Ski runs and red wines rarely share the same slopes, but they come very close to doing just that in Italy’s northernmost region, the in-many-senses-hyphenated Trentino-Alto Adige.
The Alto Adige half sports a higher percentage of vineyard acres bearing DOC designations than those of any other region in Italy – and yet its entire wine production amounts to less than one percent of the Italian total. The Trentino half shelters one of the few noble red grapes – the ancient Teroldego – that actually performs better in the plain than on the hillsides.
The region as a whole regularly garners more top wine awards within Italy than far better-known regions such as the Veneto or Friuli – and many of those awards are for red wines. Schiava and Lagrein, Teroldego and Marzemino may not tumble smoothly from your lips, but the relevant news is that the wines they yield will slide agreeably across your palate.
Throughout the region, fine individual winemakers – Foradori, Lageder, Manincor, and Tiefenbrunner just for a few examples – work alongside giant firms like Cavit and Mezzacorona that have carried the region’s wines around the world. Surprisingly, many of the pioneers of quality winemaking here have been cooperatives, such as Colterenzio, Cortaccia, Girlan, Produttori Bolzano, Terlan, and Tramin – just to cite some prominent ones. In most other places, cooperatives do more in the way of quantity than of quality, but that is emphatically not the case in Trentino-Alto Adige.
The Colterenzio cooperative in particular, along with the private firm Lageder, led Alto Adige’s 20-year-long change-over from volume production focused predominantly on Schiava to high-quality production marked by dramatically reduced yields from a much more diversified range of varieties. Wolfgang Raifer, the young enologist who has succeeded his pioneering father Luis at Colterenzio, explains the reasons for that remarkable success:
“Colterenzio has 300 growers working about 300 hectares of land at many different locations. That means many different microclimates and soils. That can be difficult for us at harvest, because of the numerous small batches that often have to be kept separate, but it’s very advantageous for maintaining quality. A private company couldn’t hire 300 people to work 300 hectares, but if we can get our growers passionate about the wine and provide them with incentives – and we do – we can achieve a level of quality that a private company can’t reach.”
The ancient Romans thought of this area as foreign territory, Cisalpine Gaul: Gaul this side of the Alps. For centuries, a chunk of it was the Sud Tirol, an important fraction of the Austrian Empire. After World War I, that was ceded to Italy and became the northern half of the hyphenated region Trentino-Alto Adige. Culturally and geographically, this is where Germany runs into Italy, where the continental climate merges into the Mediterranean, where palm trees and olives grow in the valleys, pines murmur in the middle elevations, and snow and bare rock adorn the heights. Bolzano, lying where the Adige and the Isarco rivers join to form an elongated Y of orchard- and vineyard-lined valleys, suffers some of the widest temperature extremes in Italy, often among its hottest spots in summer and its coldest in winter.
In recent years, the region has justifiably become famous for its white wines. But in fact, Alto Adige had a reputation for red wines long before it found any vocation for whites. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, up until the end of World War I, Alto Adige grew Schiava (then called Vernatsch) and Lagrein almost to the exclusion of other varieties. Schiava was extremely popular and was planted practically everywhere. It made a light red wine, which was often bolstered by small additions of the darker, heavier wine made from Lagrein. All were shipped north and east, to Germany and Switzerland and Austria, where red wines rarely happen and anything with a tinge of color – which was often all Schiava had, so heavily was it overproduced – was happily drunk.
After WWI, the region became a pronouncedly bilingual hunk of Italy. Today, Alto Adige is essentially autonomous and largely German-speaking: the farther north you get from Bolzano, the more German the culture becomes. A few miles south of Bolzano, you cross an invisible political and linguistic border into the more typically Italian region of Trentino. Here the valley broadens out, and the mountains recede a bit more into the distance. The climate moderates, becoming more recognizably Mediterranean than Alpine. Here, the native red grape is Teroldego, and a fine one it is – possibly related to Lagrein, definitely related to Syrah, perhaps even a grandparent of that French variety.
Trentino-Alto Adige’s climates and soils allow it to successfully grow a large variety of wine grapes. The beautiful fringe of snow-capped peaks, visible from almost everywhere in the long Adige valley, sends downward-reaching fingers toward the river along its whole length, dividing the valley into innumerable subsections, each one having differing elevations and slopes and exposures and soils, each creating its own highly localized microclimate and supporting a particular variety of grape. As Urs Vetter of the Alois Lageder winery points out, “The western slopes of the valley are mostly covered with Mediterranean macchia [the characteristic scrubby underbrush of Italy’s coastal regions]; the eastern slopes of the valley are all alpine vegetation.”
Count Michael Goëss Enzenberg, owner of the Manincor estate, emphasizes another aspect of the region’s terroir: “It’s the porphyry in the soil,” he says, “that gives our wines their distinctive mineral character.” Porphyry – a kind of deep purple marble, often used in ancient monuments and cathedrals – doesn’t occur just anywhere, and it confers marked characteristics where it does. Along the Adige valley, it appears often, in loose scree and moraines pushed by the glaciers or eroded from the mountainsides. Seams of it underlie many vineyards. Its presence is visible to the naked eye: its dark red color identifies it readily. Standing outside his winery, Wolfgang Raifer pointed east (where a seam of white stone shone in the sunlight) and west (where the stony outcrops showed purple-red): “One side of the valley is calcareous soil – limestone – which is very good for white wines. The other side is porphyric stone, which is excellent for the reds.”
This is first of several posts to be based on a trip to Alto Adige and focusing primarily on the too-often neglected red wines of the region.