Alto Adige (Südtirol)
Location: Northern Italy, Trentino-Alto Adige
Grape(s): White: Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Gewurztraminer, Müller-Thurgau Kerner, Sylvaner, Sauvignon Blanc, Gruner-Veltliner, Chardonnay, Manzoni Bianco, Riesling, Viognier
Red: Lagrein, Schiava (Vernatch), Pinot Nero (Blauburgunder), Teroldego, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Moscato Rosa, Petit Verdot
Soil(s): Magre- mix of chalk, stone, gravel, (Dolomite soil), Bolzano- granite, schist, “Porfio”- volcanic soil in Bolzano, Glacial soils in the north- rich is mineral and small alluvial rocks
Climate: Continental- very hot sunny summers, cold winters, fairly dry
In the extreme north of Italy, nestled between the Rhaetian Alps to the west and the Tauern Alps to the east, is the region of Alto-Adige. Named after the Adige River that runs from the Alpine heights south, it lies in the northern part of the Trentino region centered around the city of Bolzano. Sheer cliffs and mountains reach to the sky and cover the entire landscape is a lush shade of green. Behind every towering green mountain stands another even higher peak, barren as its high points lie above the vegetation line, these are the Eastern Alps.
These mountains reach as high as 3,798m (12,361 ft), and block the intense storms from the north from entering the valley. This creates a cul-de-sac at the top of the Alto-Adige. Southerly winds bring in warm air that gets trapped in the bowl shaped valley, creating some of the warmest summer conditions in Italy. Bolzano is regularly 40˚C (104˚F) during the day, but at night the cool winds off the mountains bring the temperature down to 14˚-15˚C (57˚-59˚F). The afternoon heat is also moderated by the “Oro”, a constant westerly wind that starts blowing in the afternoon off Lake Garda. Grapes grow on both east and west facing slopes at a variety of elevations from 250m to 750m.
Driving through Italy, we quickly noticed a strange (to us newbies at least) phenomenon. Why is all the water green? Indeed, we had passed over many rivers and next to many lakes in Northern Italy and everyone was colored an enchanting shade of aquamarine. For a while, I just chalked it up to a reflection off the lush green mountains, until we saw it again in Friuli, where there were no huge green mountains to speak of. The investigation was on. Turns out, the types of rocks found in glacial rivers and lakes has a high concentration of “rock flour”, or minerals in suspension from the grinding action of the glacier. These rock particles refract the green spectrum of the sun’s light, giving the water that mesmerizing hue. When we realized that every river and lake in Northern Italy is fed by glacial flows, the mystery began to clear. There are many rivers, large and small, that weave throughout the valley. Around Bolzano, there are three that come together; the Adige from the northwest, the Talfa from the north, and the Isarco from the northeast (giving the name to the Valle Isarco DOC), all are glacial, and all are colored in the same shade of aquamarine. No matter the reason, I will always remember this part of the world as the land where the rivers flow green and the mountains respond in kind.
