Wedged between Austria and Switzerland in the Dolomite mountains, Alto Adige is Italy’s northernmost wine producing area and turns out some of the country’s most lauded white wines.
Part of the Trentino-Alto Adige region, the province belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire until it was annexed to Italy after World War I. Both Italian and German are spoken here, which is also called Südtirol (South Tyrol in English).
Alto Adige’s radiant wines express their mountain setting. Thanks to varied soils and microclimates ranging from almost Mediterranean in the south to windy, steep slopes in the north, the denomination’s dazzling wines boast elegance, energy and depth. Top bottlings also have structure and impressive aging potential.
In the late 1970s, Alto Adige was geared toward red wine production led by native varieties Vernatsch (a k a Schiava) and Lagrein followed by Merlot and Pinot Nero. Today, white wines dominate, accounting for 64% of overall output. Pinot Grigio leads in terms of volume, followed by Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay. But many of Alto Adige’s exciting whites are varietal wines made with Pinot Bianco, Kerner, Sauvignon, Sylvaner, Müller-Thurgau, Riesling and Grüner Veltliner.
Read on to discover Alto Adige’s focused, pristine whites.
Polished Pinot Bianco
Now tied with Gewürztraminer as the region’s second most planted grape, Pinot Bianco has found its spiritual home in parts of Alto Adige, where it’s been cultivated since 1850. These include Eppan municipality, or Appiano in Italian, where it’s the most planted white variety.
In the past, the bulk of the area’s Pinot Bianco resulted in bland, dilute wines consumed locally. That changed between the late 1980s and 1990s as Alto Adige and most of Italy began to shift from bulk wine to quality production.
Hans Terzer, winemaker at one of Italy’s most celebrated cooperative cellars, San Michele Appiano (also known as St. Michael-Eppan), is a pioneer in elevating Pinot Bianco’s status. He says better vineyard management has been key to reviving this long misunderstood variety.
“Pinot Bianco needs very specific growing conditions to excel, including high hillside vineyards, generally above 450 meters (1,476 feet) where the combination of altitude and fresh breezes generate cool temperatures during the growing season,” says Terzer. “It fares better when it’s exposed to less direct sun and heat and it also needs complex soils, mainly limestone with some clay. Choosing the best sites has been crucial for improving Pinot Bianco.”
Pinot Bianco vines naturally produce a lot of grapes, so keeping yields down through green harvesting and lower-yielding clones has also proven fundamental in improving wine quality.
The best expressions boast creamy textures and bright acidity, white stone-fruit sensations, field flower, hay and delicate hazelnut notes. When aged partially or wholly in oak, the wines have added complexity and staying power.
Cantina Produttori San Michele Appiano 2020 Schulthauser Pinot Bianco (Alto Adige); $24, 94 points. White spring flower, ripe white stone fruit and Alpine herb aromas mingle with an inviting whiff of freshly kneaded bread dough on this stunning, polished white. It’s dry, elegant and absolutely delicious, delivering creamy yellow apple, citrus, baking spice and tangy mineral alongside fresh acidity. Drink now through 2024. Siena Imports. Editors’ Choice.
St. Pauls 2019 Kalkberg Pinot Bianco (Alto Adige); $35, 92 points. Fermented and aged in large casks that lends depth and complexity, this full-bodied white has subtle aromas suggesting chamomile, hay, wild Alpine herbs and ripe stone fruits. The creamy palate offers mature Bartlett pear, yellow apple and lemon drop candy before finishing on a bitter almond note. Ethica Wines.
While only accounting for 2% of the province’s overall production, Kerner has become one of Italy’s trendiest white wines, with producers saying demand is increasing every year, especially in the U.S. market.
A cross between Schiava (Vernatsch) and Riesling, this frost-resistant grape was created in 1929. Named after the German poet Julius Kerner, it’s grown in higher elevations, namely in the Valle Isarco and Val Venosta, two of Alto Adige’s six subzones.
However, the grape is most associated with the Valle Isarco, the extreme northern subzone. The area is, on average, 3.5–4˚F cooler than more southern areas of the province. Its strong day-to-night temperature differentials mean that nocturnal temperatures in the vineyards during the growing season can be up to 18˚F cooler than other areas of Alto Adige, according to growers. Almost only white grapes are grown in the valley, with Kerner now the most planted variety.
