Alto Adige in Gotham

I love a wine tasting I can walk to and from (“can” in all senses of the word!), so I was predisposed to be pleased by an invitation to a small luncheon at Gotham restaurant, just two blocks from my door, to taste the wines of a new-to-me Alto Adige producer, Peter Zemmer. That the wines turned out to be excellent, and Gotham as fine as it has been for many years, made the occasion all the better.

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Peter Zemmer is a lively forty-something, the third-generation owner of this family estate that has vineyards on both sides of the Adige River just south of Bolzano – which, if your geography is shaky, is pretty far north in Italy, in the heart of what was known as the Sud Tirol when Austria owned it 100 years ago. The Adige valley is surrounded by steep hillsides, many covered by either precipitous or carefully terraced vineyards, while the valley floor is green with fruit orchards. Higher still, and snow gleams all year round in the sunshine. Zemmer’s vineyards lie between 250 meters and 800 meters high. They may be in Italy, but the climate bears greater resemblance to Alsace and Austria and Germany, and the wines it produces seem to amalgamate characteristics of all three.

As you might expect from the cool climate and altitude, this is primarily white wine country. Not exclusively: Two of the locally popular indigenous grapes are red. Schiavo, the local favorite, Zemmer doesn’t grow, though he does cultivate a small amount of the more prestigious and complex Lagrein, along with tiny parcels of Cabernet Sauvignon (not tasted) and Pinot noir (very interesting, in a slightly stemmy, modestly green Alsace style). But Zemmer’s heart is in his white wines, and there his vineyards’ efforts are concentrated.

We started the tasting with his 2010 Pinot grigio, a strikingly clean wine with slight pear and hazelnut aromas and flavors and a very long finish. The almost surgical cleanness and precision of varietal character in this wine served as a reliable prognosticator of things to come.

All of Zemmer’s white-label wines shared this clear varietal focus. As he explained, that was what lay behind his label styles: the white-label wines are aimed at expressing varietal character, and the black labels on expressing terroir.

Our tasting moved on to 2010 Riesling and a very recently bottled, almost-barrel-sample 2011 Riesling. The 2010 had a lovely floral and mineral nose and tasted of the same elements on the palate. Again, an intensely clean wine, very fresh, with a long peach and wet stones finish. The 2011 Riesling was the same but more so, a little peach in the nose, more on the palate, with perceptibly higher acidity that made it more supple and alive – a completely enjoyable wine, zesty and elegant. Zemmer explained that 2011 was for him a beautiful vintage, with dry lovely weather all through the growing season and harvest, producing very ripe, aromatic grapes. 2010 he described as “a medium good” year, warmer and yielding less elegant wines.

The Rieslings were followed by 2010 Pinot bianco. The essence of this variety was perfectly captured: as the sportswriters like to say, he nailed it. Green apples and wet stones, a suggestion of slate, supple medium body, fine acidity, and that characteristic cleanness of outline, preceding a long, mineral finish – classic Pinot bianco. Nothing over the top – in fact, restraint rather than exuberance – but a delightful glass of wine.

Zemmer closes all these wines with screw tops, which may detract a little from the elegance of their presentation but saves us all from the danger of corked wines. His experience assures him that the wines can live quite safely four to six years with no problems at all. I call that a good trade-off: I’ll give up a little glamor any time if it will guarantee my continued enjoyment.

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