The Alto-Adige has two distinct cultures that meld together to form “Tyrolese”, a dialect that is not quite fully German nor is it all Italian either. Austria, to whom this region belonged until the Napoleonic Wars, is just 40 minutes to the north of Brennero, the town around Abbazia di Novacella, our 2nd stop. The region has a very alpine-Germanic look in its architecture and its people. The Italian influence is a little milder, and except for the language, the region does feel more German. While the Italians call this area the highest part of the Adige, to the Germans it is simply South Tyrol (a region in Austria bordering Italy). Historically, the region was first occupied by the Romans, then was a part of the Holy Roman Empire until it was ceded to Austria-Hungary in 1363. The Hapsburgs held control until 1803 when Napoleon conquered the region and it fell under the control of French-allied Bavaria. From then on, it was
“Live together with nature, not outside of it” was one of the first things Mr. Alois Lageder, 5th generation winemaker, conveyed to us in his stunning, state-of-the-art winery in Magré Sulla Strada del Vino. Built in 1995, the entire facility is a testament to the philosophy of Lageder; harmony with the surroundings, sustainability, and a meticulous attention to detail that leaves no small factor unchecked. Mr. Lageder is the leader of biodynamic winemaking in the Südtirol and has been since he took over the family winery in 1991. The family has owned this winery since 1823, and there has been a winery on this plot since 1855. In the foyer of the offices of Lageder stand three cubes of local soil filled with cover crop. Designed by Christian Philipp Müller for the opening of the winery, “On the Longing to Live in Harmony with Nature” is a testament to the diversity of soil types that can be found in the Adige. Each cover crop is different depending on the source. Mr. Lageder explained to us that we are standing to the south of the end of the glacial flows. The glaciers got as far as Bolzano, but never made it this far into the valley. As a result the soils in Magré are chalk, stones, and gravel (AKA Dolomite soil), and more conducive to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Riesling (I found that very surprising). In higher elevations, up to 3,000 ft, grow the cooler climate varietals such as Pinot Nero, Müller-Thurgau, and the native Gewurztraminer.
The Traminer grape derives its name from the town of Tramin just a few kilometers away. It originated here and spread to Switzerland and Germany, eventually settling in Alsace and Pfalz, among many other homes in the new world. Nowhere else does it exude the character is has here. The grape is floral, spicy, and driven by under ripe pitted fruits. There is absolutely nothing weighty or cloying about it, instead the mouth feel is very much laden in mineral. It has no notes honey (botrytis) or heavy Asian spices like saffron or cumin. It drinks like a light white wine with impressive acidity and an aromatic floral profile. The Traminer we tried in Lucca by Jermann had the same impressive cleanliness. It was a joy to experience at iteration of a grape we thought to be so familiar, yet having an altogether different side of its personality. A local tie in, In 1965 Gewurztraminer was crossed with Joannes Seyve 23.416 at the University of Illinois. The result was Traminette, an aromatic and more cold tolerant cross grown here in Missouri, particularly well by our friends at Chaumette Vineyards in Ste. Genevieve.
Back to Mr. Lageder. He told us that these cool climate grapes also benefit greatly from higher elevations, as they are able to capture more sunlight up there than their counterparts further down the slope. The morning hours are actually the time of day most crucial to photosynthesis as well. If the vines can receive more sun in the morning, they can turn out more sugars necessary for concentration and ripeness. These conclusions are based on many years of experimentation with plots, soil types, and varietals. Lageder was a pioneer here in the late 1980s when on the advice of Robert Mondavi, he planted non-local varieties for the first time. This was seen as an outrage, a bastardization of the local viticultural heritage. How dare this young, idealistic wine maker abandon the pergola system (used for the high yielding and fungus prone Lagrein and Schiava) in favor of growing French varietals? This is sacrilege! The pergola system was seen as a local specialty, it gave these vines a recognizable appearance that was not seen anywhere else in Italy at the time. The local authorities tried desperately to find some kind of law on the books against this, (having been long accepted as the local method of training, I was shocked to learn they did not have a law in place) and were unsuccessful. They had no choice but to let it happen. Not long thereafter, the practice had caught on and a new era in Alto-Adige winemaking had begun.
Lageder, as stated before, is a leader in biodynamic viticulture. Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian botanist, first proposed this approach in 1922. Due to the industrial boom in Germany at the time, he was seen as a regressive lunatic. After all, who in their right mind would doubt the wonderful precision of the industrial world in favor of “natural” winemaking that used things like cycles of the moon and natural pest prevention. His views were shunned and Steiner himself was found poisoned a few years later. His legacy continued to grow, and recently has become more and more popular in the winemaking community. To those (most of us) unfamiliar with what this is, let me diffuse a few common misconceptions.
