In the vast world of wine there are a few commonalities that define a region. Most often that discussion leads with the soil composition of a vineyard. The soil can define the character of a wine and is one of the key parts of a region’s terroir, the French term that defines the sense of place of a wine. However, the discussion of wine produced in Alto Adige, the picturesque Northern Italian region that rests along the Adige River, does not start with their soil. Instead, it begins with high elevations. In Alto Adige, you’ll find massive sloping terraces of vines that soar thousands of feet into the sky, with conditions influenced by the Dolomite Mountains leading into the Italian and Swiss Alps. The slopes are so steep that work, all done by hand, is treacherous. Maintaining vines that typically shouldn’t exist at elevations so high is laborious, but worth it for the wines the region produces. I visited recently, traveling as a guest of the Alto Adige Wine Consortium.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but every photo I took of the Austrian-German influenced Italian region did not do it justice. Every vision was a moment out of The Sound of Music: green, vibrant hills were very much alive and the urge to yodel occurred often.
Sprawling vineyards of fully ripened indigenous Lagrein and Schiava, along with luscious Pinot Noir, flourish in the low altitude and warmer climate near Lake Caldaro. Traveling north to altitudes upwards of 3000-4000 feet above sea level, varieties turn from red to white. The higher you climb, the more diverse the varieties become: Chardonnay grows in, the lower areas followed upward by Pinot Grigio, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Bianco, Gruner Veltliner, and more. As altitudes climb each variety becomes more resistant to cool temperatures, ripens later, and is filled with bright acidity and minerality.
The far Northeastern Italian area is one of the oldest wine producing regions in the world, prized by Romans for the quality. Historically it was a part of the Habsburg empire, then briefly under French rule with Napoleon, then Austrian rule, with the region fighting for Austria the First World War. After WWI, the region was annexed to Italy. Though technically a part of Italy for almost 100 years, the feeling throughout the area is still very Eastern European. The main economy for the region is agriculture, either vineyards or apple crops. (Alto Adige supplies around 80% of apples consumed throughout Europe.) Today, the region is one of the wealthiest in Italy, recently named the third most popular region for tourism in Italy, just behind Rome and Tuscany.
Visually, churches with tall steeples dot the landscapes instead of the traditional Italian square bell towers. Alto Adige boasts the most historic castles of any region in Europe and almost as many monasteries. White-washed cottage-like buildings with farmhouse-style architecture, many with building names stenciled on signs with ultra-clean precision, emulate the clean, structured lines of a conservative past. Languages mix between German, Italian, and their local dialect that combines a bit of both.
As does the food, all with a German-Austrian-Swiss influence. Meals in Alto Adige are hearty and rich, filled with everything from traditional knodel (bread dumplings,) to coarse grained polenta, schlutzkrapfen (potato dough ravioli) with butter sauces, house-made sausage and roasted meats, apple strudel, and Speck dell’Alto Adige PGI (Protected Geographical Indication,) the beloved cured ham of the region.
Throughout the region there are dozens of welcoming, traditional farmhouse restaurants, that take your senses and palate to a cozy place. Local dishes, served family-style, are paired with house-made beer and wine. What makes these establishments so important to the people of the region is that the Italian government supports this “argitourismo,” as it is known in the country, giving back to the farmers who have chosen to turn their farms and homes into seasonal B&Bs or eating establishments. Though each can only be open seasonally and around 70% minimum of what is used in the establishment has to come directly from the farm or made from products generated on the farm, this incentive has generated a significant amount of additional income for local farmers. Being a farmer is the job they were born to do, many inheriting the land from their fathers. Preparing and sharing traditional dishes, making wine from the few vines each farmer owns, is their way of life, passed down through generations.
The wineries in the region are either part of a cooperative owned by the farmers/vintners of the region and a small number are family owned. The cooperative practice in the area thrives due to the farmer involvement. The farmers each own a part of the winery and are “governed” by an elected board that manages daily operations. Their agreement is that all of the fruit they grow must be sold to the co-op, and they will be able to buy back what they want for personal consumption. They are paid a unanimously agreed upon price by the percentage of fruit they provide the co-op. Since each co-op is regionally specific, the vines are usually right around the winery production facility, producing wine with the unique characteristics found in that distinct part of Alto Adige. Growers are usually growing apples as well as grapes. On average, seven out of ten growers do both, often with higher profits coming from apples.
If you aren’t a member of a co-op, you are one of the few family owned properties in the region, and you make wine from a small-estate vineyards from purchased fruit. Since so many varieties thrive in the region, most wineries make at least 20 different wines. Not many outsiders have been able to enter into the wine business in Alto Adige because the landowners in the small communities generally pass the property to the next generation.
Pairing the hearty dishes of the area is easy. Traditional Lagrein and Schiava, two varieties that have been grown in the area for hundreds of years, are light bodied with low-complexity and fresh acidity.
Pinot Bianco, potentially the most loved white wine of the region, also fits nicely with the food. Though the variety has made a name for itself in Alsace, France, the Italians of Alto Adige know how to make the often lackluster Pinot Bianco shine. The delicate yet abundant variety creates refreshing flavors that burst from the glass.