“Kerner grows so well here because of the altitude of the vineyards and because of the extreme temperature differences between day and night,” says Andreas Huber, winemaker and along with his sister Katharina, the sixth-generation to run the family-owned Pacherhof winery, above the town of Bressanone. “We’re located near the main ridge of the Alps, which means near snow-covered mountains, therefore our area is in this zone of tension between very cool nights and warm days.”
The family’s vineyards range from 2,132–3,182 feet above sea level, and Huber’s father, Josef Huber, is credited as the first to plant Kerner in the valley.
The best Kerners are fragrant, medium-bodied, savory and polished, delivering sensations of grapefruit, tropical fruit and nutmeg as well as flinty mineral notes set against crisp acidity.
Pacher Hof 2020 Kerner (Alto Adige Valle Isarco); $29, 94 points. This gorgeous, medium-bodied white opens with alluring aromas of grapefruit, tropical fruit and baking spice. The delicious, creamy palate delivers white peach, tangerine drop candy, nutmeg and crushed Alpine mint before a flinty mineral note. Bright acidity keeps it balanced and fresh. Vias Imports. Editors’ Choice.
Nals Margreid 2019 Fels Kerner (Alto Adige); $23, 93 points. The nose is a bit shy but the full-bodied, delicious palate is compelling, delivering ripe apricot, yellow peach and juicy grapefruit before a savory, smoky mineral finish. Crisp acidity keeps it focused and energized. Serendipity Wines Imports.
The least planted grape in the appellation, Grüner Veltliner cultivation is concentrated in the Isarco Valley. In the high altitudes it yields crisp, delicious and mineral-driven whites. Typical sensations include green apple, citrus, honeydew, smoke and white pepper.
Introduced along with most other white grapes at the end of the 1880s, Sauvignon is one of the appellation’s leading varieties. Wine styles range from crisp and vibrant to full-bodied and complex, depending on where the grapes are cultivated and on winemaking styles.
In vineyards situated in the west and east of the denomination, wines show classic varietal aromas and flavors such as elderflower, gooseberry, tropical fruit and herbaceous notes of crushed tomato vine and hay.
“Sauvignon has a long tradition in Alto Adige and has found its ideal home here in the Alps,” says Karoline Walch, daughter of the eponymous founder and co-owner of Elena Walch. “With our cool climate, yet warm days, cool nights and great temperature fluctuations, it matures the full spectrum of its primary aromas yet maintains its acidity.”
The firm’s Vigna Castel Ringberg bottling offers even more complexity thanks to “a very special microclimate as we have the lake influence from the nearby Lake Caldaro while soil-wise, it’s a unique intersection between various soils from glacial and postglacial times, mainly limestone with moraine deposits that lend minerality and salinity,” says Walch.
Elena Walch 2019 Vigna Castel Ringberg Sauvignon (Alto Adige); $28, 92 points. From one of the storied vineyard sites in Alto Adige, this radiant, elegant white offers aromas of elderflower, tropical fruit, citrus and a hint of toasted nut. On the savory, focused palate, fresh acidity accompanies juicy grapefruit, pineapple slice and white almond before a tangy, saline close. USA Wine West.
Baron Widmann 2019 Sauvignon (Alto Adige); $35, 92 points. Elderflower, ripe stone fruit and hay aromas make their way to the forefront. Rounded and full-bodied, the savory, polished palate offers juicy grapefruit, creamy white peach and hints of hazelnut alongside fresh acidity. A steely mineral note signals the close. Oliver McCrum Wines.
If you haven’t yet discovered Alto Adige’s Sylvaner, you’re missing out on one of its greatest, if rarest, whites. While the grape only accounts for a fraction of the province’s overall production, it is well worth seeking out for its mineral-driven tension, radiance and finesse. Typical aromas include smoky flint, white stone-fruit and wild herb. It’s also remarkably ageworthy, as displayed in a vertical tasting dating back to 1976.
As with Kerner, Sylvaner has found its spiritual home in the Isarco Valley, where it grows on sunny, cool slopes and is the third most planted grape variety.
