Northern Italy: Alto Adige, Friuli, Veneto

By Antonio Galloni

Alto Adige: The Pearl of Italy

It is one my favorites drives in Italy. The highway turns north just past Verona. After a short while it feels like the valleys literally open up to reveal a dramatic landscape marked with apple orchards, the Adige River and the spectacular Dolomites. Just past Rovereto and Trento the vistas start to change again. We are in Alto Adige, one of the most spectacular regions in all of Italy. Seldom frequented by Americans, Alto Adige remains largely undiscovered. A wealth of starred restaurants and gorgeous, decked-out hotels – many of them in historic castles – are found in the charming, small towns that mostly attract visitors from northern Europe. During the winter, Alpine sports dominate the breathtaking hillsides. You won’t hear much Italian here, although it is spoken. German and the local Ladino dialect are more common. Visiting Alto Adige is like stepping into a whole other world. A world with fabulous food, great wine and the purest mountain air. It is hardly a surprise the locals are extremely friendly and inviting. They know they live in a little corner of paradise.

Unfortunately I only visited Alto Adige once this year and my trip was too short, but I still came away totally inspired by the best wines I tasted. Like so many parts of the world, there is an increase in small, family-run estates that have begun to bottle their own wines rather than selling grapes or bulk wine to larger cooperatives. While that is a generally positive trend, it is also clear that many of these smaller properties don’t have a lot of resources and therefore struggle with maintaining the level of consistency that is common throughout other parts of Italy. Hopefully those wineries will find a way to raise the level of their game. The best artisan wines, though, are stunningly beautiful and deserve of a far broader audience than they enjoy today.

Alto Adige stands out for the distinctive varietal character of its wines. The whites are clean, pure and steely. Sauvignon, Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay, Kerner, Sylvaner and, of course, Gewürztraminer, all thrive in Alto Adige. Over the last few years producers have begun pulling back on the super-rich approach they sought in their top wines a decade ago, so there is a stylistic shift underway that is quite noticeable. Among current vintages, 2010, a year that featured a late harvest, plays right into the region’s strength of excelling with focused, varietally true, food-friendly wines.

Among the red grapes, Lagrein and Pinot Noir reign supreme, followed by Schiava, the main grape used for St. Magdalener, the everyday red of Alto Adige. Lagrein can take many shapes from rustic to opulent, but it is always a wine with a distinct personality that never fully loses an element of wildness. Pinot Noir is arguably the variety that has benefitted most from weather conditions that continue to trend warmer, which has allowed growers to achieve levels of ripeness that simply weren’t possible before. I tasted a number of Alto Adige reds, many from the hot 2007 and 2009 vintages that were exceptional.

High-quality cooperatives abound in Alto Adige, and that is generally a good thing for consumers as it keeps prices reasonable. At a time when prices for so many wines appear to be escalating at an alarming pace with no end in sight, Alto Adige remains full of well-priced bottles that also work beautifully at the dinner table. Readers obsessed with the pleasures of great food and wine – rather than labels – will find much to admire in Alto Adige.

For practical purposes, I have also included a few wines from neighboring Trentino, the province that lies just south of Alto Adige. While Alto Adige is distinctly Germanic in culture, Trentino still feels very much like Italy. Admittedly, I find fewer wines of real interest in Trentino than I do in Alto Adige, with a handful of notable exceptions.

Friuli: Still Waiting….

Over the years I have spent a lot of time in Friuli. I have visited regularly for over a decade, and also spent the better part of two months in the region in 2011. But it was two isolated and relatively brief incidents over the summer that taught me more about Friuli than all of my previous experiences combined. It was early July. I had just arrived in Friuli after two weeks in Burgundy during which I stopped at virtually every domaine of note in Chablis and the Côte de Beaune, including all of the heavy hitters. Dauvissat, Raveneau, Leflaive, Lafon, Roulot and Jadot? I tasted at all of them. The day after I landed my wife and I went out to dinner. By any reasonable expectation, the next wine I tasted should have been a letdown. After all, I had just about every Grand Cru white of note fresh on my mind. Instead, the opposite happened. A bottle of Borgo del Tiglio’s 2009 Ronco della Chiesa was breathtaking. In fact, it was better than many of the wines I had tasted in Burgundy, including those of some pretty famous producers. That bottle taught me about the potential of Friuli.

