Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What I learned this year... P.3: Trentino-Alto Adige

My winner of the year for "Most Overlooked and Underrated Wine Region"

Yes, you can find wines from the Trentino-Alto Adige, but not as many as you should, and not as easily as they deserve.

The basic quality level of wines from this far northern Italian region (which is really a far southern Austrian region) is astonishing. Since the area was part of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire and didn't become "Italian" until after the First World War territorial grab---er, realignment of national affiliations---it should come as no surprise that this area is more German than Italian in wine styles, and even after 91 years, as much Germanic as Latin in its food and culture. Whether German or Italian, it's the Sudtirol, and maintains its unique identity.

When you visit the region---and you should, for it is supernally beautiful, a series of valleys nestled firmly in the Alpine mountains, and a favorite terminus of skiers---you'll notice the duality of signage here everywhere you look, for both German and Italian are authorized and often used interchangeably. You'll see the same on wine labels too.

And the topography and climate also support the Germanic theme, for this is a cool upland region in summer, with relatively short harvest seasons, and the wines tend to be braced with tingly acidity.

The Trentino-Alto Adige features some wine varieties that are indigenous and rarely seen elsewhere, and these autochthonous wines are only now asserting themselves on the world stage. Teroldego and Lagrein are trademark reds for the region, and they'll satisfy anyone's quest for robust and rustic-styled reds with plenty of flavor, spice and tannic structure. The whites are more varied, ranging from Riesling and Muller-Thurgau and Kerner in the Germanic tradition, to scorchingly acidic and nervy Sauvignon Blancs, with some taut Pinot Blancs and aromatic dry Muscats thrown in for good measure.

Another good reason to investigate the Trentino-Alto Adige is that it is still a "wine drinking" region instead of a "wine collecting" region. Thus far it is known mostly by wine geeks who chortle over the combination of unique geeky-ness (i.e., any wine you have to learn to pronounce so you can assert your dominance over other geeks), exceptionally high quality, and very reasonable price. Translation: the collectors and trend followers haven't jumped all over the region---yet---and ratcheted up the prices, so you can afford to drink the stuff on at least a semi-regular basis!

I hesitate to name names, since there are so many small producers in this region turning out spectacular wines, but I will throw two out: and oddly enough, both of them are co-operatives. Co-ops (groups of grower/producers banded together) are generally looked down upon by wine aficionados, but these are among the best producers in the region, and their quality stands up consistently...and both their wine makers have been recognized as Italian Wine Makers of the Year in the past decade!

The first is St. Michael-Eppan. These are brilliantly clear, with crystalline focus on varietal character, especially in their Sauvignon Blanc. They have different label ranges, so look for the
"Sanct Valentin" if you can find it. I'll also give a shout out for their Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder); it's topnotch wine from a largely underperfoming grape, and a testament to good winemaking.

Note the duality of language on the label. Both German and Italian are standard on labels in this region.

The second is Kellerei Tramin, and should be as widely available as any Alto Adige wine in the US market. The quality of the Kellerei Tramin wines is consistently high, and always a safe bet and a good bargain. (I wrote about the Kellerei Tramin Lagrein recently in this blog.)

But as I said, there are many, many other producers, most of them quite good, some of them superb. So your chances are good here.

If you haven't already sampled the wines of the Trentino-Alto Adige, now's a great time. And if you haven't had the wines for a while...well, get out there and expand your horizons. (You'll be glad you did.)

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