Italian Wines with Altitude
If rocky cliffs, soaring heights, snow-capped mountains and gusts of wind don’t immediately come to mind when conjuring up images of Italian vineyards, think again.
Some of the country’s most exciting wines hail from these extreme conditions. And while brave winemakers have utilized high-altitude vineyards for centuries, climate change has generated welcome benefits in these mountainous growing zones.
It’s easy to forget that up until the mid-1990s, getting the grapes to fully ripen was perhaps the biggest challenge facing quality-minded Italian wine producers. Long, harsh winters and wet, cool summers in northern and central Italy meant that grapes had difficulty attaining perfect maturity. High yields and low-density plantings fueled the problem.
Fast-forward 20 years: With the exception of a few cool, wet vintages like 2014, reaching ideal ripeness is no longer a problem anywhere on the peninsula. Winemakers now grapple with high grape sugars and plummeting acidity, the results of prolonged heat waves and droughts that have become the norm.
And if Barolo and Brunello producers once had difficulty reaching alcohol levels of 13 percent, crafting wines with less than 15% abv is today’s challenge.
But this climate change has aided Italy’s elevated vineyard areas, including Alto Adige, Carema, Valle d’Aosta and Valtellina, which are turning out balanced wines of structure and finesse.
—Photos by Meg Baggott
Wedged between Austria and Switzerland in the portion of the Italian Alps known as the Dolomites, Alto Adige, also called Südtirol, is Italy’s northernmost wine-producing area.
Officially part of the Trentino-Alto Adige region, Alto Adige was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until it was annexed to Italy after World War I. Both Italian and German are spoken here, and the names of local towns and wines appear in both languages.
Alto Adige has nearly 13,000 acres of vineyards, ranging in altitude from 600 feet to 3,300 feet above sea level. It boasts a multitude of microclimates, from mild to Alpine. In the north, the towering Alps protect the growing zone from severe storms and frigid temperatures, while the central valleys and southern areas enjoy warm breezes from the Mediterranean.
The area is most celebrated for its fresh, structured, mineral-driven whites, which account for 60 percent of total production. The main varieties are Pinot Grigio, Gewürztraminer (named in part after the Alto Adige town of Tramin), Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco and Sauvignon Blanc.
There are more than 150 wineries in the area, including 13 cooperative cellars that turn out over 70 percent of the region’s wine. Unlike quantity-driven operations in many other parts of Italy, Alto Adige’s cooperatives focus on quality and consistently produce fantastic wines, like those from St. Michael-Eppan, Nals Margreid, Cantina Terlano and St. Pauls Winery. Most of the area’s wineries are located south of the city of Bolzano, like the private estate of Elena Walch.
Elena Walch Family Estates has prime vineyards in two key areas: Tramin, where the winery is headquartered, and Caldaro.
According to Karoline Walch, who runs the estate with her sister, Julia, and her mother, Elena, the steep, south-facing Kastelaz Vineyard in Tramin (1,115–1,240 feet above sea level) gets sun all day and cold nighttime winds from the Alps. These marked temperature changes allow the grapes to maintain bright acidity.
Castel Ringberg in Caldaro, the largest single vineyard in Alto Adige (985–1,312 feet above sea level), boasts different soils, while its vicinity to Lake Caldaro generates a milder climate than in Tramin.
“Wines from Tramin show crisp acidity and bright minerality, while Castel Ringberg wines show slightly more depth and are more ample,” says Walch.
In the extreme north, near the Austrian border, the Valle Isarco produces whites with uncommon finesse. This is home to Abbazia di Novacella, an active abbey that produces enticing whites, including Sylvaner, Kerner, Gewürztraminer and Veltliner, from mineral-rich soil and precipitous vineyards at altitudes between 1,970–2,950 feet. The abbey’s flagship Praepositus range of wines shows remarkable depth and structure.
Warm, sunny days and cold nights create perfumed aromas and fresh acidity, but not long ago, the rigid Alpine winters put grapevines at risk.
“Until about 10 years ago, dry, frigid temperatures and cold winds destroyed up to 10 percent of the grapevines every winter,” says Urban von Klebelsberg, the abbey’s secular CEO and trained agronomist.
“During the brutal winter of 1981–1982, 90 percent of the vines died,” he says. “The other problem was that berries and the shoots had difficulty ripening. But for the last 10 years, thanks to warmer average temperatures, almost no grapevines have died over the winter, and both the shoots and the grapes now ripen fully and produce higher-quality wines.”
Abbazia di Novacella 2013 Praepositus Kerner (Alto Adige Valle Isarco); $25, 92 points. This radiant white opens with alluring aromas of acacia, apricot, citrus and Alpine herb. The linear, elegant palate offers juicy yellow peach, lemon zest, mint and hazelnut alongside crisp acidity. Abbazia di Novacella USA. Editors’ Choice.
Manincor 2012 Mason Pinot Nero (Alto Adige); $45, 92 points. Structured and elegant, this stunning Pinot Nero opens with aromas of strawberry, mint, forest floor and an earthy note of leather. The savory palate delivers juicy wild cherry, mineral and baking spice alongside firm, polished tannins. Cantiniere.
