22 Mar 2012

I say tomato, you say potato (Alto Adige, Italy – Day One)

Well I’ve finally made it to Italy, but as anyone who has crossed the border from Austria would know, it doesn’t quite feel like Italy yet. Alto Adige is also known as Sud Tyrol, or South Tyrol. This is because for centuries the whole area was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire up until the end of WWI. After this point the Italian border was set at the Brenner Pass on the Southern side of the Alps, but the citizens remained proudly Tyrolean. Hence they continued to speak German (albeit an Austrian dialect), ate Austrian food, and made many wines from German/Austrian varieties such as pinot bianco/weissburgunder, pinot grigio/grauburgunder, gewurtztraminer and muller-thurgau. During the fascist era Mussolini attempted to make Alto Adige an Italian speaking region like the rest of the country, by introducing southerners into the area. But the inhabitants are stubborn and proud, and now there is a mix of Italian and German spoken, almost on opposite sides of the narrow valley that makes its way south towards Trentino.

Pergola trellising at Tiefenbrunner; now I'm south of the Alps
One of the things you notice about many wineries from Alto Adige is that they have German names, such as my first appointment at Tiefenbrunner. I was hosted by Christof Tiefenbrunner, who has a German accent with a slight Italian inflection. His family have been making wine in the Castell Turmhof for over 100 years, after his great-grandfather acquired the land in 1903.  Christof  took over the running of the business back in 1993 from his father who had been at the helm for almost 60 years. He saw an opportunity to get ahead of the game in terms of quality, and thus introduced several new initiatives. The first was to appoint a young cellarmaster to run the operations of the winery, when in the past it was done by  Christof's father. The second was to reduce the amount of intervention in the winery, such as unnecessary rackings, filtrations and finings. The third was to have a much better understanding of each of the sites they grown on and source from, greatly limit the amount of chemicals used, and replant varieties in the best sites. Thus he can now make wines of different qualities that achieve the right amount of maturity on the vines, and allow the unique terroir to be expressed in the wine without too much oak or by stripping away the character of the wine.

The famous Castel Turmhof at Tiefenbrunner
The first great thing to see in the range of Tiefenbrunner wines was that the pinot biancos actually had complexity and character in comparison to their equivalents north of the Alps. Similarly the pinot grigio wines were somewhere between the more familiar Italian style of crispness and freshness, and the rich slightly sweet alcoholic pinot gris style of Alsace. They do have texture and complexity, but are dry and far from cloying. The higher up in quality with these varieties, the denser and more complex they become and the higher the potential for ageing. The Kirchleiten Sauvignon 2010 and 2011 vintages were both on the sweaty and reductive side, with some complexity but lacking finesse and restraint. For the white wines, the real highlight is the muller-thurgau variety, and sitting at the top is the iconic Feldmarschall. Comparing the 2010, 2008 and 2007 vintages showed the potential for ageing, but also the need to have a cool and long vintage, as the 2007 was slightly too warm and the wine was falling away.

Historic cellars under Tiefenbrunner
For the red wines the Linticlarus range shows the serious potential for red wines in certain sites in Alto Adige, in spite of it being considered a white wine region and being planted mostly to white varieties. The Pinot Nero Riserva 2009 has quite a robust caramel and coconut nose, showing a little too much oak and a tad heavy-handed on the tannins. The Lagerin Riserva 2009 by comparison is very full and complex, with soft tannins and great acids but a tad closed and youthful. It is a wine to be drunk now and cellared for later. The Linticlarus Cuvee 2009, a blend of Bordeaux varieties, had a slight menthol black olive nose and quite intense tannin and acidity, which has a lot to do with it being cabernet franc led. In exceptional vintages Tiefenbrunner makes a Riserva Cabernet Sauvignon, and the 2007 had a wonderful dark earthy nose with serious depth and complexity a soft tannins.

Tiefenbrunner Pinot Grigio on its way to Australia
Franz Haas is the seventh generation of a family that has produced estate wines since 1880 in Alto Adige, making it one of the oldest family-owned wine estates in the region. The focus has always been on producing quality wines from the now 28 hectares of estate vineyards. Today the winery produces a range of wines from an additional 22 hectares, including the amazing Kris Pinot Grigio which was the best selling Italian white in the store I worked for in Melbourne. It is also world-renowned for its innovation and attention to detail, such as replanting vineyards into higher densities, reducing yields, and introducing non-traditional varieties (very un-European). One of the other innovations was to convert most of the wines to screwcap seal, to retain the freshness of the white wines in particular. This is very important for the wines as many of them are sold in Export matkets, and Franz would rather have the wines expressing as they should be without bottle variation.

Franz Haas winery
Like many in the region he understands the importance of selecting the right variety for the right sight. He plants up to 27 different varieties depending on the great diversity of elevations, soil types, expositions and micro climates. For example he is planting a new vineyard at an altitude of about 1200m above sea level to compensate for the recent effects of climate change providing warmer vintages. He is making a serious investment, as he will be planting a range of varieties to determine which ones perform better, and then focusing on these ones. The winery uses a range of techniques to vinify the wines, but the intent is to limit the influence to allow the variety and region to be expressed in the wine. I had a tour through the winery where I had the opportunity to taste some 2011 vintage wines from barrel, including a pinot bianco, two chardonnays, a tannat and a passito made from moscato giallo. Unfortunately I didn't have the opportunity to taste any wines from bottle, but I'll have the chance at Vinitaly next week.

Cellars at Franz Haas
Click here to see more photos from Day One in Alto Adige, Italy.

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