Best of the Alto-Adige and Trentino

The region of northern Italy made up of the contiguous provinces of Alto-Adige and Trentino is a source of some remarkable wines that until recently were little known to consumers in the United States. The best wines of this region have become increasingly available, however, and are beginning to be seen as serious competitors to the more familiar bottles from Tuscany and Piedmont. I would rank the Alto-Adige in particular as the hottest newcomer to the Italian wine scene, in company with Tuscany's Maremma and the region of Campania. To be sure, producers such as Alois Lageder and Hofstätter have been known for some time, but many others of top rank have languished in relative obscurity, especially a number of model, quality-minded cooperatives, each of them known as a cantina produttori (or as kellerei, in the local German).

The Alto-Adige, a German-speaking enclave, is also known as the Südtirol. This province, previously part of Austria, was annexed to Italy after World War I. It is bordered on three sides by alpine ranges and, just to the south, by the Italian-speaking province of Trentino, which lies northeast of Italy’s largest lake, Garda. The common thread for the entire region is the Adige river, which flows southward from alpine lakes in the north, winding its way through both provinces and eventually past Verona farther south in the Veneto.

The best vineyards are planted on hillsides along the river valley at altitudes between 800 and 2,000 feet, with some even higher. The growing season is drawn out—warm by day with steady breezes blowing up from the south, and cooled by mountain winds at night. This cross between southern Mediterranean influence and a more alpine climate results in a slow and even ripening process. The moderate climate especially benefits the white wines of these regions, which are endowed with a firm acid structure that allows their varietal character to remain in focus. But even at the lower and generally warmer altitudes, where most of the red grapes are grown, the wines convey an impression of clarity.

The soils in Alto-Adige and the northern part of Trentino combine alluvial deposits from an era when the alpine ranges were thrust out of the sea, and glacial deposits from the recent ice ages. The strong overlay of mineral and chalk deposits, with loose quartz-like gravelly stones, provides many wines with a distinctive mineral backbone. The hallmark of the best of these wines is their uncommon freshness and aromatic complexity combined with wonderful delineation of flavor and a pervasive sense of varietal clarity.

The vineyards shelter a number of indigenous grapes as well as other Germanic varieties that are otherwise little known in Italy such as sylvaner, veltliner, and the hybrids Müller-Thurgau and kerner. These can be striking wines, especially those from the Val d’Isarco (Eisacktal) area, north of Bolzano (Bozen). Farther south in the Alto-Adige one finds some superb gewürztraminer. There are also compelling whites from pinot bianco, pinot grigio, and sauvignon (blanc), at least those with limited use of oak.

The distinctive reds from lagrein and teroldego from lower-altitude terrains are often extraordinary wines and should be better known. As my notes indicate, lagrein, especially from the privileged zone of Gries in Bolzano, is unquestionably one of Italy’s supreme reds; except for two late-harvest whites and one teroldego, my highest scores are given to wines made from this grape. Cabernet sauvignon and franc also do well in Alto-Adige/Trentino, although they generally exhibit more delicacy than heft compared with those from Bolgheri on the Tuscan coast, and they suffer from marginal ripening in lesser years. Roughly speaking, the northern Trentino produces exciting Müller-Thurgau and teroldego while the other varieties thrive best in the Alto-Adige. Both regions also produce interesting and sometimes excellent riesling, pinot nero, and moscato rosa, the latter an unusual clone of the muscat grape. The ubiquitous merlot and chardonnay can also be found but these are often over-oaked versions made to appeal to an international clientele. With so many splendid local varieties to showcase, why bother?

To offer some perspective on the scope of this winemaking region it is helpful to make a comparison with Alsace. Not only does the Südtirol share with Alsace a cultural affinity with Germany and its language, as well as a similar political history of annexation, but many of the same varieties are cultivated along a stretch of about 60 miles of vineyards in each territory. In one case the vineyards are accessed by a route du vin, while a strada del vino does the same thing for about half the sites in the other, each road passing a series of pretty, flower-bedecked villages.

My focus in this review is on the wines of the Alto-Adige, since this is where some of the most striking wines are currently being made. There are several excellent producers in the Trentino, as I indicate below, but overall this province is a source, at least on the American market, of relatively uninspired wines compared with those of the Südtirol. I’ve tried to make this review as comprehensive as possible, at least regarding wines available in the United States. However, for various reasons I was unable to gain access to certain producers who normally would have been reviewed, such as Pojer & Sandri in the Trentino and, in the Alto-Adige, Niedrist, Nalles, Falkenstein and Baron Widmann. Of the wines that I did taste, I have excluded those that I scored lower than 85 points.

After a period of hit and miss vintages in the 1990s, a quartet of very good to excellent harvests followed in succession from 2000 to 2003 in the Alto-Adige. The same is true in Trentino except for 2002, as I’ll discuss in a moment. In 2000 the summer was very warm, with adequate rainfall, leading to the earliest harvest in a decade, beginning in late August. The grapes developed higher than normal sugar levels but lower than usual acidity. Not surprisingly, these conditions favored the red varieties more than the whites. In 2001 the growing season was warm but not excessively so, and the marked day-night thermal variation led to excellent phenolic development and good acidity. Elisabetta Foradori feels that, in the Trentino at least, the cooler conditions of 2001 resulted in wines of greater aromatic complexity than in the preceding year and that overall this was the best vintage of the four for the Trentino, an opinion not shared by the growers in the Alto-Adige that I spoke to, who uniformly feel that 2002 is superior, at least in their area.

In the Südtirol the early-ripening white grapes did very well in 2001 but the red varieties, harvested later than the whites, were compromised somewhat by a week of rain in September. The fall of 2001 and the subsequent winter was severely cold in the Südtirol, causing winter damage to the vines that reduced yields and retarded budding in 2002. After a period of uneven maturation during the early summer of 2002, growing conditions rapidly improved in the Südtirol without any of the excessive rains that plagued other areas of Italy. Sunshine was ample and the grapes achieved perfect maturity, with excellent fruit concentration and more than sufficient acidity. Two thousand two is regarded as the best vintage of the four for this region whereas in the Trentino, farther south, abundant rain diluted the grapes and careful grape selection was essential. Vintage 2003 was very hot and the harvest began in mid-August in most locales, usually at the break of dawn to avoid the heat. Musts had to be chilled down and some acidification was generally required throughout the region. The heightened sugar levels in 2003 are expected to benefit varieties such as gewürztraminer and lagrein, however. Overall, the consensus is that in spite of some potential problems with overripeness, this vintage may closely rival the preceding year for aromatic and flavor complexity, although wines from 2002 appear to be more balanced and concentrated given their near-perfect physiological maturity and the smaller berry size achieved in that harvest.

A few additional remarks are in order. Place names for the German-speaking Südtirol are given in parentheses after the Italian name since it is not uncommon to see either or both languages on the label. Also, since all of the wines reviewed here are designated as DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), it is not necessary to indicate this fact in each instance. In addition, most of the wines are 100% varietal and so I indicate the grapes used only when there is a blend or where the name of the grape does not appear on the label.local German).