Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Is Alto Adige a pointless wine region?

If I were to appear on Pointless and the category was Italian wine regions, I’d be quietly confident that Alto Adige would be a pointless answer.

Italy is home to many renowned wine names – Chianti, Brunello, Barolo, Soave, Valpolicella... But there are plenty more where that came from. Italy vies with France as the biggest producer of wine in the world and is the source of more indigenous grape varieties than anywhere else: the learned tome, Wine Grapes, lists Italy as the origin of 377 varieties (ahead of France on 204).

In short, there’s always something new to discover in Italy and becoming an expert in its wines is truly a life’s work.

Tucked up into the Dolomites in the far north of Italy, Alto Adige is a region of intriguing clashes of culture, climate and language. The fact that it is also known as Südtirol, and that German, rather than Italian, is more often the first language are pointers that this area was, until the First World War, part of the Austrian Empire. Mussolini encouraged immigration from the south, in an attempt to “Italianise” the region, but met with resistance.

trellised vines march down the mountainsides

The surrounding snow-capped mountains provide a novel backdrop not just to terraces of vines, but also to the palm and fig trees that grow there. We may be in the far north, with ski-ing the main winter activity, yet Bolzano, the capital of the region, can sometimes be the hottest city in the country in the summer. Its steep, terraced hillsides make some of the most exquisite wines from the Italian peninsula, while the flat valley floor is home to industrial-scale orchards churning out Pink Lady apples by the tonne. Alto Adige is a region that confounds and intrigues at every turn.

the flat valley floor of Val Venosta in Alto Adige, land of the Pink Lady

The fact that this region lies a long way from the Brits’ favoured Italian holiday destinations is one of the reasons for its under the radar status. Another is that few of its wines make their way to us – and those that do tend to be on the pricey side. But for those who want to explore another side of apparently familiar varieties and to experience wines with altitude, there’s plenty to see here.

St Michael-Eppan Pinot Grigio 2015 - £11.99 from Waitrose
At the more affordable end of things, this is a good introduction to the region and its wines from its biggest co-op. Pinot Grigio from Alto Adige tends to have much more character (it could hardly have less) than the ubiquitous Veneto version.

Terlano Pinot Bianco Vorberg Riserva 2014, Cantina Terlano - £28.35 from Field and Fawcett; Petersham Cellar sells a case of six of the 2013 for £180
Two things about this wine might surprise you, given the price. Firstly it’s made by a co-op and it’s made from the apparently lowly Pinot Bianco/Pinot Blanc grape. Cantina Terlano, however, is one of the most eminent of the region’s many co-ops (12 co-ops account for 70% of the region’s wine output). And here, Pinot Blanc from steep, sunny vineyards at up to 900 metres altitude are fermented and aged in oak to give a wine of real charm. It has weight and depth with lovely fresh yellow plum fruit and wonderful texture. Like many of Alto Adige’s best white wines, this will age well – not something you might associate with Pinot Blanc from anywhere else. A less eyewatering option, pricewise, would be Hofstätter Pinot Bianco 2015 - £10.95 a bottle from The Wine Society.

Franz Haas Pinot Nero 2013/14 – Hedonism has the 2014 for £29. 50, or £25.75 from Winedirect, D&D Wine has the 2013 for £20
Franz Haas wines are some of the better distributed wines in the UK. Prices are rather steep, but theirs are some of the best Pinot Noirs you’ll find in the region.

Sauvignon Blanc Lafoá 2015, Cantina Colterenzio - £30 from Great Western Wine
Abandon hope, all ye Marlborough Sauvignon lovers who enter here. This is not about pungent gooseberry and tropical fruit and zingy acidity. Here it’s all about texture; the variety’s potent aromatics have been tamed by barrel fermentation to make something that is dry, food-friendly and ageworthy. Great Western Wine also list some of this producer’s other wines, all under £15 a bottle.

Where to buy Alto Adige wines ?
No-one has a very long list of wines from here, partly because production is pretty small to begin with. In addition to stockists already mentioned, Alpine Wines, as you might expect, have a small but decent selection; and Guildford’s Caves de Pyrène have a few well-chosen producers on their list.