The thing about Alto Adige is whatever you say, you’ll be wrong. Greet people with a cheery “Grüss Gott!” and they’ll reply with an equally cheery “Buongiorno!”. Try “Buongiorno!” and they’ll say “Guten Morgen!”. In fact this last response is what you’ll hear most of the time because the locals tend to assume that if you’re foreign, you’re German.
The Alto Adige region is a polyglot melting pot on the border of Italy and Austria where everybody holds conversations in two languages simultaneously, where menus and wine labels do the same, and where the only way you can know for certain which country you’re in is by looking at the street names. They’re all in Italian and German, of course – but Italian precedes German. You’re in Italy.
In fact, you might be in the capital Bolzano. It’s a good place to visit: a charming city centre of tall shuttered houses, good shops, bäckerei (bakeries) to die for and a museum where you must, absolutely must, go and see Ötzi the Iceman, who is 5,000 years old and was dug out of a glacier.
You’ll get an idea of the sort of place Ötzi lived in if you drive up the Adige Valley from Verona airport. The road takes you northwards, following the celadon-green Adige River, with almost vertical mountains on both sides, tree-clad and topped with the odd castle or church.
These mountains must have been an impassable barrier in the past, you’d think. People must have lived their lives in their own village, their own valley, never knowing what lay over the horizon. Yet Ötzi’s ancestry, according to his DNA, can be traced to the Middle East, his ancestors part of those barely understood movements of peoples that have brought us to where we are now. Mountains, glaciers – all just another kind of road.
Mountain viticulture is just another kind of viticulture too, but it is different. What was ice in Ötzi’s day could well be vineyard now, but the kind of mountain landscape created as the African continent performs its slow-motion crash into the European continent gives a lot of shadow, so there aren’t that many ideal spots for vines.
Nevertheless, there are 26,000 vineyards in the area and they’re scattered, going up to 1,000 metres or more – and moving even higher. The bedrock can be magmatic, metamorphic or sedimentary limestone; the first two, which are found particularly in the north, are slightly more acidic, with a pH of 6.2 to 6.5, compared with the 6.8 to 6.9 of the limestone.
But it is very beautiful. On a fine day the mountains are etched in blue against a blue sky, trees pointing ever upwards. When it rains, the clouds smother the mountains, fill the crevices, and drift in scraps and shreds at roof height. In summer, Bolzano, surrounded as it is by mountains, is as hot as Naples – it’s a region that will surprise you.
Alto Adige is an intensely local place. There are even different inheritance laws for neighbouring towns: in Bolzano, everything can be left to one child, but in Caldaro (or Kaltern), 20 minutes away, everything must be divided equally between the children. So it’s no surprise that vineyard patterns are different too; more scattered in Caldaro, more concentrated around the winery in Bolzano.
Climate change is helping production – for now. It’s warmer than it used to be and grapes are riper, but the wines are still full of freshness.
Some grapes are grown on pergolas and some on wires. As ever, you can find growers to extol the virtues of either. Basically, pergolas give higher yields and less ripeness, so could be due for a comeback one of these days.
In any case, most vines are irrigated. It’s fairly dry, but honestly not that dry, and growers in the rest of Italy will tell you that the use of irrigation here is about habit more than real drought. In the past, huge yields were the aim. Now the region has upped its game, but it can’t quite bring itself to ditch the drip.
Over 20 grape varieties are grown, often familiar – chardonnay, pinot noir – and often very old. Traminer, at least 1,000 years old, is named after the town of Tramin, or Termeno in Italian.
Tramin is about a half-hour drive south of Bolzano (which is Bozen in German). Traminer was grown widely until about the 16th century, when growers often swapped it for the bigger yields of red schiava, which is still the quintessential everyday wine of the region; the other indigenous red you see a lot is lagrein.
They have similarities – acidity, brisk tannins, black fruit flavours – but schiava is often lighter in colour and more rustic. Lagrein is darker and sleeker. There’s merlot too, and cabernet sauvignon; among whites, pinot gris, pinot blanc, sauvignon of course, kerner, grüner veltliner, riesling, sylvaner, Müller-Thurgau – often very good here, oddly enough.
Reds generally grow lower down the slopes and in the valleys; Lagrein needs long, warm summers to ripen. The high vineyards are kept for whites. Naturally, Tramin is where you’ll find good gewürztraminer, while Bassa Atesina, especially the Mazzone plateau, has a reputation for elegant, mineral pinot noir, on south-west-facing slopes.
Schiava finds its classic expression around Santa Maddalena. Grüner veltliner does particularly well in the (even more Austrian) Isarco Valley north of Bolzano, as do riesling and sylvaner. The Isarco, in fact, is one of the best places in Italy for whites: you’ll find beautiful tense, complex wines here. Terlano has a reputation for sauvignon blanc.
Growers talk about soil, of course, but here they mostly talk about microclimate. Altitude, wind, shadowing from the mountains – all these things affect ripening.
So what do the wines taste like? Concentrated, fresh, pure, tight. They’re immensely moreish and great with food. They’re never overblown and seldom over-oaked; obvious oak doesn’t suit them.
They’re a nice reflection of the international and local strands that have formed the region, even international favourites like chardonnay assume a local character – it’s the mountains. Yes, they divide and contain, but above all they impose themselves. Mountains here are not the background, they’re the centre of everything.
