Wine: In Alto Adige, bottles to make you forget pinot grigio

December 27, 2011

What if I told you about a beautiful Alpine region that is technically in Italy but where the people speak German and make some of the best white wines — and some of the best-value pinot noirs — in the world?

Would you believe it? Would you call it a fantasy land? Well, I wouldn’t have believed it, either — at least until a few weeks ago, when I visited Alto Adige, Italy’s northernmost wine region.

Recommendations: Wines to seek out from the Italian region of Alto Adige.

Unfortunately, when most people think of white wines from northern Italy, they immediately think pinot grigio. Now, I’m not saying that all pinot grigio is bad, just that much of it is characterless. How, then, to explain the continued, explosive popularity of pinot grigio in the United States? Does it combine Americans’ dreams of la dolce vita with their misguided interest in insipid white wine? Whatever, it is consistently the biggest rip-off in the wine shop.

I bring up pinot grigio because for years, it has been the main reason wine drinkers would know the name Alto Adige. Much of the pinot grigio we’ve seen on store shelves is identified on bottles as coming from “Trentino-Alto Adige,” Alto Adige having been hyphenated together with its southern neighbor Trentino. You’d see that designation on the big 1.75-liter bottles from brands like Cavit or Mezzacorona or Santa Margherita.

Well, you won’t be seeing that hyphenated geographic designation much anymore. The winemakers of Alto Adige have decided to separate themselves from Trentino. Ninety percent of the wine in Trentino comes from huge cooperatives, and big brands such as Cavit and Mezzacorona dominate the pinot grigio market; many in Alto Adige say pinot grigio’s reputation has suffered as a result.

“Trentino is a completely different reality,” says Martin Foradori Hofstatter, winemaker at Alto Adige’s J. Hofstatter winery. “Not just the landscape, but the mentality. They’re producing wines for everybody. In Alto Adige, we’re making wines for selective consumers. I don’t want to say these people are bored by pinot grigio, but selective consumers are looking for something different.”

Now that Alto Adige is focusing on promoting its own protected designation of wines, what exactly are they? Well, they’re a lot more than pinot grigio.

To understand Alto Adige, you should know that until after World War I, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Culturally, it remains tied to its Austrian roots. Locals refer to the region by its German name, Sudtirol, and German is the main language.

Given the Germanic heritage, it’s perhaps not surprising that crisp, clean white wines and light-bodied reds are what the region is known for.

Unlike in some regions, where the focus is on one or two grape varieties, vineyards in Alto Adige grow as many as a dozen varieties, often depending on the altitude. Plenty of vineyards are planted on steep slopes 800 meters or more above sea level.

“The thing that always surprises me is that this is a little land, but there are so many microclimates,” Hofstatter says.

Most wineries there produce a pinot grigio, but the focus is just as much on pinot bianco, chardonnay and what might be the finest sauvignon blanc in the world. More aromatic whites, such as Gewurztraminer, Kerner (a hybrid of Riesling and schiava) and Muller Thurgau (a hybrid of Riesling and Madeleine Royale), area also a focus. Locals say Gewurztraminer originated there, in the town of Tramin.

“In Italy, we love aromatic whites,” says Andreas Comploj of Alois Lageder. “Over the Alps, though, the most-requested is pinot grigio.” Sadly, we see very little Alto Adige Gewurztraminer imported into the United States for that reason.

And for another one. “When the average American wine lover hears the word ‘Gewurztraminer,’ 99.9 percent of them say, ‘I don’t like sweet wine,’ ” Hofstatter says. But Gewurztraminer from Alto Adige is for the most part perfectly balanced and dry, with great floral and fleshy fruit notes.

Beyond whites, I’m excited by the light-bodied reds I tasted there. The cold Alpine climate is the only place in Italy where the pinot noir (called pinot nero in Italian) can grow. If you’re one of the legions of pinot noir fans, do yourself a favor and give an Alto Adige pinot nero a try — if you can find it on the shelf.

As is the case with wine from a lot of the regions I fall in love with, finding wines from Alto Adige that are not pinot grigio can be difficult and frustrating. Some favorites, such as Lagrein, a bright, light and lovely red that just wants to be your friend, are almost nonexistent in our market.

Perhaps, after all these years, unfamiliar German names still scare away wine retailers and consumers. Maybe here’s a solution: Tell them it’s from Italy! Like pinot grigio! But better.

Recommendations: Wines to seek out from the Italian region of Alto Adige.

Wilson is the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits” (Ten Speed Press, 2011). Follow him on Twitter @boozecolumnist.
Dave McIntyre will return next week.

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