- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Vintners in Italy’s Alto Adige suffer from an embarrassment of riches. Few regions anywhere in the world can match the dizzying diversity of this bucolic alpine area’s production. Winemakers there make first-rate wines from an amazing array of grapes.

An Alto Adige winery, even if small in size, is apt to produce many different wines made from many different grapes, including cabernet and pinot noir, chardonnay and Gewurztraminer, pinot blanc, merlot, sauvignon blanc and more (including a sometimes stunning local variety called lagrein).

Many wineries elsewhere offer large portfolios, but they inevitably source grapes and wines from far afield. Alto Adige’s distinction comes from all these varieties growing near each other in a small region.

Vineyards cover about 12,000 acres of Alto Adige, the northern part of the Trentino Alto Adige autonomous region. That may sound like a lot of land, but it’s actually quite little when compared with other notable wine-growing areas — about half the size of Burgundy’s Cote d’Or, for example, or a little more than a third the size of California’s Napa Valley.

The range of excellent wines constitutes Alto Adige’s wine wealth. Its suffering comes only because that same range makes the region difficult for consumers to comprehend. Is this white wine country, or red? Are the delicate or the robust wines best? Should you try the international varietals or the indigenous ones? The vintners’ answers: All of the above — and more.

Because of its diminutive size, and unlike other Italian wine zones, Alto Adige sees few of its wines exported to the United States in large volume. Savvy American shoppers can find them, but doing so often requires special effort. That effort, however, is well worth making. The top wines made there rank among the very best.

Like all significant wine areas, Alto Adige’s distinction comes in part from its geographical location. Italy’s northernmost wine zone, it is a land of towering peaks and low-lying valleys, where mountain pines and olive trees grow side by side. The valleys are home to Europe’s largest apple orchards, but as soon as the land starts to slope upward, grapes become the crop of choice.

Since those grapes grow in sites located anywhere from 600 to 3,000 feet above sea level, altitude becomes a determining factor in explaining why Alto Adige produces so many different wines. The bottom of the often steep slopes tends to be fairly warm and sandy. This is where most red grapes grow.

Farther up, the temperatures become cooler, the soils stonier. Here varieties such as pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot blanc do best. Higher still, truly cool climate grapes like Gewurztraminer ripen while maintaining acidity, resulting in crisp, fresh wines.

History also helps explain Alto Adige’s wine character. For thousands of years the region has been a major trade route connecting northern and southern Europe. (The Brenner Pass, linking Italy to Austria, marks its northern border.) Grapes have long moved back and forth, and many found fertile homes in Alto Adige. As a result, this is the rare Italian wine region in which international varietals like cabernet, chardonnay or pinot noir can be considered legitimately local.

The other historical factor is political. Alto Adige only became part of Italy after World War I. Before then, it had been Austrian, and still today more people living there speak German than Italian. That Germanic heritage does not really indicate much about the wines (Riesling accounts for less than one percent of production), but it does help explain why the region seems so unusual (not really Italian and not really Austrian). Alto Adige is unique because it’s a self-contained, but in no sense isolated place, with uniquely impressive wines.

About 60 percent of Alto Adige’s production consists of red wine, but a fairly nondescript indigenous grape called schiava accounts for two-thirds of that. Schiava yields soft, grapy wines that are worth trying if you go there as a tourist but not really worth looking for here at home (especially considering that importers’ and distributors’ markups invariably inflate the price).

Alto Adige’s other important indigenous grape, lagrein, is definitely worth trying. It produces truly compelling wines. Tasting something like syrah, with rich, lush red and black fruit flavors, a spicy (but not peppery) undertone, and an uncanny ability to absorb oak without turning sweet, the top wines made from lagrein are complex and concentrated but not aggressive nor astringent.

They tend to have soft, pliant tannins, so they are easy to enjoy when young. Look for Elena Walch Lagrein 2004 ($21). Even better are two “riservas,” Abbazia di Novacella Lagrein “Praepositus” 2003 ($46) and Tiefenbrunner Lagrein “Linticlarus” 2003 ($33). Both of these were aged in small oak barrels and taste especially luscious.

