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Alto Adige wines – focussing on the influence of altitude

Circle of Wine Writers Seminar 15/06/2022, presented by Nancy Gilchrist MW (all images credit to Nancy Gilchrist MW and Südtirol Wein Vini Alto Adige)

Alto Adige is one of the very smallest growing regions, certainly in Italy. It has only 5500 hectares, which is by way of approximation, really very similar to St Emilion. It’s tiny, and as a result, under EU regulations, they are only allowed to increase the area of planting by 1% every year, which means they can only plant an extra 55 hectares every year, therefore planting vines in exactly the right place is essential, and which is why they’ve been doing so much recent research to focus on finding the perfect height aspect ratio.

From 2017 to 2018, well over half of the new plantings were over 500 metres above sea level. And in 2018 12% of the new plantings were even higher at an altitude of over 800 metres.

Alto Adige is just up on the border of Austria and Switzerland, which explains its Germanic background. It was in fact until 1919.

In other words, just after the First World War, it was part of the Austrian Hungary empire and was then absorbed into Italy and has since been its most northerly growing region and province. It has the most extraordinary microclimate because it’s surrounded by an amphitheatre of mountains, mountain range facing south so it has the most perfect aspect and the slopes of the mountains helped to trap the air in the summer. So whereas you might have thought that the hottest place in Italy would have been Sicily or Naples or so, actually Bolzano can top that at certain days and get over 40 degrees in certain days of the summer.

Bolzano has been voted several times as the capital as the regional city, the city with the highest quality of life in Italy and that’s a vote by Italian. In the Bolzano area, there is the mountain ranges with the snow fields and the waters are flooding down. There are two valleys and the two rivers combine in Bolzano and head south towards Verona, which is about a two hour drive south. And because the Alps are the youngest mountain range, certainly amongst the youngest mountain ranges in the world, they’re still very active and the African plate is shunting into the European plate and pushing them up. And as a result, this small region of Alto Adige has some of the most complex geological features that one could imagine. This is the sort of fault line here with a mixture of volcanic rock, weathered rock and sedimentary rock near the Adriatic.

Bolzano the centre roughly facing south with the amphitheatre of hills around it and the Isarco Valley and the Etschtal Valley joining in the reddish points here (vineyards).

In terms of climate, because of the Alps and of the Adriatic and the Mediterranean influence, there are two very different winds coming from very different angles from the North. The cold winds and especially as they come down the mountainside at the end of each day, huge diurnal range in temperatures. The warm air currents which can be felt particularly during the summer months, bring up some moist air, but they also keep the air circulating, which actually diminishes the incidence of rot.

Being on the south side of the Alps helps hugely in maintaining a very clear sky during the winter and wonderful conditions. During the summer precipitation. It tends to be more in the summer. That can be partly not just in terms of rain, but also in snow melt, which is important and in fact rather alarming.

Vineyards go from roughly from 200 metres to 1000 metres, but there are one or two that are nudging north of 1000. The climate is amazing and the sunshine hours can accumulate to something that is less than Barossa, slightly less than Central Valley, California. But more than most other new world certainly more than any of the old world parts.

(***Below is transcribed from the seminar with little editing)

But the temperature trend has been increasing very steadily and there were some extremely hot vintages in the earlier part of the year in 2018. If the trend continues, we will lose all the snow at the upper levels. The precipitation is a little bit less dramatic. But over this period, you can see how much it’s already varied. And how much it’s likely to. It’s more to do with snow melt. I think that the concern is as opposed to the actual amount of precipitation. But it’s also as we know from so many other case studies. It’s the method in which you receive the precipitation and it’s increasing violence in terms of the power of some of the summer storms and of course in terms of hail, which can have devastating effects.

This slide really gives you an idea of how the snow fields the snow ranges creeping back up the mountain side. And so the altitude of the region surfaces, we have the majority of them below 1000. There’s plenty more space to go up. But of course as you go up the soils tend to get thinner. The stroke slopes tend to get steeper with all of the extra difficulties and costs involved. We’re going to be looking at a mixture of wines usually from just below around the 500 mark to up to around the 800 mark. Not surprisingly, the white wines are the ones which occupy the higher altitudes. But Pinot Noir is one that we’re going to be focusing on today with the tasting good Gewurztraminer and Pinot Bianco and to my surprise when I did the reading Gewurztraminer, Pinot Nero, Pinot Noir have approximately the same range of abilities to grow in the different heat and temperature and precipitation conditions. And it’s something that I wanted to underline when we get to talk about the Gewurztraminer. We used to think of it as a grape that tends to lose its acidity very, very rapidly and can become very flabby. However, the Lamburg research has shown that actually, it’s one of the ones that appear to be most resistant in the face of climate change at the moment.

