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On Top of the World: The Crisp White Wines of Italy’s Alto Adige

Alto Adige Dolomites / Shutterstock

Wedged between Austria and Switzerland in the Dolomite mountains, Alto Adige is Italy’s northernmost wine producing area and turns out some of the country’s most lauded white wines.

Part of the Trentino-Alto Adige region, the province belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire until it was annexed to Italy after World War I. Both Italian and German are spoken here, which is also called Südtirol (South Tyrol in English).

A valley village in Südtirol / Photo courtesy of Tiberio Sorvillo

Alto Adige’s radiant wines express their mountain setting. Thanks to varied soils and microclimates ranging from almost Mediterranean in the south to windy, steep slopes in the north, the denomination’s dazzling wines boast elegance, energy and depth. Top bottlings also have structure and impressive aging potential.

In the late 1970s, Alto Adige was geared toward red wine production led by native varieties Vernatsch (a k a Schiava) and Lagrein followed by Merlot and Pinot Nero. Today, white wines dominate, accounting for 64% of overall output. Pinot Grigio leads in terms of volume, followed by Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay. But many of Alto Adige’s exciting whites are varietal wines made with Pinot Bianco, Kerner, Sauvignon, Sylvaner, Müller-Thurgau, Riesling and Grüner Veltliner.

Read on to discover Alto Adige’s focused, pristine whites.

Polished Pinot Bianco

Valle Isarco / Photo courtesy of Tiberio Sorvillo

Now tied with Gewürztraminer as the region’s second most planted grape, Pinot Bianco has found its spiritual home in parts of Alto Adige, where it’s been cultivated since 1850. These include Eppan municipality, or Appiano in Italian, where it’s the most planted white variety.

In the past, the bulk of the area’s Pinot Bianco resulted in bland, dilute wines consumed locally. That changed between the late 1980s and 1990s as Alto Adige and most of Italy began to shift from bulk wine to quality production.

Hans Terzer, winemaker at one of Italy’s most celebrated cooperative cellars, San Michele Appiano (also known as St. Michael-Eppan), is a pioneer in elevating Pinot Bianco’s status. He says better vineyard management has been key to reviving this long misunderstood variety.

“Pinot Bianco needs very specific growing conditions to excel, including high hillside vineyards, generally above 450 meters (1,476 feet) where the combination of altitude and fresh breezes generate cool temperatures during the growing season,” says Terzer. “It fares better when it’s exposed to less direct sun and heat and it also needs complex soils, mainly limestone with some clay. Choosing the best sites has been crucial for improving Pinot Bianco.”

Pinot Bianco vines naturally produce a lot of grapes, so keeping yields down through green harvesting and lower-yielding clones has also proven fundamental in improving wine quality.

The best expressions boast creamy textures and bright acidity, white stone-fruit sensations, field flower, hay and delicate hazelnut notes. When aged partially or wholly in oak, the wines have added complexity and staying power.

Cantina Produttori San Michele Appiano 2020 Schulthauser Pinot Bianco (Alto Adige); $24, 94 points. White spring flower, ripe white stone fruit and Alpine herb aromas mingle with an inviting whiff of freshly kneaded bread dough on this stunning, polished white. It’s dry, elegant and absolutely delicious, delivering creamy yellow apple, citrus, baking spice and tangy mineral alongside fresh acidity. Drink now through 2024. Siena Imports. Editors’ Choice.

St. Pauls 2019 Kalkberg Pinot Bianco (Alto Adige); $35, 92 points. Fermented and aged in large casks that lends depth and complexity, this full-bodied white has subtle aromas suggesting chamomile, hay, wild Alpine herbs and ripe stone fruits. The creamy palate offers mature Bartlett pear, yellow apple and lemon drop candy before finishing on a bitter almond note. Ethica Wines.

Kool Kerner

A vineyard in Val Venosta / Photo courtesy of Alto Adige Wine Florian Andergassen

While only accounting for 2% of the province’s overall production, Kerner has become one of Italy’s trendiest white wines, with producers saying demand is increasing every year, especially in the U.S. market.

A cross between Schiava (Vernatsch) and Riesling, this frost-resistant grape was created in 1929. Named after the German poet Julius Kerner, it’s grown in higher elevations, namely in the Valle Isarco and Val Venosta, two of Alto Adige’s six subzones.

