Located in Northeastern Italy, Alto Adige is an alpine region that beguiles with its beauty. Occupying a Y-shaped glacial valley tucked within the Dolomites Mountains, its accessibility and proximity to modern-day Austria made it a favored gateway into Italy, from Romans to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It’s also a prime source of Italy’s greatest “mountain wines.”
When most consumers think of vineyards, they envision rolling hills or flat valleys. Maybe angled sites rising from bends of rivers like in the Mosel. But another class of wine grows at high elevation on rocky mountain slopes.
If you’ve ever climbed (or hiked or taken a gondola) up a mountain, you’d have noticed how the air cools. The sunshine intensifies. You don a sweater and slather SPF30 on your nose. The grapes on mountain slopes experience the same effects, though with different results. The cooler air, especially at night, imbues wines with zippy electricity, while unfiltered sunlight develops the sugars – and flavors — inside grapes. In fact, Alto Adige enjoys 300 days of sunshine and wide day-to-night temperature swings known as a diurnal shift. Thus, mountain winemakers enjoy the best of both worlds: mouthwatering acidity and ripe fruit.
Of course, for a mountain winemaker, the postcard-pretty setting doesn’t hurt. Snow-capped, craggy peaks rise from the earth as broad monoliths. Both winter and summer sports enthusiasts alight on the region for skiing, hiking, and other outdoor activities not far from vineyards growing between 750 feet to 3,250 feet above sea level.
But soils that high don’t contain the typical sandy, loamy, silty dirt you’d see elsewhere. Vineyards grow in a nutrient-poor composition of rock, glacial moraine, and volcanic remnants from eons ago. Because vines struggle, they produce more complex wines.
Look for wines of the Alto Adige and see if you can taste the mountain sun, soil, and air in your glass.