Alto Adige: Part II – The Wines
While the inspiring Alto Adige alpine basin landscape is undeniably alluring, confronting a flight of mid-term, bottle-aged white wines from the region’s leading cooperatives is utterly compelling. Single varietal bottlings of Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Gewurztraminer along with blended versions involving even more varietals were unanimously distinctive and serious wines. Despite the fact these wines are mostly made in cooperatives offering entry level, mid level, and upper level product, all of the wines were authentic ambassadors for their Alto Adige varietal character and none seemed mass produced. Each bottle offers unique definition of style that was clearly born in the vineyard and respected by winemakers keen on capturing and protecting terroir. Alto Adige white wines are serious, offer strong value, and many can be included in any list of the finest white wines in all of Italy.
Our flight of wines paraded recognizable regional commonality. All of these Alto Adige white wines had consistently rich and lush textures that never resulted in overly fat or flabby palate impressions. Significant concentration and velvet mouthfeels reverberated as a common regional characteristic despite the wines coming from scattered Südtirol vineyards to the north and south, and from varying altitudes. Second, these finely textured wines finished crisp and with good acidity, providing structure and balance to the weighty richness. And finally, the wines offered distinctly different, but authentically unique, interpretations of the same varietals grown elsewhere in Italy (Pinot Grigio from the Veneto and Friuli region) and around Europe (Gewurztraminer from Alsace or the Rhine), often with more restraint, purity of fruit, balance, minerality, and finesse. All the wines’ current 2009 releases are priced beween $24 and $55, representing outstanding values in today’s market for the finest white wines with aging potential.
Here is a rundown (and shopping list) of the wines we tasted, grouped by star ratings inclusive of prices for current releases:
$40 Alois Lageder Chardonnay Löwengang, 2002– Utterly mind blowing and a completely appropriate value substitute for Grand Cru Burgundy in strong vintages. The winery was founded in 1823 and is currently operated by the family’s fifth generation. While 2002 was a terrible vintage in Italy overall, it was obviously better in Alto Adige, where the mountains are credited with defying the country’s otherwise terrible weather. The fruit comes from 45-60 year old vines. Stylistically Burgundian, using natural yeast and aged for eleven months on the lees in half new barriques, it maintains great structure, balance, and a pleasantly creamy mouthfeel. Combines hints of tropical notes, chalk, nuttiness, and acidity all adding up to a fully integrated wine of noble finesse. You will be challenged to pay $40 or less for a white wine that can replicate top Burgundy wine the way this one does six years following its release. A major “buy” recommendation.
$36 San Michele Appiano Pinot Grigio St. Valentin, 2006- Some butter and oak mixing with bright grapefruit on the nose. The wine is fermented in new barriques and then sits a half year on the lees in stainless steel. It shows the regionally familiar super rich and weighty mouthfeel but does not come off fat. It has pear and apple notes, fresh and not heavy in the mouth, finishing crisply with appropriate acid zing.
$48 Caldaro Sauvignon Castel Giovanelli, 2007-Initially showing bright Sauvignon varietal notes, then touches of earthiness. Bright berries, peach, and again, a rich and impressive mouthfeel with an elegant and lengthy finish.
$35 Tramin Gerwurztraminer Nussbaumer, 2004-Flowers on the nose pleasingly make way for minerality to shine through and create balance and integration that seems to define this varietal in Alto Adige. Obvious lychee sweetness, this wine was most impressive for its richness and weight and was easily the fattest wine of the bunch. Of the two Gewruztraminers, it is probably closer to the style of Gewurztraminer I am more familiar with from places like Alsace and the Rhine.
$55 Terlan Nova Domus Terlaner Riserva, 2005- Light yellow in color, a blend of Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc, it is suggested that this wine is best drunk with 2-3 years of bottle age and that it is “better to drink a bottle than a glass”. It shows stone fruit notes with significant acidity, complexity, and that ever present richness and long finish. A lovely wine with good finesse and balance.
$40 Franz Haas Cuvée Manna, 2004- Here is a blend made from Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon, and Gewurztraminer. All of the fruit is sourced within a five square mile area in the Southwest of Alto Adige, but altitudes and soils change from 700-2000 feet. Consistent terroir? You call it. Anyway, it is a fun wine to drink with a very deep yellow color, quince, tropical fruit, herbs, and that characteristic rich mouthfeel. For all that is going in and has gone into the wine, with some varietals fermented in wood, some only in steel before blending and then beginning a resting period on top of their lees, it continues to cling to a restrained and classy style. Fun, but serious in the same sip.
$29 Peter Zemmer Gewurztraminer Reserve, 2006- The reserve notation in Alto Adige refers to the legal requirement preventing release prior to the 2nd January following production. It is a highly aromatic wine with sweet bursts or nectar, very ripe peach, nuts, flowers, a touch of citrus and one more time, that purity and richness on the palate.
$24 Nals Margreid Pinot Grigio Punggl, 2007- This was the first wine we tasted and it made me sit up straight and pay attention. Entirely unique with chalk, melon rind, and herbs on the nose it was mildly complex and nicely structured in the finish. The rich luscious mouthfeel was absolutely the single finest and most interesting highlight about this wine, and the finesse, balance, and integration that was more evident in the other wines did not come through in as pronounced fashion. Still a very good wine and example of Alto Adige style, but just not the best of the bunch.
There is an absence of cute flashiness in these wines that might distract from their pure fruit representation and varietal identity. As such, they exist as tremendous food wines and a really satisfying fine wine indulgence all at once. Their ability to age was proven in this tasting. Go and enjoy the discovery of Alto Adige’s serious winemaking culture, and definitely consider paying a visit to this region straddling Italy, Austria, Switzerland, alpine mountains, and Mediterranean influenced valleys.
P.S. If the wines sound interesting but you missed Alto Adige: Part I, then this pictorial overview and regional summary is worth reading. It will cement your intrigue.