Trentino & Alto Adige: Worlds Apart
BY ERIC GUIDO | NOVEMBER 03, 2020
There are no other regions in Italy that are as connected and yet different as Trentino and Alto Adige. So much so, in fact, that it is difficult to even conceptualize an article that covers both the heavily-Austrian and German-influenced Alto Adige with the more-Italian (yet not quite) locales of Trentino. This is not only a matter of ancestry, politics and the changing of physical borders; it is also a matter of terroir and the varieties that excel within each of them.
Therefore, this is an article of dualities; because even beyond the drastic difference of north to south, we have a dizzying array of linguistic verbiage within Alto Adige alone which makes understanding these wines a bit more difficult - but also, for the geek in us, a lot of fun. As if engrossed in a Tolkienesque fantasy novel, I felt an overwhelming desire to create a glossary or appendix; but instead of Elvish, it would help to dissect the many different meanings of words and letters on labels, translations between Italian and German, or the multiple names that can be associated with a single grape variety.
You see, in Alto Adige, producers will often have two names for the winery, one for the Italian wine lovers and the other for German-speaking customers, which is one of the region’s top markets. This may sometimes be a simple change of Cantina to Kellerei, both stated on the front label. Yet many other times, it can be an entirely different name altogether, where one is proudly stated on the front label and the other buried deep within the fine print on the back of the bottle. This can make it difficult to locate a wine in international markets. And so, while tasting, I made sure to continue within the naming conventions used previously on Vinous, but to also make sure that the label of each wine stated that name.
An embarrassment of riches from Trentino and Alto Adige
The Great Divide
So why are Trentino and Alto Adige so different? The fact is that both were under Austrian rule until the end of World War I, after which they were annexed to Italy. However, in the case of Alto Adige, it had been an active part of Austria for hundreds of years prior, while Trentino had its own governing entities. This makes Alto Adige seemingly more German or Austrian than Italian, not just in wine but also in culture and food. Their focus is mainly on Germanic aromatic white varieties, including Riesling, Sylvaner, Müller-Thurgau and Gewürztraminer - with the international influence of Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco and Sauvignon taking hold in the more recent past. As for Trentino, it was considered part of the Kingdom of Italy during the middle ages, went on to be absorbed by the Holy Roman Empire, and governed by the Princess Bishops of Trento until the early 19th century. It was at this time that it fell to Austrian rule until the Italian occupation during World War I.
However, for all of their differences, there are some similarities. One that stands out above all else are the cooperatives that make up the majority of producers in both regions. In Alto Adige, these producers line the wine road, often taking the name of the town or city they call home, such as Eppan, Tramin, Girlan, Kaltern, Kurtatsch and Margreid. These massive operations will source their fruit from hundreds of growers, each one with only a hectare or two of land. In fact, some of the larger wineries are turning out over a million bottles a year (2.5 million in the case of St. Michael Eppan). However, don’t let this deter you, as just like a producer such as Produttori del Barbaresco in Piedmont, many of these cooperatives rank as some of the top wineries in all of Italy. What’s even more exciting is to see the consistency of house style and quality that’s achieved here.
Unfortunately, the size and scope of these wineries and the vineyards they farm makes the use of organic or biodynamic principles quite difficult. In many cases, producers will work to be “mostly” sustainable or organic, unless threatened by vine diseases and fungus. However, due to the fractured nature of the region, one farmer who’s practicing organic on their parcel can’t account for what’s being done on the land that surrounds them. Some of the larger houses have had success, such as Alois Lageder, who uses biodynamic practices throughout their fifty-five hectares of estate vineyards, as well as urging the eighty or so growers that fill out the rest of their portfolio to be sustainable or organic. On an even larger scale, Ferrari in the Trento DOC, oversees the use of organic practices across the 500 growers that supply their winery. That said, in many cases, even the most quality-minded producer needs to use drip irrigation in order for their vines to thrive in the poor and well-draining soils that line the higher elevations.
