Most days, as the *slams laptop shut* moment approaches, my mind turns to one thing: the act of pouring myself a cool, crisp glass of post-work white wine. My mouth waters and I feel a bit crazed in anticipation. There’s just something about that first sip that screams, “My work here is done. Commence the self-care.” Unfortunately “self-care” in this instance usually looks like me wrangling homework out of two unwilling children and making dinner for our family, but the sentiment is there. And, as I sip my white wine, Nickelodeon’s (admittedly brilliant) Henry Danger blaring on the TV, kids demanding more ketchup for their chicken nuggets, I nevertheless feel oddly cared for.
Lately, I’ve been reaching for bottles from one of the most exciting regions for white wines – Italy’s Alto Adige. In fact, I would argue that, when it comes to selecting white wines with character that fit just about every drinking occasion, Alto Adige should be everyone’s go-to.
Mountains and Lakes and Valleys, Oh My!
Located in the northeastern part of Italy, sharing a border with Austria, Alto Adige is flanked by the Dolomites – a breathtaking mountain range in the Alps that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009 because of its “unique beauty.” In addition to creating a stunning backdrop for this wine region, the mountainous terrain plays a unique role in creating equally stunning wines. Vineyards cover the slopes, foothills, and valleys of these mountains, spanning elevations of 600 to 3,300 feet above sea level. Also contributing to the climate – and undeniable beauty – of Alto Adige is the presence of small lakes, like Lake Caldaro, Lake Garda, and Braies Lake, which moderate temperatures in the region. The mild, Alpine continental climate is driven by a unique combination of factors: mountain peaks protect northern parts of the region from cold, damp winds, while Mediterranean influences warm the southern parts, creating countless benefits from varying levels of elevation, soil types, aspect, and sun exposure.
“We speak of Alto Adige as ‘where the north becomes the south,’ because, depending on where you are in the region, you are influenced by cool winds from the Alps, warm southerly winds like the Ora that blows up from Lake Garda, or a combination of the two,” says Chris Struck, sommelier, wine educator, and beverage director at Ilili. “This natural balance in both the mountains and the valleys results in white (and red) wines with freshness, elegance, and purity of fruit, across a wide range of grape varieties.”
When sipping the white wines of Alto Adige, these climatic influences are clear as day. “It’s a combination of characteristics – balance, length, intensity, and complexity – that work together synergistically to make a white wine great,” says wine expert and author Deborah Parker-Wong. Indeed, a remarkable synergy of components is to be celebrated in these wines. We taste purity of fruit, complexity, concentration, and that unmistakable freshness that comes from strong diurnal shifts. However, we also taste an astonishing range of flavor, aroma, style, and expression, which may just be the singular most beguiling thing about the white wines of Alto Adige.
Fifty Shades of Grape
The sheer number of international and indigenous grape varieties that thrive here is impressive. In fact, more than twenty different varieties find their ideal growing conditions in Alto Adige, with 64% of vineyard area covered by white grapes.
We find elegant, layered Pinot Grigio that leads us to shake our heads in disbelief that this is the same grape we find in so many common domestic bottlings. We find Chardonnay in all of its chameleon-like expressions – luscious and oak-kissed, steely and linear. We find Sauvignon Blanc that, as Struck explains, “Draws on the best aromatic and structural components of all of the established stalwarts to produce beautiful examples that are stylistically greater than the sum of their competitor region parts.” We find perfumed, luscious Pinot Bianco, and spicy Gewürztraminer, both of which absolutely sing in this region. We find fascinating, lesser-known varieties like Kerner, Sylvaner, and Müller-Thurgau, offering the curious wine drinker a kaleidoscope of flavors and textures to discover. And, in between, we find exciting blends that marry the individual attributes of each grape variety in delicious, artistic ways. One is spoiled for choice at all turns.
“There are two ways consumers could approach the white wines of Alto Adige,” explains Struck. “One is to seek out already familiar international varietal examples from the region, allowing them to view a familiar sight through a fresh and unique lens. The other is to seek out grapes less widely known and have fun with them. Grapes like this tell a very specific story of a very specific place and are treasures in the big, overwhelming world of wine.”
Peaks of Flavor, Valleys of Cost
Something that cannot be overstated when it comes to the white wines of Alto Adige is just how far the dollar goes when selecting bottles that seem infinitely more expensive than they are. Even everyday wines check all the same boxes that more premium wines do, like length, concentration, balance, ageability, complexity, and elegance. “These wines offer great value, and over-deliver for the price point,” notes wine writer Emma Buls, who works for Rootstock Wine Co., a distributor with a portfolio that includes several selections from Alto Adige. However, much like the broad range of grapes and wine styles one finds here, there is a wide range of price points to be found, from simple midweek wines to luxury selections worthy of cellaring, gifting, or saving for special occasions.
Perfect Plate Mates
Whether you are like me, swooning over the perfect sip of white wine at the end of a long day, or looking for versatile white wines to pair with food, Alto Adige is an excellent place to start. “Alto Adige, and, within it, grapes like Kerner, offer consumers a playful, experimental opportunity to pour a glass to ponder before shopping for dinner (or lunch!) ingredients, and really let it inspire and drive their choices on what to prepare for a meal,” says Struck.
One can take inspiration from the mingling of cultural influences within the region, which, thanks to its proximity to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, often feels quite different from much of the rest of Italy. “This part of the world has seen cultural and political upheaval over the centuries, and that Italian-German mélange is reflected not only in the wine, but the food, language, and people,” notes Buls. White wines from Alto Adige shine when paired with regional cuisine like schlutzkrapfen, tender half-moon pasta filled with spinach and cheese curd, or Tyrolean speck, that salty, slightly smoky ham that both locals and visitors gobble up with pleasure. And any food and wine lover can tell you about the magic that happens when you pair a crisp, zesty white wine – like those from Alto Adige – with just about any food that could benefit from a squeeze of lemon.
“The canon of Alto Adige white grape varieties offers a proverbial spice box of food pairing opportunities,” says Struck. “White wines from this region do things that most other wines can’t, like pair beautifully with artichokes and asparagus.”
They can also leave you weeping into your Gabriel-Glas stemware on a random Tuesday evening out of sheer delight…or perhaps mid-week parental fatigue. Either way, you’re still sipping on something worthy of tears of joy.