Trentino Alto-Adige, Italy
In the very north of Italy, high up in the Alps which form the natural border between Mediterranean and central Europe exists an incredibly unique Alpine region that I only learned about recently when I met with a winemaker from here. Trentino-Alto Adige is a paradoxical region, with both bitter cold and searing heat, harsh, steep mountains and lush, green valleys, snowfall but very little rain, and a mostly blond-haired, blue-eyed Italian population who speak German.
So first up, to understand this unique wine-producing state, you must understand that this region has a very complex geo-political history. I won’t go too deeply into this, but basically this region has seen its fair share of warfare and has been ruled over by a lot of different countries. The last time this region changed hands was just after the Second World War, where its northern section was annexed from Austria. As a result of this, basically every person speaks both German and Italian, and everything in this Italian state is actually separated into 2 autonomous provinces, with separate names for everything; Trentino is the southern Italian section, while Alto-Adige, known by locals as Südtirol is closest to the Alps. Whilst very similar in terms of geography, weather and soils, the culture of these 2 sections of this Italian state have had major influences on the viticulture of the region. Therefore, I will go through the viticultural and varietal differences of these states-within-a-state separately, but not before doing a quick summary of what makes them similar!
Being right up in the very north of Italy on the border with Austria, this region is definitely classified as an ‘alpine’ climate. Snowfall, skiing, chair lifts, the whole shebang- all common occurrences in the winter months in Trentino-Alto Adige. In the summer though, the weather gets very warm, with days reaching the high-30’s- the winemaker I met from Alto Adige showed me a photo of a tropical palm tree that grows in his backyard to prove this! This is due to the protective wall of mountains to the due north, which guards this region against cold winds out of central Europe, as well as inclement rainfall. In the morning, the warm Mediterranean air wafts up into the valley and hits the mountain walls, pooling, concentrating, and warming the valleys and lower slopes. This warmth never sticks around though, and the cool air off the mountains floods back down every night, meaning in the summer the temperatures drop from a daytime 35 degrees to 10-15 degrees! Now we all know grapevines need quite a lot of water to produce fruit, so usually this lack of rainfall would be a problem, however the winter snows melt into the soils every spring, creating a reservoir of fresh water- perfect! The lack of rainfall also reduces disease risk in the mountain vineyards which can get fairly humid in the warm summers.
This whole region is split by the Adige/Etsch river, which originates in the Alps and runs through both regional capitals Bolzano/Bozen (Alto-Adige) and Trento (Trentino) as well as historic Verona on its way to empty into the Adriatic Sea just south of Venice. The Adige/Etsch river is very fast-moving, cold, fresh and full of nutrients, being made up mainly of snowmelt from the Alps, making it perfect for irrigation on the valley floor. This process is totally illegal for grape vines in this part of the world, meaning this crop must therefore be relegated to the hillside slopes. This works in the vine’s favour however, as they receive abundant sunshine on the mostly-south facing slopes and sit above the humidity of the valley floor. This translates to wines of mineral, alpine freshness and acidity, but ripe fruit flavours and good structure, and reds with fairly dense tannins.
So now that we’ve covered the geography and climate common to these two quite different zones, we’ll get into the human element, influenced by culture and tradition, and look at just what grows in each part of Trentino-Alto Adige.
Alto-Adige’s 2 most-grown varieties are ones that many of you may have never heard of; Schiava and Lagrein. Schiava is a thin-skinned grape producing early-drinking light and fresh reds very popular in Austria and Germany, while Lagrein is a thick-skinned variety closely related to Syrah, high in acid that makes mouthwatering and delicious reds. For whites, the most-grown (but steadily decreasing in importance) are the very Germanic Müller-Thurgau, Sylvaner and Gewürztraminer. Pinot Grigio is finding a good home in this region and plantings are growing year-on-year, being more structured and linear whilst still holding an attractive pear aroma- they also tend to be less flabby and with more interest than examples grown on the warm plains of Venezia-Giulia to the south. A handful of high-quality appellations exist within this region, such as the Lago di Caldaro DOC which specialises in more serious Schiava and Terlano DOC, which produces long-lived and complex Pinot Bianco- the white mutation of Pinot Noir, usually associated with Alsace!
Trentino, the southern half of this region holds tightly to its Italian roots, producing prodigious volumes of Pinot Grigio, mostly made by one of the 15 huge co-operative wineries. 20 varieties are technically allowed here in Trentino, though some are doing better than others; Chardonnay is growing in importance, producing a clean and crisp style of wine, very lightly oaked and a very cheap alternative to entry-level Burgundy. Cabernet is the most-grown red varietal, though this may be because this name can be used interchangeably for any and all combinations of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Carmenere! Light and refreshing reds made from Merlot are growing in popularity out of this region, as is sparkling wine- Trento DOC is a relatively new appellation covering this whole region’s vineyards between 400-700m above sea level (and therefore very high in acid) and planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. This style of wine, aged for 18 months on lees to increase complexity, is gaining a lot of critical acclaim and even giving southern neighbour Prosecco a run for its money!
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