Located in the northern, predominantly German-speaking part of the trentino-alto adige region, bordering on the Austrian Tyrol. It was ceded to Italy only after the First World War and most of its inhabitants call it the Südtirol. (Throughout this article, German names appear in brackets after Italian names.) The region owes its Italian name to the river Adige (Etsch), which flows through it on its way to the Adriatic.
Viticulture follows the mountainous local topography, vine-growing being a feasible proposition only in the valleys of the Adige and Isarco (Eisach) rivers which meet at Bolzano (Bozen) to form a Y-shaped growing zone. The vine competes with apple trees for space in the warmer positions on the valley floors, and it has been only recently that apples have been less remunerative, leading to an increase in vine plantings. The best vineyard sites, high up the hills, sometimes at 600–800 m, have been replanted only in recent years, and early results are very promising. This may be because these more forward-thinking producers have abandoned the pergola system of vine training in favour of Guyot, which has resulted in lower yields and more intense fruit.
Despite its septentrional position, Alto Adige enjoys a warm summer climate in the valleys and in the hills just off the valley floors, and the towns of Bolzano and Merano (Meran) are frequently among Italy's hottest in July and August. Virtually the entire production of wine qualifies as doc; only 60 of the region's total 5,000 ha/12,350 acres of vineyards grow vino da tavolagrapes. The annual production of about 350,000 hl/9.2 million gal has increased from 320,000 hl in 1993, so this is one of the few regions in Italy where wine production has not declined. Viticulture is dominated by co-operatives, which control about two-thirds of the total output, but many of these co-ops, in particular those of Colterenzio and San Michele Appiano, are run with high professional and managerial standards and produce excellent wine.
Schiava (Vernatsch) was historically the dominant grape in Alto Adige, accounting for close to 60 per cent of the total wine produced. Today, it is rivalled by Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, as the light to medium bodied red wines produced by Schiava have fallen from fashion, and their traditional markets (Switzerland and Austria) seek fuller bodied reds. Schiava is the base of the 770 ha Caldaro (Kalterer), 14 ha Colli di Bolzano (Bozner Leiten), 175 ha Meranese (Meraner), and 286 ha santa maddalena (Sankt Magdalener) DOCs, and remains the most important varietal DOC within the overall Alto Adige appellation. In 2004, it accounted for 40,000 hl of the total of 240,000 hl produced as Alto Adige, followed by 32,000 hl of Pinot Grigio, 31,777 hl of Chardonnay, and 29,482 hl of Pinot Bianco. The second most important red variety was Lagrein, with a total production of 24,000 hl, followed by Pinot Nero with 17,274 hl. The DOC structure of Alto Adige closely resembles that of the trentino: a variety of geographically specific DOC zones together with a general DOC which embraces the entire zone, whose wines are further identified by varietal, 18 in all. There are two other specific and delimited DOC zones in addition to these Schiava-dominated zones: Valle Isarco (Eisacktaler), where production is dominated by silvaner and müller-thurgau in addition to small amounts of gewürztraminer (itself supposedly a native of this region, named after the town of Tramin there); and Terlano (Terlaner), a white DOC based on pinot bianco, and with limited but high-quality production of sauvignon Blanc.
Lagrein is often championed by producers as it is planted only in Alto Adige. It produces deep coloured red wines that are frequently earthy and tannic, and has none of the charm of the region's best Pinot Nero. Lagrein is often blended with Schiava to deepen the colour and supply extra tannins and structure, giving a characteristic bitter finish which has, at times and not entirely accurately, been identified as a result of terroir. Lagrein was similarly used to boost the colour of Pinot Noir in the past, but a few producers—Gottardi, Haas, and Hofstätter in particular—are now producing varietally correct and decent examples of this grape, proving that Alto Adige is probably the Italian region best suited to the production of this most exasperating of varieties.
The simple white wines this region was producing in the late 1970s gave way to a richer and fuller style in the whites and a more polished character in the reds. barriques are increasingly used to add body. A substantial part of the improvement in the overall quality level has been the result of better matching of varieties to subzones, a matching which in many cases merely confirms the historic tradition of certain terroirs for certain grapes: Magré (Margreid) and Cortaccia (Kurtatsch) in the south west and Settequerce (Siebeneich) to the west of Bolzano for Cabernet and Merlot; Mazzon and Montagna (Montan) in the valley's south east, and Cornaiano (Girlan) to the south west of Bolzano for Pinot Noir (unlike in burgundy, Pinot Noir prefers a south westernaspect in this hotter region); Terlano (Terlan) for Sauvignon; Appiano (Eppan) and Monte (Berg) for Pinot Bianco; Ora (Auer) and the sandy and gravelly soils adjacent to Bolzano for Lagrein; Termeno (Tramin), Caldaro (Kaltern), and Cortaccia in addition to Santa Maddalena for Schiava; Cortaccia, Magré, and Salorno for Pinot Grigio.
In addition, some of the region's better producers, inspired by the blended whites of Friuli, are successfully blending the likes of Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon with a bit of Riesling or Traminer.
Robinson, Jancis, The Oxford Companion to Wine (New York, 1999).
Daniel Thomases, David Gleave