APRIL 2019 ITALIAN WINE CLUB

 

SPRINGTIME IN THE DOLOMITES: ALTO ADIGE PART 1

 

Driving through the valley along the Adige river is an entirely unique Italian experience. The second you cross the into the Alto Adige, you may suspect that you have accidentally crossed into Austria. The architecture, the language on the road signs, the food, and yes, even the physical appearance of the locals tell you you’ve reached Austria. The actual border is still about two hours away by car, but more than anywhere else in Italy, there is evidence that (over centuries) the invisible political line has been moved several times. The wines of Alto Adige have an equally blended past. In this months club we share with you four amazing bottles, while not made from truly ‘indigenous’ Italian grape varieties, from grapes which are no less important to the identity of this Italian region. In fact, the history and the success that these well-traveled grapes share make them every bit a pure expression of the Südtirol (South Tyrol) culture – a truly magical and unique region of Italy.

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WINE NO. 1

Raetia
Kerner
Appiano (Eppan an der Weinstraße), Alto Adige 2016

GRAPE

KERNER [kER-nur]

A white grape variety that is actually a cross breed between Riesling (yum!) and a very light skinned red grape called Vernatsch (or Schiava, also yum!) Kerner is one of a few successful Riesling hybrids from Germany and, as you might imagine, is easily recognized by it’s delightfully floral aromatics. But beyond the nose, what makes this grape truly unique is the slightly textured finishing grip (from the Schiava side of the family tree, of course..)

GROWER

If you can imagine the Alto Adige region in your mind it’s really easy to understand that land ownership is complicated at best. The habitable areas are all within narrow valleys between steep inclined terrain, pointed straight up into the Alps. So it is no wonder that the majority of wineries in this region are a ‘co-op’ of multiple, sometimes dozens, of independent organic farmers working together to produce some wonderful wines. This particular cooperative has been working with the highly influential Italian importer Marc de Grazia for years to create some truly exemplary mountain wines.

GLASS

Kerner can get pretty darn ripe and tropical and in some cases a bit too viscous, but here those attributes are complemented by more complex flavors like sweet fennel and lemongrass. There is a lot of beeswax and slightly bitter grapefruit skin lending this wine a wonderfully tactile mouthfeel as well. An alpine wine through and through. I’ll even go so far as to say that if you close your eyes you can taste the freshly fallen snow. Is it odd to taste snow and ripe guava at the same time? A small amount of air goes a long way with this white wine and even though chilling it down in the snowbank outside is tempting, it certainly opens up beautifully as it warms slightly in the glass.

SIDE NOTES

Named for the local mountain inhabitant ‘Raetians’ in 2000 BC, who were later conquered by the Romans, the cooperative also produces wine under the label San Pietro. The benefit of a co-op like this is that the price point of their wines can often be much more user friendly, amazingly, as the fruit can sometimes come from breathtaking small vineyard plots all the way up to 900 meters! (That’s 2700 ft to you and me, kids)

WINE NO.2

Manni Nössing
Grüner Veltliner
Bressanone (Brixen), Alto Adige 2017

GRAPE

GRÜNER VELTLINER [grü-ner velt-li-ner]

This is certainly a grape variety you may be familiar with as an Austrian native. Austrian Grüner is also a wine that has two very different reputations: either cheap and chuggable out of a liter bottle and under a crown cap or super serious and structured with searing acidity. The great examples like this from the Italian side of the border are certainly much more towards the later, and also have their own unique identity due to the extremes in elevation.

 

GROWER

Manni Nössing is nestled near the very top of the Italian boundary and his vines are among some of the highest in the region starting at just over 2,000 ft and straight up from there. Despite the fact that the growing season is shorter and the nights often quite cool, the fact is that these vines see some very intense sun and hot temperatures during the height of summer. Manni has learned to create an unusually hearty canopy of leaves to keep his grapes protected in the shade to prevent overexposure- his knowledge of everything in viticulture and winemaking has been learned from both his family and his land, rather than formal training.

 

GLASS

Sometimes it’s the easy drinkers that bring joy to people’s palates, but it was my first Grüner Veltliner that made me into a believer and true appreciator of the complexities of white wines. This one reminds me of that experience to a Tee. Aromatically subtle, especially at first, a subtlety more the product of our expectations of white wines being fruit forward. This wine, by contrast, is mineral forward. Think of mountain spring water rolling over granite and flint. It also has alluring vegetal qualities that are typical of Grüner, like celery (even celery salt) and snap peas. This is what we nerds mean when we call a wine ‘crunchy.’