- No, this is not a cross between winemaking and Wicken. No one dances around on the equinox and prays to the 4 winds for ample rain. What is true however, is that biodynamic viticulture does look at celestial events as a guide to when to plant, treat, and harvest the grapes. This is all due to the belief that grapes have a natural life cycle just as any of us, and it is partly governed by the motion of celestial bodies. Phases of the moon, positioning of the planets, etc are used as guide points in reference to the ideal time to do vineyard work.
- A biodynamic producer is not the equivalent of a gluten-free vegan diner, limited in choices by an ideology that leaves out many possibilities. The vineyard practices used are as diverse as those available to the modern commercial style of the process. There are many different vineyard management techniques that are available that do not leave an impact on the soil. For example, the horn silica that Mr. Lageder described is a natural solution used to control vigor in the vineyards. It seems to be working, as he put it “my vines are vital, not vigorous”. The Chardonnay growing in the Löwengang vineyard still had its original leaves in August, and the vines looked great despite the poor soil and lack of water. Instead of fighting mold with pesticides, biodynamic farming adapts to having them included in the natural ecosystem. Mold wants to attract itself to vegetation, so if your cover crop (Lageder has 20 different kinds) is tall enough or robust enough to attract the mold, there is no need for it to attack the vines. Need a way to help poor soil retain more moisture? Use more natural manure, in the earth (it is a natural absorbent). Not too much or the vigor of the vine will be thrown out of whack, balance is crucial.
- There is a reason why some new world producers pick grapes at 33 brix that still taste under ripe. A grapevine has a natural life cycle that gets thrown off by the use of chemicals that encourage vigor all the time. In this natural cycle, there is a period of growth (specifically of the canopy and cane) and a period of maturation (post-veraison). If the vine is constantly under pressure to produce more leaves, as is what Mr. Lageder believes happens when fertilizer is continuously applied, it never fully switches from growth to maturation. It is still focusing its efforts on producing leaves, when it should be concentration on filling the grape with not just sugars, but other compounds related to phenolic ripeness.
- Biodynamic winemaking is not necessarily more expensive. What one spends on labor cost associated with hand harvesting and non-mechanized vineyard management is partly offset by 0 chemical and fuel costs.
- Work in the cellar is totally modernized and produces a clean and tasty product. The facilities at Lageder are impressive. Everything is gravity fed, the entire winery is carbon emission free, the AC/heating are controlled by circulating exterior air down an opening between the outer wall of the winery and the 80 foot tall sheer rock face. The cellar was the first, and only, we visited that actually smelled like oak and not dank earth. While that may not seem as romantic, it is a testament to the cleanliness of the facilities. Absolutely no mold is let in, and the cellar is still cool and humid.
To summarize, biodynamic viticulture aims to leave the land in a better state than it was before. It is a methodology that strives for the coexistence of nature and farming. The less you put in, the better the product that comes out. This is quite difficult to achieve, as it requires years of dedication and trial and error. Everything about the farming process is localized down to the plot, and everything takes time to find the perfect equilibrium. It is an interventionist approach that aims to intervene as little as possible. Everything that is done in the vineyard is an attempt to restore the natural balance between the earth and the vine. The wine is treated as a living, breathing organism. It even listens to Bach as it ages. The concept here is loosely drawn on the controversial ideas of Masaru Emoto, that more elegant water crystals are formed when water is subjected to classical music, and good thoughts. This is why the cellar at Lageder plays Bach, the master of harmony. His music stretches out the aging process, making it take its time, smoothing it out. Whether Emoto is right or not, the cellar is quite serene. The biodynamic approach can lead to some of the most interesting and unique wines in the world (Nicolas Joly in the Loire, Domaine Leroy in Burgundy, Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace), and to wines that have great freshness and purity of fruit right out of the get-go or 10 years later. Critics challenge the methods as being unnecessary, that the same results can be achieved with simple organic farming. It is true that part of the quality of these wines comes as a result of great level of experience and meticulous attention to detail. On the other hand, who are we to tell such brilliant masters of their craft how to make their wines? If Mr. Lageder wholly believes this approach yields the best results for the end product and the environment, then I will readily accept it based on the caliber of producer and the quality of his wines.
