Wine writers like to give out awards. Sometimes, those awards are for wines that win comparative taste tests, a dubious proposition in many ways. Other times, it’s simply the best wine a writer has tasted all year. Perhaps I am naive, but I give out awards for different reasons, much to the consternation of some.
I recently choose a Tannat from Brazil as my wine of the year, not because it was the best wine I tasted all year, but rather because it was the one wine that changed my view of wine most significantly this year. Likewise, I chose a winery of the year that doesn’t make the most expensive or most highly rated wines that I’ve tasted all year, though they do come close. Instead, I based my choice on factors that included the wines themselves, the quality and the price, as well as outside factors like respect for the consumer and the vineyards from which the wines come.
So now, I am sitting down to select my wine region of the year, and before I reveal too much, I want to lay out my criteria. They are fairly simple, the region should offer the consumer major bang for the buck. It should also offer something unique and something that is likely to enjoy broad appeal. Broad appeal is a loose term that includes both good pricing as well as easy to appreciate styles.
This year’s region of the year fulfills all of that criteria. It’s a region that should be on everybody’s radar as it is producing excellent white, red and rosé wines that range from value priced to fairly expensive. While much of the region is somewhat challenging to farm, prices are held down by the wide range of cooperative wineries that dominate the region, complemented as they are by an increasing number of private operations.
While prices are rarely rock bottom for the wines from this region, they also rarely tip much above $50 a bottle, putting the vast majority of wines produced well within the reach of the average consumer. Of course price alone doesn’t yield value, there has to be a certain level of quality in place as well. Frankly, it’s hard to argue with the quality of these wines.
The majority of the wines are produced in a slightly modern style, though there are examples of both high extract fruit bombs and lighter-bodied, more elegant old school styles produced here. To a certain extent, that is due to the varieties grown as some are better suited to a lighter touch and others are able to handle a more assertive winemaking style.So, there is a bit of something for everyone there. Let’s take a look at what I mean by a bit of something for everybody. By there I mean…
The Alto Adige.
I’m very familiar with this region of Italy as I spent large chunks of my childhood in the neighboring province of Trentino. This is a land defined by contrasts: flat valley floors and steep mountainsides, a cosmopolitan urban population and secluded valleys harboring farmsteads much unchanged for centuries, a Sud-Tyrolian patrimony with a modern Italian love of food, wine and life.
It’s a beautiful area as well, surrounded by stunning vistas and quaint towns, great expanses of unspoiled nature and significant stretches of fabulous vineyards, though the vineyards are going through a bit of a change. Pergolas are being replaced with Guyot and varieties are finding new homes, better homes in fact. That is one of the reasons why I am so excited about the wines from the Alto Adige and a very important one for why you should take a look, or a second look, at the wines from this region.
It’s not like this is an emerging region, it’s a very historic wine-producing region. Heck, the name Gewürztraminer even comes from the town of Tramin in the Adige Valley. Gewürztraminer is literally translated as “spicy of Tramin,” and while the grape most likely did not originate there, it is significant that its name was born there. This is an historic marker dating back over 1000 years, so the Alto Adige is one of the world’s historic wine growing regions. And yet, it doesn’t quite get the respect it deserves.
The easy answer why is hoarding. Being just south of the Brenner Pass, Italy’s main commercial connection with Austria and Germany, the wineries of the Alto Adige have long been suppliers of fine wines to their northern neighbors. Factor in the beauty of the region, the common language (German is the lingua franca of the Alto Adige), and the fact that until fairly recently, the Italian Lira made these wines quite inexpensive and great values, and it’s no surprise that the wineries of the Alto Adige were able to build robust and durable markets for their wines.
Of course, some things have changed. A common currency and shifting attitudes towards drinking have put some pressure on most wineries in Europe, and the Alto Adige is no different. Efforts had to be made to shift from a wine industry built for large volumes to one more focused on high quality. In truth, this was fairly easy for the region. The number of fabulous vineyards is surprising for such a small region, and is due primarily to the complex geology and topography of the region.
It’s been about three decades since this move towards quality began and we are now in its third phase as far as I can tell. The first phase entailed simply reducing yields and working with the best vineyards to produce wine, returning the marginal lands to apple farming, for example. The second phase dealt with stepping fully into the modern era in both the cellar and the vineyards. This third phase includes working to identify the truly grand terroirs of the region and making sure the right vines are planted in the right places.
The wines of the Alto Adige are already exciting, but this renewed focus on the vineyards promises even better things to come. For a region that is not particularly large, with vineyards that are not particularly inexpensive to farm, it’s surprising that so many wines can be made at such a high quality. As I mentioned before, this has to do mostly with the topography, which allows for riverbench vineyards, hillside vineyards and even hilltop vineyards in some cases, each with different soils and exposition. This allows for remarkable flexibility when it comes to planting vines for fine wines.
The wineries tend to be cooperatives, a legacy of the situation these peasant farmers faced at the turn of the last century and not necessarily a detriment. While the co-ops do tend to produce middle of the road wines, other than their super cuvees that tend to be more internationally styled, they also seem to move slowly when changing styles, allowing some of the most abrupt and disruptive innovations in the winemaking to bypass them until they are fine tuned.