However, the grape is most associated with the Valle Isarco, the extreme northern subzone. The area is, on average, 3.5–4˚F cooler than more southern areas of the province. Its strong day-to-night temperature differentials mean that nocturnal temperatures in the vineyards during the growing season can be up to 18˚F cooler than other areas of Alto Adige, according to growers. Almost only white grapes are grown in the valley, with Kerner now the most planted variety.

“Kerner grows so well here because of the altitude of the vineyards and because of the extreme temperature differences between day and night,” says Andreas Huber, winemaker and along with his sister Katharina, the sixth-generation to run the family-owned Pacherhof winery, above the town of Bressanone. “We’re located near the main ridge of the Alps, which means near snow-covered mountains, therefore our area is in this zone of tension between very cool nights and warm days.”

The family’s vineyards range from 2,132–3,182 feet above sea level, and Huber’s father, Josef Huber, is credited as the first to plant Kerner in the valley.

The best Kerners are fragrant, medium-bodied, savory and polished, delivering sensations of grapefruit, tropical fruit and nutmeg as well as flinty mineral notes set against crisp acidity.

Pacher Hof 2020 Kerner (Alto Adige Valle Isarco); $29, 94 points. This gorgeous, medium-bodied white opens with alluring aromas of grapefruit, tropical fruit and baking spice. The delicious, creamy palate delivers white peach, tangerine drop candy, nutmeg and crushed Alpine mint before a flinty mineral note. Bright acidity keeps it balanced and fresh. Vias Imports. Editors’ Choice.

Nals Margreid 2019 Fels Kerner (Alto Adige); $23, 93 points. The nose is a bit shy but the full-bodied, delicious palate is compelling, delivering ripe apricot, yellow peach and juicy grapefruit before a savory, smoky mineral finish. Crisp acidity keeps it focused and energized. Serendipity Wines Imports.

Great Grüner

Grüner Veltliner grapes / Photo courtesy of Alto Adige Wine Florian Andergassen

The least planted grape in the appellation, Grüner Veltliner cultivation is concentrated in the Isarco Valley. In the high altitudes it yields crisp, delicious and mineral-driven whites. Typical sensations include green apple, citrus, honeydew, smoke and white pepper.

Savory Sauvignon

Vineyards on Lake Caldaro / Photo courtesy of Tiberio Sorvillo

Introduced along with most other white grapes at the end of the 1880s, Sauvignon is one of the appellation’s leading varieties. Wine styles range from crisp and vibrant to full-bodied and complex, depending on where the grapes are cultivated and on winemaking styles.

In vineyards situated in the west and east of the denomination, wines show classic varietal aromas and flavors such as elderflower, gooseberry, tropical fruit and herbaceous notes of crushed tomato vine and hay.

“Sauvignon has a long tradition in Alto Adige and has found its ideal home here in the Alps,” says Karoline Walch, daughter of the eponymous founder and co-owner of Elena Walch. “With our cool climate, yet warm days, cool nights and great temperature fluctuations, it matures the full spectrum of its primary aromas yet maintains its acidity.”

The firm’s Vigna Castel Ringberg bottling offers even more complexity thanks to “a very special microclimate as we have the lake influence from the nearby Lake Caldaro while soil-wise, it’s a unique intersection between various soils from glacial and postglacial times, mainly limestone with moraine deposits that lend minerality and salinity,” says Walch.

Elena Walch 2019 Vigna Castel Ringberg Sauvignon (Alto Adige); $28, 92 points. From one of the storied vineyard sites in Alto Adige, this radiant, elegant white offers aromas of elderflower, tropical fruit, citrus and a hint of toasted nut. On the savory, focused palate, fresh acidity accompanies juicy grapefruit, pineapple slice and white almond before a tangy, saline close. USA Wine West.

Baron Widmann 2019 Sauvignon (Alto Adige); $35, 92 points. Elderflower, ripe stone fruit and hay aromas make their way to the forefront. Rounded and full-bodied, the savory, polished palate offers juicy grapefruit, creamy white peach and hints of hazelnut alongside fresh acidity. A steely mineral note signals the close. Oliver McCrum Wines.