So, altitude is obviously an important determinant in this. We can adjust variables to counter climate change in a multitude of different ways. We can choose different right later ripening varieties different later ripening clones grafted onto later ripening rootstocks, you can raise the trellis which is very expensive. You can reduce the leaf area to leaf bearing fruit weight ratio. We can do late pruning to push the bud burst and the phenological ripening back, but the harvest is later we can crop thing. But when it really comes to it, we really have started to feel the need to look upwards and this is where altitude can be a really important playing card. And of course, it’s one of the trump cards that Alto Adige possesses in such a small area for every 100 metres. This is approximate because of course, it does depend on what latitude you’re on. And I don’t wish to get bogged down into the discussion of what is high altitude and what is but roughly speaking. You can say that for every 100-150 metres you go up the temperature will drop approximately one degree centigrade. So naturally from that we will anticipate an increase in acidity and a drop in sugar and this helps to balance the wines but there are many more subtle parameters that we need to consider. And of those I’m going to be particularly mentioning some of the other acidities.

The recent research seems to be focusing primarily on malic acid and its behaviour as temperatures increase but there are others and I’m thinking of Salicylic and Succinic in particular, which are usually associated with a slight sort of salty character. And these two seem to be more present. The higher we go, it may well have something to do with the greater stress that the vines might be under. Again, I’ll come back to that when we’re talking about our Pinot Bianco. And we have this large diurnal range of temperature. I cannot overestimate or overstate how important that is. It seems to, I mean, the inhale to agitate you can have at least 17 degrees centigrade rain from morning to night. And so much so that it’s rather like being an Anderson Valley and Sonoma of California where you need to bring clothes as if you were to dress for different seasons. Layering is definitely the way to go. You’ll need your jacket in the morning you’ll be stripping off by 11 o’clock by lunchtime you’ll be on your T-shirt. By the afternoon it reaches 28 degrees centigrade in summer. But as the diurnal range in temperature seems to increase. It not only increases the acidity in the grapes, but it seems to intensify polyphenols and this as we will also mention seems to intensify the aromatic profiles. You get a wider diversity of aromatics and higher altitude grapes. The research would suggest the increased radiation is also very important and this is going to be particularly the case when we move on to our Pinot Noir was the UV levels intensity increases by around 10% for every 1000 metres gained, and that’s a statistic from WHO and these also have a very dramatic impact on the phenolic characteristics of both the grape skins.

And rather interestingly, the whole combination seems to influence the grape seeds differently as well. There are many “ heroic vineyards” here: over 500 metres with a slope of more than 30 degrees. By way of comparing the cost of the man hours it takes to work on these vineyards, you’re looking at something like 80 hours per hectare, for a steeply sloped vinyard compared to 30 hours per hectare of a vineyard that is on near the valley floor. So really quite a dramatic difference. I should also say that the size of the vineyard owned by the 5000 vineyard are very, very small. On average, they have one hectare and so it’s very much a family affair. The combination of them they tend to work in offices, and they tend to work their vineyards, often at weekends. So it’s been a way of life as much as it has a means of income. And the majority of the people will give their grapes to cooperatives of which there are 12. But there are also private estates and conglomerates where that work with individual growers with long-term contracts.

Soils will also be important because whilst they’re less depleted, possibly initially in nutrients, they are thinner and therefore less able to withstand any erosion as a result of the violent summer rainstorms. Also, they’re more likely to become more rapidly depleted if they’re planted with vineyards. And we tend to find that in order to maintain the sufficient quantity of wine being produced from a high altitudes in your plant the vines very densely and so we need to be careful and mindful of how they are working the soil. And again, I want to return to this when we’re talking about some of the others because there is very recent research that suggests that some spray-on leaf just before veraison could be really influential in maintaining different acids.

Finally, more persistent winds are also very important. They’re not like the mistral they can be quite violent, and is seen much more as the doctor wind, maintaining a constant breeze throughout the vinyard and reducing the amount of rots and such through. So somehow we’ve gotten to the influence the composition of the grape is something that will we’ve touched on already, and I’ve mentioned is higher acidity. And it’s not just in total. We’re looking particularly at tartaric and malic, but also there’s salicylic and succinic I mentioned with its sort of association with salty profile.