All this means that the co-ops do continue to improve their wines but at a slower pace than some private cellars, which is not a bad thing. Private cellars are a bit of a rare thing in the Alto Adige, though each passing year sees an increase in the number of folks going it alone. I recently visited the Alto Adige and was able to taste through the cellars of a few of these co-ops and some private wineries, as well. I was quite impressed with most of the wines I tasted, some of which are not imported to the U.S. or imported only sporadically.
I hope that changes and we get to see more of these wines in the states. I’ve listed the wines that I feel are important in the Alto Adige below, but I want to give special recognition to what are arguably the three most important wines to my mind.
The first is Tiefenbrunner’s Muller-Thurgau Feldmarschall, which comes from vines planted at over 1000 meters of elevation. The result is a white wine built of cool temperatures yet high sunlight hours. Precision, minerality and cool fruit are the hallmarks of this wine, and while Muller-Thurgau might not be the most important grape variety out there, this is a compelling wine and certainly the finest example of it. The best part is the price, about $30 a bottle for a unique, benchmark quality wine. That is the Alto Adige.
The second is Schiava, the workman-like grape that was the region’s most popular until recently with good reason. While Schiava often resembles a rosé with its light body, sapid acidity and gentle tannins, there is something almost addictive about its strawberry and herb-tinged flavors. At its best, and truth be known there isn’t that much really compelling Schiava, the grape can produce complexity and elegance that resembles a fine bottle of Burgundy. Girlan’s Gschleier Schiava from vines between 80 and 100 years old grown at 450 meter elevation is just such a wine. This is the benchmark example for the variety. Price? While rarely imported into the U.S., I recently found it for $22 a bottle. That is the Alto Adige.
And finally there is Lagrein, the Alto Adige’s indigenous red variety. In the past, many producers went a bit too far with their Lagrein, extracting the often-green tannins found in this variety and producing wines that were rustic and course. Today, producers have a much better understanding of the variety and are regularly producing fabulous wines that are rich with dark berry and plum fruits wrapped in the cocoa nuances that occur naturally when the variety is planted in the right combination of soil and exposition.
Want to try a benchmark Lagrein? There are quite a few contenders, though for me the best is Muri Gries’s Abtei Riserva. This can be a remarkable wine that is bursting with fruit, balanced, and structured for aging with compelling complexity and an elegant, silky texture. Although difficult to find, bottles can be tracked down in the U.S. for about $40 each, another superb value. That is the Alto Adige.
Take some time in the coming year and start sampling the wines of the Alto Adige. They are fantastic values and great examples of their types. Wines that capture the essence of this alpine region provide the consumer with remarkable variety and opportunities for discovery.
Wines of the Alto Adige
We are all familiar with fruity and bright Pinot Grigio, but few are as complex as those from the Alto Adige. This is ideal Pinot Grigio country, particularly the Adige valley floor abutting Trentino in the south of the province. Many producers have begun to experiment with malolactic fermentation and wood aging for their premium Pinot Grigios, producing wines with unusual richness and an added layer of complexity.
A cousin of Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco is the white wine of the Alto Adige. Less overtly fruity and more mineral and linear in character, Pinot Bianco is refreshing and easy to drink with a flavor profile rich in fruit yet zesty and lean, making them remarkably easy to pair with food.
With lots of sunshine and cool nights, the Alto Adige has proven to be an ideal location for Sauvignon Blanc, producing wines that tend to offer crisp citrus and pineapple fruit framed with classic herb and gooseberry notes in a moderately rich yet well focused style.
Perhaps no grape is more malleable than Chardonnay, producing a wide range of styles around the globe. In the Alto Adige, the wines are no different, ranging from fairly crisp to richer styles that show the winemaking quite obviously. One trait all the wines tend to share is a vibrant acid spine.
The namesake grape of Tramin, Gewürztraminer in the Alto Adige tends to be dry, floral and brisk in the mouth, lacking some of the bitterness that winemakers tend to balance out with a touch (or more) of sugar.
Pinot Noir has a fairly long history in the Alto Adige where it is grown at altitude, producing light styled wines with layers of raspberry and cherry fruit, mineral notes and a fine autumnal herb edge. The combination of cool night and lots of sunshine allows the grapes to ripen slowly and evenly, producing wines with remarkable purity of flavor and transparency of texture.
The king of red wines in the Alto Adige, Lagrein tends to produce wines that are medium to medium-full in body, rich with bright berry and plum fruit all draped on a balanced structure built on minerally acidity and supple tannins. These are wines that age well, though they are not meant for long cellaring. Enjoy them at their best some five to ten years after the vintage.
A unique dessert wine, Moscato Rosa produce red wines full of muscaty floral and spice notes. Typically produced as a moderately sweet dessert wine, Moscato Rosa ages surprisingly well, gaining complexity with five to ten years in the bottle. A great companion to nut-based dessert and bittersweet chocolate.
Also worthy of mention are the aforementioned Muller-Thurgau and Schiava, as well as many Cabernet and Merlot based wines produced in the region. Still, there is so much to discover in the Alto Adige that tasting more Cabernet and Merlot based wines, however grand they might be, doesn’t get me particularly excited.