Why I Love the Wines of Alto Adige

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Back in 2008 I posted about the wonderful wines of the Alto Adige -– the breathtakingly beautiful region nestled beneath the snow-capped Italian Alps, just south of Austria. In mid-September I was fortunate enough to revisit the area. Once more I was captivated not just by its picture postcard beauty, but by the diversity and deliciousness of its wines –- an authentic expression of Alpine purity and focus.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

For this trip I was joined by seven other Masters of Wine – so we were quietly confident of a suitably geeky trip! But this week let me first provide some background for readers not so familiar with the region of Alto Adige.

Alto Adige: A Perfect Marriage of Alpine and Mediterranean

Imagine a place where Knödel and pasta are served side-by side, the map says Italy but all around you hear German. Also known as Südtirol or South Tyrol, Alto Adige belonged to Austria until the end of World War I. About 70% of the population is of Austrian decent and intensely proud of their Austrian heritage. Alto Adige is definitely a region where two cultures and two languages are part and parcel of everyday life.

The region takes it name from the Adige River, Italy’s second longest river (after the Po River). The Adige rises just above the Alpine Reise Pass near the Austrian/ Swiss border and winds its way right through the region before heading toward Verona and the Adriatic coast – a total of 255 miles

Alto Adige’s Wine Production

With 13,100 acres* of vineyards, Alto Adige is Italy’s smallest wine region (producing less than 1% of total Italian wine). Over 90% of the production is quality wine and classified with the Alto Adige DOC designation.

Alto Adige is an extremely mountainous region with vineyards ranging from 600 feet to 3500 feet in altitude along the lower slopes of the Dolomites. This diversity of altitude for vineyard sites enables producers to grow an enviable palette of grape varieties, each in its own ideal conditions. Blessed with 300+ days of annual sunshine and such diverse soils as volcanic porphyry, quartz, limestone, mica and sandy marl, the Alto Adige is perfectly suited to grape growing.

*Note: The Napa valley, which we consider small, has 45,000 acres under vine.

White Wines Shine – But Don’t Forget the Local Reds

Today white wine production accounts for 58% and red for 42% of total wine production. Just five years ago it was red wine that dominated – largely due to the long time production of light bodied red wines made from the local Schiava grape.

Rightly or wrongly, Schiava was not perceived as the future ‘star’ grape that would solidify Alto Adige’s position as a great wine-producing region. Hence plantings of Schiava fell and were replaced by white varieties with a supposed better future.

To be honest I would have to agree that there was some merit in this thinking. In the hands of talented wine growers and winemakers the white wine from Alto Adige can possess a spectacularly precise focus, elegance and an almost haunting expression of Alpine purity.

Among the whites to look for there is stellar Pinot Grigio with great personality, structure and bag-loads of flavor (a world apart from the mass-produced, tasteless examples that overcrowd our retail shelves, and have served only to give Pinot Grigio a bad name).

Then there is Pinot Blanc, so elegant, pure and totally underrated, with its delicate aromas of orchard fruits and fresh alpine flowers. Delicious when young but also capable of up to ten years ageing – it might even be my favorite, and definitely worth searching out.

Next up is Gewürztraminer, native to the commune of Tramin, making wines that are spicy, floral and rich as would be expected, but also wonderfully fresh and never heavy. However, despite being a ‘local’, Gewürztraminer does not seem to sit as naturally as the other varieties at the Alto Adige table. It is mainly served as an aperitif. On our trip we asked each and every producer about the local foods that they serve with Gewürztraminer. Each time the answer was, “None, but it goes with Asian food.” Determined to find some local pairings we persisted with several different local specialties. Some favorites were chunky paté or rillette, semi-hard goat cheese as well as salami.

In Alto Adige you will also find plenty of delicious wines from Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Kerner and a smattering of other local and central European varieties. The varietal focus varies depending on the particular valleys and altitudes where vineyards are located.

On the red wine side, you will find some Cabernet and Merlot, but the key three varieties grown are the local Schiava and Lagrein grapes as well as Pinot Noir (or Pinot Nero as it is locally called).

While Pinot can be sublime – especially when grown at higher elevations, and Lagrein (a cousin of Syrah) can be sexy and enticing, I am a huge fan of Schiava – grown on good sites with yields kept in check.

In my opinion, Schiava is a perfect wine for how we live today. Fantastically food friendly, Schiava wines are fairly light-bodied, with modest alcohol, wonderfully refreshing and full bright cherry fruit flavors – a welcome addition to any dining experience. But more on this and my recent travels next week.

(Images: Courtesy of www.altoadigewines.com photo bank and Mary Gorman-McAdams)