Schiava, Lagrein, and Teroldego

Continuing the story of Trentino-Alto Adige’s revived success with red wines

The red varieties most often planted here seem to result from a convergence of tradition, local preferences, and just plain market pressures – the latter omnipresent in the wine world. Happily, tradition remains powerful here, and the region’s growers are making concerted efforts not just to preserve but to exploit their native varieties.

Schiava remains the odds-on regional favorite. Even though it has lost vineyard space (largely to newly popular white varieties), it still fills about 40 percent of the usable acres in Alto Adige – less in Trentino, but even there it is still a serious presence. Most of the wine produced from Schiava is consumed locally, but it is inching its way into the international market. I heard from more than one producer that chefs love it, and that Wolfgang Puck in particular (who may well have grown up drinking it in nearby Austria) keeps it in his restaurants.

Its local popularity is very understandable: it’s an easy wine to like – usually light, fresh, with pleasant fruit, light tannins, and good but not obtrusive acidity. In Alto Adige, it’s called a “tavern wine”: it matches beautifully with the local specialty smoked meats, especially speck, a kind of lightly smoked, air-cured bacon. Sliced paper thin and served with some Tyrolean brown bread, and accompanied by a glass of Schiava, speck makes a great light lunch or afternoon snack, and the marriage of flavors guarantees the continuing local loyalty to Schiava.

To an outsider, the natural, almost unavoidable, comparison is of Schiava to Beaujolais, to which it has many similarities, as much in its lightness and pleasing acidity as in a slightly strawberry flavor and an ability to partner happily with many different foods. In fact, it seems Schiava’s only real problem is living down its past, when it was overcropped and carelessly vinified – a situation that is not likely to recur in this now-intensely-quality-conscious region.

Far behind Schiava in local popularity, but far ahead of it in the producers’ esteem, is Lagrein, another indigenous variety. It makes a substantial, dark wine, with deep flavors and a persistent, enjoyable rustic burr. Wolfgang Raifer describes it as an “earthy, meaty, peppery, dark-red-berried grape” that matches perfectly with game – “especially venison and mushrooms.” Lagrein was long neglected – probably because it is a very difficult grape to grow.

Urs Vetter

“Plant Lagrein in the wrong place,” says Lageder’s market manager Urs Vetter, “and the result is a very lightish wine with very little varietal character. It’s not the natural substitute for Schiava, which grows everywhere. Lagrein has about 2.5 percent of Alto Adige’s growing area, and it will never be more, because the vine is so extremely site-sensitive. It’s a unique wine, but it will always be a rare gem, a true speciality of Alto Adige.”

That hasn’t deterred some Alto Adige and Trentino growers from experimenting with it outside its present tiny home, however; though the results so far have been encouraging but not spectacular. According to Helmuth Zozin of Caldaro/Kellerei Kaltern, “Lagrein needs a really warm vineyard to develop its flavors, and it needs sandy soil to restrain it a bit because it’s so powerful.”

Planted in the deep sand-and-gravel moraines near Bolzano, Lagrein thrives. It yields two different wines: a light, nearly rosé called Lagrein Kretzer, and a dark, full-bodied wine called Lagrein Dunkel, or Lagrein Scuro, or simply Lagrein. The latter is the one that’s attracting most of the serious attention and drawing converts. It makes a wine that ages well but oddly: It deepens a bit in flavor over the years, but essentially it doesn’t change much. That is, primary fruit flavors don’t fade and secondary flavors develop as they do in most age-worthy red wines: Lagrein is essentially at ten years old the same wine it was at four. Only in a few much older bottles is any real flavor evolution discernible. Why this is, no one could explain. As Wolfgang Raifer puts it, “We only discovered Lagrein 15 years ago. Before that, we used it only to blend with Schiava, to give Schiava a little tannin and color. So we’re still exploring this grape.”

Elisabetta Foradori

Teroldego, apparently just as site-sensitive as its cousin Lagrein, produces best in a very circumscribed area known as the Campo Rotaliano. Elisabetta Foradori, one of the best makers of Teroldego, describes its home as a “stony alluvial plain whose soil is composed of limestone, granite, and porphyry debris.” This is one of Teroldego’s chief peculiarities: a rarity among noble grapes, it prefers to grow in the flats rather than on the hillsides.

Foradori says “this is perfect terroir for wines. The Noce [river] transports stones, earth, anything that lies in its path and deposits it in this valley: limestone, shale, quartz porphyry, and granite. This stony subsoil is a good foundation for an outstanding wine. Above it is a layer of mud and sand – loose earth deposited by the floodwaters of the Noce. It gives this soil all the advantages that good hillside vineyards generally have.”

Anselmo Martini, enologist at Bottega Vinaia, adds “Teroldego is an ancient variety, probably the most ancient quality producer in Trentino: it has been mentioned as early as the 1300s. Over the centuries, it has adapted itself perfectly to the climate and soils of Trentino.”

Certainly a wine that deserves to be better known, Teroldego when young shows the same sort of softness and earthiness that most of us associate with fine Merlot: that’s what moved Burton Anderson, decades ago in his pioneering book Vino, to compare Teroldego to Pomerol. As it ages, it develops pretty much like claret: fruit begins to step back, and more mushroomy, tobacco-y flavors start to come forward. Elegance replaces vigor as the wine gains depth and complexity. Teroldego probably won’t attain the great age of the finest clarets, but decent vintage bottlings should easily last ten years and more, and be enjoyable drinking at any point along the way.

Marzemino is the other indigenous red grape of this area. A probable relative of both Lagrein and Teroldego, it is by no means as geographically confined as either – and neither is it as interesting or as important. A few very small growers here and in other, exclusively northern, parts of Italy have made small quantities of very good though light-bodied wine with it, but for now it has to be thought of as still in the exploratory stage.

The conclusion of this saga will appear in the next post.

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