Alto Adige: high above San Francisco

A couple days ago I got on the glass elevator at the west end of the lobby in the Westin St. Francis Hotel in Union Square, and headed up to Victor’s ballroom on the 32nd floor. If you’ve never done this, you have to—it’s a free ride with a spectacular view of the Financial District of downtown and the East Bay. Once you reach the ballroom, you can enjoy an almost 360° panoramic view of the city. It’s a wonderful place for a wine tasting and this past Monday the Consortium of Alto Adige held a seminar and walk-around wine tasting there. I wasn’t going to miss it!

First and foremost, I love trying weird, esoteric, autochthonous varieties. Italy is the perfect place to explore these. And because of its diversity of grape varieties within a very small growing region, Alto Adige is a great sub-region to explore when you have this intent.

The total vineyard area in Alto Adige is 5,300 hectares (13,100 acres)*, which is managed by about 5,000 growers. Viable elevations in Alto Adige for growing wine grapes range from 200-1,100m (600-3,300ft) a.s.l. Alto Adige DOC is the general appellation name but is divided into the following:

  • Alto Adige Santa Maddalena
  • Alto Adige Valle Isarco
  • Alto Adige Meranese
  • Alto Adige Terlano
  • Alto Adige Colli di Bolzano
  • Alto Adige Val Venosta
  • Lago di Caldaro (Kalterer See)

The most widely grown grape variety is Schiava (also called Vernatsch or Trollinger), covering almost a quarter (22.35%) of total vineyard area in the Alto Adige DOC. It’s a light bodied and spicy red with a clear cranberry-red color. The other most widely grown red grape is Lagrein (8% of vineyard area in Alto Adige), producing a wine with hefty, dark, tannic, and sometimes grassy (wet and freshly cut) or piny characteristics.

Besides Schiava and Lagrein, the indigenousred varieties, Alto Adige also produces wines made from Pinot nero (6.64% of total vineyard area), Merlot (3.87%), and Cabernet Sauvignon & Franc (3.24%). I didn’t try any Merlot or Cabernet but I have had some Pinots I really like from Alto Adige. I’ve said it before, that I like “mountain Pinot,” and Alto Adige solidifies that for me.

But it’s really the white wines really that dominate Alto Adige, covering 55% of the total vineyard area. In order of most widely grown to least are: Pinot grigio (11.3%), Gewürztraminer (10%), Chardoanny (9.55%), Pinot blanc (9.17%), Sauvignon blanc (6.27%), Müller Thurgau (3.93%), Sylvaner (1.3%), Moscato giallo (1.21%), Kerner (1.14%), Riesling (1%), and Veltliner (.41%).

Other varieties that grow in much smaller quantities include: Moscato rosa (a natural hybrid of Red Veltliner and Sylvaner), Riesling Italico, Malvasia, Zweigelt. A small number of growers have not forgotten and continue to cultivate some very old Alto Adige varieties: Fraueler, Blatterle, and Versoaln.

The following are my highlights from the tasting, along with a few notes about some wines I don’t care for.

Peter Zemmer Pinot grigio 2011. Alto Adige DOC. A clean Pinot grigio. Nothing cloying here. The aromas are of ripe tropical fruit and minerals, with just a touch of flowers and while the texture is smooth in the mouth and rich, the finish is spicy and fresh. ★★

Abbazia di NovacellaPraepositus’ Sylvaner 2010. Alto Adige DOC. I learned that I do tend to prefer Sylvaner over Kerner. I could not have told you the difference before this tasting. Sylvaner balances a full body with peppy acidity and aromas of hay and minerals with a touch of earth. ★★

Kerner is a hybrid of Schiava and Riesling. I can really detect the Riesling charactristics in Kerner. I don’t gravitate towards highly aromatic whites like Riesling. You’ll find a grimace on my face more times than not when I find a Gewürztraminer, Muscato giallo, or even a Sauvignon blanc in my glass. There are exceptions, however.

