Wines produced in the Dolomite foothills of Italy’s Alto Adige region (also known as South Tyrol) may make up a tiny fraction of the country’s overall output, but they over-perform on-premise, providing many sommeliers with unique favorites in decidedly distinct styles. In fact, the types of Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco and Pinot Nero (to mention the three varietals most often seen in US restaurants) vary dramatically in Alto Adige, depending on altitude, soil and micro-climates in the generally small vineyards where the grapes are grown.
Somms like these wines for their crisp and especially food-adaptive flavors and freshness, and they love being the person able to serve a familiar grape like Pinot Grigio in a more sophisticated style. These wines are loaded with flavors of peach, melon and other fruits not usually found in the lower quality, lemony Pinot Grigios that flood the market.
America’s appetite for Pinot Noir from anywhere makes them an instant attraction for vareitally-driven drinkers, while the few wines made from the traditional Schiava varietal (also known as Vernatsch or Trollinger) that make it to the US from Alto Adige in particular reveal a light, fruity and welcoming red wine that is simply made for day-to-day drinking. In fact, the people in this mountainous region are happy for it to be considered the perfect picnic wine.
It wasn’t always a region known for making great wines intended for fine dining. The region was mostly a bulk producer of cheap wines often sent elsewhere for blending until the 1980s. Pioneers like Alois Legeder decided that two things needed to happen before grape growers and producers in the region would try their hand at better winemaking: gaining more confidence in their abilities, and doing something the international wine world couldn’t ignore.
They accomplished both goals by making great wine from internationally acclaimed varietals like Chardonnay to show how well the region’s deep valley vineyards could do when turned from mass production to controlled yields. Helping the change was the region’s unusually wide dependency on cooperative wine production; about 70% of the wines from Alto Adige come from cooperatives of wine growers who fill the roads this time of year with tractors pulling freshly harvested grapes to the many co-op wineries that dot the countryside. Some are quite large, but all of the winemakers at these enterprises speak the same gospel of limited yield, high-quality grapes grown under specific requirements of the co-ops’ management.
That limited production also means that much of the wine never leaves the region, and few producers are large enough to create the kind of presence that gets them on the menus of chain fine dining restaurants, except for the massive producer Santa Margherita who put Pinot Grigio on the American wine drinker’s table. But there are endless options not only in Pinot Grigio producers but also in varietals, with more than 20 used for single estate, single varietal and blended wines. Any fine dining operator looking for interesting wines that step off the beaten path would do well to start looking toward the hilly northern Italian Alto Adige producers.