Originality and flair are the watchwords in Alto Adige as the next generation of winemakers reassesses the native treasures to be found in the Italian wine region, reports Walter Speller.
Alto Adige is the very northern, Alpine and predominantly German-speaking part of Italy, bordering Austria.
Viticulture has been practised here for millennia. Its vineyards are situated in the valleys of two rivers, the Eisack and the Adige, which join at the region’s capital, Bolzano. Grapes are grown on terraces against a dramatic backdrop of snow-capped mountains. Although Alto Adige is considered cool climate, with vineyards planted up to 700m in altitude and in some instances much higher, the protection of the Alps creates a sub-Mediterranean macroclimate that is ideal for growing grapes.
‘Nowadays it’s impossible to find bad Alto Adige wines’, explains Wolfgang Raifer, second generation in charge of one of the region’s most admired co-operatives, Schreckbichl Colterenzio.
‘And so it is difficult for single producers to stand out on quality alone.’ When Wolfgang took over from his father, Luis, in 1999, the co-operative was already firmly on the quality track, and so he merely fine-tunes rather than implements radical change, with the exception of one: using computers in the vineyard to collect real-time data on grape ripening of each of the 300 different sites.
Raifer strongly believes that only higher quality can elevate Alto Adige’s reputation, with lowering yields an important tool in this quest. Pinot Grigio – with more than 500ha planted, Alto Adige’s most popular white variety – has its part to play too: Schreckbichl’s Puiten, a finely textured and minerally wine, half-fermented in oak, convincingly shows how lower yields can make a world of difference.
Perhaps due to its traditional – some would say conservative – outlook, this beautiful region hardly seems dynamic. Characterised by large volumes of reliable rather than exciting white wines based on a handful of international varieties, as well as the pale, local red Vernatsch, also known as Schiava and Trollinger, for which the international market has lost its appetite, it seems to have little going for it in wine terms. But a closer look reveals that a generational shift is beginning to stir things up, with improved quality resulting from lower yields and a reappraisal of local varieties.
It remains to be seen whether Pinot Grigio, with its undeserved reputation for mediocrity, can become the region’s battle horse. But Wolfgang is not alone in believing it can. Karoline Walch, whose mother Elena has just handed over the reins of her winery, founded 30 years ago, to her and her sister, Julia, confidently pours me their cuvée. It’s a complex, single-vineyard wine from one of Elena’s best vineyards, Castel Ringberg. After fermentation, a third is aged in new and old barriques, the remainder in stainless steel.
The rise of the international varieties, especially Pinot Grigio and Pinot Bianco, in Alto Adige went hand in hand with the decline of Vernatsch. Once highly sought after for its refreshing, light strawberry fruit paired with modest alcohol and fine tannins, Vernatsch fell out of fashion after the market became inundated with masses of dull dilute wines, trying to copy the original version. Trained on high-yielding pergola systems, Vernatsch produced insipid wines, and was seen as the culprit for Alto Adige’s reputation for mediocrity. While the international varieties never shared these image problems, it was, yet again, high yields and vineyards planted outside the classic zones that were to blame.
While local varieties are now again in demand, several producers never turned their back on Vernatsch. Franz Gojer at Glögglhof was one, clinging on to his old vines in St Magdalener. Like many, he used to sell the grapes off until in the mid-1970s he decided to bottle his own wine. Trips to California, Australia and France made him realise the uniqueness of Vernatsch and, instead of producing a feather-light style, he drastically reduced yields, while fermenting the wine longer on the skins.
While his colleagues accused Franz of making ‘un-typical’ wines, his son Florian is equally convinced of Vernatsch and the maligned pergola. ‘All our Vernatsch is on pergola’, Florian tells me. ‘You need to reduce the yield but you get much riper grapes due to a larger canopy, which also provides shade.’ Since he joined his father in 2013, he has been given his own task, managing a new southwest facing site on 600m from which he skilfully makes a Pinot Bianco and a Kerner.
While the current generational handover secures the continuation of some of Alto Adige’s seminal estates, another generation has begun bottling the produce of their tiny estates – grapes which in the past would have disappeared into anonymous co-op vats. Recognising the value of local varieties, which are seen as the key to transmitting Alto Adige’s identity, they try to interfere as little as possible between the vineyard and the glass. They achieve this through low yields, long skin maceration for Vernatsch, adding the stalks to the fermentation tank, and fermenting whites on the skins without letting them turn into crude, orange-tinged wines.
One of the most radical is Andreas Dichristin of Tröpfltalhof estate, who ferments Sauvignon Blanc on the skins and Cabernet Sauvignon in closed-top amphorae. Dichristin is not motivated by any desire to be extreme, but by a wish to accentuate the terroir with as little obstruction as possible. The Tröpfltalhof wines are elegant, fascinating and bursting with personality.
It doesn’t have to cost a fortune to make exciting wines. Martin Gojer admits that when he started his tiny estate, Pranzegg, with his wife Heidi, he simply didn’t have the money to plant international varieties. Wine lovers are the luckier for it, because Gojer became infatuated with Vernatsch, sourced from a 60-year-old vineyard trained on – you’ve guessed it – a pergola. Using tronconic (tapered) oak and tiny cement tanks, he leaves his Vernatsch for as long as 30 days on the skins, while keeping the cap submerged in the wine. The result is a truly transparent version of the grape, with fine, muscular tannins and layers of depth.
Alto Adige is slowly realising it must raise its game, and a new generation is already showing how this can be done, by rescuing local varieties, using the undervalued Vernatsch grape to create terroir-driven wines, and employing a gentler use of oak to bring out the texture and complexity of its much loved international varieties.