Tiny but Mighty

A castle and vineyard in the mountains of Alto Adige

Where terroir reigns.

By Erin Henderson

Schiava. Lagrein. Kerner.

You may have heard of these wine grapes. Maybe even tried them. But my bet is (if you live in Canada at least), you haven’t.

These oddball varieties thrive in the mountainous, northern climate of Italy’s Alto Adige – a region so far north that until 1920, it was part of Austria.

While Alto Adige (sometimes called Südtirol) has officially been in Italy for a century, Germanic influence is remains strong. Signs are posted in both Deutsch and Italiano, food slants to the hearty Alpine style of eating, and the rolling hills are so alive with the sound of music you expect the Family von Trapp to come yodelling around the bend at any moment.

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Alto Adige is tiny – about the size of Chablis – which is to say 42 kilometers from north to south. Unbelievably, within that tiny area, about 150 kilometres of winding road make its circular way through all 70 wineries. But, in true German style, it’s highly organized, clearly signed, and precisely mapped. If this same circuitous route was found in Sicily… well, we’d never see a wine traveller again.  

Pinot Grigio, the white wine that is as celebrated for its easy drinking quaffability as it is demonized for the very same reasons, is the region’s most produced grape, making up 12 per cent of the annual output.  In fact, the entire Pinot family does well here – Grigio, Blanc, Noir – thanks to the quilt pattern of mineral-laced soils and soaring slopes of the Alps and Dolomite mountains.

But this isn’t your mass market, basic Grigio that’s shilled for $10 a bottle. The Pinot Grigio made in Alto Adige is elegant, poised, nuanced, and interesting – and the price tag reflects that. Anywhere from $25 to $50 is what I’ve seen, and while the wine quality supports this price without a doubt, I often say about Ontario wine drinkers that if they love Pinot Grigio, they ain’t paying $25-plus a bottle for it, and if they hate Pinot Grigio, they’re also not paying $25-plus a bottle for it.

However, from what I’ve sampled, premium Alto Adige Pinot Grigio is an affordable gamble worth trying.

blue lake and green vineyards of alto adige

If you’re looking for homogeny, Alto Adige isn’t your place.

Alto Adige only produces less than one per cent of Italy’s total wine production – about 40 million bottles annually – but almost all of it is DOC rated. In other words – less production at higher quality.

It’s this stunning, mountain landscape that creates such unique yet varied wine. While many winemakers are seeking higher elevations due to climate change, the cool air of the Alps combined with the warm breezes from the Mediterranean carried by the Adige River, make for an extraordinary diurnal shift – the temperature difference from day to night. Add to that 150 different ancient soils, Alto Adige’s ground plus its altitude equal lots of varietal choice.

While small, the Alto Adige is diverse enough to demarcate seven distinct growing regions. Within those are 5,800 hectares of planted vineyard, and 4,800 grape growers. At one hectare each, that’s not going to get anyone very far, so cooperatives are a necessity here. There are 12 co-ops making about 70% of the wine.

There are 20 varieties, most of them white, but a few ethereal reds. Schiava (SKEE-ah-vah) which is also labelled by its German name Vernatsch (Vehr-Naht-tsh), is maybe the most compelling. Light, translucent ruby with notes of raspberry jam, white pepper and caraway seed; Lagrein, a full-bodied deep red that is often compared to Syrah; sublime Pinot Noir, as mentioned, is capturing the attention of sommeliers trying to find quality wines with reasonable affordability now that Burgundy has nearly priced itself out of the market.

red grapes in an orange bucket in the vineyard

Wine and Food of Alto Adige

The lean, high acidity, mineral-driven and fruit forward wines of Alto Adige make for stunning food pairings.

Beef carpaccio, shrimp tempura, cheese fondue, pasta with spicy tomato sauce, roast game birds… there is really a wide and exciting range of food that can easily be matched to the red and white wines of Alto Adige.

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At a lunch I recently went to at The Chase restaurant in Toronto, hosted by the Wines of Alto Adige, naturally we had seafood.

Oysters with mignonette + Pinot Bianco

Pinot Bianco (blanc) is both thrillingly electric and indulgently smooth. Upfront rocky mineral flavours along with lemon-lime zest and vibrant green apple, it’s a must try. Be careful when pairing (any wine) with raw onions or shallots, as with mignonette sauce. The sulphuric notes in the onion can strip a wine of flavour, leaving it bitter. What helped the pairing here is the edition of green apple to mignonette.

Scallop Ceviche + Sauvignon Blanc

The Sauv Blancs from Alto Adige land somewhere between the steely versions of Sancerre and the tropical fruit expressions of New Zealand. A beautiful balance of restrained minerality, with an intriguing chive/chervil herbal note, and expressive citrus and orchard fruit. In this case, the ceviche was bursting with verdant notes from raw celery, cucumber aguachile, and avocado puree to support and balance out the wine. Delicious pairing.

Ahi Tuna Niçoise + Schiava

Schiava is light bodied with red fruit flavours and compelling spice. Low in tannin, it’s a great “summer red” as it works served with a slight chill. Ahi tuna is hearty and rich, but still very lean, so it works well with light reds.


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