Elena Walch 2013 Castel Ringberg Sauvignon (Alto Adige); $22, 91 points. Here’s a structured, delicious Sauvignon that opens with classic aromas of tropical fruit, cut grass and crushed tomato vine. The linear palate boasts a nice depth of flavors, including juicy cantaloupe, creamy peach and a note of candied ginger. It’s well balanced, with mouthwatering acidity. USA Wine West.
Franz Haas 2011 Lagrein (Alto Adige); $37, 91 points. Here’s a solid red that opens with aromas of ripe, dark berry, violet and a whiff of spice. The savory palate delivers layers of crushed blackberry, juicy raspberry, white pepper, clove and cocoa alongside fresh acidity and firm, velvety tannins. Empson USA Ltd.
Baron Widmann 2013 Vernatsch Schiava (Alto Adige); $24, 90 points. This lightly colored, luminous wine opens with intense aromas of rose and woodland berry. The vibrant palate offers wild strawberry, crushed red cherry, orange zest and almond that follow through to the lingering finish. Crisp acidity and supple tannins balance the juicy fruit flavors. Oliver McCrum Wines.
St. Pauls 2013 Passion Sauvignon (Alto Adige); $29, 90 points. Made with Sauvignon cultivated in high mountain vineyards, this vibrant, firmly structured wine opens with aromas of tropical fruit, crushed tomato vine and a whiff of hay. The linear palate offers passion fruit, Alpine herb and fennel alongside brisk acidity that leaves a pristine finish. Ethica Wines.
Located in northwest Piedmont on the border with Valle d’Aosta, the tiny Carema DOC hosts only 42 acres of vineyards and two producers, Luigi Ferrando and Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema, a cooperative cellar.
Both wineries make Carema exclusively, using only Nebbiolo. Although the limited production means this elegant red is hard to find outside the region, it boasts a cult following, as nearly half the production is exported around the world.
With Monte Bianco looming above, the spectacular growing area starts at the foot of Monte Miletto. Rows of stone walls delimit Carema’s steeply terraced vineyards, where growers still use the ancient pergola training system supported by rounded stone columns.
During the chilly nights, the stone releases heat accumulated during the day to help protect grapes from the cold. Harvesting is entirely done by hand, as well as almost all vineyard maintenance, earning the label of heroic viticulture.
Refined bouquets, silky tannins, bright acidity and serious longevity are the hallmarks of Carema.
“We don’t have Barolo’s muscle, but we do have exquisite perfumes that exalt the floral and earthy characteristics of Nebbiolo,” says Roberto Ferrando, who runs the winery with his father, Luigi, and his brother, Andrea.
“We’re further north than Barolo, in an amphitheater at the foot of the mountains, where we have cooler temperatures and strong wind all year round,” he says. “We also have marked day and night temperature changes that prolong the growing season and generate more complex aromas.
“And because our vineyards are higher, up to 1,800 feet, we have naturally high acidity in our wines, giving Carema a slow but constant evolution.”
Ferrando says that warmer temperatures in the last decade “have definitely favored grape ripening in Carema. For example, for the last 10 years, our wines naturally reach 13.5 percent, up from the 12 percent that used to be the norm.”
Ferrando 2010 Black Label (Carema); $90, 95 points. Aromas of underbrush, leather, flint, wild berry and a balsamic note mingle in the glass. The structured palate delivers dried cherry, crushed raspberry, grilled herb and anise alongside firm, fine-grained tannins and fresh acidity. Hold for additional complexity; drink 2018–2035. Rosenthal Wine Merchants.
Ferrando 2010 White Label (Carema); $60, 94 points. Violet, rose, cherry, baking spice, Alpine herb and mineral are some of the aromas and flavors you’ll find on this radiant Nebbiolo. Bright acidity and silky tannins balance the juicy palate. It’s elegant and boasts great depth, but will continue to evolve for years. Drink through 2030. Rosenthal Wine Merchants.
Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema 2010 Riserva (Carema); $29, 91 points. Rose petal, violet, woodland berry, sage and eucalyptus aromas come together in the glass. The juicy palate doles out ripe strawberry, red cherry, cinnamon spice and nectarine zest alongside bright acidity and lithe tannins. Enjoy through 2025. Polaner Selections.
In Valle d’Aosta, high mountain vineyards produce sleek, fragrant reds and crisp, vibrant whites. In the lower valley, the Donnas denomination, where vineyards are carved into mountainsides, produces classic reds.
Further north around the mountain towns of Morgex and La Salle, growers cultivate the native grape Prié Blanc, the sole variety comprising the region’s premier white, Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle.
Using fruit grown in vineyards from among the highest altitudes in Europe (between 3,100–3,937 feet), Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle is floral and crisp, with a pristine quality that reflects the pure mountain air.
