Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France


Südtirol/ Alto Adige – German-speaking Italy

For me, visiting Südtirol was a slightly strange mixture of the very familiar and the disconcertingly different. My mother was Austrian and I learned German as a young adult and so to hear people speaking German in the street and noticing the strong Austrian influence on the architecture – and food – of Bozen/Bolzano was very familiar. But on the other hand, we are in Italy (at least for the last century) but it doesn’t feel like Italy.  Before I visited in December 2017 I was always inclined to call this province Alto Adige, in other words, to prefer the Italian name. But now I realise we really should call it Südtirol and typically prefer the German names. We are in predominantly German-speaking Italy.

The wine culture here shares quite a lot with neighbouring Trentino but has its own distinctive features.  The most planted variety is Vernatsch (or Schiava if you prefer), producing a pale red, fruity, low alcohol wine mostly drunk by German-speakers here in the province and to the north.  Then there is the phalanx of international varieties which we will come to. And finally, the important red here is not Teroldego but its relative Lagrein.

An outstanding climate for viticulture

Climatically Südtirol is shaped by the mountains.  They protect the province from the cold and wet weather from the north. With nearly 300 days of sunshine a year, the day time temperatures can be surprisingly high. The city of Bozen/Bolzano can be the hottest in Italy as the valley traps the heat. But relief comes in the evening when cool air descends from above. The high day/night temperature difference makes for a longer ripening season (increasing flavours) and helps to retain acidity in grapes.  In a phrase, you could call the wine style, ripe and crisp.  Equally the mountains provide a range of sites suitable for grape growing, especially between 300 and 700m. In late November, as if to prove the point that we are in the mountains, the first wintery day arrived.

My visit of December 2017 consisted of an excellent briefing from Südtirol Wein and then visits and extensive tasting with two high-quality cooperatives (Kellerei Tramin, Kellerei Kaltern) and the leading private estate Alois Lageder.  With average vineyard holdings in the province at just one hectare, the cooperatives and the private companies that buy grapes are massively important. 70 per cent of the wine is produced in cooperatives.  In turn, the cooperatives are large enough and powerful enough to invest heavily in expertise and equipment and to pay good prices for grapes to incentivise high standards.  I am going to highlight what each of these three companies do best while acknowledging that they all offer a wide range of wines.

Kellerei Tramin – Gewürztraminer and more

In the village of Tramin, it is entirely correct to focus on the variety of that name, Gewürztraminer.  The exact origin of the exotically-scented variety is much contested but what is clear is that Südtirol is the undisputed master of the variety in Italy.  Nussbaumer Gerwürztraminer, 2016, 15% is a classic expression: mid-gold colour, fully aromatic with intriguing tropical fruit and spice notes, full-bodied with some alcoholic weight and a lick of residual sugar (8g/l).  The wine stays on its lees for nearly a year in stainless steel tanks and can be aged for 10-15 years – if you wish.  There is also a delicious fully sweet wines from Gewürz. The ultimate Terminum 2014, 10% abv with 185g/l residual sugar has gorgeous, concentrated, honey and orange rind fruit from its late harvest/botrytized fruit, offset by remarkably high acidity.  This is picked in late December at a miserly 19hl/ha yield. Slow fermentation follows and then the wine is aged in barriques for 6-9 months.

The other stars here are the yellow apple/apricot flavoured Pinot Bianco/Weissburgunder Moriz, 2016, 13.5% and excellent and ageable Stoan, a blend of Chardonnay (70%) plus aromatic varieties (Sauvignon, Gewürz, Pinot Bianco).  Stoan is a genuinely multi-layered wine with the 2016 showing its primary fruit and the 2009 dried apricot and honey notes, delicious and long.  There is a high quality, fruity, red Bordeaux blend (Loam 2015, 14%) and the excellent Urban, Lagrein Riserva, 2015, 13.5% – deep ruby red, rich black fruit, mineral, with soft but present tannins.

Kellerei Kaltern – Vernatsch rules

The Kellerei Kaltern is the largest winery in the province, working with the fruit from 470ha grown by no fewer than 700 growers. Its output amounts to eight per cent of the province’s wine production. As you would expect, they produce everything from vintaged, bottle-fermented sparkling wine which spends the best part of five years on the lees, via varietal Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon to sweet Moscato Giallo. But the real heart lies in the prominence given to serious Vernatsch/Schiava wines – not a phrase you can use in many circumstances.  Most Vernatsch is pale ruby to near rosé colour, simply fruited, gluggable and currently deeply unfashionable.  The Kaltern cooperative has other ideas in mind for its local treasure.

Vernatsch does not sound like a bundle of fun to work with.  It is mostly grown on pergola and is hugely productive, no doubt the key to its popularity in the past.  It does well with the additional warmth of the vineyards immediately around Kalterer See/Lago di Caldaro.  To get concentration of flavour you have to reduce the yield massively. At the same time, the fruit is sensitive to botrytis bunch rot and to downy mildew and particularly to the Japanese fruit fly which can destroy a crop in a couple of days. Constant vigilance is required.  It is thin-skinned when ripe. In the winery, it is very reductive and so needs lots of aeration and it must be enabled to go through a full and quick malolactic conversion. And it deposits a lot of lees, so, all in all, it not easy.

