Trentino-Alto Adige: Pushing the Limits


In a region where producers speak of how favorable climate change has been to them, winemakers in Trentino-Alto Adige are now starting to feel its adverse effects. For years now, I’ve sat and listened to the logic of how the warming trends observed worldwide only helped producers here achieve ideal ripeness with varieties that struggled in the past. An excellent example of this is the surge in serious Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, which is now starting to perform at levels that were never possible in the past. Teroldego from Trentino and Alto Adige shows tremendous depth and complexity without using any small oak or any oak at all. I am surprised each year that I visit and taste single-vineyard Pinots or Bordeaux blends that impress me while doing a wonderful job of communicating a sense of place. However, this success has been at the expense of many other varieties that now struggle to achieve balance.

The village of Kurtatsch and its surrounding vineyards.

A perfect example is the St. Magdalener DOC, situated around the capital city of Bolzano. Despite being a city in Italy’s most northern region and surrounded by the alpine influences of the Dolomites, Bolzano has long been one of Italy’s warmest locations as it sits in a heat sink at lower elevations at the base of three converging valleys. The warmer temperatures here meant that for many years, the Lagrein and Schiava grapes that make up the St. Magdalener DOC could ripen and create wines with stunning depths of fruit, bracing acidity and a peppery alpine feel. Unfortunately, the changing climate has been stripping these wines of some of their energy and verve in recent years., I have experienced these odd changes firsthand, having traveled multiple times to Bolzano in December and January. During my visits, I’ve walked the city in just a light coat and hiked up the surrounding vineyards wearing only a sweater. 

Many whites in the region are now starting to show issues with balance and come across as overly rich, nearly glycerol in texture, and sometimes cloying with fruit ripeness. While this isn’t the case throughout all of Alto Adige as you travel further north along the Isarco or Adige valleys, the writing is on the wall. Even in the region’s cooler locations, things are changing; it’s just that the effect hasn’t been as noticeable up until now. Throughout Trentino and the southern half of Alto Adige, vineyards that once created many crisp, acid-driven and mineral whites are now simply too warm to recreate this style. Granted, there are ways that producers seek to combat these issues, one being elevation, yet this isn’t a perfect answer either. With higher elevations comes a new set of challenges, the most notable being frost. The higher a producer goes into the mountains, the shorter the growing season will become, and with that, the less likely to achieve polyphenolic ripeness. Purposefully picking earlier is another option, yet it is also imperfect, as the underripe grapes tend to show their greenness in the finished wines. If a consumer drinks them cold enough and the acidity is high enough, it can make for an exciting experience but a flawed one all the same. Otherwise, producers must depend on shading their fruit through canopy management. One even commented to me that the hail nets seen throughout the region have had a positive effect, as they filter the sun's rays. Unfortunately, of all the techniques mentioned above, there isn’t one answer. 

It is now becoming normal to find Sauvignon that is pungently over-ripe and spicy on the nose and palate or Pinot Grigio and Pinot Bianco that push 14% alcohol. The same goes for Sylvaner and Kerner, which can present an experience that makes it difficult to get through more than one glass. With all that said, producers are not at the breaking point. Balance can be achieved by reorganizing plantings and finding the right location for a suitable variety. This is something that I hope Alto Adige’s new UGA project will help alleviate (more on that later). There are many gorgeous, acid and mineral-driven whites in this report, yet many more show the dry warmth of recent vintages.

Old vines in the St. Magdalener DOC surrounding Bolzano.

The 2022 Vintage: Tipping the Scales

This year's tastings were focused primarily on the newly released, freshly styled 2022s and late released, stylized 2021s. I use this reference due to the common trend in the region to have two completely different sets of wines that mimic the same varieties yet made in entirely different styles, such as a fresh Pinot Grigio for immediate consumption, along with a richer and often barrel-refined version released the following year. Consumers will find this with most regional white varieties, including Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Sauvignon, Riesling, Chardonnay, Grüner Veltliner and Gewürztraminer. The late-release category also includes single-vineyard, parcel or “terroir” specific wines. The importance placed on them has more to do with their source and not just a level of fruit ripeness, which is a happy development, in my opinion. In the best vintages, late-release wines can reach extraordinary levels of quality and provide serious aging potential. Still, as warming trends continue, many of them can come across as sloppy and over the top. This is undoubtedly a fear I have for the 2022 vintage, just as I did with 2020. The good news is that the 2021s show the promise that early tastings hinted at last year. 

As for the 2022s, they are rich and intense, with masses of ripe fruit, yet often lack the acidity to find balance. Last year I referred to the 2020s as “ripe, supple, round wines that often lack the acidic thrust to satisfy fully.” From a white wine perspective, I find a lot of similarities in these two vintages. The vintage spin doctors speak of the 2022 whites as having power yet also maintaining freshness. Unfortunately, that’s not uniform across the region. The 2022 vintage started late with cool temperatures that delayed budding; nevertheless, the vines quickly caught up as warm weather through May resulted in an early bloom. June, July and August were all excessively hot and dry, which led to harvests that started two, and in some cases, three weeks early for white varieties. Due to the lack of water, disease pressure was very low. However, the ripe grapes were loaded with sugar and lower acidity. 

