If you were walking through the Italian section of a big wine shop and you started seeing words like “Lagrein,” “Riesling,” “Müller Thurgau,” and “Gewürtztraminer,” as well as methode champenoise sparkling wines of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, you might initially think to notify a clerk that some clearly German and French wines had been misplaced. However, you’d be in the right place after all—and that place is in the culturally complex world of Trentino-Alto Adige wines, which are 100% Italian after all—but it depends on who you ask.
Like other parts of the Triveneto such as Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol is a part of Italy that was not part of Italy a mere 100 years ago. Almost perfectly bisected into northern and southern halves, Alto Adige/Südtirol and Trentino (respectively) are two autonomous provinces of Italy, but 100 years ago, Alto Adige (Italian for “Upper Adige” or “High Adige”) was officially part of Germany.
In the end of World War I, Italy occupied the “South Tyrol” (as Alto Adige is otherwise known) and with the exception of a short takeover by Hitler in WWII (returned to Italy in 1945) has been part of Italy ever since. However, the vast majority of the Alto Adige population speaks German as their first language, and even those who speak Italian would likely be very hard to understand for someone from further south on the “boot.”
This is where we once again find certain wine grapes following the cultural identity of its makers and less so of its geographic nationality. Chardonnay, Pinot Gris (or Pinot Grigio to Italians and most Americans), Cabernet, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc add their names to the aforementioned list of varietals not typically associated with Italy but which are heavily grown—and to world class quality—in Trentino-Alto Adige. No other part of Italy has a higher percentage of DOC quality wines than Alto Adige and Trentino, which are ranked one and two for that distinction, respectively. Between modern consumer preferences and the grapes that are already known to the area, it’s no wonder this is the only Italian wine region that grew in planted area in the last quarter century.
It’s not only the shared cultural heritage that makes Trentino-Alto Adige such a good place for whites such as Sauvignon Blanc, Müller Thurgao, and Pinot Noir; the steep mountains that dot this region make you think of acidic, cool climate whites and delicate reds (T/A-A shares the 46th parallel with central Burgundy after all). But warm valley air rises up in the summer and couples with clear alpine sun to produce surprisingly rich, ripe styles and definitely give a good excuse to plant Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet and Merlot.
Trentino on its own is pretty similar to Alto Adige in soil, but is around 500ft lower in elevation and is on the southern side of the Adige river valley. The same valley, coupled with many peaks and ridges, casts a rain shadow over the valley and channels a warm mountain breeze that helps naturally defend fungi and other bad rot for vineyards. As mentioned before, the wines here are almost all DOC-certified with Trentino DOC (1971) making up a large portion of the region with classic grapes such as Schiava (maybe the most local varietal), Lagrein, and Teroldego, as well as lots of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The standard “Trentino Rosso” is made of primarily Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot blended in, making it a purely Italian version of a Bordeaux wine. “Trentino Bianco” is a little more out-there with Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco as a base, but also allowing Sauvignon Blanc, Muller-Thurgau, and Manzoni Bianco.
Trentino is otherwise made of smaller regions that have more specific styles, and 75% of them qualify for DOC status—a much higher proportion than the rest of Italy. Some examples are Teroldego Rotaliano (a red wine DOC), Caldaro (or Kalderer in German—the first Trentino DOC from 1970), Casteller, and Valdadige. A couple of these smaller DOCs even share territory with Alto Adige.
Alto Adige as a wine region is a little more complicated due to its shared German culture. Most labeling on these wines will have either German text or a German version of Italian labeling.
Notice the dual Italian and German labeling, “Sudtiroler Lagrein” instead of “Lagrein” Alto Adige. Though the DOC mark is still there, as well as a label in Italian about sulfites.Alto Adige DOC covers most of the region, but when you look at the communes and sub-regions, there are 30 different provinces that all have their German versions as well. Luckily, many of these international varietals are just that and can be easily identified by their names, with some exceptions like Schiava (known as Trollinger and/or Vernatsch in Germany), Traminer (Gewürtztraminer), and Riesling Renano (though I think you can figure that one out).
The Trentino-Alto Adige region is definitely one of contrasts, but it’s also a wine region to watch going into the future. It’s overall one of the most economically prolific areas of the “Old World” of wine and shows no sign of slowing down, especially considering its ability to produce such a wide variety of styles. The next time you’re in your local wine retailer or a fine restaurant, check out some wines from this region. They’re typically made in stainless steel, so it’s a great opportunity to try some familiar varietal wines while getting to experience a wholly unique terrain and part of the world. Cheers!