by Rodger Morris
The winegrowers of Italy’s Alto Adige region re-define their identity
Alto Adige is a fountain of fresh, flavorful, food-friendly white wines, the source of perhaps the best Pinot Noir made in Italy, and the home of an increasingly popular, spicy, full red wine made from an indigenous grape called Lagrein.
Wolfgang Klotz, winemaker at H. Lun winery, and his colleagues in the region want to be sure American consumers know about them. Sitting in the garden restaurant at the Hotel Laurin in Bolzano on a warm evening at the beginning of the 2006 harvest, Klotz sips a colleague’s Sauvignon Blanc and rattles off his most-recent U.S. destinations. "I’ve been to California, Vegas, Portland, Seattle, and New York this year," he says. "Five years ago, no one I talked to knew about Lagrein. Now, most of the shop owners I meet carry them."
There are literally dozens of wineries from Alto Adige exporting to the U.S.—Franz Haas, Alois Lageder, Sanct Valentin (S. Michael-Eppan), Tiefenbrunner, and Peter Zemmer to name just a few of the more popular brands—yet consumers and retailers could be forgiven if they’re still hazy about the region even if they’re drinking the wines.
That’s because Alto Adige is trying to overcome its double image. The picturesque area, tucked into the Dolomite chain of the northeast Italian Alps, was a part of Austria until it was given to Italy after World War I. As part of Austria, it was known as the South Tyrol, or Südtirol, and many bottles today still bear that appellation because most grape farmers and winemakers speak German, while urban residents are more likely to speak Italian as their first language. Thus, many wineries have two names—one Italian and one German.
But however it’s known, Alto Adige is a delightful Shangri-La of deep valley vineyards warmed by hot winds from the Adriatic Sea and high-mountain bench land plots with views of snow-covered Alps. This is also one of Europe’s prime areas for producing apples and pears, which grow in orchards along the flat bottomland of the Adrige River and its tributary, the narrow-valley Eisack. Bolzano, the regional capital, nestles against the mountains where the two streams are joined.
In 2005, more than 33,600 hectoliters, or about 4.5 million bottles of wine, were exported from this verdant region to the United States—a 143 percent increase over 2001. White wine is by far the most popular import—almost 90 percent—but red wine sales are increasing at a much more rapid rate, led on by sharp growth in Pinot Noir, Lagrein, and blends. Among the whites, Pinot Grigio is still the most popular with Americans, although volume slipped slightly during the four-year period, while Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay have had nice increases. Unlike in most European regions, co-operatives in Alto Adige are competitive with single-owner wineries in both quality and in marketing ability.
"The U.S. is already our second-biggest market for our wines, and it’s still growing," says Thomas Augscholl, who heads the regional Chamber of Commerce marketing operations. Augscholl says that until about 10 years ago most Alto Adige wine was sold locally and in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria, their traditional markets.
Most wineries in Alto Adige practice sustainable or "green" agriculture in one form or another, and Lageder is a leader in this movement, along with Count Michael Goess-Enzenberg of Manincor. The Lageder Winery, which plays soothing music and projects floating images for the sleeping wine on the barrel room walls, produces its own energy, and the vineyards have sustainable agricultural on the way to attaining biodynamic status. Anticipating long-term consequences of global warming, Lageder has imported Viognier and Roussane vines from the warmer Rhone Valley for test vineyards, should the area change its growing profile.
But for now, Pinot Noir is the variety that is exciting some producers.
In addition to the post-"Sideways" mania for Pinot Noir among American drinkers, the lucrative U.S. Italian restaurant market is thirsty for an Italian-grown Pinot, which has been somewhat of a rarity.
Which must seem both amusing and tempting to Göess-Enzenberg. Standing outside his new underground winery near Caldoro looking very cosmopolitan, he tells how he interned at the Pinot-producing Babcock Winery during the 1986 harvest in Santa Barbara County. "Believe it or not," he says with a wry grin, "I actually enjoyed being a cellar rat."
Has he seen the Pinot Noir-promoting "Sideways?"
"Oh, yes," he says with a touch of nostalgia. "I ate often at the Hitchin' Post," a familiar night-time haunt in the film. Some day soon, a Manincor Pinot Noir.
2005 Alois Lageder Portico Dei Leoni Bianco
Blend of primarily Pinot Grigio and Pinot Blanc grapes has delightful, complex flavors of citrus, apples, and pears.
2004 Caldaro Saltern Pinot Nero
Very fresh and fruity, but dry with light gaminess and ripe cherries; finishing note of earthy charcoal. Good example of northern Italian Pinot Noir.
2004 Elena Walch Beyond the Clouds
Chardonnay-dominated blend has delicious aromas and tastes of tropical fruits and smooth, integrated oak.
2004 S. Maddalena Perl Lagrein
Pretty cherries and creamy oak with typical Lagrein spice and almond bitters in the finish – very good food wine.
2004 Tiefenbrunner Liniticlarus Chardonnay
A lovely, languid wine – soft vanilla and honey aromas and flavors with a touch of cream.
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