For the first time in eighteen months, I found myself in Europe exploring and tasting the wines of northern Italy, where the Alps fall down to the great lakes for some of the country's most famous and stunning scenery. After a brief stop in Franciacorta just south of Lake Iseo, I firstly concentrated on one of Italy's most geographically extreme and unusual regions, the Alto Adige where some of Italy's highest vineyards are located. At the beginning of November it was cold and wet, with snow falling on the peaks, giving an indication of how non-Italian the region is.
geography and history
The Adige river flows down from the Alps into a valley surrounded by the Dolomites that somehow have vines growing on their steep rocky slopes. This is Italy at its most Germanic - it belonged to Austria-Hungary until the First World War and it's now a semi-autonomous region that shares as much with its Austrian neighbour as it does with Italy. The place names are in German as well as Italian (Südtirol instead of Alto Adige); both languages appear on wine labels, and locals switch between the two languages, confident and certain in German, gesticulating with self-doubt in Italian. In either language, the accent is staccato and sharp, and quite hard to understand.
This is one of Italy's most distinctive regions. Vines are planted at altitudes of 250m up to over 1,000m - these highest vineyards are already covered in snow. The weather is extreme, hitting heights of 40˚C in the summer, with cool, fresh nights, followed by cold, snowy winters. Warm breezes flow from Lake Garda to the south, with cool air in the north where Riesling and Sylvaner are planted at altitude. These conditions produce aromatic white wines with notably high acidity, and light reds, all of a consistently high quality.
Just a look at the grape varieties grown here shows how Germanic this region is. Gewürztraminer most likely originates from the local town of Tramin, from where it made its way to Alsace and found some added spice aromas (Gewürz means spice). The wines here retain more acidity than is often the case, and they're not quite as full bodied.
Perhaps the two most interesting wines from German varieties I tried on the trip came from Sylvaner and Kerner. Sylvaner is a quality grape that gets overlooked both in Alsace and Germany, so it was refreshing to try some good examples here in Italy. Again, the wines were marked by high acidity, with herbaceous, citrus and stone fruit aromas, and not as earthy as wines from Franken in Germany. Kerner, which is a crossing between Riesling and Trollinger (a black grape grown locally as Schiava) was a bigger surprise, with plenty of body and structure to counter the high acidity.
These aren't the only varieties grown, with up to 25 planted in the small valley (Alto Adige produces less than 1% of Italy's wines). By far the most interesting and distinctive of the non-German varieties is Pinot Bianco (or Weißburgunder in German), a grape variety again often overlooked elsewhere. Surprise, surprise, the wines have high acidity, but with nutty, spicy, stone and tropical fruit aromas that provide body and structure and some ageability. There is also Chardonnay, which at its best can be like a creamy, spicy Chablis.
As for the black grapes, Lagrein is common, with rich, chocolate, ripe black fruit aromas. It can be a little too much, although Franz Haas does a lighter, more considered example. One of the more extraordinary wines of the trip was from neighbouring Trentino; Merlino 1400 (€25; ✪✪✪✪✪), was a fortified wine displaying all the young, fresh, fruity characteristics of Lagrein, but moderated by the added alcohol. The wine is from 2014, while the brandy is from 2000, leading to a very integrated fortified wine - and it's great to see such a quality fortified wine from an area of Europe not associated with that style.
Alto Adige also makes Italy's most consistent Pinot Noir (or Pinot Nero or Blauburgunder - the number of names for grapes and places can be bewildering). It's deceptively light, with red fruits, spices, and acidity. It's often planted at altitude - Franz Haas is experimenting with a vineyard at 1,150m - which adds to the intensity of the aromas. Fruity when young, the Pinot Noirs of Alto Adige can mature into earthy, sophisticated wines that retain the fruits and the acidity even after a number of years.
These wines are especially worth looking out for as they display the unique characteristics of this varied region. With different altitudes, exposures, and microclimates, Alto Adige can be a surprisingly hard region to pin down, meaning that it's a region always worth re-exploring.