Planet of the Grapes: Mountain red wines as obscure as they get
Mountains, and borders, breed a certain kind of quirkiness. I learned this firsthand during my college years in the Republic of Vermont, where we voted neither Democrat or Republican, but rather Progressive (or what certain Americans might call “socialists”), where we could watch Montreal television stations in French, and where, in Lake Champlain, there lived a fictional, prehistoric “lake monster,” as well as a nonfictional plague of sea lamprey. When, just last week, Vermont decriminalized marijuana, I was surprised to learn it had actually been criminal at one time.
As I traveled further abroad as a young romantic, mountains and borders attracted me. I imagined myself in places where an apple-cheeked Heidi might live, where skiis served as transportation until the snow melted, and then in crisp, brilliant summer sunshine, people drove their livestock into the high meadows to graze upon rare herbs and wildflowers. Fresh, pure, elemental. Yes, those cliches may have once been true, but now they are mostly fantasy.
What isn’t Alpine fantasy is the strangeness, the collision of cultures, especially along the northern Italian border. In the far northeast region of Fruili, you could see a mingling of Italian and Slovenian. A little further west is what the German-speaking locals call Südtirol, and what the Italian government calls Alto Adige, while only a couple hours across the border in Switzerland, the locals speak Italian. Closer to Mont Blanc, you’ll not be certain whether to refer to the Aosta Valley as Vallée d’Aoste in French or Valle d’Aosta in Italian.
What also isn’t fantasy was the food and drink I’ve experienced in the Italian Alps, which isn’t quite like anywhere else. Heidi might not exist, but you can certainly taste the wines she would have sipped with her mountain cheeses or fondue.
Most people think of Alpine wines as white wines, and certainly there are wonderful, unique whites to be had — in Italy, particularly from Friuli’s ribolla gialla and friulano to Alto Adige’s gewurztraminer, kerner, and pinot bianco.
But lately, I’ve been excited about the red wines produced in these regions. In fact, a whole new category of Alpine or “mountain” reds seems to be emerging, especially in Italy, from local grapes like lagrein, teroldego, fumin, and cornalin, as well as northern expresssions of familiar grapes like nebbiolo or pinot noir.
So what exactly is a mountain red? Well, it’s hard to pin down, since we’re talking about numerous grapes and terroir. Notably, these wines are much lighter than the jammy, overripe, super-concentrated or oaky reds that Americans have been drawn to. There’s a freshness, a savory, mineral core, often a bit of pleasant funkiness, and they usually clock in at lower alcohol levels. This is logical, of course. In a colder, mountain climate, grapes will simply not ripen as they do in the summer heat of, say Napa Valley, Ribera del Duero, or Tuscany. “You can feel the snow in the wine,” said Dr. Urban von Klebelsberg, my guide at Abbazia di Novacella in Alto Adige (or Südtirol if you speak German), which is Italy’s northernmost winery.
Alpine reds are versatile enough to pair with many foods. And they’re generally gulpable: When I serve these wines, the bottles seem to empty rapidly.
Above all, Alpine reds are…I guess the polite word is “esoteric.” Yes, these can be weird wines. The strangeness mirrors the places where they come from.
Consider lagrein, a bright, fresh red from Alto Adige that just wants to be your friend. Until after World War I, Alto Adige was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when it was taken and given to Italy — not a particularly popular move. To this day, the region remains tied to its Austrian roots. “Alto Adige is a little island in the middle of Europe with a very special background,” said winemaker Martin Foradori Höfstatter.” Do I feel more German or Italian? That’s hard to say.”
The mountain climate is the only place in Italy where the pinot noir (called pinot nero in Italian) can grow, and if you’re one of the legions of pinot noir fans, do yourself a favor and give Alto Adige pinot nero a try.
But lagrein, in my opinion, is the star here — lovely inky color, good acidity, light tannins, and an attractive hint of the rustic. “On my first business trip to the U.S. in 1993, it was easier to sell ice to the Eskimos than to sell a bottle of lagrein,” Höfstatter said.
But lagrein (pronounced lah-GRINE) is starting to pop up on trendy wine lists. “It’s a variety we’re focusing on. There is a lot of potential. But our goal is too keep too much of the rustic out of the wine.” Höfstatter said, adding: “I call this…wine. We talk too much about wine. We should enjoy more wines like this, a wine with edges.” I couldn’t agree with him more: You don’t have to think very hard about lagrein to enjoy it.