However, It’s not all about cooperatives, with many of the biggest standouts from my tastings coming from much smaller producers in the region. Granted, we are talking about productions in the range of 50 to 100-thousand bottles on average, yet the personal touch shines through. These are also the wineries that are more likely to succeed with organic practices, yet not in every case. While their numbers are still small, there is a push to help other growers begin to bottle their own productions. This becomes apparent when speaking with producers such as Nusserhof, Kofererhof, Waldergries and Ignaz Niedrist. You suddenly realize that this small community of artisans all know each other, share knowledge and help whenever they can. As samples arrived, it wasn’t uncommon for one producer to send a just-bottled wine from another producer, who was eager to get that last wine into the lineup. The fact is, some of the most thoughtful people you will ever meet are running not just the small wineries but the large cooperatives as well.
A Cascade of Alpine Terroir
Then there are the environs and diverse terroirs of both Trentino and Alto Adige, with the Dolomites lining the eastern borders and striking valleys throughout, formed by glacial movements over the course of millennia. These glaciers cut deep into the earth to form the Isarco and Adige valleys, and in their wake, they left poor morainic soils, consisting primarily of rock and gravel. The connecting strand that holds the two halves of this region together is the Adige River, which flows down from the Alps passing the two capitals of Trento and Bolzano. This river and the valley it flows through work to create a unique confluence of cold air blowing down from the north and warmer, dry air up from Lake Garda in the south. I was amazed to learn that Bolzano, despite its alpine location, is one of the warmest cities in all of Italy, a result of sitting at a lower elevation and at the meeting point of three river valleys. This is where we find the best locations for Lagrein, a grape that loves the warm days and cool nights of the city, as well as the deep alluvial soils deposited here by the River Talvera.
Speaking of elevation, that is where we find the most drastic deciding factor of which grapes to plant and where. It’s not uncommon for a single producer to have vineyards in locations spanning from 200 meters up to 1,000 meters. You’ll find them sourcing Lagrein from the plains of Bolzano at 200 meters, Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) from east-facing vineyards in Appiano Monte at 600 meters, Kerner (a local favorite) in the Isarco River Valley at 850 meters and Müller-Thurgau on the Fennberg at 1,000 meters.
Moving farther south, we spill into Campo Rotaliano and the limestone-rich sand-and-gravel mixed soils of the Noce River basin. The scenery changes a bit, while elevations gradually decrease, as we continue down the Adige River Valley through Trentino. Here we find plains that spread out in all directions, as lush forests mix with apple orchards and Chardonnay vineyards which feed the prided sparkling Trento DOC; yet what never changes are the gorgeous mountains that dot its borders, which also creates a rain shadow across the region.
The Grape Matters
One of the best things about diving into Trentino and Alto Adige wines is the vast amount of grape varieties that fill producers’ portfolios. In Trentino, it is to a lesser extent than their neighbors to the north, but what these producers do have to work with makes up for it in spades. For red varieties, Teroldego, Marzemino and Schiava make truly memorable and often charming wines. In the right hands, Teroldego has the potential to be world class, especially from the Rotaliano denomination, where the Foradori family not only put the variety on the map but continues to be trailblazers of the region to this day. Then there’s the wild Marzemino grape, probably even more rare outside of Italy, which creates pretty, floral and sometimes-herbal wines with high acid and sumptuous fruit to match. That said, we can’t forget the international varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Carménère, which have fueled the renowned Bordeaux blends of Trentino and, of course, Pinot Noir.
As for Trentino white varieties, Chardonnay makes up the lion’s share by quantity, grown not only for the production of still wine but also for the Trento DOC classification of sparkling wines made using metodo classico. Speaking of which, any lover of Champagne owes it to themselves to explore the unbelievable combination of value and quality the Trento DOC has come to represent. A good amount of Pinot Bianco and Pinot Grigio also excels in lower elevations, with higher elevations reserved for the highly and often widely aromatic Müller-Thurgau. Nosiola, Trentino’s native white variety, produces remarkably pretty wines with the capacity to age. However, when seeking white varieties, your options increase greatly by looking north, to Alto Adige.
