Alto Adige is one of Italy’s most unique wine regions and a real ‘must visit’ for any adventurous wine lover. We sent Mike Turner to discover just why that’s the case, to visit the region and, in particular, the hugely influential cooperative Cantina Tramin. It is a trip that took him, quite literally, into the heart of the mountains where Tramin’s 100-point scoring Epokale Gewürztraminer is stored 6km under rock for six years.
“It’s a challenge made easier or trickier, depending on your point of view, following the 2009 vintage’s 100 point score from RobertParker.com,” writes Turner about Cantina Tramin’s Epokale.
A couple of weeks ago I felt like a very lucky boy indeed. As a guest of Cantina Tramin, I got to visit Alto Adige for the first time in my life and fulfill a true bucket list ambition. Most of us in the wine trade didn’t join to enjoy modestly paid jobs sitting in front of a computer screen. We did it because we love wine, chatting with winemakers, and spending time in beautiful vineyards in all corners of the globe. I’d previously heard, and can now confirm, that few come more beautiful than Alto Adige!
Discovering Alto Adige
Those of you not familiar with Alto Adige can be forgiven for the blind spot. Winemaking around these parts is far removed from the large (almost industrial at times) powerhouses of Veneto, Puglia, Piemonte, and Tuscany. It’s a region dominated by quality-led (rather than quantity-led) co-operatives, one of which was our host for the two-day trip – Cantina Tramin, based in the town of the same name.
Alto Adige’s producers also look far more to the local Italian market and tourism to sell its wines than export. The stunning slopes provide prime holiday space for skiers in the winter and active sport junkies and hikers in the summer all keen to spend their well-earned coin in the local guest houses on the unique mountainous cuisine paired with the often outstanding range of white wines, as well as vastly improving reds from the local Schiava grape and some excellent Pinot Noir.
Even for those wines that do leave Italy, the UK is a smaller, albeit growing, market. The main export market is Germany, reflecting one of the most brilliantly odd characteristics of the region. The main language is German, and most refer Alto Adige under the Germanic name of Südtirol. Up until 1919 it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and became part of Italy through treaties following World War One. Infamous dictator Benito Mussolini then imposed strict rules on the German speakers, and reinvented the names of all the towns and villages to sound more Italian i.e. Bozen became Bolzano. Nowadays it’s seen less as a threat to Italian unification and celebrated more as a source of regional pride.
Cantina Tramin’s Selezione Project continues to shine
Cantina Tramin was founded in 1898 and today boasts 165 owner families. The agronomist and viticultural team play a large part in helping the growers, with a range of 0.5 hectare up to 3 hectares, have the confidence to push for excellence in the vineyard as part of what they called the Selezione Project.
It was not too long ago that Alto Adige was infamous for high quantity, light reds from Schiava for early drinking and, if we’re fair, not much else. In 1989 this all changed at Tramin as the board recognized the importance of striving for quality and a move back to the production of white grapes that grew throughout the region in the Middle Ages. Backed by a protective payment system, the member growers retrained, regrafted, or even dug up the poor quality plantings and quality grapes such as Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were clone and site selected. Proof of method has been confirmed with multiple awards for the wines in the last three decades, including 20 years in a row of Tre Bicchieri from Gambero Rosso for the Nussbaumer Gewürztraminer.
One of the most prized grapes in the vineyards of Cantina Tramin is Gewürztraminer. Those eagle eyed amongst you will have noticed that the name of the town makes up the name of the grape, and many in these parts are proud to claim that Tramin is the grape’s home town.
Catina Tramin make three different expressions of Gewürztraminer. All grapes are grown on similar parcels of land, in the clay-rich Nussbaumer plots located on south-facing slopes overlooking the winery and the town just a few hundred yards or so below. The plot is perfect for Gewürztraminer as it gets the morning sun across the valley, good warmth throughout the day and a solid afternoon breeze from Lake Garda to clear any unwanted humidity. Arguably most importantly though, is the late afternoon shadow from the Mendel mountain range that adds to the diurnal temperature swing that helps retain vital freshness in the wines.
The iconic Epokale
Our main mission on this visit was to explore Cantina Tramin’s most iconic expression of Gewürztraminer, the Epokale, a wine introduced in 2009 to add to their dry and sweet Gewürztraminer styles. This is a semi-sweet expression from late harvest grapes that is vinified and then aged for at least six years in an old silver mine in the upper reaches of Alto Adige. The wine is stored around 3 kms into the mountain, where the conditions stay constant at 11oC and 90% humidity without the need for any energy. Having travelled into the mine to visit the storage, I’m not sure I’d like to stay there for six minutes in the complete darkness, let alone six years, but the wines mature soundly and produce a wide range of flavours and styles depending on the vintage.
Before venturing into the mine we were treated to a vertical tasting from 2009 up until 2015, their latest vintage release. Winemaker Willi Stürz highlighted that the aim has always been to discover the finest balance between “harmony and body”, i.e. flavours, acid, and residual sugar. In just six vintages they’ve already had a residual sugar range of 23g/l to 107g/l and an alcohol range of 12.5% to 14.2%. Far from being a problem, it’s evidence of a new style and idea in its infancy and fascinating to see Stürz in particular clearly revelling in the challenge. It’s a challenge made easier or trickier, depending on your point of view, following the 2009 vintage’s 100 point score from RobertParker.com.
Other great wines from Cantina Tramin
Of course we were treated to much more fabulous wines from the Cantina during the two days. Pinot Bianco does especially well on the volcanic soils of the region and the local Lagrein red wines are produced in much fresher expressions than those I’d tried in the past. But quite easily the wine of the trip (other than the Epokale of course) is the Stoan blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, and Gewürztraminer, with the grapes grown on steep slopes in an impossibly beautiful gorge of volcanic rock. The long creamy finish matches the distinct stone minerality from which the wine reflects both the terroir and takes the name of the wine.
I’d encourage any of you that haven’t done so already to make a beeline for Alto Adige wines at the next tastings you attend. They really do mark a point of difference in your Italian line-up.
Oh, and try and visit the place. You won’t regret it!
Cantina Tramin wines are imported into the UK by Hallgarten & Novum Wines. Contact your local sales representative for prices and availability.
If you have further questions about Cantina Tramin you can contact Alessandra Zambonin at Studio Cru on email@example.com
Mike Turner is a freelance writer, presenter, and judge and regular contributor for The Buyer. He also runs a wine events and e-commerce business, Feel Good Grapes, that explores and discusses the idea of sustainability in the wine trade.