Small, comprising less than one percent of Italy’s total production, but mighty is Alto Adige-Südtirol. With the towering Dolomites as its backdrop, the region is blessed with gifts from nature. The combination of the region’s climate, geography, and geological features produces unique, Alpine-style wines. “Our favorable climate—with 300 days of sunshine, warm days during summer and fall, colder temperatures during the nights—[provide] excellent conditions to produce the fresh, mineral white wines we are known for,” shares Johannes Tiefenbrunner. His family’s Tiefenbrunner Castel Turmhof Winery has been making wine in the region since 1848. The mountains to the north shield the area from the harsh weather of the European continent; Lake Garda and the Mediterranean to the south supply it with warming air currents. Add in a host of different soils–“we benefit from diversified soils such as loam, porphyry, slate, granite as well as chalk, gravel, and various moraine soils,” says Tiefenbrunner–– and the result is wines that are precise, structured, and elegant.
The mountains provide vineyard sites at altitudes up to 3,300 feet. “Each single vineyard is surrounded by mountains, so in a mile of distance, you have several micro-climate changes. This gives the region good diversity, many varieties, a nice complexity in the wines,” says Hannes Rottensteiner, who represents the third generation at his family’s winery. Daniel Pfitscher, the seventh generation at Pfitscher Estate Winery, agrees, “Not everywhere there are the Dolomites. You can taste this influence in the wines from South Tyrol.”
These varied microclimates allow the cultivation of over 20 different varieties. White wine dominates, accounting for over 60 percent of production, including Pinot Grigio (some of the most complex around), Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, and Pinot Blanc. But don’t sleep on the region’s indigenous red wines. Schiava (a.k.a. Vernatsch) and Lagrein, along with Pinot Noir, see the highest production level for red wines. Even Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon make an appearance due to the varied growing zones. “On the one hand, we have a [robust] Merlot that grows at 250 meters, and on the other hand, a fresh Sauvignon Blanc that grows at 900 meters. This is unique,” explains Pfitscher. Alto Adige-Südtirol is also home to several historic varieties that have all but disappeared, including Blatterle, Fraueler, Furner Hottler, Versoaln, and Weiss Terlaner.
Stepping Into Quality
After reaching a height in planted hectares in the early 1900s, demand suffered, and plantings decreased after that. Even with an uptick in demand after the Second World War, the wines were not of the best quality. This was particularly true for the region’s red wines, which comprised upwards of 75 percent of production.
With consumers turning away from mass-produced wines in the late 1970s, the region transitioned from high yields and large production towards small yields and high quality. Lago di Caldaro/Kalterersee became a recognized designation in 1970 and Alto Adige/Südtirol in 1975. While many contributed to the region’s quality efforts, those of independent wine estate owner Alois Lageder IV with Luis Raifer, president of the Cantina Colterenzio cooperative, were likely the most significant. These visionaries embraced lower yields, improved trellising systems, and respect for the land–all helping to move the region from bulk wine production to one of quality.
Founded as a wine merchant in the 1800s by Johann Lageder, the Lageder estate is one of the most storied. When Lageder IV took over the family business in the 1970s, he brought high-quality standards, a strong sense of environmental responsibility, and eventually, a commitment to biodynamic viticulture. Not only does he believe in these concepts, he’s been able to get others in the region to buy in. For his part, Raifer changed what it meant to be a cooperative. While the thought of cooperatives conjures up images of insipid, bulk wine for many, Raifer pushed for quality and a place where wines from cooperatives (which account for 70 percent of the region’s production) are on par with those from independent estates. He convinced growers that to appeal to consumers, there had to be rigorous procedures in the vineyards. It all came down to a basic principle–smaller yields would lead to higher quality grapes, therefore higher quality wines.
Part of the evolution also encompassed a shift back to cultivating a majority of white varieties. Since 1978, red wine production has steadily declined, with winegrowers embracing what the region does best. However, the red varieties that remain are planted in the zones that exhibit their best characteristics.
The 1980s would mark the beginning of a sustained upward trajectory for quality. The emergence of single-vineyard wines and the use of modern techniques were also significant contributors. Franz Gojer, whose family has been farming their land since 1830, was one of the first in Santa Maddalena to release wine from a single vineyard to express the special nature of the site. The decade also saw new producers such as Elena Walch, who took over her husband’s family’s historic estate and brought it into modern times.
The Changing of the Guard
With an ever-focused eye on quality, things continue to evolve in Alto Adige-Südtirol. Change remains a constant whether it’s varietal focus, planning for climate change, or technology in the vineyards. The ascension of the next generation is critical.
Continued Focus on Sustainability
The new generation continues the work on sustainability. “I am of the opinion that we have no alternative,” says Pfitscher, who became CEO of the family winery in 2016. “We have improved many things in the vineyard. We do seeding, distribute compost we produce ourselves, and have animals in the vineyard. This strengthens the soil, and the vines are healthier.”
