with a vibrant mountain-fruit freshness.

“Lagrein is a niche grape”, Mumelter says, “we will always need a good sommelier who understands it and can explain why it is a good choice”.

Blended, Lagrein is usually the junior partner (Pinot Noir is also permitted) with the region’s other indigenous red grape, Schiava, to make the distinctive ‘St Magdalener’, or ‘San Maddalena’, if you prefer the Italian moniker.

… marching up the mountainside …

Lighter and brighter in style, Schiava likes a little height, marching up the mountainside, in terraces slightly reminiscent of the Douro.

Schiava, or Vernatsch for the region’s German speakers, is also Trollinger within Germany.  Just for added confusion, you could also encounter it as ‘Black Hamburg’, a table grape.  Out of fashion for years, thanks in part to high yields and overproduction, Schiava is enjoying a modest renaissance, thanks to the trend towards thinner, fruitier wines.

The Alto Adige/Süd Tirol Consorzio website suggests Schiava is an “Art Nouveau flirt”.  I’m not sure it fully seduced me, but I did appreciate its bright, floral, red fruit, moderate tannins and general nerviness.  Schiava could tempt a lover of good Beaujolais. 

Just as the region provides seemingly harmonious diversity between its languages, foods and cultural traditions, so its main red grapes reveal very different identities that happily co-exist – and blend together with aplomb.

A version of this piece first appeared in The Buyer.

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