Magré, BZ, Italy – Spring comes reluctantly to this northern-most part of Italy, hard by the snow-covered Dolomites and the crystal-clear headwaters of the Fiume Adige, which we English speakers call the Adige River.
This is a land of contrasts, as is most of the Italian wine-country landscape, you might argue.
But here, a few miles south of where Brenner Pass drops sinuously into Austria and where snowy peaks backlight lemon trees and olive trees growing in a understated Mediterranean climate, the contrasts are perhaps more noticeable.
This is the Südtirol/Alto Adige/South Tyrol, where road signs are in German and Italian and the flaxen-haired waitress (her German counterpart is Kelnerin while it’s cameriera in Italian) may address you in either language.
The Italy-Austria connection is strong, since this part of Italy was Austrian until the international borders shifted after World War I.
In fact, a shopkeeper in Bolzano insisted his city was the southern-most Austrian city in the world, and who was I to argue?
The contrasts also lay in the land, where miles of grapevines reach into the laps of the surrounding peaks bearing a mantle of white.
Because of the area’s history and its location, you find varieties of wine grapes – Müller-Thurgau, Lagrein and Gewurtztraminer among them – not common elsewhere in Italy.
You’ll also find many talented winemakers, perhaps none more talented than Alois Lageder, the fifth generation of his family to grow grapes and make wine here.
This spring, as he has the previous 13, Lageder invited to Magré a handpicked assortment of winemakers from Italy, German, Austria, France and elsewhere to participate in his two-day Summa at Casòn Hirshprunn, the family’s 17th-Century palazzo.
All of Lageder’s wines are made in close concordance with the biodynamic practices developed by Rudolph Steiner in the 1920s, a philosophy relying on a particular regimen of treating soil, plants and livestock.
While Steiner’s practices have long been popular in Europe (Germany has 45 percent of the world’s biodynamic acreage), it’s slower to take hold in the U.S.
This year’s Summa 2014 had its focus on biodynamic wines, an effort, according to the winery, to “show that biodynamic means forward-looking and has the answers to the issues that currently face both ecological agriculture and society in general.”
As Lageder says in the notes accompanying the Summa guidebook, to make the best wines possible “one also needs something more than healthy, fully-ripened grapes from the best vineyard sites. There is also a need for the right philosophy and for true human commitment.”
This commitment was reflected in the 60 or so winemakers, offering finely crafted white and red wines, as well as producers of select olive oils, cheeses and salume.
Winemakers were set up in the ancient, granite-walled granary as well as on several floors of the Palazzo, and the hardest decision was when and how often to stop, swirl and sip the proffered wines.
One stop in the granary was at Gut Hermannsberg of Nahe, Germany, which produces world-class Rieslings.
Spokesman Christoph Freidrich opened a coffee table-sized book to a map of the Nahe region and showed how the landscape and the geology contributes to the stone-and-mineral, citrus-forward elegance of the wines.
“The land gives us the perfect opportunity to make delicious wines,” Friedrich said.
Across the stone plaza and up a flight of limestone stairs, young (23) winemaker Matteo Sasso, accompanied by Ludovica Cisa Asinari dei Marchesi di Gresy, gladly shared the 2009 Camp Gros Mattinenga Barbaresca DOCG from Tenute Cisa Asinari dei Marchesi di Gresy.
The di Gresy estate dates from 1797 and has vineyards in the Langhe and the Monferrato areas of Italy’s Piedmont region, home to Nebbiolo and some of the world’s greatest red wines.
The Barbaresco was bright and fresh, with a bouquet of roses and fresh herbs and a faint hint of red licorice on the finish.
And, of course, it’s all biodynamic, as Matteo noted.
“I want to do something good for the soil, the wines and for myself,” he said. “Doing this (biodynamic) allows me to feel good about everything I do, and to make these delicious wines.”
VERONA – One of my many “Instant Italian” lessons while at VinItaly last week turned up when my cellphone didn’t. Looked in pockets, bags, hats, suitcase and even the bag with my brioche from the panificio. No luck.
Finally thought of looking in the car, which meant repeating a 10-minute walk but no big deal, because that’s where I left the phone.
Gloria Giovara, wife and business partner of good friend Patrick Casely of Trevignano, laughed when I explained my short absence and said, “Now you know how to say, ‘Ho lasciato il mio telefono in la macchina.’”
We were headed around to explore several of the immense pavilions comprising VinItaly, each of them the site of a different Italian wine region. Patrick and Gloria, ever working in the beehive-busy culture of the world’s largest wine fair, were seeing clients and I was tagging along, hoping to absorb some of their encyclopedic knowledge of Italy and the Italian wine world and maybe meet someone interesting.