For Rottensteiner, it’s about an overall approach to sustainability rather than a focus on a particular certification. “Nature itself doesn’t know categories. [What] sense does it make to work in the vineyard with horses, but [use] a wine bottle with 1 kg of weight, wrapped in plastic foil, and then put in a wooden box?” It’s similar for Tiefenbrunner. “We already strive to work as sustainably as possible. No herbicides are used in our vineyards and we rely on biodiverse soil cultivation.” The approach is also not new. Says Tiefenbrunner, “Our commitment to the preservation of nature and sustainability is further underpinned by the fact that for over a century now we have been generating 97 percent of our winery’s energy consumption with our hydropower plant.”
At Alois Lageder, the sixth generation is now at the helm in Alois Clemens Lageder. Like his father, Clemens is laser-focused on biodiversity. He has done things like plant hedges next to the vines and brought in oxen from a nearby dairy to graze in the vineyard and fertilize the soil – all in the name of creating a closed farm organism, which is the ultimate goal for biodynamic agriculture.
Change in Varietal Focus
Varietal change has also been a part of the process. Not surprisingly, climate change drives some of these shifts. Riesling was championed a century ago, and Pinot Grigio today, but it may be warm weather varieties like Viognier in the future. “We definitely noticed the consequences of climate change. An example of the rise in temperature is our Cabernet Sauvignon Riserva which is only produced in ideal years where the grapes have been able to fully ripen and mature. Before 2000, only a few vintages met the standards, [but] after 2000, the climate was much more favorable, and we were able to produce this wine quite regularly,” notes Tiefenbrunner. For the continued production of white wines, it’s a matter of going up the mountain. “While the reds often benefited from warmer temperatures, for many of our white wine varieties, this meant we had to grow them on higher sites.” It’s been the same for Pfitscher. “At the moment, climate change is a major challenge. The vineyards in Alto Adige are moving more and more upwards. Fortunately, we can do this thanks to the mountains.”
Varietal changes have been happening at Lageder as well. Clemens Lageder has been effective in creating a limited-edition project called COMETS, a line that’s about experimentation. Think of new varieties like Tannat or the almost extinct Blatterle, Beaujolais-style early harvested wines, and even pét-nat. Like others, the goal is to continue to produce wines that exhibit the region’s signature freshness and minerality.
But climate change can work to bring out the best in a winemaker. “The weather, the climate, isn’t perfect at any time. It shows you the limits you have. It forces you to understand every single vintage, to act according to the balance given by nature” says Rottensteiner. For some varieties, the altitude has been good. Tiefenbrunner recalls, “My grandfather was the first in Alto Adige in 1972 to plant a vineyard of one hectare of Müller-Thurgau on a high plateau on the Fennberg mountain [at] 3,300 feet, which was viewed with disbelief and sometimes mockery back then. Time showed, however, that he was ahead of his time.” It seems he had the last laugh as the wine from that vineyard is one of the estate’s flagship wines and enjoys international acclaim. “It is a perfect example of the influence the terroir has – a grape variety that can be quite bland when grown in the flat of the valley, shows its potential in high-altitude vineyards.”
While the trend over the last several decades has pointed decidedly in the direction of white wines, some bucked the trend. At least for a while. Take Franz Gojer, who has been steadfast in cultivating the region’s two indigenous reds Schiava and Lagrein. And why not? His estate winery Glögglhof, situated in Santa Maddalena, is considered the equivalent of a grand cru site for Schiava—and he is regarded as a master of the variety. But like other producers, the next generation at Glögglhof is making his presence felt. Franz Gojer’s son Florian, who previously did an apprenticeship in Santa Barbara with the late winemaker Jim Clendenen, joined his father at the winery. At the age of 21, Florian was instrumental in planting the estate’s first white grapes, and at 24, he produced the winery’s first white wines.
Similarly, while red wines have historically been the focus of his Bolzano estate, Pinot Blanc has grown significantly for Rottensteiner. “In recent years, it has become more and more important for us,” he says. Today, his estate produces around 35 percent white wines, which is quite unusual for a Bolzano estate.
Like the climate and efforts around sustainability, the role of technology is changing. “I think that this is becoming more and more important,” shares Rottensteiner. “I use much more cellar technology than my father did, for example, selected yeasts, malolactic bacteria, and improved must fining.” Similarly, the new generation at Elena Walch, in daughters Karoline and Julia, is embracing the role of technology in the cellar. They spearheaded a state-of-the-art, gravity-driven fermentation cellar. The idea is to intervene as little as possible by working very gently. Florian Gojer also built a new cellar to process the grapes more gently using gravity and focused on whole-berry fermentation for the estate’s red wines. Of course, the challenge is in honoring the best of the past–while also preparing for the future. “My parents taught me to stay open-minded for innovation and change, at the same time, to stay true to our roots. This is sometimes an act of balance. It is my goal to maintain my family’s legacy but also develop it further in a spirit of respect,” says Tiefenbrunner.
With a continued momentum of positive change, the future certainly seems bright for Alto Adige-Südtirol. But perhaps Rottensteiner said it best, “If you prefer a beer to a second glass of a wine as a producer, you certainly did something wrong.” They seem to be doing it right, as many of us, producers and consumers alike, have a second glass.