Making Wine in the Alps

May 1, 2008

How many Swiss wines have you had? How about Austrian?

You probably think that these areas are just too far north and too cold to produce any good wine, yet their closest Italian neighbor in the Alps, the region of Alto Adige, is noted for making very high quality wine. In fact, 95% of their production is rated at a level high enough to achieve a D.O.C. designation.

The Alps may seem a hostile environment in which to grow grapes; however, the very existence of these mountains is the factor that allows Alto Adige to be able to grow excellent wine-producing grapes. These mountains actually protect the vineyards from inclement weather from the north.

It may seem very surprising to most that Alto Adige has a very warm climate, considering its latitude. In fact, Mary Ewing-Mulligan, the first Master of Wine in the United States, stated recently that some summer days in Alto Adige are actually warmer than Palermo, Sicily! This explains the success of one of their indigenous red grapes called Lagrein. This grape is actually a heat-loving variety that thrives in the hotter lowlands of Alto Adige.

On the other hand, another red grape that likes a little cooler climate also thrives in Alto Adige. The Pinot Noir (called Pinot Nero in Italy) does very well in this area. Its indigenous home is the Burgundy region of France; however, this grape also produces such fantastic wines in Alto Adige that many people call this area the “Pinot Noir Heaven”. The 2005 Blauburgunder Mazzon from Gottardi that I tasted recently is great evidence of this. Its red berry fruit produced beautiful flavors. By the way, don’t let the name Blauburgunder throw you!! It is a German synonym for Pinot Noir. You might also see Pinot Noir called Spatburgner in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

The white grapes of Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Gewurztraminer, Sylvaner, and others produce best results at higher altitudes in the mountains. This alpine atmosphere and fairly poor soil are the building blocks of these internationally famous white wines that are noted for their fresh and flowery aromas.

Most of the wine produced in this region is exported to the three main export markets of Germany, Switzerland, and the United States.

Some of the larger wineries to look for in your local wine shop would be Cantina Tramin, Tiefenbrunner, and Laimburg.

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