Trentino & Alto Adige: The Sky’s the Limit


The regions of Trentino and Alto Adige are quite divided, with a more Italian feel in the southern Trentino and, Austrian influences in the northern Alto Adige. In reality, you’d never notice any border or much of a difference while driving up from Veneto, passing Lake Garda and into the valley that takes you past Trento and onto Bolzano. For most of the trip, mountains line both sides of the canyons with sheer rock cliffs shadowing tiny villages that lay on their foothills. At each turn there seems to be another small castle or keep, an ancient watchtower or stronghold perched high above. It’s a dramatic sight to see, and it’s only when you leave your car, speak to a local or examine the grapes found throughout the vineyards that it becomes clear just how different this region, which is really two regions, actually is. 

The Amphora aging chamber at Foradori.

The Topography, Geology and Grape Matter

Looking at a map, the wine regions of Trentino and Alto Adige are spread out like a tuning fork or a blossoming flower that cuts deeply into three river valleys that flow down from the Alps and through the Dolomites. At its base there is Lake Garda, which provides warming currents that swell up to the north. This is hilly terrain but not quite mountainous yet, and the soils are alluvial, rich in sand and pebbles that have been deposited by glacial movements and the Adige River over the course of millennia. These surroundings are perfect for the bulk of the region's wine production, as forests mixed with apple orchards give way to Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco and Pinot Nero vineyards that feed the sparkling Trentodoc category. This is also where the Trentino DOC exists, a catchall of wines labeled by varietal and encompassing a menagerie of local and international grapes. It isn’t until we move further north that the slopes of Monte Baldo and the Lessini Mountains rise mightily above us, seeming to line the highway like a great wall on both sides. Here we find the Bordeaux-inspired wines and vineyards of San Leonardo, with vines that climb steadily up the slopes of the valley. Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Carmenere have been growing here long enough that the inhabitants of the area consider them “local” varieties, even if we think of them as international. 

From here on out, it’s quite clear that Trentino is a mountainous region, especially moving further north into Campo Rotaliano and the limestone-rich sand-and-gravel mixed soils of the Noce River basin. Standing within the Teroldego vineyards on the valley floor and looking up at the surrounding peaks, really puts our tiny human size into perspective. The Foradori family has practically placed this section of Trentino on the map, having brought international renown to the Teroldego grape with a style that was once large-scaled and slightly intimidating. Those wines of decades past still inspire other winemakers of the region, even though today’s Foradori wines are now based on biodynamics, non-intervention and primarily aging in amphora.

It’s a short trip north to reach Bolzano, crossing the border into Alto Adige and driving past Mazon, one of the Grand Crus of the region's production of Pinot Noir. There was a time when Pinot Nero, as it’s called here, seemed of little importance, but there’s been a surge in quality and a quest for purity that now sets it apart. It doesn’t hurt that global warming now allows producers to reach optimal ripeness, and in some cases, beyond.

Arriving in Bolzano creates a total paradigm shift. From a precipitation standpoint, Bolzano is one of Italy’s warmest and also driest cities. When considering its pre-alpine location, one would never consider that this would be the perfect place to create big, dark and sometimes juicy red wines. However, it’s the city’s lower elevation at the confluence of three river valleys that creates its unique terroir. What’s more, Bolzano sits in a rain shadow created by the surrounding mountains, receiving warming currents from Lake Garda in the south while also being shielded from the extreme cold of the Alps to the north. During the day, the sun bears down hard on the city and the terraced vineyards that line the hills and soils of volcanic origins around it, but the moment it sets, refreshing cold air rushes in to balance the warmth of the day. This location is the perfect place for the indigenous Lagrein and Schiava grapes, as well as the St. Magdalener DOC that combines the two varieties to create some of the most deep and characterful, yet also fruity, wines imaginable. It's also the home of the traditional Nusserhof estate and their walled-in vineyard, which exists in spite of the city that grew up around it.

Looking north, the valley splits in two, with the Adige River flowing down from the northwest, where we find Terlano, and the Isarco River flowing from the northeast, where the Abbey of Novacella is located. This is a region that thrives primarily on their cooperatives, where each town you pass appears to have its own winery that bears its namesake. Surprisingly, these are also some of the best producers of white wine in Italy. The elevations throughout the two valleys steadily increase and soils change drastically, with thriving apple orchards and alluvial soils beside the river giving way to vines planted in primitive rock mixed with quartz, slate or mica along the dizzying heights of the surrounding mountains.

Inside the cellar of Peter Dipoli.

