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Beautiful Blending: Alto Adige

Nov 1, 2007
2007 / November 2007

They come to us from altitudes as high as 3,200 feet, as fresh, as clean as the mountain air that nurtured them. They are the white wines of Italy’s Alto Adige — Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Gewürztraminer, and Sauvignon Blanc, among others — and, as only wines of an unspoiled region made in the most natural way can do, they express the pure, authentic flavors of their grapes.

Not swayed by the latest whims and trends that change the direction of some winemaking regions, Alto Adige does not dilute its natural style to produce “international” wines. Alto Adige is, in fact, quite unlike any other wine region. To begin with, it is a land of two cultures locked in a bilingual embrace. Sheltered by the towering Dolomites, this most northern and one of the most eastern wine regions of Italy produces vino and calls it wein. It labels one winery a castel and another a castello. Its capital is called Bozen, when it is not called Bolzano. Its restaurants are more likely to serve knödel, sauerkraut and speck than pasta, Parmigiano and pancetta. And while both German and Italian are its official languages, expect to hear the former far more often than the latter.

These dichotomies can be explained by history. Until the end of World War I, this mountainous region known as Sudtirol (South Tyrol) was part of Austria. In 1919, with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was ceded to Italy. Along with changing its nationality, the region added an Italian name, Alto Adige, for the Adige River. Eighty-eight years later, however, while officially part of Italy, Alto Adige remains spiritually closer to Vienna than to Rome. Ask a native his or her nationality, and the answer is almost always, “South Tyrolean.” I did not hear one person say, “I am Italian.” Never mind that they all carry Italian passports.

By any name or nationality, Alto Adige is stunningly beautiful. The southern slopes of the Dolomites drop steeply, folding neatly at the valley floor like well-tailored draperies. While some of its vineyards roll across valleys, more of them rise vertically up mountain slopes where they cling to steep terraces. In all, they account for only 12,500 acres of vines (by comparison, Napa Valley, about 30 miles long and rarely more than one mile wide, has more than 30,000 acres of vines). Yet within this limited space can be found one of the most diverse wine-growing regions, with a variety of soils, microclimates and mixtures of Alpine and Mediterranean weather influences.

Generally, a wine from this region carries the denomination Alto Adige on its label. Yet there are such distinctive differences between one growing area and another that there are also seven subappellations, such as Alto Adige Santa Maddalena and Alto Adige Terlano.

Still a relatively unknown region that exports mostly to Germany and Austria, relatively few of Alto Adige’s wines are available in the United States, but those tend to be some of the region’s best.

Take its Pinot Bianco, for one. Chances are you’ve rarely — if ever — tasted this grape made into such an outstanding and complete wine. A relatively difficult grape to grow, in Alto Adige Pinot Bianco is planted at the proper altitude, in a moderate climate, in good ventilation, and production is kept relatively low. As a result, the region can produce wines as lovely as Colterenzio Pinot Bianco Weisshaus 2005 — minerally, concentrated, elegant, with pear-like flavors — and the same winery’s Pinot Bianco Cornell 2004 — a highly individual wine made from old vines, supple, almost creamy, complex and powerful. Elena Walch’s Castel Ringberg Pinot Bianco “Kostelaz” 2005 has a racy quality as well as an incredibly long aftertaste. Cantina St. Michael-Eppan Pinot Bianco Schulthauser 2005 has a subtle nose and taste, lovely flavors, beautiful balance — in all, one of the finest Pinot Biancos. From Alois Lageder, there is Pinot Bianco Haberlehof 2005, bright and focused and fresh. And from
Girlan, there is San Martino Pinot Bianco 2005, crisp, elegant and flavorful, with citrus fruit tones: a great expression of the grape.

For the best of Alto Adige’s Gewürztraminer, look for Cantina Termeno Nussbaumer Gewürztraminer 2005, with satiny-smooth texture and bright spicy flavors that follow through to the finish. Termeno’s Terminium Gewürztraminer Tardive 2004 is sweet — burnished gold in color, with an aroma of very ripe fruits and a honeyed, almost liqueurish fullness in the mouth. Laimburg Elyond Gewürztraminer 2004 has a seductive perfume of fruits and flowers and a lichee-like flavor.

In Alto Adige, even Pinot Grigio becomes a new experience. As one winemaker said, “We make real mountain Pinot Grigio here; it doesn’t have much fat; it’s all flavor.” Look for Cantina Bolzano’s Cantina Santa Maddalena Pinot Grigio 2005, with its lean, clean flavors and intense lingering finish. Cantina St. Michael-Eppan Pinot Grigio Anger 2005, named for the vineyard that grew its grapes, is tangy, racy and crisp. Cantina Caldaro (Keller Kaltern, in German) produces the single-vineyard Pinot Grigio Söll, whose 2005 version has the aroma of fresh pear and a taste that is silky and round. Abbazia di Novacella Pinot Grigio 2005 has beautifully integrated aromas of citrus fruits, a highly perfumed wine that follows through to a smooth, dry finish.

And then there is Sauvignon Blanc. Called simply Sauvignon in Alto Adige, it can be savored in Cantina St. Michael-Eppan’s focused, satiny Sauvignon Sanct Valentin 2005, which has the clarity of that grape’s textbook description. Tiefenbrunner produces Sauvignon Kircheiten 2005, a wine of intense flavors, a minerally quality, and great balance.

Some winemakers not only produce these single-varietal wines but also combine a number of their white wines into interesting blends. One example is Peter Zemmer, a third-generation winemaker whose Cortinie 2005 is a blend of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon, Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay. The result: a crisp, well-structured wine that carries the aroma of grapefruit. Another good example is Terlaner Nova Domus Riserva 2002, made from Pinot Bianco, Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Nova Domus means new domicile, the name of this area a thousand years ago.

And for something different, there is Tiefenbrunner’s Müller-Thurgau, bottled under the name Feldmarschal. Named for Field Marshal von Fenner who fought Napoleon and, 200 years ago, owned the Tiefenbrunners’ property, it is a wine made from a grape (also known as Riesling-Sylvaner) rarely put in the same class as Sauvignon, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Grigio. Feldmarschal is the exception. Grown in one of Alto Adige’s highest vineyards (3,280 feet above sea level), it is the best example of this grape I have ever tasted, pale in color, fresh and vibrant in taste.

Wine is one good reason to spend a weekend in Alto Adige between business appointments in Italy (it’s a short plane ride from Rome to Bolzano). Other attractions include hiking through pine, larch, fir and beech forests, and through Alpine bogs and nature reserves, in summer; skiing in winter; the hearty Tyrolean cuisine; and some of the world’s freshest mountain air.

For me, the most striking non-wine attraction of Alto Adige is Otzi, the 5,000-year-old Tyrolean Ice Man discovered in the Otztal Alps in 1991. He now “resides” at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano. Otzi is a Copper Age celebrity, the oldest ice mummy in the world. Frozen at a glacier’s edge, not only has his body survived but so have his weapons, tools and much of his clothing. It has been established that his last meals included venison, forest berries, mountain goat and einkorn, a natural variety of wheat. But no wine; Otzi was born a couple of millennia too soon for that. Too bad. He missed out on one of Alto Adige’s greatest prizes.


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