As if that was any problem.
The trans-generation crossing is something every winemaking region worries about. Who is going to take over when the first (or fourth or more, in many cases here in Italy) generation gets tired and starts looking around for the next generation of winemakers? But in my days at Vinitaly, I was fortunate to meet several young winemakers eager to take over, or at least eager to accept the reins when handed to them.
Among the notable are the attractive six young people in the accompanying photo who comprise the future of Cantina La Salute, which is a cooperative formed in 1969 when 11 farmers in the Piave River valley near Treviso, feeling threatened by encroaching “big business,” came together to ensure the continuation of their lifestyle.
If I understood correctly, today the cooperative acts like a consortium, maintaining the quality of the wines while making a line of wines from the grapes produced by the various members of the cooperative. The winemaker for the cooperative is Antonio Cocca (second from left) and the president of La Salute is Nicola Fantuzzi (third from right). The others in the photo include (from left) Allessandro Milan, Cocca, Elena Rossi, Fantuzzi, Enrico Prisson and Serena Lessi.
The sextet in the photo are among the current generation of winemakers and viticulturists, although many of the original winemakers still are actively involved in the day-to-day operations of their individual aziendas and vineyards. The cooperative today produces a variety of wines, including a delightful Raboso and a millesimato spumante designated “21,” a number relating to Feb. 21, 1969, the founding of the coop, and Nov. 21, the day of the Feast of Our Lady of Health and the day the cuvée selections are made. The wines have been awarded many medals and honors, including several Gran Menziones at this year’s Vinitaly.
It’s one week at a time, since it will take a year to talk about all the wines I tasted and the winemakers I met, but among the memorable were the Lugana white wines from Ca’ Lojera and other members of the Lugana DOC.
It came on my first night of a too-quick tour of the Lugana DOC , which lies at the southern end of Lake Garda and roughly midway between Brescia and Verona. The DOC was one of the first such designations (1967) in Italy and today remains one of the smallest DOCs, according to the Lugana Consorzio, which actively promotes and protects the uniqueness of this wine.
Our group, led by Francesca Goffi of the Lugana Consorzio, was welcomed at Ca’ Lojera by Ambra Tiraboschi, historian, delightful hostess and wife of winemaker Franco Tiraboschi. She poured us several iterations of Lugana, including their top-tier Riserva Lugana del Lupo, all made from the Turbiana grape. Once known at Trebbiano di Lugana, the local consorzio changed the name of the grape to the local name “Turbiana” to differentiate the Lugana wine from Trebbiano di Soave, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo and the other numerous Trebbiano wines grown in 80 of the country’s wine regions.
According to Ambra, the winery’s name (Ca’ Lojera translates to House of the Wolves) is drawn from the days centuries ago when bandits (pirates) from up north would slip down to the south end of Lago del Garda and hide their contraband in local warehouses, including one that sits a few yards from the modern Ca’ Lojera winery.
According to local lore, the hideouts were guarded by wolves (lupo in Italian). The only wolf we saw was on the label, while the wine inside was all bright fruit and good acidity, with hints of green apple, spice and the characteristic minerality for which Lugana DOC wines are famed.
This 2002 Lugana Superiore was particularly enticing, not only because it’s commonly held that Trebbiano/Turbiana wines won’t age but also because this wine had held its years beautifully, the past 12 years adding a gold color and a hint of almonds or hazelnuts to the finish.
Ca’ Lojera wines are imported by Worldwine Cellars (Fridaly, Minn.), Wine House Ltd. (San Francisco) and others.
DECENZANO DEL GARDA, BS, Italy – The grand expanse of Lake Garda, all 51.6 kilometers (about 32 miles) of it, laps gently at its southern end where it surrounds on three sides the peninsula of Sirmione, a finger of land just east of Decenzano del Garda.
Formed by glaciers during the last Ice Age, the lake not only moderates the Mediterranean climate of the region but also provides a near-constant breeze, warming in winter and cooling in summer, which makes a key difference if you’re one of the 120 or so members of the Consorzio of Lugana winemakers.
“Look around and see, we are 110 meters above the lake,” said Luca Formentini, whose father bought the farm that now is Podere Selva Capuzza 40 kilometers south of the lake. “”We get the benefit of the wind, which is good when it’s warm and rainy and not so good when it is hot and rainy.
“But last year, when it was so rainy, we spent only seven days (fighting mold and mildew) in the vineyards while my neighbors spent 14.”