The winery makes two lines, the Tenuta Lageder (Estate owned vineyards) and the Alois Lageder (grapes purchased from small growers). The winery has long standing relationships with its farmers, some going back 50 years. Cultivation methods are known and trusted, and production is usually exclusive to Lageder. The “buy on trust” system utilized for valuing the grapes is set up to reward farmers for quality not quantity, and grape prices are negotiated prior to harvest. The company makes 32 wines from 18 varietals, sourced from all over the Südtirol. Starting in 2009, all of the Tenuta Lageder wines will be Demeter Certified, the highest praise for biodynamic winemaking.
It would take many pages to describe each one, so we will stick with the highlights. For us these were the 1999 Löwengang Chardonnay and the 2000 “Cor Romigberg” Cabernet Sauvignon. The ageability of these wines was profound. The citrus and apples on the Chard were ripe, yet crisp. The malolactic hints were present, but in the background. The wine was mineral driven and high in acid, great after 13 years! The Cab was everything that is to be expected from a 12 year old high quality wine produced from 100-120yr vines. Concentrated, brooding, rustic and just coming around. Both with lunch were superb.
One fun side note, the 1999 Löwengang Cabernet , labeled as Alto Adige/Südtiroler Cabernet DOC , was actually a blend of 35% Carmenère, 30% Cabernet Franc, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 20% Merlot. This is due to the age of the vineyard (over 100 years old), and the fact that no one was able to notice that these grapes were not all Cabernet Sauvignon. When tests were finally done, the secret was out, but the appellation was never changed.
Another side note, Lagrein- a local indigenous grape, is a cross of Teroldego and Schiava (the latter is disputed). Teroldego is related to both Pinot Noir and Mondeuse, which is one of the parent grapes of modern Syrah. The similarity of Lagrein to Syrah can be seen, but it is a far stretch to compare one to the other.
Final side note, since 1995 (according to Mr. Lageder) there have been only a few vintages that have been “average”, those being 1998 and 2001. Every other vintage has been great to spectacular. The effects of climate change here mean warmer, drier summers and later autumns, both are great for the winemaking process. He hopes the trend continues, but he is also prepared to face the negative aspects of this reality- drought, smaller diurnal variations, different types of vineyard diseases. He said that everything Lageder does looks toward the future, and right now that future involves hotter temperatures. With all of this experience at their back, I feel confident they will succeed. Mr. Lageder’s other personal favorite vintages were 2002, 2004 (his absolute favorite), and 2011.
Our visit to Alois Lageder was punctuated after lunch by seeing a 410 year old vine still producing grapes. It had by this point split into 2 vines, but the history of the region was personified in this cane. The ability to walk the vineyards with a living icon of biodynamic winemaking was an honor.
Key Wines: Too Many To Count. Visit Them at http://www.aloislageder.eu/en/wineselection
Our second visit took us much further north, to the extreme upper end of the valley. Here, standing at an elevation of 350m stands the Abbazia di Novacella (Abbey of Novacella). Founded in 1142 by Augustine monks, it still serves as a working parish with 24 canons (scholarly men of the cloth) still living on the grounds. The Abbey looks quite impressive from the outside having gone through various expansions that took it from the original Romantic architectural style of the 12th century through the Gothic style of the 15th and finally the Baroque of the 17th. At the center of the courtyard stands an impressive eight-faceted fountain that depicts St. Augustine on one face, and the Seven Wonders of the Natural World on the others. The Augustine Order is an intellectual one, evidenced by the impressive original library dating back to the 16th century that houses some of the oldest surviving manuscripts written by the order. There are books that go back all the way to the13th century, like the one shown below, and the entire Abbey is a historical treasure trove of canonical, historic, musical, and other disciplines going back many centuries. The church itself was spared from destruction during WWII, except for one chapel that has since been rebuilt. Out of respect for the order, we did not take pictures inside the church, but it is an awe-inspiring sigil to the Baroque era architecture that adorns its interior. Inside are statues of 365 different angels, reliefs symbolizing tales from scripture, even a few murals that flow into reality as the painting melds perfectly with surrounding sculptures to reveal what could best be described as the earliest attempt at 3D. In one painting, a soldier’s foot protrudes into our dimension, in another a book. Everywhere in the cathedral, there are signs of a vibrant, inviting space that was a sure awe to the people of its time. The entire space is finished in pink plaster and has a strong affection for light and joy. This was definitely not a grim Gothic cathedral, instead a celebration of the faith. It was a space designed to feel transcendent instead of pius. All in all, stunning.
