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White surprise: Alto Adige Pinot Bianco

Richard Baudains attended the Alto Adige Pinot Bianco Symposium with low expectations and memories of watery, characterless whites. Totally wowed by the wines, he explains here what lies behind the transformation.

Pinot Blanc is very much the Cinderella of the Pinot family. Its noble lineage (it descends directly from Pinot Noir) is not recognised in the widely used German name ‘Weissburgunder’ and, to make matters worse, it has often been confused with Chardonnay. Though it is capable of making wines of sensual elegance and refinement, it is incapable of seducing international markets, which continue to be dominated by the vastly inferior Pinot Grigio.

In most parts of the world, Pinot Blanc is relegated to the category of ‘minor variety’. In Germany, the world’s biggest grower of Pinot Blanc/ Weissburgunder, it is condemned to live in the shadow of Riesling; and in Alsace, its place in the pecking order is several places below that of Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Probably the only region anywhere with a passionate belief in this beautiful, misunderstood variety, and a vision for its future, is Alto Adige.

It was not always thus. When I lived in the regional capital of Bolzano in the 1980s, Pinot Bianco was the default setting for card players in the local bars, and it was watery and totally characterless. Sporadic, subsequent tastings had not changed my perception much, so when I signed up for the recent Alto Adige Pinot Bianco Symposium, it was without particularly high expectations. But in the event I was totally wowed by the wines – and I am hard to impress when it comes to white wines.

Aim high

Pinot Bianco has been recorded along the upper valley of the Adige since the mid-19th century, although it was only granted its own DOC in Alto Adige in 1985. At that time yields were generous and the wines were light, dry and very simple. Since then profound changes have taken place. Alto Adige has shaken off its insularity to become one of Italy’s top white wine regions – some would argue the top region. Sauvignon Blanc and Gewürztraminer were the first grape varieties to make an impact here, but today the wine which is setting the wires humming is Pinot Bianco.

Several things are behind the huge improvement in quality. One has been a drastic reduction in yields, another the replacement of the traditional pergola with the guyot training system, which is much better suited to Pinot Bianco. Producers all agree, however, that the critical factor is terroir. And that means heading for the hills.

Official figures show that the planting of Pinot Bianco is increasing, but in selected areas. Essentially the variety is migrating from the lower slopes where it was heavily planted in the past, to higher sites, in particular in the villages around Appiano, on the right bank of the Adige river. To realise its amazing potential, Pinot Bianco needs to look down on the valley from a height of at least 400m. At Terlano, the area’s historic cooperative makes its prodigiously long-ageing Pinot Bianco riservas from vineyards which stretch up to 700m.

Snow-capped mountains form the backdrop of other great sites above Merano (Cantina Merano Burggräfler), in the valley of the Isarco River (Gumphof) and even in the northern, Rieslingfriendly Venosta valley (Hofgut Falkenstein). Soils also play a major role. Wines from the calcareous right bank of the Adige are generally fleshier, while the sandy-volcanic soils of the area between Bolzano and Merano, especially the DOC sub-zone of Terlano, are steelier and more minerally.

Wide choice

Alto Adige’s extremely savvy cooperatives produce over two-thirds of the region’s wine. They set the standards (high) and the prices (highly competitive), and have a massive influence on trends. A co-op will typically bottle three levels, an entry-level Pinot Bianco in the ‘drink youngest available’ style, possibly a mid-range cellar selection, and a top single-vineyard cru. Terlaner’s Vorberg is the archetype of the latter, but other names abound.

Second in terms of the share of production are the privately owned, negociant-style wineries which buy in grapes but may also own esteemed vineyards. Standards are high here, too. Alois Lageder, for example, produces the complex, delicately floral Haberle from his organic estate, but also makes impressive quantities of an excellent generic varietal wine, sourced from contract growers.

Independent grower-bottlers account for a mere 5% of the output, but their number is growing and they count among their ranks a new generation of producers who are young, qualified, committed, may be organic/biodynamic, own small plots and have distinctive winemaking styles. Names to look for in this category include the organic estate of Thomas Niedermayr at Appiano, the microproduction of Andreas Sölva from Caldaro, and Weingut Stroblhof at St Michele.

Ageing gracefully

A typical, young Alto Adige Pinot Bianco will be fresh and refined on the nose; there is none of the blowsy aromatic blast that you get from Sauvignon Blanc. The fruit is apples and pears, but picked late it can veer towards a more tropical character. There will be floral aromas, perhaps a hint of camomile or dandelion, and the fingerprint note of orange blossom. The palate will have body but also firm, reassuring acidity and it will be bone dry, or almost.

Top wines can develop a marvellous herby complexity over four to five years, without ever losing their freshness and zip. Pinot Bianco offers the winemaker many options. Vinification in stainless steel brings out its crunchy apple and citrus character. Oak treatment – generally tonneaux or traditional larger barrels, which work better than barriques – gives depth and complexity to the riserva category, which ages for two years before release.

The put-down on Alto Adige whites used to be ‘technically impeccable, but winemaking by numbers, with no personality’. At one time this was probably true, but it no longer applies. The Pinot Bianco revolution in Alto Adige showcases the talents of the region’s winemakers, but more than that, it unfolds the terroir map of this beautiful region. As Hans Terzer, director/winemaker at St Michael-Eppan and one of the region’s most authoritative figures says, ‘Alto Adige has passed out of the era of technological winemaking and into the era of terroir. The future lies in the search for top quality and personality through the matching of sites and varieties.’ As a mission statement, you cannot fault that.

Written by Richard Baudains

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