The Lugana white wine, by DOC rules made of 100 percent Terbiana (an “invented” name to differentiate Trebbiano of Lugana from Trebbiano of Soave, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo and the other 78 Italian DOCs in which Trebbiano is vinified) is mild and pleasant, with lemon and traipical fruit and a bit of bitter almond on the finish. It also had good acidity and a surprising ability to improve with age.
I recently had the 2002 from Podere Selva and found it rich, with layers of white peach and apricot and that almond-like finish, bright acidity and the wine’s characteristic minerality and what they call sapidity and we’d call salinity.
The distinctive salinity and minerality comes from the earth, Luca said, formed when the glacial seas retreated and left the Lugana area layered in clay-rich soils.
“Look at this, he said, kneeling along one of the rows in the 50 hectares (123 acres) of vines the family grows. “When it’s dry, it’s almost unbreakable and when it’s wet, you can’t walk on it. But there are many minerals here, left by the sea and the vineyards take them up.”
Later that night, while sitting at dinner next to Cesare Materossi, the fourth generation winemaker at Az. Agr. Monte Cocigna, he told me the minerality, which usually signifies a stony soil, comes from ancient salts dissolved by the glacial seas.
“Those give the wine a bright edge and it’s ability to age,” he said. “Lugana is tied to the place it comes from. It’s more than the winery, it’s a sign of the culture and the heritage.”
The photo of young (23) Franz Haas may be a bit blurred but it’s not just the light; this eighth-generation Franz Haas is running to keep up with his famous father, winemaker par excellence Franz Haas (VII).
Since 1896 a Franz Haas has been making wines commercially in the Sudtirol, that part of Italy’s Alto Adige where German and Italian blend into one. And there were three generations making family wines prior.
Like the land, Franz Haas VIII is a man of many cultures.
“My mother is Italian and my father is German,” said the personable Franz the 8th in his well-spoken English ( he also is fluent in Spanish). “Until I was 5, I spoke Italian to my mother and German to my father.”
He laughed unassumingly when he told a visitor to “Put a ‘V’ in there, then the III.”
It wasn’t so hard being a two-language family, he offered to a curious visitor.
“When you are young, it’s much easier to learn different languages, and speaking two languages was natural for me.”
I met these multi-generational winemakers on the final day of VinItaly 2014, a day when the crowds are lighter and it’s speed-tasting at booths you missed earlier in the week.
My friend and winemaker Susanna Crociani urged to visit the Franz Haas, assuring me I’d regret not tasting thier wines.
Franz Haas may be best known for his Pinot Nero, and he makes a light-bodied wine with deep red fruit flavors and the smooth acidity of a well-balanced version of Pinot Noir in the Alsatian style, although he suredly would say it’s really the Sudtirol style.
The winery had 13 wines at VinItaly, many of them from grapes considered very difficult to grow but none perhaps as difficult as Pinot Nero.They also offer a delightful Pinot Nero dry Rosé and a Moscato Rosa, with a breath-taking 136 grams of RS but the sweetness is tightly balanced by the wine’s high acidity.
VERONA, Italy – One of the better habits one picks up at the massive wine fair that is VinItaly is learning to look past the many big producers and their show-stopping, two-story booths with starlets and politicians and exclusively formal atmosphere.
They’re not wrong, and for them it’s the right presentation. But there always is something more right around the corner.
And that’s where I found Claudio and Sylvia Monaci, sitting quietly, patiently waiting for whatever or whomever came next to their little booth, tucked away in the immense Tuscany pavilion, which is about double the size of the other pavilions.
The Monacis own and operate Cantina Piancornello, due south of Florence and 45 kilometers from the climate-controlling Mediteranean Sea, which they founded in 1991 after deciding they really wanted to be winemakers and bought an an existing vineyard.
Any life-changing experience can be traumatic but Claudio knew it would be more traumatic to ignore his heart’s calling.
“I was studying to be a doctor but I knew I wanted to make wine,” he said. Now, his Brunello di Montalcino consistently get high marks from customers and critics and he’s quite happy to be away from medicine and making a minimal-intervention wine.
“I’m trying to do something good for my family and good for the grapes,” he said. Actually, Sylvia said this, as she was translating Claudio’s words for the sake of a visitor.
They were pouring their latest vintages – 2008 and 2009 Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, 2012 Rosso di Montalcino, 2013 Campo della Macchia and the 2011 Podere del Visciolo – and when asked, started talking about aging wines. More accurately, about how many people do not age their wines.
“This one,” said Claudio, holding the 2008 Brunello di Montalcino, “is drinking very nicely but still a baby. It may last for 15-20 years. But no one wants to wait that long.”
