By Frank Cipparone
Traveling around Italy’s far northeastern regions, there’s little chance you’ll hear the hills come alive with the sound of music. You’re more likely to hear conversations that give you the sense of having crossed an unmarked border, and to see towns more reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel than Pinocchio.
Alto Adige and neighboring Trentino are considered a single, politically joined region that share to varying degrees a German-Austrian heritage. Where they meet along the Alto Adige River is the point where Italy shifts seamlessly from continental to Mediterranean culture. Magre’ in Alto Adige is the most southern point in Italy where German is spoken. Italian takes over a few kilometers farther downriver as you enter Trentino. Even the names of local grapes signal a change, from Kerner, Sylvaner, Muller-Thurgau to Teroldego and Nosiola.
Those who study the history of wine theorize that some of the area’s native grapes originated in Greece and entered the peninsula long ago near present-day Venice and then up-river towards the Alps. What can’t be debated is that each region produces distinctive wine that can’t be found elsewhere. Both rely heavily on co-op wineries, the main difference being that Trentino’s government-initiated industrial operations are relatively new compared to those of Alto Adige, run by local farmers, which were making wine before 1900. Thanks to mass production, Trentino wines are commercially successful. The flip side is that lesser-known grapes are submerged by a tidal wave of inexpensive Pinot Grigio and spumante. In fairness, there are outstanding Pinots made by Bolognani, Terre Dominici, Ca’Montini, and Tiefenbruner.
Small, private winemakers in Trentino are blessed with a range of climates that allow them to grow a variety of grapes. No surprise that reliably adaptable whites – Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc – do well in valleys that can be intensely humid. Even though you can find rich, overripe Chardonnay, more and more wineries are making refresh-ingly lighter alternatives that emphasize less robust fruit flavors and lively acidity. Sub-Alpine weather makes for softer Sauvignon, which is good news for those who are turned off by the intensely sharp grassy, vegetal aromas and flavors that have become the standard.
Trentino’s native whites fill the niche for more aromatic and less alcoholic wine, a style that is slowly gaining converts among consumers and winemakers. Producers there can’t make lush, boldly flavored whites even if they want to. What they make is determined by the higher altitudes and cooler breezes in their vineyards.
The main variety is Nosiola, a name derived from a dialect word for the hazelnuts which are a prominent feature in the wine. Sensitive to climate changes, it varies greatly from year to year. It grows best in Valle di Laghe at the northern tip of Lake Garda where it gets optimum aeration and sunlight to reach maximum ripeness.
Nosiola has been a staple in Trentino since the 1400s and well regarded in Europe for over two hundred years. Since it grows at higher elevations in isolated vineyards it was never abandoned for international grapes like Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio. That isolation and limited production has unfortunately kept it from gaining notoriety even though a Nosiola-based Vin Santo aged at least three years is one of Italy’s premier passito wines. Another obstacle is overcoming the general preference for fuller, fruitier white wine. Nosiola is delicate and dry, with crisp zesty lemon and citrus acidity and lots of saltiness to go with hazelnuts on the finish.
Unlike Alto Adige, which is more known for white wine, Trentino is home to really good reds that call the plains of Campo Rotaliano home. Like Nosiola, Teroldego has been around for centuries and is the most important grape in a region where Cabernet and Pinot Noir have put down roots. Possibly related to Alto Adige’s Lagrein it is planted all over Italy, most notably in Tuscany, but only Trentino makes 100 percent Teroldego wines.
In an all too familiar story, for a long time it was sold off as bulk wine that gave a needed boost to thin, watery reds. Thankfully, really good Teroldego has come along in the last three decades. A lot of the credit has to go to Elisabetta Foradori, the deservedly acclaimed godmother of world-class Teroldego. She is responsible for it becoming a worthwhile option for wine lovers looking for something new and obviously different.
Teroldego is meant for meaty meals, maybe a gamey stew, bresiola, speck dumplings or aged cheese that will enhance a wine that is dark and fruity, with ripe cherries and fresh herbs and a savory, earthy tarriness that drinks better than it sounds.
Marzemino has an equally long history and reputation, to the point of being sung about in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. How times have changed. Unlike Teroldego, for Marzemino everything old isn’t new again. There are less than 1500 acres of each in Trentino, but no producers have stepped up to promote Marzemino as Foradori and others have for Teroldego. Even if you’ve heard of Teroldego there’s a good chance Marzemino elicits a shrug.
I’ve tried to stick to the principle that if nothing good can be said, say nothing, but this is one grape that puts that to the test. Sour red berries, high acidity, a smoky and wild herbal streak, a lingering sense of balsamic vinegar, and a bitter almond finish may not be qualities that will get people clamoring for a bottle. What worked for Mozart is a tough sell today.