As services were about to begin, our guide and Export Manager Costanza Maag showed us around the winery. The current winemaker Celestino Lucino (fitting, huh?) has made a dedication to a clean and modern style of winemaking, and the facilities reflect the choice. The entire space emits no carbon, and the entire facility is fueled by a giant wood burning incinerator just behind the winery. Only 2 white wines see any oak aging, the Sylvaner and the Pinot Grigio. The desired effects are only for a higher level of micro-oxygenation and the wines do not show any outward wood notes due to the old barrels used in aging. The estate vineyards are a maximum of 25 years old, we were told that due to the extreme stress to the vines, they do not survive longer than that. Also, that since the soil is extremely laden in mineral, roots don’t have to reach as far down to provide that flavor profile. I personally disagree on both counts, but the winery seems to have a good grasp on its terroir and I will not go further in my criticism. The rest of the grapes are purchased from farmers with a long historical connection to the Abbey.
Abbazia di Novacella makes 22 different wines from 12 different varieties. They are separated into two lines, the standard and the Praepositus line which are vineyard selection wines that sometimes see extended aging and are picked from the best parcels. The cleanliness of the wines was very evident from the beginning. The Veltliner was quite different from its Kamptal and Wachau brothers, but was a great wine nonetheless. It did not have minerality as intense as the former, but still carried across the essence of citrus, green apple, cucumber, and white pepper as Gruner should. Starting in 2010, the wines can actually be labeled with the full name of the varietal, Gruner Veltliner. The Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon, and Gewurztraminer were all solid as well. The two varietals that stole the show were for me Sylvaner, and for Brandon Riesling. The Preapositus Sylvaner was the most complex expression of that grape I have yet to run across. Notes of yellow pear, almond, white peach, cantaloupe, sunflowers, and parsnips balanced the minerality and acidity beautifully. The oak aging was not noticeable at all. The Riesling had the characteristic petrol and mineral notes we had not yet seen from this grape in Italy. Along with yellow apple, meyer lemon, grapefruit brulée, and cilantro it was definitely the best Italian Riesling I have ever had. The small (60 case) production made it tough to acquire, bummer… The reds were interesting as well, with the 2009 Preapositus Reserve Pinot Noir being the standout. The extended aging in barrel contributed notes of cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg to round out the ripe cherry and raspberry fruit notes. The acidity was still elevated, it tasted like a true well crafted Pinot Noir should. The dessert wines were a treat as well. The Praepositus Passito Kerner may have been my favorite wine of the flight (those who know me won’t find that surprising- I love the sweet sticky stuff!). It had notes on mango, pineapple, apricot, and honey intertwined with lavender and sweet white flowers. The last one had a great story to go along with an interesting wine. It was a 2010 Praepositus Moscato Rosa. There are only 5 hectares of this grape under vine in Europe, with 1.5 hectares at Novacella. It was transplanted from Calabria by a past winemaker due to his affinity for the grape. Originally it was grown to serve as an energy plant, the original Red Bull, for harvest workers to combat exhaustion with extra sugar. It smelled of maraschino cherries (those sweet iridescent ones in your Manhattans) and white chocolate. Interesting, but not outstanding.
Reeds Wine List:
Key Wines: Pinot Nero, Lagrein, Riesling, Gruner-Veltliner, Traminer, Sylvaner, “Praepositus” Line