With a chequered history politically, wine culture dates back to 500 BC, with several indigenous grape varieties in the region. Strong influences from the subsequent Roman era expanded the vineyards and more recently, other grape varieties were introduced by Austrian rulers in the 19th Century.
With early emphasis on quantity rather than quality, particularly during the 20th Century, as in many parts of Europe, a step change was made in the 1980’s, with great emphasis on quality, through drastic reduction of yield (production per acre) and other methods. Modern vine growing and winemaking techniques were introduced and a regional wine body the Consorzio dei Vini di Alto Adige was formed in 2007.
The vineyards of the area run along the river valleys which dissect this region of low mountains, two of the main towns being Bolzano and Merano. Due to the funnelling effect of the mountain valleys, warm air is drawn up from the Mediterranean and temperatures in Bolzano can often exceed those in Naples, much further to the south. The Alps protect the region from cold north winds and the 300 sunny days per year help the 5,000 vine growers to produce some 40 million bottles per year from 20 different grape varieties.
Global warming is starting to affect the Alto Adige as elsewhere, but an advantage of the region is that, rather than relocating the vineyards to cooler areas, the vineyards can just be replanted at higher altitude, which in itself is cooler. Growing vines at different altitudes can also be beneficial from a quality viewpoint, with wines being blended for greater complexity and balance. A further advantage of growing grapes at higher altitude, is that the skins are thicker, thus adding to protection from moulds and disease.
Independent wine growers, co-operatives and estate wineries have been working hand in hand for generations, with dedicated, hard-working families being the life-blood of the regions wines. The two indigenous varieties are Schiava and Lagrein, both of which are red and make interesting, fruity wines. Due perhaps to current drinking fashion, red wine production is declining in favour of white, with Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc produced in equal quantities.
Being so close to the Austrian border and having been under its rule for many years in the past, the region is also referred to as Süd-Tirol and grape varieties can sometimes be labelled with their German names, such as Weissburgunder for Pinot Bianco. The wines from Alto Adige are fresh, vibrant, characterful and a perfect fit for the modern wine drinker. It is thus a shame that only one per cent of their production finds its way to the UK. Happily, a few importers do stock wines from the area, so it is well worth tracking them down. Dolcevita wines of south London stock Falkenstein Pinot Bianco which is excellent, and Liberty Wines have the brilliant Franz Haas Pinot Nero.