A Romp Through Italy's Alto Adige Wine Region

(Originally published June 2003)

Alto Adige - it's not just for Pinot Grigio anymore!

There are so many Italian white wine varietals from so many confusingly diverse regions that it's no surprise that people seem to stick with the ubiquitous and usually inoffensive Pinot Grigio when slurping Italian whites. But Hanes trusts that his slavishly loyal readers can be as intrepidly bold as mighty Hanes himself. Especially after consuming a bottle or so of wine. So, he will now sing the praises of the Alto Adige region of Northern Italy, where the locals share many grape varieties with other perhaps more familiar European regions, making it a good place to start for any vinous explorer.

Alto Adige is first of all a tough place to get a grip on because of its geographical and cultural situation. The region lies in northernmost Italy, bordering Austria and Switzerland. Within Italy, Alto Adige borders Lombardy and Veneto. Thus, it enjoys many influences from these diverse cultures. A big part of this is the actual name of the region. A lot of people hyphenate Aldo Adige with its immediate Italian regional neighbor Trentino. That would make it Trentino-Alto Adige for those who are unfamiliar with the many uses of the hyphen.

But the fun doesn't stop there! Alto Adige is officially bilingual (that's "the funky bilingual" back in the day), and has a German speaking majority, having been part of Austria for 600 years until after World War I in 1920. So, the region also goes by the moniker of "Südtirol" or in plain old English "South Tyrol." The Alto Adige name comes from the Adige River that runs through the region, the "alto" part meaning "high" (no, they don't grow *that* there) since almost 65% of Alto Adige is over 5,000 feet. All this linguistic gymnastics is important because it effects wine labeling, particularly regarding the issue of labeling the grape varietal.

Alto Adige is surrounded by mountains, on one side the Rhaetian Alps and on the other the Dolomites. As a result, there's not much cultivable land and the land that can support grapes is mostly hillside terraces. This is a good thing if you are a grape because you like the drainage and sunlight exposure such inclines provide. This is a bad thing if you are a grape farmer since it makes it harder to work the land and harvest the grapes (they have lots of experience here as wine was grown in Alto Adige over 3,000 years ago). A positive by-product of these environmental conditions is that when they decide to plant grapes, it's a serious decision and they take good care of the vines and maintain high quality levels. 98.8% of the wine produced in Alto Adige meets the official Italian standards as "DOC" (denominazione di origine controllata) wine. This means that the wines are only from a specific geographic area of production, only certain grape varietals are used, and that specifications for the minimum alcohol content and the maximum yield are kept. On the whole, this ensures a basic minimal threshold for quality.

You'd never know it from the exports we see in the U.S., but Alto Adige produces more red wines than white, about 65% of the total production. Not a lot of this red wine is exported here but they deserve some note in passing. Why just in passing, Hanes? Err, because like we said there's not a lot of it around but just as importantly they can be, ahem, "idiosyncratic," and may take some warming up to. The most widely planted red grape is Schiava (aka Vernatsch) which represents approximately 80% of all red wines and makes for light to medium-bodied and generally undistinguished quaffers (for the nitpickers there are actually two strains, Schiava Grossa and Schiava Gentile). The most famous native red grape to Alto Adige is Lagrein but a lot of attention currently goes to those pesky "international" varietals Cabernet Sauvignon (in Italian, Cabernet-o Sauvignon-o -- just kidding!), Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Pinot Noir (really aka Pinot Nero or Blauburgunder). (Savvy readers will know that the best red wines in this general area are often those made from Teroldego in Trentino -- but those don't count for the purposes of this exegesis.)

Digressing further, some rosé wine is also made from Lagrein (and called Lagrein Kretzer) and dessert wine from Moscato Rosa (aka Rosenmuskateller for the sauerkraut eating crowd). OK, enough, back to the white wines!

As alluded to in Hanes's pithy opening line, Alto Adige is recognized more or less as the "home" of Italian Pinot Grigio (despite the fact that more Pinot Grigio is produced just southeast in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region). This is mostly because of the odious and overmarketed Santa Margherita (the self-styled "benchmark by which all others are judged" leading to the dumbass question "Do you have any Santa Margherita in the store?"). It's too bad that most Pinot Grigios are light-bodied easy sippers since this cements the wines' reputation among American consumers and often the more expensive but excellent examples are thus passed over as "too pricey for Pinot Grigio" (the $20+ Santa Margherita being the exception, even with over 350,000 cases made). That said, for Hanes at least, better overall wines from this grape come from Alsace in France where it is known as Pinot Gris.

The most captivating and interesting white wines are from aromatically floral and fruity grapes. Foremost among these is Gewürztraminer, a grape that is actually native to Alto Adige (named after the village of Tramin (aka Terlano in Italian)) even though it is more famously grown in Alsace. Known also as Traminer Aromatico (in the German the Gewürz- prefix means spicy as in "spicy Traminer"), the grape has its trademark litchee nut scent and flavor as well as citrus, peach, apricot, mineral things going on. In Alto Adige it's usually not as opulent as in Alsace and makes for a leaner, firmer wine that goes better with food.

There's no lack of alternative white grapes to choose from including (but never limited to!): Chardonnay; Malvasia; Moscato Giallo (Goldenmuskateller); Müller Thurgau; Pinot Bianco (Weissburgunder); Riesling Italico (Welschriesling in Austria, etc.); Riesling Renano (the Riesling grown in Germany); Sauvignon Blanc; and Sylvaner. These wines can run the full price gamut from cheapie to over $30 and beyond. Given the assumption that so much of the wines from Alto Adige seen in the U.S. are quality cheapies, Hanes believes that here (more than in many other wine regions) price is an indicator of quality and that you do get more bang with the more expensive wines. A bonus for some swillers is that not many wines from Alto Adige are excessively oaked, being on the whole fermented in stainless steel tanks (red wines labeled as "riserva" see at least two years in oak cask).

Although Hanes remains as open-minded as ever, his experiences to-date seem to indicate that the qualitative heights are more often scaled here by Sauvignon Blanc, Malvasia and Pinot Bianco. Given the broad ranges of choices, Hanes would say start here. If you like those really perfumed wines, the latter two are a good bet as is Moscato Giallo. If you like crisper white wines, first try Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling Renano or Sylvaner. Riesling Italico and Müller Thurgau are probably the most unique of the lot to an American palate so those might be best for more experimental moods.

If you've been paying attention (WAKE UP!), you're probably pretty confused by now. All these grapes and they each have like 27 names each. One might as well start by throwing darts at a board. Actually, this isn't such a bad idea. A slightly better idea might be to test some of these wines alongside some food. So, if you are looking for some food choices to match up with the wines of Alto Adige, eat what the natives chow down on. These include stuff like egg or bread dumplings, beef goulash, pork and apple strudel, potato pancakes, cabbage and pork stews, polenta, or smoked ham. Then invite your soon-to-be-erstwhile friends over for wine and dinner...

In retrospect the best part of writing this overview on Alto Adige was setting the record for most parenthetical comments used in a single The Hanes Wine Review article. Alto Adige, take a bow!