Pinot Grigio is commonly referred to as the white wine of Italy. If you asked an Italian why they grow it, they might say it is because outside markets demand it. Most locals feel the grape is often overly ripe and over-processed. However, in Alto Adige the variety is loved both locally and internationally. Producers elevate the variety, showcasing minerality and herbal notes, as well as traditional fruit flavors.
Pinot Noir, or Pinot Nero, is not the common Italian variety in Alto Adige. Grown on slopes up from warm Lake Caldaro, the variety benefits from afternoon sunshine which ripens the fruit on the sloping hills. The grapes are bathed with constant, cooling breezes from Lake Garda, Italy’s largest lake. The winds shift the hot daytime temperatures to chilly temperatures at night with a diurnal swing of upwards of 30 degrees, making this inland region feel Mediterranean. The Pinot Nero wines showed a treasured ability to age, improving depth, elegance, and refinement as they age in the bottle. A favorite came from family owned J Hofstatter, sampling a 2012 and 2005. The aged wine showed complexity and elegance, elevating berry and spice flavors with layers of dried herbs and earthiness. J Hofstatter Meczan Pinot Nero is available at Wine Poste and Jimmy’s for $24.
Cooperative owned Terlano Winery is known for producing white wines with the ability to age. This is due to the high mineral content of the volcanic soils in the south, along with old vines that bring highly concentrated flavors with very low yields per vine. One of their most loved is Terlaner White, a blend of 60% Pinot Bianco, 30% Chardonnay, and 10% Sauvignon, with the first vintage dating back to 1893. The three classic white varieties blend in harmony, each adding a specific characteristic to the wine, Pinot Bianco adds acidity, minerality, and freshness. The Chardonnay adds depth and warmth. The Sauvignon adds structure and aroma. The initial aromas of the wine include lemon zest and white flowers, leading to stone fruit flavors. When aged flavors shift to dried fruit and spice, however the acidity is still present, even in a 20 year old wine. $22 available at Pogo’s.
One cooperative that isn’t run by the farmers or vintners is Abbazia di Novacella, a St. Augustine monastery which dates back to 1142. Instead, it is still run by the church. As in many Old World wine communities, the church and nobility always played a part in wine production, with vintners growing fruit specifically for one or the other. Today, the working monastery is financially independent of the Italian state and Catholic church thanks to their unique ability to produce and sell wine.
Devoted to prayer and the study of religion and philosophy, the monks do not work their vineyards, which is left to a staff of permanent and seasonal workers led by the Abbot. Everything the monastery does is devoted to the praise of God and serving the people. Their property includes a middle-school and dormitory, a gilded Baroque library, steep terraced vineyards, as well as their completely carbon-neutral winery production facility. In addition to what they grow, they purchase fruit from 50 additional vintners. These contracted vintners farm to the monastery’s specifications.
Walking through Abbazia di Novacella vineyards, tasting almost fully ripened fruit along the way, I noticed that nothing tastes as similar in fruit form as in the wine the fruit produces than the purple skinned Gewürztraminer. Though the skins are dark, quick pressing after harvest ensures that the wine produced is a pale straw color filled with aromas of honeysuckle, rose, tropical fruit, and spice. It’s floral and juicy but dry, which makes it a perfect wine for food. The white Kerner variety has origins in Germany but has been grown in Alto Adige since the 1970’s. The grape, a cross between Schiava and Riesling, produces highly aromatic wines filled with orange, peach, and apple with a medium-bodied palate. The wines are available locally at Wine Poste for $20 a bottle.
Family owned since 1675, with their Castel Turmhof Estate dating back to 1225 A.D., Tieffenbrunner Winery is dedicated to maintaining their history of producing high quality wines by following tradition while utilizing modern technology. This ensures that the true essence of the grape is expressed in each wine produced. I had a chance to walk the Hofstatt vineyard, home of their Müller-Thurgau vines for their Feldmarschall von Fenner wine, sitting at 3,300 feet above sea level. Cultivation at this altitude is usually impossible. However the microclimate of the area and the protection from northerly winds by the Mendel Mountains, allow this cool climate, mineral-driven variety to thrive. Tieffenbruner Feldmarschall von Fenner is available for $33 here.
Elena Walch, an architect by trade, married into one of the most historic family wineries in Alto Adige. She fell in love with Werner Walch while restoring the family’s 17th Century Renaissance castle, Castel Ringberg. Upon their marriage, she left her profession to become a winemaker and modernized many traditional practices to make the family winery, Wilhelm Walch, more efficient. Shortly after she started Elena Walch Winery. Her focus on the terroir, creating wines that expressed where they came from has led Elena Walch wines to be some of the most well-respected in the region. Helped today by daughters, Julia and Karoline, the winery continues to develop and grow. Elena Walch Beyond the Clouds Grande Cuvee is a highly concentrated Chardonnay based white blend of precisely chosen vines. All of the fruit is crushed and fermented together, aged in new French oak for 10 months, and followed by six months in the bottle before release. The result is a spicy, toasty and slightly smoky wine with ripe apple, dried peach, and toasted almond flavors. A big wine, perfect for sipping on cool nights as the richness has a beautiful warming effect. $55 available here.