Tenuta Hofstätter ‘Kolbenhof’ Gewürztraminer 2010. Alto Adige DOC. We had this one in the seminar and while I was afraid at first to even stick my nose in the glass, I have to say, this wine is, as some might say, a meditative wine. In the bouquet: soap, jasmine flowers, lychee. The flavors however, were amazing. A luscious and thought-provoking wine balancing tea flavors (camomile and black) with a little syrup, clove, nutmeg, toasted almonds, and rounding out with a bright acidity and suppleness. ★★

Cantina Terlano Quarz Sauvignon 2009. Alto Adige DOC. The BEST Sauvignon blanc I ever had in my life! Imagine you’re passenging on a tractor in the bright sunshine, blazing past fields of wild mint. You happen to be noshing on a cold piece of lemon meringue pie and there’s dust flying up behind you but you’re barely aware of it. You’re more aware of the silk underwear you put on that morning. Perhaps a tractor ride wasn’t the best situation for your silk underwear, but you’re still enjoying them. If the situation is not possible, pour your self a glass of this stuff instead! You’ll be taken away! ★★★

Cantina Andriano Pinot bianco 2010. Awesome balance of vanilla, limestone, and white peach, with a bright acidity and minerality keeping it lighter than most. ★★★

The same wine maker who makes wine for Cantina Terlano also makes wine for Cantina Adriano. While the wines are made in the same way, the soil types are what distinguish the two wine styles. Calcareous stone gives the Andriano wines more freshness, austerity, and acidity than its neighbor. Terlano’s soils are made of red porphyric rock and have a high mineral content.

Cantina Terlano ‘Vorberg Riserva’ Pinot bianco 2006. Alto Adige DOC. One of the most impressive things about this wine it its capacity for aging. Its freshness prevents you from detecting its age. Not super aromatic; it doesn’t jump out of the glass like a Pinot grigio (or Gewürz!) would, but instead, scents of hay, flowers, and apricot mingle around the top of glass. Unctuous and gentle with peaches, pears, barely-ripe banana, and clove. The grapes grow between 460-900m and the wine is fermented in oak and also aged in oak for one year. It is aged for an additional year before release. ★★★

Cantina Bolzano Santa Magdalener ‘Huck am Bach’ 2010. Alto Adige DOC. Schiava 90%, Lagrein 10%. This is one of those wines that is just lovely and the price is also, well, lovely. ($16, which probably equates to 8€!) Smooth with a lifted acidity. Fruity and minty aromas with a touch of black pepper giving tartness of cranberries or raspberries in the mouth, a tiny touch of tannins, but most importantly, balance! ★★

Kellerei Kaltern-Caldaro Pfarrhof Kalterersee Auslese Classico Superiore. 2010. Alto Adige DOC. Schiava 95%, Lagrein 5%. I had the opportunity to try this last year when their importer was considering bringing it in and I had the same positive opinion. (Unfortunately because the general American public doesn’t understand Schiava, and so it’s difficult to sell, they didn’t bring it in. But they brought in a couple of others. I guess you can’t have everything.) Flowers and marzipan with red and pink fruit. Lots of minerality and tartness, but is rounded out by an aging process in large 3-5 HL botti. Yummy! I am liking these blends! ★★☆

Kellerie Kaltern-Caldaro ‘Spigel’ Lagrein 2006. Alto Adige DOC. Fresh and ripe cherries with notes of oregano, eucalyptus, and cedar trees. Opening up to a more expressive array of sawdust, coffee, chocolate, wet moss, and forest. Supple tannins with concentrated red cherry fruit, Brazil nut, and overall mountain freshness. ★★☆

Also the Kellerie Kaltern-Caldaro Lagrein (classic) 2010 was nice with a structured balance and tons of cherries and pine. ★☆

Kurtatsch-Cortaccia Lagrein 2011. A plush concentration of red and black berries counterbalanced by a corresponding floral character. Equilibrium of fruit, minerals, tannins, aromas. ★★☆

Cantina AndrianoRubeno’ Lagrein. 2007. This was my favorite Lagrein of the day. Autumnal spices with fresh Italian herbs, cut grass, cherries, and chocolate. All of the richness on the palate is lifted by velvety tannins and a touch of smoke. Tried twice; same opinion. ★★★

Tenuta J. HoftstätterMezcan’ Pinot nero 2010. I reviewed this one a few months ago and so I tested it again to see if I still liked it. Yes. A light and herbal Pinot, expressive eucalyptus, river rock, and strawberries. Perfect balance. ★★

I stopped by the Tiefenbrunner and St. Michael Eppan tables but the wines seemed boring compared to some of these other producers I talk about here—but worth looking into further!

* 1910 marked the height of winegrowing in Alto Adige with 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) of total vineyard area.

Schiava was first documented in Alto Adige at the end of the Middle Ages and has played a prominent role in the area since the 1600’s. Lagrein was first documented in the 1600’s near Bolzano.

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