Wine with an Alpine view! The Dolomite Mountains are the heart & soul of Alto Adige and the traditional customs of Alpine culture still resonate in modern times.
Are we still in Italy? Why are so many people speaking German? No, I didn't land in the wrong country, I was in Alto Adige! Also known as Südtirol (South Tyrol), Alto Adige is located in northeast Italy and is bordered by Austria and Switzerland. Part of Austria for more than five centuries, Alto Adige was annexed by Italy after World War I but it has retained a rich Austrian culture and German is spoken by around 70% of inhabitants, followed by Italian and the Romanic language Ladin. Alto Adige may be one of Italy's smallest winegrowing regions but its magical mix of high elevation, brisk Alpine air, and sultry Mediterranean sun are a winning combination for cultivating expressive high-quality grapes and exceptional wines.
The anchor of my visit was the Alto Adige Wine Summit, an in-depth exploration of the region's winemaking legacy, present, and future.
Renowned for the crisp, pristine, and mineral driven white wines that constitute 60% of its production, Alto Adige produces superb expressions of widely known favorites such as Pinot Grigio and Gewürztraminer and unique local white wines such as Müller Thurgau and Kerner. Reds are dominated by the local favorite Schiava (Vernatsch) and Lagrein but Pinot Noir from Alto Adige is also quite impressive.
Winemaking in Alto Adige is often a family affair and Castelfeder captures the beauty and power of multi-generations working together. Founded in 1969 by Alfons Giovanett, Castelfeder runs on the passion and expertise of the close-knit Giovanett family: the founder's grandson Ivan is the winemaker, while Ivan's sister Ines and his parents Günther and Alessandra focus on management and marketing.
Vernatsch, also known as Schiava, is an indigenous grape that has played a central role in Alto Adige winemaking since the 16th century. Fresh, fruity, and low in tannins, Vernatsch is an unpretentious and easy-going red wine that is fantastic slightly chilled - it is the perfect lighter-bodied red for spring & summer. For an introduction to Vernastch, give Castelfeder "Alte Reben" Schiava a swirl.
Burgundy isn't the only region in the world to produce elegant and age-worthy Pinot Noir and Castelfeder Burgum Novum Pinot Nero Riserva is a fine example of Alto Adige's prowess with the notoriously tricky grape. Pinot Noir has been grown in Alto Adige since the middle of the 19th century and is beautifully suited to the area's climate and terroir. Only produced in the best vintages, Burgum Novum is a rich, complex, graceful and powerful example of Alto Adige's emphasis on quality and authenticity.
Wondering what to serve with wines from Alto Adige? Follow the lead of Alessandra Giovanett of Castelfeder and pair these food-friendly wines with a platter of Speck. A ham that is indigenous to the Alto Adige region, Speck is lightly smoked and cured in the fresh mountain air. Its appearance may remind you of Prosciutto but the smoking technique adds another layer of flavor to Speck. Served thinly sliced, Speck's combination of subtly smoky meat with a hint of sweetness, slivers of fat that melt in your mouth, and kiss of saltiness; make this delicacy an addictively great match with the wines of Alto Adige.
The fifth generation of their winemaking family, Karoline and Julia Walch have followed in the footsteps of their mother, Alto Adige pioneer Elena Walch.
It is not an overstatement to call Elena Walch a pioneer and an icon of winemaking. Her eponymous winery is well-known beyond the soaring slopes of Alto Adige and her commitment to innovation, quality, and authenticity played an important role in elevating the reputation of the region's wines. While visiting Alto Adige, I had the pleasure of meeting Elena's daughters, Karoline and Julia, and the winery's future remains bright with these two smart and talented women at the helm.
I love the poetic name of the Elena Walch Grande Cuvée "Beyond the Clouds" and the wine lives up to this soaring moniker. A blend of white grapes, mostly Chardonnay, Beyond the Clouds is a richly textured and nuanced white wine that balances the pristine quality of the fruit with a a judicious use of oak. Juicy, creamy, toasty, and tropical flavors meld together beautifully in this rich but balanced white wine. Beyond the Clouds eloquently expresses Alto Adige and has enough structure to age for at least 15 years.
