Unique northern Italian varietals to try this summer

Unique northern Italian varietals to try this summer

Castelfeder Vineyard in Alto Adige, Italy, recently began importing their wine into Rhode Island.

Trentino-Alto Adige is geographically the northernmost region of Italy and originally part of Austria and Hungary until its annexation by Italy in 1919. Due to its history and proximity to the Alps, the wine traditions in Trentino-Alto Adige are highly influenced by Germany and Hungary. The culture in the region is very Germanic and both Italian and German are spoken. On wine labels, you may see the region referred to as Alto Adige, the Italian name, or Südtirol, the Germanic name. They are interchangeable.

Many of the grape varieties grown in Trentino-Alto Adige are not seen in other parts of Italy, including Kerner, Müller-Thurgau, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Vernatsch, Lagrein, and Teroldago. Gewürztraminer literally means “spicy wine from Tramin” but for a very long time, I mistakenly assumed that Gewürztraminer originated in Alsace, where it is most famously grown. When digging a little further, I also discovered that “spicy” really meant “aromatic,” as Gewürztraminer is known for its intensely perfumed bouquet including notes of lychee and rose petals.

The wines of this region are incredibly food friendly, and while their local varieties cannot compete with the fame of international varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot noir, their charm lies in their mineral driven individuality. Let’s take a closer look at a few of these little known varietals and see how they might complement your table or picnic blanket this summer.

Of all of the varieties grown in Alto Adige, Müller-Thurgau would be one of the most widely planted elsewhere, yet due to a lack of pedigree, it is still quite difficult to find in the United States. Müller-Thurgau is a Riesling cross-developed in 1882 by Herman Müller who was born in the Swiss area, Thurgau. Due to its generous yields, Müller-Thurgau’s popularity soared after World War II when Germany was replanting its vineyards as quickly as possible. In fact, it was the most widely planted grape variety in Germany until Riesling finally surpassed it in the 1990’s.
Müller-Thurgau thrives in alpine foothills. Known for racy acidity and notes of lemon and lime with a streak of minerality, Müller -Thurgau would be perfectly suited to ceviche or shellfish. If you enjoy a crisp Sauvignon blanc or Pinot grigio, you will like  Müller Thurgau. Castelfeder’s 2012 ‘Gassner’ Müller Thurgau is a classic expression of this variety from Italian soil.

A cross between Vernatsch and Riesling, Kerner was bred by August Herold in Southern Germany in 1929 and apparently named after Justinius Kerner, a 19th century writer of drinking songs. Because it buds late and is able to avoid late spring frosts, Kerner seems to have a special affinity to the high altitude sites of the Alto Adige. The wine is zesty and pure with notes of pink grapefruit and minerality and while it is often untouched by oak, it is marked by a richness and almost oily texture. Due to Kerner’s naturally rich mouth-feel, it’s a natural choice for Chardonnay lovers. Pair Kerner with New England clam chowder or stuffed quahogs from your favorite summer clam shack. The 2012 Castelfeder ‘Lahn’ Kerner is pure and focused in every way.

Vernatsch/ Trollinger/ Schiava
Vernatsch has been growing in the Alto Adige since the 13th century and at one time was the most widely planted variety in the region. It is incredibly cold hardy and a very vigorous varietal, making it very well suited to the terrain. One of the most enduring varieties of the Alto Adige, Vernatsch is still grown with the traditional pergola trellising system seen throughout the region. Generally, Vernatsch is meant for enjoying shortly after bottling. It is light and fruity with notes of alpine strawberries and violets, and often persistently prickly with a touch of bitterness and white pepper on the finish. Vernatsch is said to be the perfect match to speck, the  local cured ham which is very similar to prosciutto, but smoked. Open a bottle of Vernatsch in place of Pinot noir, when you want a bottle of something light this summer. It’s perfect wine to enjoy with bluefish pate and crackers. Try Castelfeder’s 2012 Vernatsch ‘Breitbacher’ when you want a unique complement to lighter fare.

Lagrein is nearly impossible to find anywhere other than the Alto Adige.  There are some small plantings in Australia, and a handful of vines in California, but other than that, Alto Adige is Lagrein’s only home. For centuries Lagrein was severely over-cropped and was used little more than to add color and structure to Vernatsch. It wasn’t until vineyard practices were improved that Lagrein began to show what it is truly capable of.  Lagrein has naturally high acidity and intense tannins. When winemakers use careful vineyard management to complement Lagrein’s angular structure, they are able to capture explosive aromatics often including chocolate and raspberries and even tobacco when oak aging enters the mix. If you love Cabernet franc or Merlot, Lagrein might be a perfect new varietal for you to try. Pair Lagrein with grilled or smoked meats all summer long when you want something full-bodied but not too heavy.   Castelfeder’s 2012 ‘Rieder’ Lagrein is lighter than others but impeccably balanced making it perfectly suited to the season.

Have you noticed a theme with these wine suggestions? Castelfeder is an amazing property located in Alto Adige that recently began importing their wine into Rhode Island. With steep hillsides, terraced vines and unique microclimates based on aspect and exposure, Castelfeder makes an incredible range of wines. They’ve been at it since 1970 and three generations of Giovanetts continue to build upon what founder, Alfons Giovanett began four decades ago. Castelfeder wines capture a sense of purity and place and I am incredibly excited that they are now available in Rhode Island.

Christin Aarons, CSW, AAS is the Wine Buyer at Grapes & Grains fine wine, craft beer, and small-batch spirits shop in Barrington. Any questions, comments or suggestions, email Christin at [email protected]