Fewer than 200 growers out of roughly 5,500 bottle their own wine; most belong to high quality cooperatives.
Franz Haas (franz-haas.com) is a pinot noir specialist, but good across the board. Pinot noir hasn’t always been successful in Italy, but Franz Haas plants it high up, at 750 metres or even 1,000 metres, and at high density. Burgundy is his model, and his wines are tight, slow to age and beautifully balanced. They have that gloss of perfect assurance.
I came across the white wines of Pacherhof (pacherhof.com) only recently and they stood out for their racy elegance. The estate is in the north of the region, in the Isarco (or Eisack) Valley, and I particularly enjoyed a sour-milk sylvaner and a salt-and-pepper grüner veltliner. I even liked the kerner, which I usually don’t. There’s also a hotel in the old farmhouse, with a restaurant and a wellness centre, and during October and November, they serve the young wine with local ham and sausage in the evenings.
There’s lovely black-fruited, spicy lagrein from Muri-Gries (muri-gries.com) located in a baroque Benedictine monastery in the town of Gries, which is now effectively part of Bolzano. As well as red lagrein, it continues the older tradition of rosé, which was the usual style of lagrein until about 40 years ago. Open for visits every weekday.
J. Hofstätter (hofstatter.com) is in Tramin, which means, of course, it has great gewürztraminer. It does other grapes as well, but you’d like to taste the grape in its original home, wouldn’t you? Kolbenhof Gewürztraminer is the bees’ knees for that. There’s also a pinot noir from the Mazzone (Riserva Mazon Pinot Nero) and lots of other goodies. Don’t go past the restaurant and wine bar.
Elena Walch (elenawalch.com) makes terrific gewürztraminer. The family has vineyards in Caldaro and Tramin, and the cellar is in Tramin. Try Vigna Kastelaz Argentum Bonum Gewürztraminer, aged in an old silver mine. Tramin has a bistro and there’s an ostaria in Caldaro.
Köfererhof (koefererhof.it) is a small-scale white wine producer, making intensely aromatic, pure, tense drops in the Isarco Valley. I remember particularly a superb riesling from indigenous yeasts; the pinot grigio is memorable, too. There’s also a highly regarded alpine restaurant.
Alois Lageder (aloislageder.eu) is one of the best known names in the region, and you can’t really go wrong here. Biodynamic now, and with a big range, especially flinty Lehen Sauvignon Blanc. Very beautiful cellars at Magrè, south of Bolzano, with guided tours, tastings and a restaurant.
Kellerei Kaltern (kellereikaltern.com) is one of the very good cooperatives of the region, in Caldaro/Kaltern. Great lagrein, schiava, moscato giallo – everything, really. The wines have precision and balance. The nearby lake is a great centre for windsurfing and sailing, and on the Kellerei Kaltern website you’ll find a long list of local B&Bs run by its grower-members.
There are 19 Michelin-starred restaurants in the region, so you needn’t go hungry. There are also mountain rifugios, high up at skiing altitude, where you’ll find dishes of local game, mushrooms, pasta, salume, dumplings and the like.
Panholzer (panholzer.it) is a lovely vaulted restaurant in an old house on the shores of Lake Caldaro/Kaltern, serving local ingredients cooked in a modern way: pikeperch sous vide, or venison carpaccio with ricotta. Lots of local wines by the glass. There’s also a vineyard suite, simple but comfortable, if you fancy a night among the (biodynamic) vines.
At an altitude of 2,410 metres, Sofie Hut (seceda.com) is not bang in the vineyards and requires a couple of cable cars to get to it. But the views are wonderful and the food excellent. You might surprise some marmosets on the walk from the cable car. Really good venison, and light, flavoursome dumplings.
I’m normally wary of any hotel or restaurant that calls itself ‘romantik’: it can just mean an overabundance of lace curtains. But at Romantik Hotel Turm (hotelturm.it) the rooms are beautiful, there’s a great art collection, the food is Michelin-fancy and there’s a splendid wine list. There’s also a spa, and it’s a base for skiing, hiking and mountain biking in the Dolomites. It’s part of the Vinum Hotels chain (vinumhotels.com/en), which are all family-owned and situated in the vineyards.
Restaurant 1524 at Ansitz Rungghof (1524.it) is a good base for exploring the Bolzano area: lake fishing, hiking, biking, with very comfortable rooms in a lovely old house. Excellent, experimental food based on local ingredients, a top wine list, and it’s a half-hour walk from the beautiful Monticolo lakes, so you can walk off lunch.
In Viaggio – Claudio Melis Ristorante (inviaggioristorante.com/en) is in the centre of Bolzano, open for dinner only, and doesn’t allow children under the age of 12 – it regards itself as a serious and unique experience. But it’s not pretentious, and the food and wine really are outstanding. Tiny, so book well ahead. Choose five, seven or nine of the dishes on offer, and four, six or eight different wines.
Restaurant Schwarz Adler (schwarzadler.it) is halfway between Bolzano and Trento, which is another beautiful, manageably small city, and where the Council of Trent was held in 1545-63, so full of history. Very varied cuisine, from venison cutlets with red cabbage, to tuna with wasabi, to pumpkin risotto with gilthead. Very good list of local wines, including, surprisingly, a local petit manseng.