Trentino-Alto Adige: Knocking on Heaven’s Door

BY ERIC GUIDO | MAY 02, 2023

There is simply something fantastical about Trentino-Alto Adige. It’s like traveling into another world. A world of impossibly high snow-covered peaks and vineyards interspersed between alpine wilderness and gripping to craggy rock outcroppings on the side of a cliff. Sunsets, set against Dolomite slopes, are rainbow and neon. At each turn, castles and ruins sit upon summits. Cities exist within secret valleys lined with mountains. Wineries are sealed within great stone walls to keep out the cosmopolitan surroundings outside their doors. Each time I visit, I’m in awe. The best part about Trentino-Alto Adige is that these magical surroundings help to create some of Italy’s finest wines. 

The high-altitude vineyards in Bozen, Alto Adige.

In the Northeastern part of Italy, like Emilia-Romagna or Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino-Alto Adige is actually two very distinct regions combined into one. Geographically speaking, it’s very easy to travel from Lake Garda in the south, watching elevations steadily rise on each side as the valley approaches Trento and ends in Bolzano, where the Isarco and Adige Valleys split. If not for the road signs, you would never know where Trentino ends and Alto-Adige begins.

Looking closer, there are very distinct contrasts between these two regions. While Trentino is mostly Italian-speaking, Alto Adige (also known as Südtirol) is mostly German-speaking, as it was annexed to Italy after World War I. Foods and cultures are unique as well. Dining in Alto Adige feels significantly more Austrian than Italian, and each area’s thriving grapes are vastly different. 

Grape Varieties and Grower’s Cooperatives

Trentino’s typical native white variety is the aromatic Nosiola, which can be either crisp and dry or done as a dessert-style wine. Pojer & Sandri and Foradori remain benchmark producers for Nosiola. To counteract the variety’s lack of international popularity, Trentino turns to Chardonnay, which can be world-class in the right hands. As for reds, Marzemino is a fresh and zesty alpine wine, fantastic when lightly chilled, while Teroldego, grown in the Rotaliana plain and previously known for its brawn and structure, is finding a new level of purity and grace today. Foradori, who originally brought Teroldego international fame, is now pushing the envelope for biodynamics and natural winemaking. Tasting through their lineup of amphora-aged and no-sulfur Teroldego is a treat each year. Bordeaux varieties excel here as well, made even more potent these days by the onset of global warming. Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Carménère line the hillsides of Valle dell'Adige. These vines have been thriving here long enough that the area's inhabitants regard them as “local” varieties, even if we consider them international. Tenuta San Leonardo continues to define the region’s Bordeaux blend, sourcing from their old pergola-trained vines. San Leonardo also looks to the future, with higher-elevation vineyards currently being constructed and planted.

In the middle of the Ignaz Niedrist vineyards.

In Alto-Adige, we find a dizzying list of varieties. Trentino and Alto-Adige share the red Schiava, a pure and zesty wine that pairs well with almost any imaginable cuisine. The local Lagrein is dark, powerful and sometimes rustic. A good amount of Merlot and Cabernet is bottled, yet only the best wines are worth seeking out. Then there’s Pinot Noir (Pinot Nero), and that’s when things get interesting. With vineyards located throughout the southern parts of Alto Adige, Pinot Noir may be the future of the region’s red varieties. A system of crus has already been established, and the continued warming trends have helped producers achieve a level of ripeness they find appealing. The only issue is that many of these wines are still being “made” in the winery instead of the vineyards, often with strong oak that masks the fruit.

The white varieties highlight one of the main issues Alto Adige faces today. Producers here have an exhaustive list of grapes to work with: Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Sylvaner, Kerner, Müller-Thurgau, Riesling, Moscato Giallo and Grüner Veltliner…did I miss any? Let’s not forget the experimental varieties, such as Bronner, Solaris and Zweigelt. Since most producers seem set on bottling all the above, the amount of wine made in any one winery can be staggering. On top of that, several producers turn out a fresh, young wine and a later-harvest/single-vineyard bottling from a single variety.

Luckily for the consumer, both the Trentino and Alto Adige DOC systems permit the labeling of varieties on each wine, which helps keep things organized when shopping. However, buyer confusion can still be the result. While looking for a producer’s portfolio in a local wine store, it took me twenty minutes to find five wines and another ten for the store clerk to find six or seven additional bottles, without considering those he could not find!

While visiting with Peter Dipoli, he asked me, “Which of the varieties would you eliminate?” My mind immediately went to some of the lackluster Pinot Grigio, Riesling and Sauvignon made in the region. And yet, Dipoli is renowned for creating a world-class Sauvignon year after year that I would never want to be without. This brings about a more extensive discussion: the pros and cons of cooperative wineries. 

The Cantina di Cortaccia - Kellerei Kurtatsch barrel aging cellar.