Pinot noir is a very different red wine — light and delicate as opposed to rich and robust.

Nonetheless, Alto Adige produces what by all accounts are Italy’s best pinots. Since few other regions even grow this grape, this might seem like faint praise; but the best wines are superb.

They bear more than a passing resemblance to premier cru wines from Burgundy’s Cote de Beaune, with an enticing bouquet and a wonderfully silky texture. In that regard, they outperform all but a small handful of American pinot noirs. Alois Lageder Pinot Nero “Krafuss” 2002 ($39) and St. Michael-Eppan Pinot Nero “St. Valentin” 2002 ($40) are excellent examples. So, too, is J. Hofstatter Pinot Nero “Barthenau Vigna S. Urbano” 2002($75), although its price tag does seem excessive.

Alto Adige cabernets, merlots and related blends tend to be Bordeaux-styled, meaning that they display an intriguing earthiness beneath their more forward fruit. Although most producers do make wines from these grapes, volume tends to be small and not all that many are exported to these shores. Two that are and that merit trying are Elena Walch Merlot 2004 ($21) and Alois Lageder Cabernet “Cor Romigberg” 2000 ($35).

You are more likely to find Alto Adige whites in American wine shops or restaurant lists.

Pinot grigio is by far the most popular white varietal on our shores, although it does not produce the most popular wines back in Italy. Still, the best Alto Adige examples outperform the vast majority of other Italian renditions, being richer and fuller in body, while not being at all sweet. Try Peter Zemmer Pinot Grigio 2005 ($17) or St. Michael-Eppan “Anger” 2005 ($20).

Many Alto Adige vintners are excited about pinot blanc (“bianco” in Italian), arguing that it excels in their alpine terroir. The best renditions do taste uncommonly good, displaying baked apple and fresh pear flavors, with an appealing underlying minerality. Look for Terlano Pinot Bianco 2005 ($20) or St. Michael-Eppan Pinot Bianco “Schulthauser” 2005($28).

Pinot blanc often does even better when used in blends, especially the Terlaners fashioned by Cantina Terlano. About 60 percent pinot blanc, 30 percent chardonnay and 10 percent sauvignon blanc, Terlaner is a complex, compelling white wine. The Terlano “Terlaner” Classico 2005 ($20) exhibits nuanced autumn fruit flavors, while the Terlano “Terlaner Nova Domus” Riserva 2002 ($50) adds depth and concentration while remaining elegant and refined. This truly world-class white wine also has an uncanny ability to age effortlessly, remaining fresh and youthful after many years in bottle.

Neither chardonnay nor sauvignon blanc are cultivated widely in Alto Adige, but the best wines made from both can hold their own with the finest renditions made anywhere.

Look for Alois Lageder Chardonnay “Lowengang” 2002 ($33), a truly inspired rendition that tastes for all the world like a premier cru white Burgundy. Also look for St. Michael-Eppan “St. Valentin” Sauvignon Blanc 2005 ($30), a Loire-styled rendition that outperforms all but the very finest Sancerres or Pouilly-Fumes.

Perhaps the finest white Alto Adige wines are the Gewurztraminers. Less flashy than their Alsatian counterparts (and far superior to anything made in the United States), they smell floral and sweet but taste dry. They also retain their acidity, so do not seem blowzy or fat, a persistent problem with this varietal elsewhere in the world.

Gewurztraminers sometimes seem excessively opulent and perfumed, but the finest Alto Adige renditions are so focused that they seem almost linear. Abbazia di Novacella 2004 ($20), Elan Walch “Kastelaz” 2004 ($30), Tramin “Nussbaumer” 2004 ($42) and J. Hofstatter “Kolbenhof” 2004 ($45) are all fantastic.

Finally, what has to be the world’s best Muller Thurgau comes from Alto Adige. This is a generally lackluster grape variety, but Tiefenbrunner Muller Thurgau “Feldmarschall” 2005 is simply stunning. Marked by apple, pear, and peach flavors, it has a steely undertone and noticeable mineral-tinged flavors that gain intensity in the finish. Like so many of the top Alto Adige wines, it tastes both delicious and distinctive. No matter their origin, that’s what the world’s finest wines do.

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