The Wines of Alto Adige

Paul Blow

Is it possible that a small, secluded, and obscure region in the far north of Italy is the greatest white wine region in the world? Yes. It seems unlikely given Italy’s reputation for potent red wines like Barolo, Chianti, and Brunello di Montalcino. But the Alto Adige, nestled in a couple of vertiginously narrow valleys in the ankles of the Alps, is no ordinary Italian wine region.

The first time I remember having a white wine from the Alto Adige it was a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc that was casually given to me by an importer. I brought it to a small café I frequented in my neighborhood, not knowing what I had. The wine’s producer was Cantina Terlano, about which I had no knowledge whatsoever. Turns out it was one of the greatest Sauvignon Blancs I’d ever tasted. The wine, from a vineyard called Winkl, had it all: hints of tropical fruits, a high-pitched grassiness, a fullness in the mouth undercut by a pronounced minerality. It tasted like a strange, succulent fruit, some cross between an apple and a peach grown straight out of a boulder.

I began exploring the wines of the region. First I found the Terlano Classico, a similarly mineral-driven wine, this one a blend of Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon (they leave off the Blanc). And over the years I discovered white wines from other producers in the Alto Adige; all were winners.

Also known as the Südtirol, the Alto Adige was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until annexed by Italy in 1919. Under Mussolini, the area was “Italianized” by resettling people from other parts of Italy. To this day, there is a schism between German-speaking culture and Italian-, though most residences speak both languages fluently (road signs are in both). Italy shows up in the lifestyle: the food (lots of pasta) and the espresso/café culture. The winemaking culture, though, is heavily Germanic, which may account for the precision and focus of the white wines, given Germany’s and Austria’s international fame for Riesling.

Despite the region being just on the southern side of the Alps (snowcapped mountains are visible throughout the valley), the climate is quite mild, allowing for full ripening of a great many grapes, both red and white. The Alto Adige’s strength lies in this versatility. With its climate and temperatures dependent on how high a vineyard is situated on those steep, rocky valley sides, the region grows a dizzying number of varieties to near perfection.

So that’s why I want to make the case for the Alto Adige. While there’s no single wine in the area as famous as Burgundy’s Montrachet (made from Chardonnay) or as highly regarded as the great Sauvignons and Chenin Blancs of France’s Loire Valley, no region takes so many white wine grapes so far. Alsace has Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, and Gewürztraminer, but so does the Alto Adige. And I would argue that the Alto Adige’s Gewürz is more consistent and more palatable than Alsace’s.

Don’t believe me? Consider for a moment that the grape Gewürztraminer originated in the Alto Adige village of Tramin (Gewürz means “spice”). Then try J. Hofstätter’s Kolbenhof Gewürztraminer, which is concentrated, perfectly balanced between floral and melon notes, mineral, and beautifully dry.

In Alsace, they call Pinot Blanc a light, frivolous grape, while in the Alto Adige they take Pinot Bianco very seriously. Just try Terlano’s, with its piercing stoniness and forceful flavors. Anyone in Alsace would be amazed by the 1979 version of the wine I tasted, which had grown complex and full like a great white Burgundy. Pinot Grigio? Here, it’s not a cheap, dilute wine meant for art openings and plastic cups. Try Alois Lageder’s for something supremely graceful. And there are other lovely, more obscure white grapes like the light, fruity Müller-Thurgau and the brisk, direct Kerner.

The Alto Adige produces good Chardonnay and Riesling as well, though not on the order of Burgundy or Germany’s Mosel. Red wine is also made here in a lighter style, with grapes from Lagrein and Schiava to Cabernet, Pinot Noir, and Merlot. But it’s those other whites, made with both German precision and Italian gusto, that make the Alto Adige the first place to turn to when you need a great, great white wine.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow Chowhound too, and become a fan on Facebook.

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