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Get on the Alpine Wine Bandwagon

November 19, 2019

Story: Punch Staff

photo: Lizzie Munro

The winemaking region is a dark-horse darling among American wine professionals.

“Yes, it’s Italy, but it doesn’t drink like any other Italian region,” says Caleb Ganzer, sommelier and co-owner of New York’s La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels. Tucked up high into the southern Limestone Alps, Alto Adige (also called Südtirol by its German-speaking population) is Italy’s northernmost winegrowing region. “Alto Adige is more Alpine, Austrian and Germanic than the Italy we think about on a regular basis,” Ganzer says, pointing out that it stands to reason, as the region wasn’t part of Italy until 1919.

Thanks to centuries of a precise winemaking tradition, Alto Adige is often described as lovably lost in time, a place where style has been shielded from the trends of global markets. “They’re like the Jura, in a way,” Ganzer says, referring to the tiny, obscure French region that, over the last decade, has become a cult obsession among sommeliers. Increasingly, today’s modern wine culture is defined by discovery—unearthing a region or producer that’s flown under the radar and hasn’t yet become the darling of wine lists—and a departure from blue-chip regions, like Burgundy and Bordeaux. “Alto Adige offers authenticity in a way you can’t find in most places,” says Ganzer.

Alpine wines, the world over, are having a moment. With a lean, austere sensibility, these wines are a pivot from the bigger, richer profiles that defined the tastes of the ’90s and early aughts. Often high in acid, but made from varieties like riesling, grüner veltliner, petite arvine or altesse, these wines have the ability gain textural depth and complexity, especially when employing techniques like aging on the lees “Alpine wines are always so crisp and clean. The days swing dramatically from hot to cool at night,” says wine director Carlin Karr of Frasca, in Boulder, Colorado. “When you drive through Alto Adige, it’s a distinct valley, harnessed by the Dolomites,” she adds. “It’s intensely Alpine, and the wines reflect that.”

Thanks to its geographic idiosyncrasy—set high into the Alps, bumping up against Austria and Switzerland—Alto Adige has some of the country’s most dramatically diverse topography; much of the region’s vineyards cascade down steep slopes and up sweeping glacial valleys. White varieties make up the majority of the region’s wines, with pinot grigio, gewürztraminer, pinot bianco and chardonnay dominating; Müller-Thurgau and a handful of other iconic Germanic varieties are also produced. The reds are ruled by Schiava and lagrein, two grapes native to the region, as well as pinot noir, while merlot and cabernet are also planted. “[The wines] have a melted glacier purity that makes me feel like I’m drinking the best quality mineral water,” says Ganzer.

For Victoria James, beverage director at New York’s Cote, the wines from “this nook of Italy frozen in time” are a good foil for her restaurant’s Korean cuisine, which focuses on meats and fermented foods. To endure the region’s long, harsh winters, Alto Adige’s food culture evolved to include lots of preserved foods—smoked sausages, charcuterie, hardy breads—and, likewise, the wines were made to stand the test of time. “They’re great young, but they’re also sturdy, and can be enjoyed with quite a bit of age, which is not common throughout Italy.” She likes to pair blauburgunder, schiava and pinot nero with grilled meats, and kerner, sylvaner and sauvignon with traditional Korean banchan. “Alto Adige wines are historically a dream with salty, fatty meats,” she says. “They have the ability to cut richness with bright acidity, and the funky and fermented flavors of Cote’s food is well contrasted with the ripe and opulent fruit aromas of the wines.”

“Alto Adige is so unique because it’s co-op driven, but still with such high quality,” says Karr, referring to the economic model of vineyard owners delivering grapes to a commonly held cooperative for production. She notes the diversity of styles throughout the region, ranging from crisp, crunchy pinot bianco to aromatic Müller-Thurgau, to merlot and cabernet that manifest in the Old World style. “I think the dedication to high quality as a region speaks to the Germanic quality.” James agrees: “The precision in winemaking [there] is very Austrian, very Swiss. The wines are clean, precise, fresh.”

While Alto Adige’s white varieties—pinot bianco, pinot grigio, gewürztraminer—are best known, Joe Campanale of LaLou in Brooklyn has a particular fondness for the region’s indigenous red varieties, including lagrein, an ancient, dark, high-tannin grape and the fruity, light, Beaujolais-like schiava. “They can be very high quality—less revered but just as exciting,” says Campanale. “Schiava is a really light, juicy red wine, super low in alcohol. It’s typically soft in tannin and has lots of energy.”

Perhaps Alto Adige’s greatest assets, at this moment, are its approachability and value. Whereas most Italian wines are labeled according to complex DOC standards, often requiring consumers to be familiar with a particular region’s signature grape varieties, this region’s wines are labeled by grape and are often made from a single variety, rather than blended, making them more navigable for new audiences. “The wines speak for themselves on a list, but they also provide tremendous value,” says Ganzer.

What most excites Karr about Alto Adige, however, is its diversity of styles. “You could make an [entirely] Alto Adige wine list, make it interesting, and have something for every wine drinker.”

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