Indigenous to Alto Adige, Lagrein is one of the region's leading red varieties and produces robust, complex, and powerful wines. Elena Walch Lagrein Riserva Vigna "Castel Ringberg" is a single-vineyard beauty that tames some of Lagrein's rougher edges without obscuring its unique qualities. Dark and luscious with kisses of smoke, spice and sweetness, this complex and nuanced expression of Lagrein evolves elegantly in the glass.
Gerhard Sanin, agricultural engineer at Kellerei (Cantina) Kaltern takes a break from monitoring the harvest to enjoy the fermented fruit of previous labors. His apron is adorned with words of wisdom from Pope Francis - "Without wine, there's no party!"
Around 70% of Alto Adige wine is produced in wineries run by cooperatives and Cantina Kaltern is one of the most impressive. More than a thousand growers are active with Kaltern and most of these grape growers are farming less than one hectare. The cooperative model is a strategic solution that does not limit the cultural and financial benefits of winemaking to families with large private estates. The winery is considered an ambassador for wines produced in the Lake Kaltern area and these "Wines from the Lake" possess an elegant freshness and minerality.
I visited one of Kaltern's growers on a day that Gewurztraminer grapes were being harvested and I even tried my hand at harvesting. (I'll stick to drinking and writing, my harvesting skills leave much to be desired!)
Kaltern Schiava grapes - fresh on the vine and fermented in the glass!
We took a break from harvesting to enjoy a traditional break of Schiava and cured meats. Refreshing Kaltern Leuchtenberg Kalterersee Classico Superiore is fruity, fresh, and playful. A well-crafted and approachable wine.
Cantina Valle Isarco (Eisacktaler Kellerei) is another name to look for as you're exploring wines from Alto Adige - it is another fine example of how many of the region's cooperatives produce quality wines. Dominated by steep mountain slopes, Isarco Valley has an ideal climate (hot summer days and fresh nights at vintage time) and soils (light, gravelly, and mineral-rich) for growing superb white grapes. White wines dominate the cooperative's portfolio and their selection includes varietals that are closely associated with Alto Adige, including Sylvaner, Müller Thurgau, Pinot Bianco, and Kerner. These white wines have very unique flavor profiles but share freshness, minerality, and vibrance as common attributes.
image courtesy of Bad Schörgau
Alto Adige is a great destination for wine lovers and the region's natural beauty makes it a breathtaking escape. This connection to wine, nature, cuisine, and culture come together seamlessly at the serene yet invigorating Bad Schörgau Hotel & Spa. Owned and operated by the Wenter family, the property's roots can be traced back to the 16th century. Located in the Sarentino Valley, it is surrounded by stunning mountain vistas. Guests can rejuvenate themselves with spa treatments and products that incorporate mountain herbs, rest in rustic yet luxurious accommodations, and indulge in gourmet cuisine and fine wines. A true sensory journey!
At Bad Schörgau's Michelin starred Restaurant Gourmet Alpes, Chef Egon Heiss creatively enhances the traditional flavors of Alto Adige with modern touches. The creative and comprehensive wine list includes smaller local winemakers like Hartmann Doná.
The beauty of wine is that it takes you on a journey, no matter where you are. If a trip to Alto Adige is not in your immediate future, wine is the perfect way to get a sense of this very special part of Italy. Before I set foot on the soil of South Tyrol, I was transported from the heart of Manhattan to Alto Adige with the wines of J. Hofstätter. The Hofstätter family has been crafting wines for four generations and they are one of the largest family-owned wine estates in the region. Over a casual lunch of all-American burgers, vintner Martin Foradori Hofstätter and I shared a selection of his family's quintessentially Alto Adige wines.
Martin Foradori Hofstätter is rightfully enthusiastic about his family's acclaimed wines!
The best wines spark conversation, connections, and wonder - the wines of Alto Adige certainly do this and more. You don't have to be a wine expert or know every geeky fact about Lagrein, Schiava, or Kerner to thoroughly enjoy these exceptionally made and delicious wines. Just open the bottle, share, sip, savor, and let yourself be transported to the soaring peaks of Alto Adige.
To learn more about the wines of Alto Adige, I do encourage you to visit the consortium website. The region has more wonderful winemakers than I could ever include in one article.