Ever since my first jaunt to Alto Adige (called Südtirol by the Germans) three years ago, I try to cruise through each time I go back to Italy. Besides it being undeniably gorgeous, the region boasts a range of impressive wines made from about 20 different grape varieties. They do all of this within 5,300 hectares of total vineyard area (only 1% of Italy’s total).
While it’s true that many people identify the region with grapes like Gewurztraminer, which originated in the region’s village of Tramin, and Lagrein, a wonderfully inky, grassy, black-fruited, highly structured, red grape, which is native to and flourishes here, it’s really another grape that I think makes some of the most impressive wines of the region. That grape is Sauvignon blanc. This is the place to come for some of the world’s very best.
Sauvignon (they drop the “blanc” part of the name in eastern Italy) came to Alto Adige from France at the end of the 1800s. It did well in terraced sites along the Adige River from Salorno (south of Bolzano) up to Merano. In the past four years the acreage of Sauvignon has increased from 6.3% of total vineyard area to just over 7%, or 381 hectares out of 5,300. Total whites planted represent 60% of all grapes, a figure also up (by 5%) in the past four years.† Visit the Alto Adige Wines website for a helpful graphic of all of the grapes grown and their respective percentages of surface area.
During my last pass through the zone, earlier this month, I did not miss the chance to visit one of my favorite producers: Cantina Terlano/Cantina Andriano.‡
I was after the Quarz but as usual, they were sold out. I did get the chance to try Cantina Andriano‘s Andrius 2014, which was nice but I didn’t love it as much as I had loved the 2011. Luckily I still had a bottle at home that I had picked up during my first visit in 2012.
Too eager to take a chance on waiting the long haul, I opened that bottle on my second night home. I could have waited—it would have survived 5-10 more years!—but I didn’t!
Cantina Andriano Andrius 2011. Alto Adige DOC. Sauvignon 100%. Fresh as well as voluptuous achieving great balance throughout. The wine opens with pineapple essence and a kick of lemon grass. Citrus, apricot, and lemon balm rival on the palate while the finish is direct and fine-tuned with a plush, mineral-driven texture. ★★★
The true test of Alto Adige Sauvignon’s integrity would be to stack up some aged bottles and go head-to-head with a few older Sancerre. While that might seem like an esoteric feat—Alto Adige Sauvignon is truly a drop in the bucket in the world of Italian wine—they are not impossible to get. With 381 hectares, at an average yield of 5 tons per acre, the math works out to well over 4 million bottles produced each year. I’ll work on collecting some!
In the meantime, I have a little story to share with you that I was asked to write for the Alto Adige Wines website a couple of years ago.§ Here I recount some of my favorite producers’ Sauvignons. (Others I’ll be looking out for include those form Elena Walch, Alois Lageder, and St. Michael Eppan.)
Below reposted from its original, January 2013
“When you think of fine Sauvignon blanc, what region do you think of? France? New Zealand? California? Okay sure, those Sauvignon blancs can be good. But I have a challenge for you. Next time you’re looking for an exceptional Sauvignon blanc, consider Italy.
Northeastern Italy produces extraordinary Sauvignon blancs, especially those out of Alto Adige. What sets Alto Adige Sauvignon blanc apart from all the rest is its incomparable minerality and freshness, which is caused by factors unique to Alto Adige’s terrain and climate. While you could draw some comparisons between the terrain of Alto Adige and other Sauvignon-producing regions, such as Bordeaux and Sancerre with their high concentrations of limestone and gravel, Alto Adige soils are unique in their composition of porphyry (igneous rock), quartz, mica, and dolomite. These soils contribute to the perception of mineral texture in nearly all of the wines.
Notable climatic elements also contribute to the charm of Alto Adige Sauvignons: the high altitude of the vineyards (freshness and clean acidity), a lot of sunlight (adequate ripening of berries), and significant diurnal temperature shifts (evolution of aroma and flavor nuances).
Last fall I finally made the trek to this region in the far northeastern stretches of Italy. There I found many impressive vineyards woven throughout the dramatic Dolomites, producing many wonderful wines. But my favorite discoveries were the Sauvignon blanc, and the interesting wineries that make it.
My first stop, Manincor, is a remarkable winery that mixes tradition and history with modern knowledge and technology. Whereas most wineries in Alto Adige are cooperatives, Manincor is actually privately owned. This gives them a lot of control over how their grapes are produced. Manincor farms all of their vineyards biodynamically and produces some of the freshest, most mineral-driven wines I have tasted. One of Manincor‘s Sauvignon blancs, Tannenberg, stood out the most for its refreshing minerality tempered by a sweet nose. Surprised by the rich aromas, I asked about it and learned that the wine undergoes an unusually long maceration on its skins (12 hours), a process that contributes intricacies to a wine’s bouquet.
Cantina Caldaro (Kellerei Kaltern), one of the largest cooperatives in Alto Adige, produces many great Sauvignon blancs but the standout there was the Premstaler. The Premstaler comes from a vineyard at an altitude of 500m (1,640ft), higher than any of the others I tried. The altitude lends a lot of freshness, expressed in this wine as ripe citrus with a lovely floral, grassy quality and tons of minerals.
One of the most contemplative Sauvignon blancs I tried comes from Colterenzio (Schreckbichl). Called Lafóa, this wine finds a way of being rich and complex without being cloying. After a brief maceration on the skins, half is fermented in stainless steel and the other half in barrel, giving depth of flavor. Grapefruit, kiwi, peach, and sage harmoniously integrate with a marked acidity, a dash of vanilla, and a finish of wild strawberries.
Cantina Andriano (Kellerei Andrian), founded in 1893, is the oldest cooperative in Alto Adige. Of theirs, the Andrius was my favorite. These Sauvignon blanc vines grow at an average of 300m (984ft) in a diverse composition of soil: erythroid (reddish), dolomite, clay, and limestone. Due to the soil, Andrius has a stony and bright character. Over a few minutes in the glass the wine evolves, giving elderflower, vanilla, and grapefruit essence.
Cantina Andriano moved in to the same site as Cantina Terlano (Kellerei Terlan) in 2008 so this was a great stop for me, not only because I could try the two wineries side by side but because Cantina Terlano makes one of my very favorite Sauvignon blancs of all time, Quarz. As it turns out, I’m not the only one who feels this way! It was sold out at the time of my visit. But that gave me the opportunity to discover another impressive one: Winkl. The wine maker does whole-cluster pressing (and thus no maceration on skins), and the vineyard ranges in altitude from 250m to almost 500m (820-1,640ft). It is beautifully perfumed and aromatic with a touch of tomato leaf character. On the palate, lots of stone fruits make way for a spicy lime finish.
When you visit Alto Adige, you’ll be surrounded by exceptional Sauvignon blanc. Until then, go out and find a bottle. You’ll discover a fresh perspective on Sauvignon.”
PS – The area, given its predominantly German culture, is also a great spot for you beer-drinking folk. There is something for everyone!
† The percentage of the red Schiava/Vernatsch (a native grape that usually produces a very simple wine) has dropped, which could account for most of the red to white shift.
‡ The oldest coop in Alto Adige, Cantina Andriano, founded in 1893, moved in to the same site as Cantina Terlano (Kellerei Terlan) in 2008.
§ After some website redesign, it is no longer there. So I’m putting it here. :)