Cantina Kurtatsch's Brenntal vineyard.

As mentioned earlier, some areas benefited more than others. The Isarco Valley is an example. Here, temperatures balanced out earlier than in the south, leading to a harvest that was seven to ten days early. That balance is notable when looking at many of the 2022s from this area (Köfererhof and Manni Nössing were huge standouts). The same can be said for Val Venosta in the extreme northern reaches of the Adige Valley, where Riesling and Kerner faired especially well. (Castel Juval presented some excellent wines.) Yet, in the end, these are still warm vintage wines.

Reds throughout Trentino-Alto Adige fared better in 2022, at least from the perspective of Pinot Noir, Merlot and the Cabernets. The warmth of the season imparted the wines with intense fruit profiles. However, with fall temperatures setting in, the vines were able to recover prior to harvest. In the end, producers were able to pick fruit at optimal ripeness. Ultimately, this is a warm and dry vintage, and I expect the wines will always have a sun-kissed feel. One notable comment from a producer included a mention of there not being any green aromas in the Cabernets, typically a sign of underripeness. I find this ironic since it’s been a calling card of the region's reds for decades. This does make me wonder about the future. Are the days of light, energetic, balanced alpine-styled reds slowly coming to a close? 

Looking back to 2021 through the late releases, especially when tasted alongside the 2022s, shows the depth and vertical nature of the vintage. There’s more of a chiseled feel to the whites, a combination of minerality and acidity married with a rich core of ripe fruit. While still a warm year in general, the balance found in 2021 takes the wines to another level. This resulted from cooler conditions leading up to the summer, followed by severe rainstorms and hail in July that naturally reduced yields. Warm temperatures continued through August and September, allowing producers to pick at their leisure. Even so, like a mirror image of 2022, the late-ripening reds suffered as the season turned much colder in October.

The Nusserhof tasting room in Bolzano.

Looking to the Future in Alto Adige

Throughout Italy, major wine-producing areas have been working to establish a set of approved UGAs (Unità Geografica Aggiuntiva or “additional geographical units”) to define their region and vineyards further. Alto Adige is no different. At this time, the current laws prohibit wines from using geographic names on labels, allowing only the DOC Alto Adige, the individual variety and Vigna (single-vineyard names). However, a plan to correct this, proposed for approval in 2023, didn’t pass due to a mistake on the application paperwork. That said, producers in the region are looking forward to an approval starting with the 2024 vintage. While some areas have based their classification systems on natural borders, boundaries of townships or plain fantasy, the approach that Alto Adige is taking goes back to regional maps drawn up in 1870 when the region was under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian empire. These maps even contain the names of the owners of each location, as well as neighbors and winemakers who had access to certain sites.

Martin Foradori of J. Hofstätter, a winery noted for being one of the pioneers of including vineyard names on their labels, explained how thirty years ago, producers would still use the names of geographical locations based on the names of the farmstead or a traditional “Hof.” That system became corrupted as specific locations became more desirable than others, and producers began to plant vines congruently to these vineyards and then adopt the location name for their own wines. Due to this, before long, many of these designations lost their individual character. The new UGA system will seek to correct much of this confusion by going back to what was originally seen as specific locations of unique value and terroir, combined with the modern-day knowledge they have acquired over time concerning which varieties perform best in which location.

Pojer & Sandri's vintage library with some experiments from decades past.

This brings up the next step, following the passing of the new rules, which will limit the varieties planted within each UGA. The idea is to restrict the UGA to producing only five varieties designated as being able to deliver superior fruit from that specific location. This would set Alto Adige apart from most other Italian regions that have adopted the UGA system. A producer can still plant a different variety within the designated area, but they cannot use the location on the label. Currently, between 80 to 90 different UGAs are being proposed for the new system. 

This will also help smaller producers stand out in a region dominated by cooperative wineries that pool together the small holdings of hundreds of small families. As I’ve mentioned in the past, co-ops in Alto Adige produce a much higher quality than most people realize. In fact, they are the backbone of the region and stand behind the name of their brands to assure a future for them and the farmers who contribute to them. Because their wines typically comprise large blends of small parcels throughout the region, it will be difficult for the co-ops to use the new UGA designations without rethinking their entire portfolio. At this time, most co-ops opt to use a “Super Alto Adige” fantasy named wine to communicate a superior level of quality. With the new system, this will likely change. Several wineries are already working with individual vineyard plots (Cantina di Cortaccia - Kellerei Kurtatsch being a perfect example), and I’m sure we’ll see many more in the future. As for the smaller producers, who are often producing wines from single sources, the new rules will allow them to elevate their portfolio with UGA-designated wines that can communicate a sense of place.

Hopefully, 2024 will be the year that the new rules successfully pass because this system will not only aid the region in better communicating its terroir to worldwide consumers, but it will also force producers to look hard at which varieties to plant in which locations and make logical changes that could help to offset some of the adverse effects of global warming. 

Looking across the Non Valley from 700-meter elevations in Trentino.

I tasted the wines for this article in Trentino-Alto Adige in December 2023 and in our New York City offices in January 2024. 

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