“Sylvaner is the most historical of the grape varieties we now cultivate. It was first planted around 1880 and since then it has been cultivated continuously, unlike Grüner Veltliner and Riesling that were reintroduced only about 20 years ago,” says Werner Waldboth, head of sales and marketing at Abbazia di Novacella. Founded in 1142, it’s the most storied winery in Valle Isarco. “Sylvaner is a grape that reflects the terroir quite well. On heavy soils the wines are quite neutral, while on lighter and permeable soils, like those in our area where roots can dig quite deep, it yields very elegant wines with delicate aromas. This makes the variety unique and gives our Sylvaner a strong marker which distinguishes it from Sylvaner from other areas.”
Abbazia di Novacella 2019 Praepositus Sylvaner (Alto Adige Valle Isarco); $29, 94 points. Racy and delicious, this breathtakingly beautiful white has enticing aromas of fragrant white flower, Bartlett pear, wild herb and hints of smoky flint. Vibrant and loaded with flavor and finesse, the tangy palate delivers creamy yellow apple, white peach and lemon drop alongside crisp acidity. It closes on a savory, almost salty mineral note. Drink through 2024.Abbazia di Novacella USA. Editors’ Choice.
Perhaps no other grape cultivated in Alto Adige is as controversial as Müller-Thurgau. A cross between Riesling and Madeleine Royale, the variety is normally associated with fruity, immediate wines. Once considered an easy grape that could grow in a variety of conditions, it has fallen victim to overcropping and climate change, resulting in many uninspiring bottlings. As a result, the grape and wines have waned some in popularity over the last decade.
But when planted in the right sites and made with care, Müller-Thurgau can achieve greatness. While vineyard altitude is one of the keys to Alto Adige’s success, it’s absolutely crucial for this variety.
“From 2000 on we noticed that Müller-Thurgau planted in lower, warmer vineyards situated below 2,296 feet was losing aromas, flavor and getting flatter,” says Christof Tiefenbrunner, fifth-generation owner of the Tiefenbrunner winery.
In 1972, Christof’s father was among the very first in the denomination to cultivate grapes at extremely high altitudes when he planted his Feldmarschall Von Fenner vineyard 3,280 feet above sea level. In the extreme south of the province, the vineyard “benefits from a unique microclimate that includes the warming Ora winds from Lago di Garda, pronounced day and night temperature changes and the Rotwand mountain face that protects the high plateau from cold northern winds,” says Tiefenbrunner.
Their iconic Feldmarschall Von Fenner, made with 100% Müller-Thurgau and first released in 1974, features great floral aromatics and an impressive depth of flavors including juicy peach and apricot set against crisp acidity and a mineral vein.
Tiefenbrunner 2018 Feldmarschal Von Fenner Müller-Thurgau (Alto Adige); $40, 95 points. Made from sky-high vineyards situated at 3,280 feet above sea-level, this radiant white opens with enticing scents of white spring flower, yellow stone fruit, alpine herb and mountain hay. The medium-bodied palate is full of flavor and finesse, delivering ripe yellow peach, apricot and a dollop of vanilla. A hazelnut note lingers on the finish alongside crisp acidity and saline mineral notes. Enjoy now–2028.Winebow Imports. Cellar Selection.
If you like your Rieslings racy and radiant, you’ll find many such offerings from Alto Adige. Like all white grapes planted in Alto Adige, Riesling thrives in high altitude. It further excels in well-ventilated vineyards and calcareous soils. Cultivated in the province since 1840, Riesling accounts for a small percentage of overall production but has a cult following among wine aficionados.
Most are vinified entirely in steel, producing dry, linear wines that offer white peach, apricot, citrus and savory mineral flavors. Vibrant acidity lends enticing tension and interesting depth.
Peter Zemmer 2020 Riesling (Alto Adige); $19, 92 points. Linear and vibrant, this lovely white has enticing scents of white spring flowers and yellow stone fruits. The elegant palate offers juicy peach, apricot and a hint of saline alongside tangy acidity. HB Wine Merchants.
Erste Neue 2020 Riesling (Alto Adige); $23, 91 points. Aromas of yellow stone fruit and honeysuckle lead the nose along with a whiff of aromatic herb. Racy and linear, the savory palate has energy and flavor, offering juicy apricot, white grapefruit and saline alongside vibrant acidity. T. Edward Wines.