Surrounded by snow-capped peaks, Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle’s steeply terraced vineyards are among the few left in the world that have not been ravaged by phylloxera, the root-eating louse that decimated grapevines across Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“There’s evidence the louse arrived, but quickly died off, either due to the sandy soils deposited by avalanches or because of the frigid weather,” says Nicola Del Negro, enologist and managing director at Cave du Vin Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle, a cooperative cellar and the largest local producer.
“As a result, grapevines here aren’t grafted onto American rootstocks, like almost everywhere else in the world, but grow directly on their own roots.”
Vines here average about 50 years old, but growers say many plants have been producing for over a century.
The area pushes viticulture to the limit, but ripening is better than ever, yielding wines with more body.
“Fifteen years ago, our wines only reached 9 percent alcohol, but now they are naturally between 11.5 and 12 percent,” says Del Negro.
Caves Cooperatives de Donnas 2010 Donnas (Valle d’Aosta); $25, 90 points. This lightly colored, ruby red wine opens with an enticing bouquet of strawberry, rose, flint and a whiff of smoke. The silky palate offers bright notes of red cherry, crushed strawberry, mineral and white pepper. It’s elegant and well balanced, with supple tannins and bright acidity. Drink through 2018. Polaner Selections.
Cave du Vin Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle 2013 Rayon Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle (Valle d’Aosta); $23, 89 points. Honeysuckle, chamomile, pear and passion fruit aromas meld together in the glass. The palate offers pear, apricot, nectarine zest and a note of tropical fruit alongside brisk acidity. It closes on an almond note. Cream Wine Company.
Cave du Vin Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle 2013 Tradizionale Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle (Valle d’Aosta); $20, 89 points. From what are credited as the highest vineyards in Europe, this vibrant, elegant white opens with lovely floral fragrances of honeysuckle, jasmine and Alpine herb. The linear palate delivers yellow apple, citrus, thyme and a hint of mineral alongside brisk acidity. Polaner Selections.
Cradled among jagged Alpine peaks near the town of Sondrio in the northern region of Lombardy, craggy, nearly impassible Valtellina doesn’t seem as if it could possibly be a wine-producing zone.
The subzones of Valtellina’s varied territories—Inferno (hell), Sassella (little rock) and Sforzato (forced)—convey the hardships that growers encounter on the rough slopes. Despite the hostile growing conditions, including terraced vineyards chiseled out of rocky mountain faces that climb up to 2,300 feet above sea level, quality wines have been made in this steep valley for centuries.
Today, Valtellina produces Rosso DOC and two DOCG red wines, Valtellina Superiore and Sforzato di Valtellina (also called Sfursat). The wines must contain a minimum of 90 percent Nebbiolo, but most producers use only Nebbiolo for their top offerings.
Valtellina’s wines offer different renditions of the temperamental grape, but still deliver bouquets of rose, red berry, truffle and leather—trademarks of the variety.
Valtellina Superiore, which has five sub-zones—Sassella, Inferno, Grumello, Valgella and Maroggia—is the area’s classic wine, fragrant and full of finesse.
“Our Valtellina Superiore is full bodied, but isn’t as powerful as Barolo,” says Casimiro Maule, winemaker at Nino Negri, one of Valtellina’s leading wineries. “Instead, it shows more elegance and more complex aromas, as well as more mineral sensations.”
On the other hand, Sforzato, which is made by letting grapes dry naturally for three months before fermentation, “has rich color, more power and longevity, and can stand up to Barolo,” Maule says.
The enologist, who has carried out 42 vintages, says the isolated valley has benefited from lower yields and warmer weather conditions.
“The year 2000 was a turning a point,” Maule says. “Up until then, we had problems reaching 12 percent alcohol, but since then, our wines naturally attain 13 percent and are overall better balanced than before.”
Caven 2008 Inferno al Carmine (Valtellina Superiore); $38, 91 points. A Nebbiolo from the steep vineyards of Valtellina, this opens with aromas of crushed violet, perfumed berry, flint and a whiff of Alpine herb. The bright palate delivers crushed sour cherry, juicy raspberry, grilled sage, tobacco and a hint of vanilla alongside racy acidity and polished tannins. Enjoy through 2020. Masciarelli Wine Co.
Nino Negri 2011 5 Stelle Sfursat (Sforzato di Valtellina); $88, 91 points. Made with dried Nebbiolo grapes and aged in new barriques, this bold wine opens with aromas of baked plum, resin, nutmeg and grilled herb. The warm palate offers mature black cherry, steeped prune, espresso, black pepper, licorice and mint chocolate alongside velvety tannins. You’ll also detect the warmth of alcohol on the midpalate, but it doesn’t dominate the rich flavors. Frederick Wildman & Sons, Ltd.
Rainoldi 2009 Sassella Riserva (Valtellina Superiore); $33, 91 points. Aromas of crushed violet, dried rose petal, underbrush, ripe berry and a balsamic note lead the nose on this classically crafted Nebbiolo. The firm palate delivers dried black cherry, raspberry, licorice, clove, mint and tobacco alongside assertive, polished tannins and bright acidity. It’s still young, so let this fully develop. Drink 2019–2029. Skurnik Wines, Inc.
- 1Alto Adige
- 3Valle d’Aosta