At the base of the mighty Dolomites sits two northern Italian wine regions known for Germanic-inflected culture, food, and cool-climate viticulture. Alto-Adige and Trentino, both formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, feel distinct from the rest of Italy. They also harbor a trio of indigenous red grapes that are far removed from mainstream consumption. Despite Americans’ fascination with Europe’s boot, from pizza, pasta, Barolo, Brunello, and of course, Prosecco, most have yet to discover the patchwork of delicious oddities upon which Italy is founded.
In the spirit of discovery, here’s why you should get to know these Italian mountain grapes.
For as far back as locals can recall, this light-bodied red, also known as Vernatsch (or Trollinger over the border in Germany) has been the regional wine of choice. Comprising a large component of vineyard plantings, only recently has the grape lost acreage to other varieties, notably white grapes. While most Schiava is consumed locally, producers applying a deft touch to winemaking are helping spread the word further afield. Apparently, chefs love working with Schiava, which for many evokes a lighter Pinot Noir or even Beaujolais. This style of wine pairs easily with a variety of dishes. Local foods which marry well with the grape include lightly smoked meats such as speck, and Tyrolean brown bread with butter. As far as flavor, a fresh, bright, cotton candy-red berry (think strawberry and raspberry) profile that’s dry makes Schiava an approachable wine for neophytes. Floral tones in favor of rose, add perfume. Alcohol is typically low, around 12 percent, adding to its on-trend appeal as consumers move away from powerful wines.
Wine to find: Franz Gojer, Vernatsch (Schiava) “Alte Reben”, 2016, $18.
Like many historical Italian red grapes, past wines made from Lagrein seldom exemplified the grape’s potential. Styles were geared towards easy drinking or quaffing for calories in a pre-war era when farmers treated wine like food. Today, the best expressions of Lagrein earn accolades domestically and abroad, demonstrating its potential as a world-class grape. Careful winemakers have learned how to manage the grape’s potential for bitterness, often softening and smoothing rough edges with barrel aging. Unlike its light and bright sibling Schiava, Lagrein brings a heavier body – think Syrah – composed of dark berry fruit mixed with minerality, chocolate and spice. Because they have opposite attributes, Lagrein and Schiava make good blending partners. The wine created when combined is called either Alto Adige Santa Maddalena or Südtirol St. Magdalener, which carries a separate appellation. The region’s tradition of cured meats and heartier fare like game and fowl, pair well with Lagrein.
Wine to find: Franz Gojer, St. Magdalener Rondell, 2015, $25
Also known as Teroldego Rotaliano, Teroldego is the third red wine common to the Alto-Adige and Trentino regions. It’s named after a flat stretch of plain where it grows well, the Rotaliano. The fact that it performs better on level land than hillsides is peculiar given the grape’s capacity for fine wine. Unfortunately, akin to the other red grapes mentioned, many boring and bitter expressions of Teroldego abounded in the past. But when it’s at its best, the wine displays deep color, velvety picture-framing tannins, and seductive black fruit tinged with earthiness. Teroldego has been compared to Merlot, and when at its best, Pomerol. Elisabetta Foradori is the vanguard producer of this variety who works naturally with organic fruit. Her version evokes the ruggedness of the wine’s mountain origin, the acidity of the cool night air, and the elegance of her winemaking.
Wine to find: Foradori, Teroldego, IGT Vigneti delle Dolomiti, 2014 $22