Abscisic is something that is a little bit nerdy, and I’ve become a bit more interested in recently, and it’s known as a precursor and I’m learning as we go along this, but it is something that helps to risk helps a vine to respond to stress. And it seems to be linked to a lot of these acid developments in ways that were not entirely certain yet, but it might be instructive. When we’re dealing with wines that have come from higher acidity or when we’re analysing wine from high acidity and assessing whether vineyards it’s a valid direction to go in and catching all this…, but the difference of going upwards is unique, certainly in the UV radiation, and then in and how that knocks on through the phenolic the centre logic, ripening of designs and the development of the centre logic. Constituents the characteristics and the antioxidants coming through with generally lower pH perhaps isn’t so surprising as we go up and that’s obviously going to be of importance in terms of stability and in long term ageing. Do more intense, like nervous about that intense I should make greater array of aromatics rather than that because the jury is still a little bit out on intensity, and I’ll leave it to you to decide whether you feel it’s more intense or whether it’s more complex between the three pairs that we’re going to be tasting. What is interesting is the anthocyanin levels, and this is a mixer with very little has been done so far on anthocyanins actually within Alto Adige as far as I can see, but a great deal has been done in Argentina in particular, and I recognise that they’re dealing with a very different beast with now back and such, but they have been finding regularly that at the higher altitudes, the intensity of anthocyanin is greater. Certainly one is aware, I think of a more of a blue spectrum that seems to come through at higher altitudes. And along with the aromatic profile, there seems to be a greater range of volatile compounds. And this includes not just the aromatics but a lot of it of course is alcohol.

Let me move on to other parts of this. We’ve got the phenolic content that I mentioned. And we have also and I’m sorry for this looking on many different papers here. So the one that I wanted to show you is the difference between the organoleptic characteristics, which are the flavonols (bitterness), the ones with an A, the ones that add astringency and bitterness, whereas the Flavonoid (colouring antioxidants) will provide more colouring and antioxidants. And these are the ones that are usually met and measured. What is more recent, it seems, are the non-flavonoids and this is a group which I think is going to become of increasing interest not just to us in our speaking for myself nerdy in a logical interest, but in the wider world because it has really quite dramatic medical potential medical benefits. Because as we go up in altitude, what is known as stilbenes and I had to look up how to pronounce that but I believe that’s correct. The stilbenes increase. The most important stilbene is resveratrol. Now this is one you may well have come across because it is one of the main components in red grapes. You’ll find it in blueberries you’ll find it in dark chocolate. It is an anticarcinogenic, antibacterial agent that seems to have a very important role in by way as an antioxidant in our biological makeup. And it’s one of the reasons why doctors when they haven’t gone on the teetotal waggon read, recommend that we drink a glass of red wine, particularly every day. It’s particularly resveratrol. And I just wanted to underline that because I think that could potentially become a very important element in our future discussions.

The other thing that would appear to be the case is that the tannins condense and become more compact. By that I believe it means it’s more stable and that might also inform why we also get greater colour stability. So all of these in terms of security and predictability are important dynamics. Lower sugars is no surprise, therefore lower alcohol. What it should really bring to mind is that within this small area of Alto Adige is the necessity to know all the different components that you’re dealing with and they have the ability to blend from many different altitudes, especially when the ranks the cooperatives who may have very typically they have about 130 members, each one with approximately one hectare, each and dotted all over the valley. Usually in clusters Not surprisingly, in order to be logistically convenient for the corporative winery, but they have the ability to blend the different plots together and this should not be underestimated either. So I think perhaps now we should turn to the wines themselves. And as we go through I mean, I’ll give a little bit of background about the individual wine and where it is. But I’d also hope to draw in a little bit more of the research on each type of grape variety, particularly on the Pinot Bianco.

Wine 1 Nals Margreid, Sirmian, Pinot Bianco 2020

From Sirmian vineyard, Guyot. No malo.

White blossom, pink grapefruit, yellow apple, high acid (malic) with a salty note.

Wine 2 Eichhorn, Manicor, Pinot Bianco 2020

Apple, pear, Rounder (malo)

300 m, biodynamic, near Bolzano

W3 Aristos, Eisackal Valle Isarco, Gewurztraminer, 2020

Coop / 550-650 m/ Guyot,

Pale lemon, perfumed rose water, lychees, citrus

Very intense on the palate

W4 Elena Walch, Kastelaz, Gewurtzaminer, 2020


Pale gold,

Single vineyard, east facing. 60 degrees slope

Pronounced floral, grapefruit. Full body, with some RS,

W5 Sanct Valentin, St Michael-Eppan, Reserva Pinot Noir 2019

Early harvest

Oak aging apparent, pale garnet strawberry, fine low tannins, hint of dried strawberry, spices

W6 Mazon, Castelfeder, Pino Nero 2019

Dried dark fruit, hint of vegetal

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