Discovering the classic Italian whites of the Alto Adige

While one can get chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and riesling wines from most wine regions around the world these days, there are only a handful of regions that specialize in the classic varietals of pinot blanc, pinot grigio, gewurztraminer and muscat.  One of the regions is Alsace and then neighboring Pfalz Germany which share the same mountain range the Vosges to the Haardt.  A classic area and in fact the home to the gewurztraminer grape is the Alto Adige, the northernmost vineyards in Italy with the highest percentage of controlled quality (DOC) wines.   Gambero Rosso, the leading Italian wine guide, consistently gives Alto Adige wines the highest number of top ratings as a percentage of vineyard area.  This is an important distinction given that 70% of production is by 15 cooperative wineries.

At first glance, it would seem incongruous that any grape could ripen well in this Alpine region.   Think of Alto Adige as a Y-shaped valley region with the Alps nestled inbetween the northern river valleys, opening up to a flatter, lower river valley.  The Alps actually shield the region from cold, northerly winds, while the river valleys draw in the warmer Mediterranean influences from the Adriatic.  This results in a region with near-perfect climatic conditions for growing aromatic whites with on average 1900 hours of sun per year and average July temperatures of 71 degrees, but which varies greatly depending on location.  In the capital of Bolzano – at the Y intersection and sheltered to the immediate north by the Alps – summer temperatures can rise above 100 degrees.  This heat is tempered by the cool air slipping from the Alps at night and by high elevation vineyards often above 2,500 feet.  The warmth and sun promote ripeness important for developing the heady aromatics and concentration in these grapes, while the cool temperatures at night help preserve acidity.

At a recent tasting of Alto Adige wines in SF, I was reminded how concentrated and full-bodied these wines can be and how they are fast becoming my favorite wines with food, especially Asian dishes.  In general, these wines are fruit-driven with little oak influence, although higher-end chardonnay blends can be fully or partially fermented in barrel.  Below are some of my favorite whites from the tasting:

Alois Lageder Pinot Bianco (pinot blanc) Haberle 2008 ($20.00).   Of the pinot biancos I liked in diverse expressions, this one comes from the southernmost town in Alto Adige, which contributes to the lifted pear and apricot aromas and opulant mouthfeel.  Fresh acidity is maintained by the high 1,800 foot elevation of the vineyard on the cooler eastern slope of the valley.

Terlano Pinot Bianco Vorberg 2006 ($27.00).  An excellent example of the high quality of cooperative winemaking in Alto Adige and of the ‘terroir’ of the site.  It is restrained on the nose, but with clear minerality from the volcanic soils in the Adige Valley.  On the palate it has concentrated orchard fruit, crisp acidity, fine extract, creamy mouthfeel and long finish.  This would be a great California chardonnay lover’s alternative wine, with less new oak and slightly more acidity.  It has structure and fruit to age and evolve.

St. Pauls Winery Pinot Bianco Plotzner 2008 ($24.00).  Medium-bodied but with depth of lychee fruit, balanced by fresh acidity and length.  Another great cooperative wine!

Elena Walch Beyond the Clouds 2007 ($65.99).  I first became familiar with this wine at the French Laundry in 2005 and have always associated it with quality, which was Elena’s goal in putting her name on the label.  This blend is predominantly chardonnay, fermented and aged in barrel.   While most of Alto Adige whites are mono-varietal, chardonnay is one wine where blending with the other varieties is not uncommon.  Part of this is due to the history of the region, from before the 19th century, of co-planting vines, and some of it is due to regulations – for example, Terlano DOC requires a minimum of 50% pinot blanc and/or chardonnay.

Alois Lageder Moscato Giallo Vogelmaier 2009 ($24.99).  While muscat represents a smaller percentage of plantings in the Alto Adige, the dry-style wines are really exquisite.  It has the characteristic aromatic nose of honeysuckle, with layers of peach and apricot fruit seamlessly balanced with fresh acidity and full body.