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Gateway to the North: Northern Wines of Trentino

Nestling in a break in the Italian Alps, Trentino has held the attentions of empire builders and northern European wine lovers for centuries. Rowena Medlow reports on how these northern wines are now taking over the world itself


Putting fork to mouth in a comfortable Trentino osteria, the dumplings on your plate are a reminder of the legacy of occupying empires. The most recent, the Austro-Hungarians; before them, Romans, with their northern wine production, made sure they were countrymen – if not friends – to the dwellers of the Valle dell’Adige, when they were pinpointing trade routes on their imperial map. Why such outsider interest? The valley, in the foothills of the Alps, forms a natural mountain pass between Italy, the Mediterranean and Northern Europe.

The Romans – or, namely, Emperor Probus – may have kick-started vine cultivation, but the wines of this Alpine region, which is just 90km down the autostrada from Verona, lean more to the Germanic. The locals would passionately disagree, even though the founding president of the local wine institute of San Michele was an Austrian experimental viticulturist. Yet, pure-fruited, restrained and highly aromatic, with a decent weight and length; the wines have none of the abandon or heat of wines from further south. They are, to a certain extent, bilingual, like the wine courses at the local institute.Now, through wine, invasion has been reversed. While Trentino’s wines were hardly heard of even by the most avid Italophile in the UK, neighbouring southern Germany, Switzerland and Austria, have historically been demanding more than their fair share.

The closest site to these neighbouring devotees is also the most lauded. As the River Adige enters Trentino from the north, it bends to the left, heading south at the villages of San Michele All’Adige, Mezzocorona and Mezzolombardo, and there the steep slopes give way to an expanse of vines in the Piana Rotaliana.

It is on this plain, carved by the glaciers that created the Valle dell’Adige, that the uniquely Trentino, red variety, Teroldego earns its own DOC (Teroldego Rotaliano). ‘It is the deep, ground-rich substances deposited by the Noce river that gives the grapes their character,’ says Alessandro Fusi of Ca’Vit. Teroldego Rotilianos can vary from the quite Beaujolais Villages style of Casa Girelli’s I Mesi, with its forward hedgerow fruit, to the round, richly fruited 1997 Endrizzi Riserva Superiore. Outside the area, plantings of Teroldego become sparse; Conti Bossi Fedrigotti are among the outsiders.

In Trentino myth, the Teroldego’s name is said to come from ‘Tirolean gold’. However, its most valuable property is that it supposedly contains one of the highest quotas of resveratrol – the heart-strengthening property – of any grape. It has always been the ‘prince’ of Trentino wines, but opera lovers may be drawn to Trentino’s other characteristic red, Marzemino, which is ordered with great vehemence in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. This fruity red should not be confused with its namesake in the Veneto, which is slightly sweet and sparkling, a bit like Lambrusco.

Lucia Letrari

At the family-run Letrari estate, Marzemino is the favourite of winemaker Lucia Letrari. She is following in the footsteps of her father Leonello who has just celebrated his 50th harvest. Why the favouritism for this operatic red, when she has 17 other varieties at her disposal – especially when the grape’s delicateness make it notoriously difficult? In the historic cellar buildings in Nogaredo – once scene of a 17th-century witch hunt of the locals – Letrari is on tenter- hooks for the first 20 days of fermentation. In the initial stages, the must should not be left in contact with the sediment for more than two hours, in case a tainted smell or overtly tannic taste develops (to compare, Cabernet Sauvignon can be in contact for two whole days). Yet, it is Letrari says, worth it for the satisfaction when the wine complies to her wishes.

Exploring the region

Leaving the walled village of Nogaredo, heading south, down the Adige to the Val Lagarina, we find the natural habitat for Marzemino. The poor, rocky soils of the valley floors of this southern Trentino region make ideal conditions for the grape. Here around Lake Garda, the Mediterranean is closer than the mountainous terrain suggests. Scattered on the hilly slopes are the providers of the Italian table’s staple, the olive tree. They grow in this northern Italian region for the same reason wines in this particular area gain a fuller body: the lake retains its summer heat through to the autumn, prolonging the growing season and giving an extra ripeness to the fruit.In these southern climes, Roberto Grossi, when not rearing trout, is producing some of Trentino’s richly ripe whites at the Madonna dell Vittorie estate. The effects of its lake-centric positioning is augmented by his 40-year old vines, helping to create a rich, concentrated yellow-fruited Pinot Bianco in the 1998, with a lemony tang.