A few weeks later I was awakened by the loudest natural sound I had ever heard. What sounded like a series of rapid gunshots seemed to last for an eternity. It was a hailstorm. The next day I saw a level of decimation in the vineyards I have only witnessed one time before, in Piedmont in 2002. The hail first shredded the leaves, then destroyed the fruit before unleashing its fury on the vines themselves. In the worst hit areas, which included Villanova, Cormons and Dolegna, the damage was estimated above 100%, meaning that after the obvious loss of the entire 2011 crop, the vines would also be compromised in 2012. Immediately the price of grapes shot up as producers sought to lock in any fruit that had not already been contracted. As I walked around the vineyards in the hardest hit zones it finally dawned on me. With all of the leaves off the plants, it was obvious. There was simply far too much fruit on these vines to make wines of true pedigree. And therein lies Friuli’s dark dirty little secret. Yields are way – and I do mean way – too high. An old-fashioned, agrarian mentality that views limiting yields as throwing away money remains one of the most significant obstacles to making important wines in Friuli. Until Friuli’s producers get serious about quality, many of these vineyards will never make wines of note. And that is the simple truth. So, what are we left with? A region of immense potential that is currently being realized by just a small number of producers, most of whom are profiled here.

The majority of wines in this article are 2009s and 2010s. Overall, 2009 is a stronger and more consistent vintage for reds than whites. Friuli experienced a prolonged heat wave in mid to late August that marked the wines to a significant degree. Top producers did a good job in giving their 2009 a measure of balance, but at the middle and lower tiers many 2009 whites are flabby and lacking in vibrancy. The 2009 reds are much stronger across the board. Friulian reds generally can absorb – and actually benefit from – a kick of warmth, and the grapes got exactly those conditions in 2009. The ripe, radiant style makes the best of these wines incredibly appealing, even today. Vintage 2010 was also tricky, but mostly because of cooler temperatures and rain. Readers who prefer crisp, mineral-driven whites will gravitate towards the 2010s for their energy and verve.

The finest Friulian wines are exciting, beautiful and totally unique. At the same time, it is impossible to miss that much of Friuli’s potential has yet to be captured. Part of that has to do with the inherently closed-minded Friulian mindset. I hope that old, ingrained attitudes will begin to fade as the younger generation starts taking over. Mother Nature has been exceedingly generous with Friuli. The region boasts a spectacular set of microclimates and terroirs to go along with a rich, multicultural fabric. Now it is up to the producers to make the most of what they have been given.

Note: Among the wineries I regularly cover, Moschioni and Gravner are not included in this report because they had no new releases to show.

Veneto: A World of Riches

Veneto is one of Italy’s most fascinating and diverse regions. Although well known as a tourist destination, Veneto is equally notable for the breadth of its wines. Soave, once maligned, has made a big comeback. The best Soaves are delicious and full of character. Soave’s ability to age is understood by the lucky few who have tasted older bottles, but it remains one of the best-kept secrets in Italy. Among the reds Valpolicella and Amarone are compelling. Veneto’s sweet wines – both white and red – can be thrilling. And then there is Prosecco. The geographic boundaries from which Prosecco is made continue to explode, a concession to huge current demand. A few beacons of true quality shine through what has become an ocean of largely undistinguished wines. At the end of the day, Prosecco is just like any other wine. The very finest examples are crafted by passionate, diligent winemakers with access to top sites. There are no shortcuts.

Veneto’s most important wine is of course Amarone. Readers are likely to start seeing the 2007s hit the shelves. The 2007 Amarones are supple, open wines that will drink well pretty much upon release. Most producers describe 2007 as a warm year without the extremes of truly hot years like 2003. The harvest was about ten days earlier than normal. As was the case throughout northern Italy, the end of the summer saw evening temperatures drop, which allowed the wines to develop their bouquets. The vintage was not without its challenges. A devastating hailstorm wiped out many vineyards in Illasi, including those of Romano dal Forno.

The best 2007 Amarones are outstanding, but I miss the tannic backbone and acidity of years such as 2004 and 2006. Because Amarone is made from dried grapes, the best vintages are those where there is enough acidity to balance the overtness of the fruit. The 2007s don’t have much in the way of freshness, but in exchange they will drink nicely upon release. The first 2008 Valpolicellas I have tasted are delicious wines with notable vibrancy and freshness that make me look forward to the 2008 Amarones with anticipation.