Rassegna Stampa

1 Aprile 2006

Gourmet - Return of the natives

Winemakers in Northern Italy have rediscovered the region’s indigenous grapes. The result: world-class red wines
(by David Lynch)

Bolzano, hemmed in by the Alps and just a 50-mile drive from Austria, seems an unlikely place to make luscious red wine. The looming peaks and chilly Adige River look more suited to steely whites with flavors of wet stones and wildflowers. And though there are plenty of those, here in the hub of Italy’s German-speaking Alto Adige, a few winemakers are crafting world-class reds with grapes native to the region.

Just west of Bolzano, near Gries, on the silty, gravelly banks of the Adige, Lagrein grapes are turned into wine as black as the Bolzano night. A few miles south, in Trentino which many Americans think of as a wellspring of cheap Pinot Grigio-red Teroldego covers the Campo Rotaliano, a former floodplain around the villages of Mezzolombardo and Mezzocorona. While Müller-Thurgau, Pinot Bianco, and other whites climb to the Dolomites, the purple-hued Teroldego roasts on the valley floor, rooted in river stones that radiate heat long after sunset. Take a look at a wine such as “Granato,” the iconic Teroldego Rotaliano from Foradori, or at the Teroldego Rotaliano “Clesurae” from Cantina Rotaliana. They are downright inky. Dense. Tongue staining. There are mountains all over, but these are not thin, acidic, high-altitude mountain wines.

The area known as Trentino-Alto Adige is at a latitude roughly equivalent to that of Mâcon, in Burgundy, but conditions for reds are more comparable to those of St.-Estèphe or Graves. “The first comparison people make when they see this place is to Bordeaux,” says Elisabetta Foradori, lifelong resident of the Campo Rotaliano and proprietor of the Foradori winery in Mezzolombardo. “The climate and soils are remarkably similar.”

As a result, most Trentino and Alto Adige winemakers with serious intentions have leaned on the traditional grapes of those French regions, particularly Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. But over time, thanks to Foradori and others, Teroldego has been added to that list. Lagrein, once relegated almost exclusively to the production of rosé, has begun to take its place alongside Bordeaux blends as a top red in the extensive ranges offered by most Alto Adige wineries.

The Adige and its tributaries have created an alluvial fan across the valley floor, strewn with an easy-draining mix of gravel and sand. The river also acts as a wind tunnel for warm air off Lake Garda, which works its way up the valley each day and often collects in the Bolzano basin. These conditions make Bolzano one of the hottest regional capitals in Italy throughout the summer. In fact, Trentino-Alto Adige has always produced more red wine than white. To an Austrian, this place is the Riviera.

TRADITIONALLY, THE ALTO ADIGE was a region of tart, rustic reds made from a local workhorse grape called Schiava (literally “slave”), consumed absentmindedly during holidays on the local lakes. There was always the potential to do something better, and the reds have gotten more substantial. But up until recently, the only wines from Trentino-Alto Adige sought out by wine lovers were the Pinot Nero “Sant’ Urbano” from Hofstätter and an assortment of Bordeaux-style blends from both provinces, most notably that of Trentino’s Tenuta San Leonardo, which is by family and winemaking pedigree a cousin of the legendary super-Tuscan “Sassicaia.” Schiava-based reds were the tourist wines; Bordeaux blends were the preferred “show” wines, the ones crafted to convince critics that this was a serious red-wine terroir.

Of course, this is a familiar story in Italy-vintners using so-called international varieties to legitimize and publicize their growing zones, then capitalizing on the new clout to unveil native grapes. They’ve been aided by some influential Italian wine publications, which have thrown over many of the international wines they recently praised in favor of autochthonous varieties and winemaking practices they say will help Italy reconnect with its ancient heritage. In Barolo, home to Nebbiolo-Italy’s most noble native grape-the movement has been away from new-oak flavors and back to a more classic style. Meanwhile, in Sicily, producers such as Planeta, which gained fame with Merlot and Chardonnay, are pouring their energy into the native Nero d’Avola grape. And Campania, the ancient font of Italian viticulture, is seeing tremendous investment in its wine industry (the once moribund Taurasi DOC, and its Aglianico grape, have been revived by relative newcomers like Antonio Caggiano and Salvatore Molettieri).

Italians are thrilled with these changes. And the timing is fortuitous. The worldwide migration toward wines with denser color, deeper extract, and more forward fruit, makes it only natural that Lagrein would find its full voice in the Alto Adige. Although light, old-school Schiava-based reds like St. Magdalener are still very much around, Lagrein is the new king.

“Lagrein has lots of extract, great color,” says Wolfgang Raifer, the young enologist at Colterenzio, in the Alto Adige. Colterenzio is one of a multitude of cooperative wineries in the area, some of which were formed as far back as the late 1800s (the Catholic Church, with its heavy presence in Trento, played a major organizing role). Like virtually all its cooperative neighbors, most named for the towns in which they are based, Colterenzio has evolved from a socialist-inspired farmers’ collective into a shrewd marketer of wines with several quality tiers to choose from. Colterenzio’s top-end “Cornell” is consistently one of the most expressive examples of modern Alto Adige Lagrein: dark, chewy, with a curious mix of chocolaty sweetness and roasted-meat savor.

Both Raifer and Foradori believe that Lagrein and Teroldego are related to each other, with Lagrein possibly the genetic parent. And in describing the characteristics of their respective varieties, both makers point to Syrah in comparing their wines’ flavors to something more familiar. Recent research conducted at the University of Milan suggests a correlation between Teroldego, Lagrein, and Syrah. Foradori long grew Syrah in Mezzolombardo, and considers it to be a kindred spirit, particularly aromatically, of Teroldego. Some experts have suggested that many of the native reds of the area came from Greece via the Adriatic and the Adige.

Despite their unclear origins and somewhat limited quantities (the Teroldego Rotaliano DOC covers only about 1,200 acres, while Lagrein, found in both Alto Adige and Trentino, is slightly less widely grown), Teroldego and Lagrein have in recent years found a solid footing on wine lists and retail shelves. For great Lagrein, look for Hofstätter’s “Steinraffler,” Franz Gojer’s “Glogglhof,” Santa Maddalena’s “Taber Riserva,” and the “Abtei Riserva” from the monastic winery Muri-Gries, the standard-bearer in Bolzano. For Teroldego, in addition to the producers already mentioned, Zeni, Dorigati, and Cipriano Fedrizzi are names to look for.

These are the reds that best embody the oddball charm of Alpine Italy, where Knödeln take the place of gnocchi and where spread-collar shirts give way to green Tyrolean jackets. On the one and, Teroldego and Lagrein taste vaguely familiar-Lagrein often reminds me of a meaty, vegetal Chinon, and Teroldego leans more to the violets of Syrahand yet they’re like nothing you’ve ever had before. Maybe a nice Gulasch to go with them-now, that’s Italian.

 

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