Schiava (also known as Vernatsch) can communicate its importance through a combination of vine age and terroir (most notably from the Trentino and Alto Adige shared zone of Caldaro); however, it’s hard to get past just how enjoyable a young Schiava can be, especially with a light chill. It bears mentioning that during producer interviews, I came to realize that many wineries decided not to submit their Schiava for review. The fact is, up until the 1970s, Schiava represented the region’s largest percentage of red wine, some 69%. However, a focus on high yields, and wines that were more intended for jugs than bottles, marred its reputation. When the time came to expand into other markets, focuses changed, and vineyards were replanted with international varieties. According to Oscar Lorandi of Cantina Girlan, the plantings of Schiava today are just 16% of what they were fifty years ago. That said, there are many producers who believe there is an untapped potential for Alto Adige’s most historical red grape variety, and with a focus on quality over quantity, they may one day be able to prove it.
Frankly, I was impressed with many of the Pinot Neros tasted for this report. While some showed an overuse of wood influence, others were stunningly pure examples of the variety. Having said that, as a rule of thumb, the best way to understand any of the wineries and varieties spoken about in this report, while also drinking very well and spending very little, is to look at the young “entry-level” wines in the region. It’s here that you’ll find stunning, vibrant expressions of pure terroir.
In Alto Adige, we find the same list of international whites of Trentino, but we add a host of other aromatic varieties, as well as a number of varietal crossings, such as Bronner, Souvignier Gris, Kerner and Solaris. (Take a look at the portfolio of Thomas Niedermayr for a great introduction to them.) However, this is also where things can get a bit confusing for the average wine drinker, when Sauvignon Blanc simply becomes Sauvignon, Grüner Silvaner becomes Sylvaner, Pinot Bianco becomes Weissburgunder, Pinot Noir becomes Pinot Nero or Blauburgunder and Schiava becomes Vernatsch. Just like Trentino, Schiava receives a lot of attention here from growers. Then there is the full-bodied and structured Lagrein, a historical variety of the region, which in the right hands is capable of producing long-lived wines. Also worth seeking out - consider it a bucket-list experience - is Rosenmuskateller (Moscato Rosa), which creates a sweet yet stimulating dessert wine. However, what I found most interesting was the focus that winemakers are now placing on Pinot Noir (or Nero), seeking higher elevations and more complex soils to best show the variety.
What’s Coming Into the Market?
There’s a lot to like about the fresh 2019s that are coming into the market now. If these young wines are any sign of what’s to come from producers’ late releases (due to more time in barrel, tank or bottle), then there is plenty to look forward to. The vintage can be described as generally warm yet quite fresh. It started with a very cold winter followed by warmer months going into spring. However, a severe frost in May reduced yields and caused a late start to the season. June was rainy, but it was followed by a warm yet not hot summer season with strong day-to-night temperature differences. The harvest was later than average, yielding lower quantities than normal, yet it took place under perfect conditions. In the end, these wines are elegant, fruity and with higher acidity than the more-structured 2018s, which is a gorgeous mix.
Speaking of the 2018s, it’s a vintage that’s difficult to nail down. A snowy winter led to a cool and wet spring, which resulted in a late start to the season; yet with the warmer weather that followed, blooming took place generally on time. The summer months were hot, yet the cool nighttime temperatures helped to regulate ripening. Even so, harvest started early. Luckily, the conditions were much more favorable, taking place under dry skies with warm daytime and cool evening temperatures. The later-ripening red varieties had a boost from the moderate fall temperatures and proved more successful. Having said that, some wines have a round and pliant feel. In the end, it’s a good vintage with medium-term potential in the cellar, but you have to be picky.
Tasting in Today’s Environment
One last topic that I must touch on is that prior to the recent events that besieged the world in early 2020, I had every intention of visiting Trentino and Alto Adige to taste, tour and spend a good amount of time with the growers and winemakers.
Unfortunately, that was not possible, for obvious reasons. I tasted all of these wines in New York, often over Zoom, with producers between August and September 2020. Unfortunately, a few reference-point estates are missing from this report. We will publish an update as soon as I have a chance to taste as many of those wines as I can.
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