Last weekend the international wine trade gathered in Bolzano in northern Italy for the second Alto Adige wine summit.
Organised by the Konsortium Südtiroler Wein/Consorzio Vini Alto Adige, the bi-annual event enables producers and the region’s great cooperatives to show their latest releases. Seminars and tastings – including one at over 2000m in the mountains – emphasise Alto Adige’s unique high-altitude terroir and its firm commitment to quality.
With world-class aromatic whites coming from this bilingual region (many here speak German as their first language, as Alto Adige/Südtirol has only been part of Italy for 100 years, following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) it is little wonder that it's now regarded as one of the most exciting and dynamic in the country.
It’s all a far cry from the 1980s, when Alto Adige was better known for apples, and grape-wise was predominately planted with red Schiava (also known as Trollinger and Vernatsch), with producers focused on quantity for the German market.
'A lot has changed here, and is continuing to change, thanks to global warming, better technology and improved wine-making,' says Alois Lageder of the eponymous producer based in Magré, south of Bolzano.
Lageder explained that harvest used to be in early October but is now at least one month earlier. The warming climate has enabled Lageder to significantly broaden what is planted; Viognier and Assyrtiko are now flourishing here, and so are red grapes
Pinot Nero, Schiava and Lagrein
Some of the red varieties truly astonish; Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat and Mourvèdre are grown alongside the more familiar Pinot Nero, Schiava and Lagrein (a crossing between Schiava and Teroldego).
A tasting of Lageder’s Compositions and Masterpieces wines – including the hefty red blend Casòn Rosso 2015, Cor Römigberg 2015 (Cabernet Sauvignon), Lindenburg 2015 (Lagrein), Römigberg 2015 (a Schiava which bears no resemblance at all to the variety that once gave this region such a bad name) and the full on MCM 2015 (Merlot) – is quite eye-opening.
These aren't available in the UK yet, but others from Lageder, including the fruit driven, ethereal Krafuss Pinot Noir, are distributed by Bibendum.
Where they need to be, these wines have heft and volume, but also a lightness and grace which comes courtesy of the altitude and the bio-dynamic wine-making that Lageder swears by.
'The focus here in Alto Adige will now always be white wines; this is our trump card thanks to a terroir and conditions that no other area in Italy can match,' says Lageder, 'but increasingly the region is becoming ideal for quality red wines but generally from grapes that are largely distinct from those typically grown elsewhere in Italy.'
Alto Adige’s Laimburg Institute is undertaking research into which varieties work best in the terrain so it can help and support local growers. Yet, although other producers are also experimenting with what by local standards are unusual varieties, for most the red focus remains on high-quality Pinot Nero, Lagrein and Schiava.
Based in northerly Valle Isarco, Abbazia di Novacella is best known for its aromatic whites but it produces fine reds too, from its Cornaiano estate near Bolzano, an area well known amongst locals for producing great Lagrein, with grapes generally grown in the traditional pergola rather than guyot method.
Their Praepositus Lagrein Riserva is a wonderfully expressive wine, but even more interesting is the St Magdalener, a traditional Schiava and Lagrein blend; producers can chose their own ratios but Novacella do very well here with 90/10 respectively.
Christien Hay, chief sommelier at the Chesil Rectory in Winchester, says the region’s Pinot Nero and Lagrein are very appealing, especially with producers now tending to use little or no oak so the wines can properly show their fruit.
'Pinot Neros on the whole are light and juicy, almost rose-like compared to other Pinot Noirs, like Burgundy which is more powerful and with more structure. But I am also a fan of Lagrein, with its dark with bitter notes and rich plumminess. I enjoy it lightly chilled in summer,' he says.
Hay recommends Lagrein 2018 from Bolzano's Weingut Untermoserhof and the Pinot Nero Schweizer from Franz Haas (available through Liberty). 'All the Haas reds are very good and have more structure and backbone than any others I have tried from northern Italy, they are age-worthy too,' Hay says.
Alto Adige reds available in the UK are, unsurprisingly perhaps, dominated by Pinot Nero, of which Hofstätter makes another outstanding interpretation. Although best known for his Gewürztraminer, Hofstätter’s Meczan Pinot Nero and more affordable Riserva Mazon are really delicious (available through Berkmann). The current 2016 vintage is a wonderfully nuanced, fruit-forward take on the famous variety.
With Alto Adige reds getting better and better thanks to the warming climate and improved wine-making, more will be seen in the UK soon.