THE MOUNTAIN WINES OF ALTO ADIGE

by HELEN GREGORY

Alto Adige is one of the smallest wine-producing regions in Italy, but it is also home to some of its most exciting wines. This picturesque northern region sits at the alpine crossroads of Italy and Austria, and it only became part of Italy after World War I. A study in contrasts, Alto Adige is known as Südtirol to the locals, who learn both German and Italian in school. Proud to be Italian, they still embrace their Austrian heritage. The climate in Alto Adige also benefits from a dual identity; this is where the Mediterranean meets the Alps, and where the highest vineyards in Europe enjoy warm summers to ripen the grapes.

If you’re looking for great wines, mountain vineyards have much to offer. Wine grapes dig deep for survival on the slopes, fighting the elements with an intensity that pays off in the fruit. Mountain berries are smaller and more concentrated, capable of delivering powerful flavors and tannins that develop balance between cool nights and warm days. With the Alps as their backdrop, Alto Adige wines are a testimony to the rich character of the place they come from and to the people who make them.

One of the foremost names in Alto Adige is Elena Walch. An architect by training, Walch helped build the region’s modern winemaking era. Born in Milan, Walch married into the fourth generation of the Walch family in 1985. In fairytale style, she met her husband, Werner Walch, on a project to restore the family’s Castel Ringberg, a 17th-century Renaissance castle with a breathtaking view of the valley. She arrived just as the local wine scene was reinventing itself, primed to fashion her own renaissance. The Walch family had been making wine since 1869, but like most of Alto Adige, crop yields were high, allowing quantity of production to overshadow quality. Despite no formal training, Walch understood from the outset that great wine starts in the vineyards. She got to work, increasing planting density to reduce yields, and was among the first to age her wines in French oak for more complexity. Her daughter Karoline Walch observes: “As an architect, she had an artisanal way of thinking, a desire to try new things and an instinct to look for an expression of place in the vines.”

The Walch family owns about 150 acres, evenly divided between white and red varieties that represent the benchmarks of Alto Adige. With vineyards ranging from 820 to 3,300 feet, Walch has an extensive palette to work with, including the family’s ancestral vineyards on the slopes of Castel Ringberg and Kastelaz. Among the stars of the region, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer all thrive in the cooler climate. Walch’s award-winning “Beyond the Clouds” is a secret blend of 80% Chardonnay and other local varieties; dense and layered with traces of white flowers and citrus, it lingers richly on the palate. For the reds, Elena Walch Lagrein and Schiava are excellent local varieties to try, appreciated by sommeliers for their bright fruit character.

Ten miles south of the Walch family castle lies the small town of Magrè, home to Alois Lageder, another pioneer in Alto Adige known for his experimental, biodynamic wines. At 70, Lageder is tall and lanky, quietly spoken but firmly resolved that a respect for nature and local heritage must drive winemaking. The Lageder family acquired the Löwengang estate in 1935, which was planted principally with French varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. When Lageder took over in the 1970s, the grapes were mainly sold for bulk wines and conventionally grown. He changed all of this and in the process has also converted many growers to the extremely green, spiritual practice of biodynamic winemaking.

Biodynamic farming treats the vineyard as one self-sustaining organism. It prohibits the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and subscribes to natural materials and viticultural schedules based on the lunar calendar. For Lageder, biodynamics answers his calling to work with nature and in harmony with the cosmos, especially in the face of climate change. Cow horns are ritually buried with manure to be unearthed each spring to feed the soil. A local mountain dairy grazes their cattle in the vineyard to fertilize the vines, and the mix of plantings promotes biodiversity by giving heirloom grapes (once facing extinction in Alto Adige) pride of place with international varieties. Sustainability is also on overdrive at the Alois Lageder winery, an eco-driven wonder of a place fueled by geothermal energy and human invention. When the wind blows, a roof turbine powers a stereo in the barrel cellar to play a Bach lullaby, an ode to finding harmony in the wines. The approach is unorthodox, but the results are often wonderfully expressive.

Alois Lageder offers more than 40 wines, all infused with the biodynamic spirit. Porer Pinot Grigio is an exceptional take on Italy’s popular white wine, with aromas of key lime and honeysuckle that remind us of the warming influence of the valley. Lageder’s entry-level Schiava (the most widely planted red variety in Alto Adige) is a lean and light cherry red, while a Cabernet Sauvignon-Petit Verdot blend from the family’s steeply terraced Cor Römigberg vineyard delivers a mouthful of cassis, spice and licorice. On the more alternative side, the Comets series is an experimental range dedicated to exploring new frontiers in Alto Adige, such as Bla Bla Bla, a white summer sipper made from the obscure Blatterle grape.

Alto Adige owes much to inspiring winemakers such as Walch and Lageder. Innovators both, they are making way for the next generation to take over. It is now up to Walch’s daughters, Karoline and Julia, and Lageder’s son, Clemens, to show us what the future holds for Alto Adige. *

Helen Gregory is the founder and president of Gregory + Vine. She has worked in strategic brand management and communications for beverage industry leaders such as Moët Hennessy USA, Rémy Cointreau and STOLI, and has led award-winning hospitality, beverage and lifestyle campaigns for prestige clients from the European Union to Argentina, Australia, Chile, Israel, South Africa and across the United States.