The Alto Adige white varieties are numerous: Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Sylvaner, Kerner, Müller-Thurgau, Riesling, Moscato Giallo and Grüner Veltliner, each finding its own terroir throughout the hills and up along the high elevation terraces that look down upon the valley. Because of this and in order to fill their portfolio with the best expressions possible, it is not unusual that producers have vineyards spread out all through the valleys. In the case of Sylvaner and Kerner, it’s in the Isarco valley where they find an ideal home. Speaking of top whites, one cannot ignore the Pinot Bianco-dominated blends produced by Cantina Terlano, a winery and town in the Adige Valley that inspired its own DOC, Alto Adige Terlano. Elevations here span from 250 to 900 meters, often requiring the use of suspension bridges above deep canyons to reach vines at death-defying heights. A winemaker's passion for grapes and vines becomes apparent when considering the work that goes into creating the wines of this region. 

The Confusion of a Multilingual Wine Region

Things are not all cut-and-dry in Trentino and Alto Adige. One of the biggest sources of confusion, primarily from Alto Adige, is that producers will often have their wines labeled, both with the name of the variety and even the winery, in one language to market to the German and Austrian customers, and then another to appeal to the Italian and American markets. While I understand the desire to make things more comfortable to each subset of customers, this is extremely limiting to the region as a whole. Even when sending samples for review, a wine would be sent under one winery name, but on the label, an entirely different name would appear. Or the winery would send a wine listed as one variety, yet the label would state an alternate name or spelling. As an example, Sauvignon Blanc becomes Sauvignon, Grüner Veltliner becomes Veltliner, Silvaner becomes Sylvaner, Pinot Bianco becomes Weissburgunder, Pinot Noir becomes Pinot Nero or Blauburgunder and Schiava becomes Vernatsch or Kalterersee. In an attempt to make things as simple as possible, when I refer to a producer or a wine, I use the name as it is stated on the label. I see this as the only way that a reader could properly find the wine in most English and Italian speaking markets. 

Old vines high above the Adige River valley.

Vintage Talk in the Days of Global Warming

The producers of Trentino and Alto Adige are very happy with the 2019, 2020 and 2021 vintages that make up the bulk of their current portfolios. While it’s becoming more and more rare, in the age of global warming, to have a vintage that does not allow producers to achieve physiological ripeness, the real problem here is preventing the crop from going overboard. It’s because of this that alcohol levels can soar quite high in many of the region's wines. Sauvignon Blanc, Kerner and Sylvaner are perfect examples, and producers work hard with canopy management and pick-dates in an effort to maintain balance. Many have also begun using experimental varieties, such as Bronner, Solaris and Zweigelt, in their warmer locations, while looking to higher elevations for new plantings. All of that said, sun-kissed vintages sell, and all three vintages delivered that, with 2019 imparting more depth and structure across the board, 2020 being a bit more promising for red varieties, and 2021 having higher expectations for white wines.

While the 2019 vintage was generally warm, it was also quite balanced, and it shows in the wines. This was a year with a very cold winter and a much warmer spring; however, a late frost in May reduced yields across much of the region. June was rainy, which was helpful for the rest of the season, as the summer turned hot and dry. The lack of strong heat spikes was a saving grace, and the diurnal shifts from night to day were drastic, allowing the plants to recover and reach optimal ripeness over time. The harvest was later than average, yielding lower quantities than normal, yet it took place under perfect conditions. The 2019s show the warmth of the year with their radiant fruit profiles but also possess balanced structures and bright acidity. It’s a very attractive mix. 

The 2020 vintage started warm throughout the winter months, with a cooler and rainier period during March but then returned to higher-than-average temperatures for the rest of the spring. As a result, budding was later than usual, and bloom was earlier. Rain and thunderstorms in the spring into summer, along with warm temperatures, created a high risk for disease, keeping producers in the vineyards to maintain the health of the vines. While August brought dryer weather overall, thunderstorms near the harvest season made choosing pick-dates difficult for producers. Many of the white varieties suffered as a whole, with the later-picked reds benefiting from more temperate and dryer conditions. In the end, the whites are ripe, supple and round, and while average acidities are reported as normal, one cannot help but feel a lack of motivation on the palate. The reds come across as more energetic and fruit-filled, but not as deep as the best vintages.

The early release, fresher 2021s show a lot of promise for the bigger wines that will be released later this year and into next. While generally a warm vintage with a number of severe rain and frost events (this is one of the most unwelcome results of global warming), the harvest in 2021 was completed under ideal conditions. Most producers will tell you that this is the reason for the balance that’s found within the wines. I can’t argue from what I’ve tasted so far. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s to come from 2021 as the more important wines begin to be presented.

Old pergola-trained vines in the San Leonardo vineyards.

All of the wines from this report were tasted either with producers in Trentino and Alto Adige in January of 2022, or in our offices in New York City in February and March of 2022. Of note, the wines of the Trentodoc region were purposely left out of this article as they are now featured annually in our sparkling wine report at the end of the year.

© 2022, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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