SIDE NOTES

Located so very close to the Austrian border, this wine looks and reads the least like an Italian wine out of all of them. The bottle is the traditional slender and tall shape associated with top quality wines from both Germany and Austria. Eisacktaler (German for ‘of the Valle Isarco’) is the DOC that covers the northeast valley along the Isarco river.

WINE NO.3

Weingut Niklas
Schiava
Caldero (Kaltern), Alto Adige 2016

GRAPE

SCHIAVA [ski-YAva] / (aka VERNATSCH, aka TROLLINGER)

This is actually the most widely planted grape in the Alto Adige, despite the fact that the overall percentage of grapes grown favor white over red (60/40). Only recently have these fresh single varietal Schiavas been imported stateside as opposed to simply being consumed locally. How could Americans be interested in this tart and light bodied red? A few delicious wines from the St. Magdalener DOC wines have helped pave the way – always Schiava but with a small amount of Lagrein (inky dark native grape) blended into it for both color and backbone. But  the demand of great importers like Oliver McCrum (with a plate of speck in front of him) has finally brought more of this pale colored charmer to our shores. Viva Schiava!

GROWER

Dieter Sölva is the man behind the wines at Niklas. He tends some of the more picturesque vineyards along the Isarco River and in the lower Valley. His wines showcase truly pure benchmark examples of the local grape varieties and, more importantly, the culture they come from. All of these wines are fermented and aged in stainless steel as opposed to any use of oak at all. Not uncommon in this area, but important to Dieter to note that his wines express the land and the fruit in harmony, without other ‘flavor’ influences.

GLASS

This wine is simply beautiful to look at. Not quite a rosé, but somewhere in a pale garnet and a red Sockeye Salmon in color. Bitter orange peel,  Alpine strawberries, hibiscus and powdered dark cocoa. Most often Schiava is enjoyed young and fresh, but because this has an extra year in bottle it is showing some nice tertiary flavors beyond simply bright tart and fruity. In fact those fine dusty tannins that linger on the finish makes this wine seem like a ‘Nebbiolo Light.’ Certainly some high praise for this little mountain wine that could.

SIDE NOTES

If you’re well versed in Alto Adige wines it is important to know that this wine should technically be labeled ‘Kalterersee Auslese,’ one of two ‘Cru’ designated sites for the highest quality Schiava (the other being St. Magdalena.) Understandably, however, this term is super confusing to consumers who commonly know ‘Auslese’ in reference to later harvested and often sweeter German Rieslings.

WINE NO.4

Ebner ‘Blauburgunder’
Pinot Noir
Campodazzo (Atzwang), Alto Adige, 2016

GRAPE

PINOT NOIR  [pee-no nwär]

Also Blauburgunder (in German literally ‘blue burgundy’) or sometimes Spätburgunder, and in Italian it’s called Pinot Nero. Pinot is a obviously still the ‘it’ grape to so many fans and has found pockets of ideal growing spots in some wildly interesting places. I have two personal favorites: here, high up in the Dolomite mountains in the Alto Adige is certainly one of them; the other actually shares similar growing challenges (and benefits) but happens to be on the completely opposite side of the globe in Central Otago, New Zealand.

GROWER

Located in the southern portion of the Isarco Valley, Ebner enjoys slightly longer days of sunshine than many other local growers in areas where the valley narrows. It is also because their vineyards are idyllically south facing and are grown on incredibly steep angles. Something that we simply don’t ever come close to seeing here in the US. They are a very small hidden gem of a producer that are bound to be harder and harder to find once the ravenously thirsty fan base of Alto Adige wines truly take notice.

GLASS

This is the kind of Pinot that gets me all giddy. The nose is dried flowers and a touch of clove and a slight smokey whiff of roasting coffee beans.  Bright red raspberries, tart cherries and a spicy nerve from the cool alpine nights and high altitude vines. Perhaps this goes down a little too easy, but if you let it linger a bit in your mouth the length on this wine is remarkable. The acidity just holds that sumptuousness fresh fruit forever as it fades away into a crunchy minerality seldom experienced in red wine. You don’t have to slow down, of course, just know you’re likely going to want some more of this one on hand.

SIDE NOTES

More translations; Weingut is German for winery, where in Italian Tenuta means Estate. Interesting that they give both the German and Italian word there as well as with the region; Südtirol / Alto Adige on the front label, but don’t indicate the Italian ‘Pinot Nero’ until the back label. Better for us that they keep this one slightly secret anyhow.