Heading up the Valle dei Laghi from the northeast tip of Lake Garda, in early spring, the powerful Ora del Garda wind rushes through the vineyards like Dante’s harpies. This is when the other effect of the Lake comes into play – these cooling winds push back budbreak, so the vines will only start sprouting new growth when harmful spring frosts have cleared. Nowhere is this more marked than in the experimental sites of cooperative Ca’Vit, perched on Laga di Sia Massenza, surrounding a princely lodge.

The Northern wines

Whether the wines are fully rounded, or crisp and freshly fruited, it is the sheer power of aromas that exude from the glass that characterise this northern region. It’s that mountainous temperature fluctuation between day and night again that brings the fresh, crunchy fruit of the reds alive. And on the white side, there is proof that choosing your Italian region carefully can yield whites of character, often with a persistent minerally streak. Whites range from the peachy Nosiola fruit found in Ca’Vit’s Bottega Vinae 1999 to white blossom, pear and brazil nutty Pinot Grigios of the likes of Casa Girelli’s I Mesi range.

Cooperatives like Gruppo Mezzacorona and Ca’Vit are a force behind the province’s wine production. There are hundreds of small holders in the region – averaging 1.5 hectares (ha) each – so winemaking is only truly feasible through a cooperative. It is often said that you have to wait for a grower to pass away before you can expand. But, it is thanks to these animators that the UK supermarket buyer can garnish their trolley with good-value Trentino varietals and sparklers. La Vis produces an exceptionally good Pinot Grigio Vignetti delle Dolamiti IGT for Asda: the 1998 is well rounded, with good body and ripe, fleshy pear fruit.

But, if the likes of the big players Rotari and Ferrari are anything to go by, with the enthusiasm and investment in metodo classico wines, the future of Trentino could, quite literally, be sparkling. Giulio Ferrari, founder of the most famous Talento producers in Italy, brought Chardonnay vines and large scale production of sparkling wine to the region on his return from Champagne at the turn of the 20th century. His vision that Trentino’s climate and soil could lift its sparklers to the fizzy heights of its French counterparts is still firmly followed today.

Dominating the Rotaliana plain is the ultra-industrial winery that turns out Mezzacorona’s varietals and bubbling Rotari. Here, inside, there is a constant reminder of the roots of their fermenting activities – kaleidoscopic pains of glass project the far-reaching vineyards inward. It’s heartening to see such a modern, large-scale operation – which should belong in a Bond film – has not lost touch.The location of this sparkling winemaking ‘village’ may be slightly confusing to the touring wine lover. The grapes with the highest acidity, which are, therefore, most suited to bubbles are actually generally to be found in the middle mountains: the Cembra Valley, and Valle dei Laghi. Well-fruited, minerally, ripe wines with a persistent mousse are to be expected from the Talento of the region (a mostly northeastern Italian ‘branding’ of predominantly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir metodo classico wine). Like the Prince Bishops, who held court at Trento’s Buonconsiglio Castle, helped lead the Catholic Counter Reformation in the 1500s, sparkling wine producers are upholding the qualities and image of metodo classico in the face of the widespread popularist spumantes.

Rotari’s Brut has the classic mineral streak of the region, along with ripe apricot fruit – more dominant than in other examples – and a good lasting tanginess. Maso Martis’ 1994 Brut Riserva has a more delicate nose, and a round, ripe-fruited, mouthwatering palate of tangy grapefruit and hints of nuts. Trentino is also taking well to organic cultivation, thanks to the low humidity and winds driving moisture and, therefore, rot away from the vines. Paolo Endrici’s Endrizzi is a case in point, with its prominent bird boxes attracting pest-eating birds. He keeps a strict eye on yields, maintaining half the local average and is keen on green harvesting, picking out a third of grapes in August. Endrizzi is Trentino at its most corpulent. He also produces a single-vineyard Masetto Biano, a historic blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Traminer, which is a complex, creamy aromatic wine with clover and honey hints and ripe pear notes. A couple of other Trentino quirks are the white Incrocio Manzoni and red Rebo. Both are projects for the wine-producing San Michele intstitute, headed by winemaker Enrico Paternoster. Incrocio Manzoni has little following in the region. The vine produces fruit of high quality, but yields are modest. The institute’s 1999 offering is sweetly aromatic, with strong pear characteristics. On the red side, the 1999 vintage Rebo (a 40-year old cross of Merlot and Teroldego) is freshly fruity, with hedgerow berry characters and a touch of leather.

No visit to the region would be complete without sipping into a bottle of the hedonistic Moscato Rosa – named after the flower, not the colour (pink). And what better enticement than it’s reputation, than an evening with that certain someone. An idea for a future for a Decanter tasting challenge?

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