Both Trentino and Alto Adige are home to many grower cooperatives. Typically, we think of these enterprises negatively, yet things are quite different here. Especially in Alto Adige, where many of these wineries were formed by a collection of growers who believed they had a better chance to succeed together. It’s common for a single grower to have just one hectare of vineyards. Hundreds of growers, all with similar resources, make up cooperatives. While traveling through Alto Adige, finding each town with its own cooperative, identifiable style and marketing is standard. The growers are often instructed to follow strict guidelines in vineyard management. 

As a result, for the most part, quality amongst these wineries is exceptionally high. Many of the top-scoring wines each year hail from cooperatives. However, for every one or two great wines they produce, there’s an ocean of simple, easy-drinking wines made in enormous quantities. This is where the forgettable Pinot Grigio, Riesling and Sauvignon bottles typically find their home. Additionally, the strong emphasis placed on the cooperatives makes it very difficult for smaller grower-winemakers and emerging wineries to get noticed. 

All that being said, Alto Adige remains one of Italy’s greatest sources of white wine. This is a region that excels with Pinot Bianco. Simply look to Cantina Terlano and their own Terlano DOC. These are stylish, age-worthy wines of incredible purity and richness that develop over time. What’s more, Sylvaner, Kerner and Müller-Thurgau can all achieve dizzying heights, no pun intended. The wines of Tiefenbrunner, Köfererhof and Manni Nössing continue to prove that point. In the end, the producers mentioned here and above are just a short list of some of the talented wineries within the region. There are many more worth seeking out from the notes that follow. 

The city of Bolzano is located at the intersection of three valleys.

A Multilingual Region

It bears repeating that Alto Adige is a multilingual region. While that isn’t unique in Italy, what is notable is that two different languages can often be found on the labels. The names of the variety and often the winery are in one language to market to the German and Austrian customers and then another to appeal to the Italian and American markets. Imagine the confusion it would create if you were looking for a wine from Kellerei Bozen yet didn’t know that the bottle was labeled Cantina Bolzano. What’s more, the variety names change: Sauvignon Blanc becomes Sauvignon, Grüner Veltliner becomes Veltliner, Silvaner becomes Sylvaner, Pinot Bianco becomes Weissburgunder, Pinot Noir becomes Pinot Nero or Blauburgunder and Schiava becomes Vernatsch or Kalterersee. Unfortunately, I doubt this will be updated any time soon. 

The Foradori winery and vineyards in Campo Rotaliano.

The Sweetly Seductive 2021s

The highlights of this year's tastings were the sweetly seductive 2021s. It’s essential to remember that most of the region's white wines aim to deliver immediate pleasure, and 2021 does that in spades. The combination of dazzling aromatics, luscious ripe fruit and brilliant acidity encapsulated within these wines, lights up the senses and leaves the palate feeling completely refreshed. The reds of the year are suave and fruit-focused, yet lack the depth and balanced structure I associate with the best years.

The 2021 vintage started late due to unusually cool conditions through the spring. Budding was off from 10 to 14 days. However, this was a blessing in disguise, as a late seasonal frost had little effect on the dormant vines. June saw warm and dry climate, but July was the real challenge of the year, with severe rainstorms and hail, requiring extensive work in the vineyards to maintain vine health. The saving grace was the onset of warm yet balanced weather from August into September, coupled with strong diurnal shifts that provided excellent acidity levels and soaring bouquets. As a result, producers found the white variety harvest easy, as the season allowed them to pick at their preferred times and even push ripeness further than usual. The only issue with the reds was the much lower temperatures from late September into October. 

Most of the wines I have tasted so far are young and fresh releases meant for near-term consumption. The bigger and more important wines that will be shown later this year will truly determine the merits of the vintage. Will they stand the test of time or be as immediate as the fresh wines? My real fear is that they may be blousy and overwhelming. But that’s a story for the next report. 

Tenuta San Leonardo's old-vine, pergola-trained vineyards.

A short follow-up on the 2020 vintage: tasting many of the later-release wines was a happy surprise. This was a generally warm year with several severe rain events, including during harvest. Last year I wrote that “the whites are ripe, supple and round, and while average acidities are reported as normal, one cannot help but feel a lack of motivation on the palate.” The good news is that the later releases are showing much better than expected; several wines have found a very pretty balance. At the top level, producers like Cantina Terlano, Elena Walch, Tiefenbrunner and Ignaz Niedrist all turned out spectacular whites that show the year's ripeness without any lack of energy or depth. Even still, this remains a vintage where readers must be selective. 

I tasted all of the wines from this report either with producers in Trentino and Alto Adige in December of 2022 or in our offices in New York City in January and February of 2023. Note: the wines of the Trentodoc region were purposely left out of this article, as they are now featured annually in our sparkling wine report at the end of the year.

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