This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
Where in the world would you be offered pasta and dumplings on the same plate of appetisers, served by an Italian in a Dirndl? Welcome to the tiny region known to its inhabitants as either Alto Adige and Südtirol, depending on whether their first language is Italian or German. In this part of the world in the far north of Italy, snowcapped alps overlook the narrow Adige/Etsch valley through which threads one of the main traffic routes between northern and southern Europe. The architecture is more Heidi than Il Postino and the Konditoreien of Merano are full of well dressed Austrian visitors enjoying the extent to which their own culture persists here in the “southern Tyrol”. The locals identify closely with them and tend to describe visitors from the south as coming “from Italy”.
Children are sent to either Italian- or German-speaking schools. Culturally mixed education is banned, so strongly does the German-speaking population (mostly farmers) fear that their culture will disappear as Mussolini intended. Instead, it is vigorously sustained, with considerable help from the coffers of Rome. The region is virtually autonomous apart from the national police force demanded by the fact that it is on Italy’s northern border. “There is still a little bit of tension between Italian speakers and German speakers here,” admitted wine producer Wilhelm Walch as he drove me to the airport from a quick visit there last year, a journey interrupted by the closure of the autostrada while a bomb was dismantled. This happens two or three times a year, I was told, for the Americans bombed the valley heavily at the end of the second world war to try to halt the German retreat. “The Italian speakers think we German speakers are too dull. We think the Italians are too loud and disorganised. But if everyone has enough money, it makes a big difference.”
The meteorological climate is as attractive as the economic climate here. It lured Wilhelm Walch’s wife Elena from her architectural career in Milan for instance, with its 300 days of sunshine a year and crisp mountain air reliably cooled every night even at the height of summer, which is so dry that irrigation ditches are everywhere. And every afternoon at around three o’clock, to the delight of windsurfers on the little Lago di Caldaro/Kalterersee, a breeze blows up the valley from Lake Garda.
Last November in the warm autumn sunshine Elena Walch showed me an olive tree she had planted at the end of a row of Cabernet Sauvignon vines “to show just how Mediterranean our climate is”. Vine students will know just how long a growing season is needed to ripen Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.
In these narrow valleys, the flat land is devoted to apples. You have almost certainly eaten many an apple bearing a Südtirol sticker for this small region produces one tenth of all the apples grown in the European Union. Apples can be a highly profitable crop and there has been a tendency for grape growers to seek the same sort of return, which in the past resulted in high grape yields and some rather dilute wines. Grapes grown on the lower slopes may also ripen too fast to build up much flavour anyway. But on the cooler, higher slopes Alto Adige vines are well capable of delivering wines that are precise, expressive and are obviously mountain wines, with all the elegance and refreshment that implies. They are increasingly recognised as presenting a more keenly priced challenge to Friuli, Italy’s leading white wine region. Cantina Nals Margreid’s basic Pinot Bianco 2005 is £5.99 at Valvona & Crolla of Edinburgh for example, while their more intense Punggl Pinot Grigio 2006 is £7.99 if two bottles of Italian wine are bought from Majestic.
Patrick Sandeman is one half of Lea & Sandeman, a UK importer of top quality Italian wines which has so far ignored Alto Adige at the expense of Friuli. After tasting a wide range of current releases from Alto Adige recently, he admitted that it was high time he reconsidered the region. The fact that Alto Adige wines tend to be a little more aromatic and fruity than their Friuli counterparts no longer seems the disadvantage it did in the era before the Riesling revival.
Alto Adige has been white wine country with grapes such as Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay and the almost absurdly popular Pinot Grigio the most popular white wine grapes. Producers such as Franz Haas and Elena Walch manage to inject real interest into the often anodyne Pinot Bianco/Pinot Blanc while in general Pinot Grigio from Alto Adige is infinitely more concentrated than the average Pinot Grigio (even if perhaps slightly less so that Friuli’s finest examples).
Sauvignon Blanc is much less widely planted than any of these but is enjoying increasing popularity, thanks to the bone dry, appetising but aromatically restrained style of wine pioneered by the likes of San Michele Appiano/St Michael Eppan. I was particularly impressed recently by Tiefenbrunner’s Kirchleiten 2006 bottling of Sauvignon Blanc. Tiefenbrunner, Hofstätter and Alois Lageder are other particularly fine individual producers in the region but San Michele Appiano is a co-operative winery, one of dozens (usually called Cantina Somewhere) run with passionate dedication to quality in this corner of the world. Indeed Alto Adige could claim to have the world’s greatest density of top quality wine co-ops. Terlano/Terlan is another co-op that is at the top of its game but others include those of Bolzano, Caldaro, Colterenzio, Cortaccia and Cornaiano/Girlan.
Cantina Tramin is another reliable source. The sleepy village of Termeno/Tramin, is the birthplace of the Traminer white grape variety, also known as Gewürztraminer (spiced Traminer) for its heady aroma. Even today Tramin really is very good for Traminer, and has been waking up in response to a discernible fashion for this powerfully scented, full-bodied varietal wine throughout Italy.
But as practically everywhere else in the world, full-bodied red wine has been becoming increasingly popular even in Alto Adige. The pale workhorse grape Schiava (called Vernatsch by the region’s German speakers and Trollinger in southern Germany) is still the most planted grape in Alto Adige but it is in retreat while Lagrein, originally a speciality of the vineyards around Bolzano, is enjoying newfound fame, especially in the US where its almost overpoweringly direct fruit and sweet tannins really strike a chord.
And biodynamic practitioners such as Alois Lageder and Franz Haas are forging a fine reputation for Pinot Noir, which is now almost as widely planted as Lagrein. Wines such as this with real finesse are slowly supplanting what has until now been the most common Alto Adige wine, a light, sweetish red based on Schiava called Santa Maddalena/St Magdalener, the underpinning of a many a ski holiday in the Dolomites.
SOME RECOMMENDED ALTO ADIGE WINES
(Listed in increasing order of body)
Kuehnhof, Valle Isarco Sylvaner 2006
Tiefenbrunner, Kirchleiten Sauvignon Blanc 2006 (larger Waitrose stores have the almost as good 2005 at £12.99)
Franz Haas, Pinot Bianco 2006
Cantina Girlan, Plattenriegl Pinot Bianco 2006
Elena Walsch, Cardellino Chardonnay 2005
Cantina Tramin, Pinot Grigio 2006
Caldaro Kellerei Kaltern, Campaner Gewürztraminer 2006
Hofstätter, Kolbenhof Gewürztraminer 2005
Alois Lageder, Krafuss Pinot Noir 2000 and Lindenburg Lagrein 2002
Abbazia di Novacella, Lagrein 2003
Cantina Terlano, Porphyr Lagrein 2003
Divine Fine Wines of Solihull, Four Walls Wine of Chilgrove, Great Western Wine of Bath, Villeneuve Wines of Peebles and Waitrose have better selections than most UK retailers. For international stockists and prices see www.winesearcher.com