For the impatient, the Monacis produce their Rosso di Montalcino and their Campo della Macchia IGT, wines ready to drink almost as soon as it’s relesed.
“But please, wait, maybe at least an hour, after opening it,” said Claudio. “It will be much better.”
Sylvia laughed and noted how different were even the 2008 and 2009 Brunello di Montalcino DOCG.
“It’s very different, what can come from the same vineyard,” she mused. “Like children from the same parents.These are our children, and they are very different.”
CAMPEGINE, RE, Italy – Maybe this should carry the dateline Nocetolo because that’s where I stayed the first two days of my visit to northern Italy but, hey, you’ll have trouble enough finding Campegine on the map, much less Nocetolo, a commune of a half-dozen farmhouses and at least one raucous rooster a few kilometers to the north.
I stopped here, about midway between Milan and Bologna, for two days prior to VinItaly, the immense wine fair in Verona April 6-9. I was staying a La Rocca B-n-B and, following the advice of my generous and gracious hostess Giovana Cavalca, I discovered Il Piccolo Oceano, a restaurant in Campegine specializing in seafood. It’s a popular place, as much for the selection of fresh seafood (the Adriatic Ocean is only 100 or so kilometers to the east) but because it’s also the best to eat place in town.
Spring in this part of Reggio Emilia is wet and cool, reflective of the Mediterannean climate across much of Italy. It’s not quite green but the early blossoms, including apricots and cherries, are ablaze right now. It’s very remindful of western Colorado, ‘cept it rains here on a regular basis.
And speaking of the rain, that’s what it did all Thursday, which I spent slogging around Parma (photo above) visiting the museums where the extensive archaeological history of the region is on display, including a human mummy and a cat mummy.
I was soaked at the end of the day but I learned a new word. It’s “inzuppato,” which means soaked, and the Italian word for soup is “zuppa,” and to me that makes perfect sense.
So Mediterranean is the climate that winemaker Alois Lageder of Magré, a hamlet right at the “pie” in the piemonte of the Italy-Austria Alps, grows lemons, along with his white wines – including Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay – and smattering of Pinot Noir, Lagrein and Merlot.
I dried everything in time to attend Day One of Summa 2014, a wine and food-tasting event hosted by Lageder at his Magré Renaisance-era palace and winemaking facility, Cason Hirshprunn. Don’t think of Guinevere when I say “castle.” This is a castle in the raw, so to speak, with foot-thick walls of native stone and and brick, immense beams doorways built for defense, not elegance.
It truly is a a living museum and one source says the building dates back to 1363, when the name ‘Hirschbrunn’ appeared in the records of the region of Trento.
Last year Summa 2013 attracted around 2,000 visitors during the two-day event and the 20 Euro entrance fee raised about 36,000 Euros for humanitarian projects in Burma, which still is recovering from the 2008 cyclone.
This year there were 150 or so winemakers, the great percentage from Italy and Germany but also some from France, Europe and even one from the U.S. The big draw, or one of them, anyway, was the opportunity to taste a couple of hundred biodynamic wines from progressive winemakers willing to take the chance on what’s good for them, their families, their wines and their land.
There’s a bit of concern on the part of many Italian winemakers because of the decline in wine consumption in Italy. Depending on who you ask and what you read, the reasons range from the weak economy to the fact younger Italians are drinking more birra and soft drinks instead of wine.
According to the Italian winemaking association Assoenologi, Italians were expected to drink 40 liters per person in 2013, down from 45 liters before the financial crisis hit in 2007.
“Wine has become a hedonistic product, which is not part of Italians’ basic diet anymore, leaving it more exposed to short-term fluctuations in economic conditions,” Michele Fino, a professor at the University of Gastronomic Studies in Pollenzo, was quoted in the Huffington Post.
“The recession was like the flu that arrives when one’s defenses are already low,” Fino added.
But Mariano, one of the three brothers owning and operating Il Piccolo Oceano in Campegine (this is how all this began, remember?) blames the country’s restrictive crackdown on DUIs for the drop in wine drinking, especially away from home.
“You can have one, maybe two glasses and that’s it,” he said. “No one buys a bottle because they know there will be a policeman on the way home.”
He shrugged. “In some ways, it’s good,” he acknowledged. He looked around his restaurant, at the crowded tables, where only a few wine bottles were in sight. “But here, I could use the sales.”
(I’m struggling with the WordPress photo file and the ability to size the photos to fit. Maybe it’s because I’m halfway around the world. I’ll add photos when I figure out the problem, me or the system.)