Perhaps more esoteric than lagrein (if that’s possible), is teroldego, which is grown a little farther south, in Trentino. Höfstatter’s cousin, Elisabetta Foradori, is in fact a top producer of teroldego (pronounced tehr-AWL-deh-go), which can be labled under the Teroldego Rotaliano DOC or as Vignetti delle Dolomiti IGT.
What sets teloldego apart is its unique, rich texture, which I would describe as almost blood-like, with a lively iron-like minerality that lingers. There’s also plenty of wild raspberry and savory notes, and a smoldering tobacco finish. Please don’t be scared away by this description — good teroldego tastes vibrant, mysterious, and full of life. (Bonus: you will immediately earn your wine geek card by dropping “teroldego” into casual conversation.)
Moving east, to the mountains of northern Lombardy, is the region of Valtellina, which is quickly gaining acclaim for its nebbiolo-based wines (though in typically confusing Italian fashion, nebbiolo is called chiavennasca in Valtellina). Nebbiolo, of course, is the basis for Barolo, Italy’s greatest wine. While Valtellina wines share the telltale cherry-rose-tar notes of Barolo, they also exhibit a fresh, pure Alpine character, with a light ruby, almost-rosé like color. These are delicate wines unlike powerhouse Barolos. Look for Valtellina Superiore, which is a DOCG, Italy’s most prestigious denomination.
Finally, moving further east to France, under the shadow of Monte Blanc is the Aosta Valley. Labeled as Valle d’Aosta or Vallée d’Aoste (depending on the growers’ cultural affinity), these elegant, enigmatic reds are made from even more obscure grapes such as fumin, petit rouge, and cornalin.
Somehow, these wines seem both French and Italian at the same time. Yet in a way, they’re neither. They’re simply mountain wines which have their own strange geography and logic.
Here are some recommended mountain wines you can find locally.
Alois Lageder Lagrein 2009. Alto Adige, Italy. $18.99 in Pennsylvania.
Stony nose, with pure, fresh cherry on the palate, and an earthy finish. Full-bodied and very satisfying
Abbazia di Novacella Lagrein 2011. Alto Adige, Italy. $24.99 in Pennsylvania.
Juicy, red fruits, vibrant, with rustic tannins. A wine that wants to be your friend.
Muri-Gries Lagrein 2011. Alto Adige, Italy. $17.99 at WineWorks in Marlton. Big and rich for a lagrein.
Dark, fresh fruit, with a merlot-like softness.
Tiefenbrunner Lagrein Linticlarus Riserva 2009. Alto Adige, Italy. $32.99 SLO in Pennsylvania.
Light toasted oak on the nose, spicy, with big cherry and baking spice flavors in the mouth.
Nino Negri Quadrio Valtellina Superiore 2009. Lombardy, Italy. $17.99, on sale for $17.59 at Wine Legend in Cherry Hill, $18.99 at WineWorks in Marlton.
90% nebbiolo, 10% merlot. Light ruby, translucent. Dried rose, tar, cherry, and a touch of cedar on the finish. Well balanced by subtle, light tannins.
Grosjean Frères Torrette Superieur Vigne Rovettaz 2007. Valle d’Aosta, Italy. $26.99 in Pennsylvania.
75% petit rouge, 10% cornalin, 10% fumin, and 5% prëmetta. Enigmatic. Smokey and light-bodied, with black cherry and baking spice, and a long savory finish. A good wine for a rainy summer day.
Foradori Teroldego Vigneti Delle Dolomiti IGT 2010. Trentino, Italy. $25.89 SLO, $18.99 at Canal’s in Mt. Ephraim, on sale for $18.99 at Wine Legend in Cherry Hill.
Wild raspberries, a fresh iron-like minerality, full of life, with a savory, tobacco finish.
Casata Monfort Teroldego Rotaliano DOC 2005. Trentino, Italy. On sale for $9.33 at Wine Legend in Cherry Hill.
Funky, fresh picked raspberry, minerality and fresh blood on the palate. Lively wine and an amazing value.
Bolognani Armilo Teroldego Vigneti Delle Dolomiti IGT 2008. Trentino, Italy. $15.99 at WineWorks in Marlton.
Dark and brooding, with cedar and blackberry, and a meaty finish.