Italy’s Alto Adige, also known as Südtirol, is a wine region that combines Northern European logic with Southern European flair. Nestled in the northeast corner of Italy, near the Austrian border, Alto Adige is home to a diverse variety of microclimates, terroir, and grape varieties, resulting in a wide array of high-quality wines. In this article, we will explore the history, terroir, grape varieties, and unique characteristics of the Alto Adige wine region, as well as some recommendations for food pairings and places to visit.
A Brief History of Alto Adige Wine Region
Alto Adige has a rich history of grape cultivation and winemaking dating back over 2,500 years. The region’s viticultural tradition began with the Rhaetian people, an Alpine tribe connected to the Etruscans, who planted vines on the slopes of Alto Adige. The Roman Empire later incorporated the region, and the German aristocracy and clerics further developed the wine industry during the Middle Ages.
The Habsburg Empire, followed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, introduced several grape varieties such as Pinot Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Chardonnay to Alto Adige. After World War I, the region became part of Italy and was granted autonomous status in 1998, allowing it greater control over local laws and tax revenues.
Today, Alto Adige boasts more than 200 wines with DOCG (the highest classification) or DOC (the second-highest classification) status, firmly establishing it as a top wine destination in Italy.
Terroir and Climate of Alto Adige
Terroir refers to the unique combination of factors, including soil type, climate, topography, and altitude, that influence a wine’s characteristics. In Alto Adige, the terroir is as varied as its landscape, with over 150 distinct soil types resulting from the collision of the European and African tectonic plates.
The region’s climate is characterized by cooler temperatures and abundant sunlight, thanks to the protective effect of the Alps. With approximately 300 sunny days each year and an average temperature of 64 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius) during the growing season, Alto Adige is considered a relatively warm wine-growing region. The ample sunshine helps ripen the grapes, resulting in wines with higher alcohol levels, typically ranging from 12.5% to 15%, depending on the wine.
Despite the protection from the Alps, Alto Adige receives sufficient rainfall (32 inches/815 mm per year) to support grape growth. To cope with the heat during summer months, producers often use drip irrigation systems to aid their vines.
Grape Varieties and Wine Styles in Alto Adige
Alto Adige is known for its startling and aromatic dry white wines, such as Gewürztraminer and Pinot Grigio, as well as its fruity and sweet red wines made from indigenous grape varieties like Schiava and Lagrein. The region’s most common white grape varieties include Pinot Grigio, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, and Pinot Blanc, while the most common red varietals are Schiava, Pinot Noir, and Lagrein.
Nearly two-thirds of Alto Adige’s wine production is white, with the remaining one-third devoted to red wines. The region’s diverse terroir and climate allow for the production of both rich, Tuscan-style red wines and delicate, Germanic white wines.
White Wines of Alto Adige
Pinot Grigio is a popular white grape variety in Alto Adige, known for its bright acidity and subtle fruitiness. Gewürztraminer, another prevalent white grape, produces highly aromatic wines with notes of lychee, rose, and exotic spices. Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc are also widely grown, offering more restrained, mineral-driven styles of white wine.
Red Wines of Alto Adige
Schiava, also known as Vernatsch, is a light-bodied red grape variety with flavors reminiscent of red cherries, raspberries, and almonds. Lagrein, a more robust indigenous red variety, produces wines with rich tannins, dark fruit flavors, and spicy notes. Pinot Noir, known locally as Blauburgunder, also thrives in Alto Adige, yielding elegant, cool-climate red wines with silky tannins and complex aromas.
Food Pairings with Alto Adige Wines
Alto Adige wines pair exceptionally well with a variety of dishes, thanks to their balanced acidity and versatile flavors. Some recommended food pairings include:
Speck Alto Adige
This smoked and cured ham from the region is a perfect match for Alto Adige white wines, as its mildly smoky, sweet, and salty flavors complement the wines’ bright acidity and fruitiness.
Strudel (Trentino-Alto Adige)
The flaky, crispy dessert made with thin layers of pastry and various fillings is a delightful pairing for fruity, aromatic white wines like Gewürztraminer and Pinot Grigio.
Tiroler Barley Soup (Südtiroler Gerstensuppe)
This hearty, vegetable-based soup with barley, speck, and potatoes is an ideal match for light-bodied red wines like Schiava, as well as mineral-driven white wines such as Pinot Blanc.
Places to Visit in Alto Adige Wine Region
The capital of South Tyrol, Bolzano, is a vibrant city with a rich history, stunning architecture, and numerous cultural and educational institutions. Its medieval center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to many galleries, museums, and landmarks that make it a must-visit destination for wine enthusiasts.
Pinzolo, a picturesque Alpine village in Alto Adige, offers a peaceful retreat for those looking to escape the hustle and bustle of city life. With its charming restaurants, bars, and hotels, Pinzolo is an excellent base for exploring the region’s wineries and vineyards.
Trento, the capital of Trentino-Alto Adige, is known for its rich history, beautiful landscapes, and diverse culinary scene. Its stunning views of the Dolomites and the River Adige, as well as its numerous galleries, museums, and landmarks, make it a perfect destination for wine lovers.
Italy’s Alto Adige wine region offers a unique combination of Northern European logic and Southern European flair in its diverse range of high-quality wines. With its rich history, stunning terroir, and array of grape varieties, Alto Adige is a must-visit destination for any wine enthusiast.