2016 was a great year for the variety. The top sample that I tasted was a moderate depth of ruby (but could not be mistaken for a rosé), floral with lifted red cherry fruit, and light but firm tannins. Very classy. It could be that this year’s Kunststück release (see below) will be the 2017 Vernatsch.  The surprise is that despite being light and elegant, top quality examples can age. A 2007 tasted here has an orange-tinted garnet colour and was quite tertiary in character. 2008 had kept its fruit much better – redcurrant fruit with a touch of leafiness with good concentration.

Each year the winery has a special release in magnums only of a very special wine. This is a recent innovation, started in 2014 with the bottling of just 2,014 magnums. It is sold as the Kunststück, the German for a feat or the work of artHaving tasted one of these limited editions, Pinot Bianco/Weissburgunder, Kunststück, 2014, 13.5%, with a commissioned artist label, I can say this a great idea.  Fermented with ambient yeasts in oak barrels, malolactic conversion blocked, kept on gross lees for 8 months, racked once and the aged in 30hl oak casks this needed an hour in the glass to begin to emerge. Concentrated peach fruit with a hint of lime, very clean and linear in structure, real concentration, great ageing potential.  And who said that cooperatives were just about high volume wines?

Alois Lageder – leading light

With 30 hectares of their own vineyards and the fruit of a further 100 hectares from 90 growers, Alois Lageder has a lot of clout in Südtirol, both as a very high-quality estate and in terms of the amount of wine it produces.  The estate has also been leading the way in terms of commitment to organic and biodynamic farming. And they promote exchange between winemakers around the world through the hospitality and tastings they hold on their annual Summa day on the Sunday of Vinitaly, now in its twentieth year.  Summa is hosted in the two very beautiful estate properties in the village of Magreid/Magré: Löwengang and Hirschsprung.

As you would expect they have a big range of typical wines of the region: I counted 16 single varietal wines and some blends and there are three quality tiers. There is some pretty innovative choices too – a Viognier/Petit Manseng blend, with a Tannat/Mourvèdre blend to keep it company.  All the wines are at least very good at their price and place in the hierarchy and I will just pick out a few here.

Vernatsch/Schiava, Römigberg, 2016, 12.5% – as we are in Südtirol we ought to start with its historic red variety and from the single vineyard Römigberg.  This wine is in the top ‘masterpieces’ range, despite its lowly price. Pale ruby in colour, part of the must remains on the skins for a very long time indeed (8 months). Fresh, red cherry and cranberry fruit, sufficient structure to make this versatile for food, low alcohol for our health-conscious days and lively acidity: what’s not to like? The owners like to tell the story that this has been declassified to IGP as it was too deep in colour for the DOC designation.  70% is sold in Italy, of which 40% is in the region.

Weissburgunder 2016, 12.5% – from the classical varietals range, this Pinot Bianco is made from growers’ fruit and is all about fruit quality at a great price (€10). Vinification is simple: temperature-controlled fermentation, it does not go through malo and spends 5 months on the fine lees. Simple delicious apple and stone fruit, as fresh as the mountain meadows adjacent to the vineyards.

Am Sand, Gewürztraminer, 2015, 14.5% – this is a fascinating wine, in the Compositions range, showing the blending possibilities with just one variety. 2015 was an exceptionally warm and dry year, drier than the famously warm 2003.  Gewürz when fully ripe can teeter on the edge of fatness and flabby acidity, but here they picked most of the fruit early to avoid this. Then just 6% was late picked with some botrytis for a touch of marmalade complexity.  Light and elegant lychee and rose water fruit, spicy, medium-bodied only for greater drinkability, a hint of warmth on the finish. Very good.

The famous wine here and of course in the masterpiece range is the barrel-fermented Löwengang Chardonnay. It was the first wine from Südtirol to be known internationally, now with a 30-year track record.  We tasted two vintages. The current release is 2014, 13%, quite closed now but with a good depth of peach and yellow apple fruit and a touch of vanilla and cinnamon-scented oak. The wine is fermented and aged in French oak barrique, 10% new, for just under a year.  2008, 13% had more new oak (50%) which shows the current trend, mercifully, to achieve better fruit-oak balance. 2008 was a rainy and difficult year much afflicted with downy mildew. Lageder was in the fourth year of biodynamic practice then and they believe they were much less affected than their conventional viticulture neighbours.  The 2008 really shows the ability to age with its appealing orange skin notes, intensely savouriness and very good length.  The Löwengang ageing cellar in the picture below is a suitable place in which to leave the wines of Südtirol/Alto Adige.

With thanks to Thomas Augschoell, knowledgeable companion, and to Südtirol Wein/Alto Adige Wine for their support for this visit.

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