Finally, after months of discussing the former glories of Orvieto’s wine and the obscure, unusual and almost impossible to find wines of Ischia, the wine guy gets a ‘juicy’ topic to talk about: Bolzano. Hmm…Where, oh where to begin? Bolzano sits on the valley floor, sandwiched between the Alps and the Dolomites, in the upper Adige river valley, known in Italian as the Alto Adige, in an area that once was part of Austria in the southern part of the Tyrol area, known in German as Südtirol. While the residents in these parts learn Italian from early on in school, they remain steadfastly Germanic in their ways, preferring to speak German whenever possible.
As such the wine labels are also usually written bilingually. Bolzano (Bozen in German) is an excellent example of how Altitude means so much when it comes to the wines of Italy than latitude. The mistake is often made of associating wines of the south as being dark, ripe and rustic with high alcohol, while the wines of the north are expected to be more elegant in structure and with greater finesse due to their cooler provenance.
One has only to put an Alto Adige Lagrein along side an Aglianico del Vulture from the Basilicata region (the arch of the ‘boot’) to see that this is very misleading. The latter wine comes from high-altitude vineyards and shows a refined and linear structure with a nice backbone of acidity, while the Lagrein is dark, low in acidity and exudes exotic perfumes of very ripe fruit. The fact of the matter is that the city of Bolzano registers some of the hottest summertime temperatures in all of Italy, in spite of the fact that it is so far in the north. Yet very different temperature can be found in the surrounding mountains, where at higher altitudes white wine varietals fare somewhat better.
With a few exceptions, most of the varietals growing in the Alto Adige are transplants from France or Germany: Pinot Bianco, Grigio and Nero (Blanc, Gris and Noir en français), Cabernet, Merlot, Kerner, Riesling, Müller Thurgau, and Sylvaner to name a few. While the area produces more red wine than white, it is the white wines that have been more present in the US market through the years. The most common red varietal to this day is the local Schiava aka Vernatsch, used to make light, soft and simple reds, great for sipping at a BBQ but nothing too profound. Pinot Nero grows very well in the hills, making wines of considerable finesse, but the real rising star up here is the aforementioned Lagrein, especially around the outer city limits of Bolzano at lower altitudes. Its name is believed to come from the Lagarina valley to the south in the Trentino and it is believed to be a distant relative of the Pinot Nero, but the wine it produces is considerably different.
As I already mentioned, the wine is considerably rich in fruit, yet relatively moderate in alcohol and acidity and chock-full of perfume. Among my favorite examples of Lagrein are Muri Gries, a Benedictine monastery that has been doing this for just a couple of centuries, Josephus Mayr, one of the real artisan masters, and the Cantina Terlan, whose “Porphyr” bottling always ranks among the best. When discussing Lagrein, I would be remiss not to mention the Lagrein Kretzer, perhaps Italy’s best Rosé designation. Named for the Kretze, a basket used to separate grape must from the skins in olden times, it is perfumed and textured, something that so many rosés lack these days.
When moving out into the hills around Bolzano, with the exception of Pinot Nero, wines get turn whiter. Oh c’mon Mr. I-Never-Like-White-Wine, get off your high horse! You’re missing out on half of the fun! I have a lot of fun introducing people who tell me that they don’t like white wine to the whites of the Alto Adige. Their mineral-accented fruit and bracing acidity are great with fresh-water fish as well as shellfish. Producers to look for are Colterenzio, whose “Weisshaus” Pinot Bianco is a reference point for what the varietal can achieve in these parts. Look also for the “Schulthauser” Pinot Bianco of the St. Michael Eppan winery, or for that matter, anything from the St. Michael Eppan winery, especially their “Sanct Valentin” line, made from the best fruit they can get from their extensive holdings.
I could go on forever with this! There is so much variety from the Alto Adige that the only real way to discover this kind of magic is to come down to Babbo and let us pull some corks for you! Hope to see you soon!