Close Menu

Is Alto Adige the ‘next great’ Italian wine region? 

Higher elevations and quality improvements are taking Alto Adige wines to new heights. Kathleen Willcox reports.

Wine has been produced in Alto Adige for more than 2,500 years, but it is, in many ways, coming into its own for the first time, thanks to a heady cocktail of climate change, decades of scientific research into the intricacies of its Alpine terroir and long-term quality initiatives. 

Today, Alto Adige is widely considered to be the region producing the best white wines in Italy, and its reds are increasingly earning acclaim. 

“There have been several periods of quality improvements in Alto Adige, from the thoughtful planting of varieties in places where they are found to be best suited, to work being done in the cellar,” says Chris Struck, beverage director at New York City’s ilili. “There is a great versatility of styles and grapes there now, both native and international. The wines offer excellent quality and very good value.”

Top quality—especially when driven by investment—doesn’t often lead to great value, but Alto Adige’s foundational infrastructure has helped lock lower prices in. First, there’s the fact that wine-growing has been in place there for thousands of years, and second, there are the coops. 

The first wine cooperatives were created in 1893, in Andrian, Terlan and Neumarkt. Today, there are 12 cooperatives operating on what many would consider a normal winery scale, and producing just under three-quarters of the wine made in Alto Adige. While most coops churn out tens of millions of bottles from thousands of farmers working hundreds or even thousands of acres apiece, the 12 coops in Alto Adige work with around 5,000 farming families who have, on average, 2.4 acres apiece.

We look at the circumstances shaping that rise, and what it augurs for the future. 

‘Exponential’ Quality Improvements 

“The majority of the wines are produced by cooperatives, and it is the only place in the world where buying wine from a coop essentially guarantees a safe bet,” Struck explains. (Indeed, the highest rated wines from Alto Adige are produced by coops, including a white blend from Cantina Terlano-Kellerie Terlan and a Gewurtztraminer from Cantina Tramin Kelleri Selections). “The quality improvements, through the coops, are happening on an exponential level.”

The Northeastern wine region is a glacial Alpine valley that encompasses just 3,000 square miles, with just over 14,000 acres under vine, 20 varieties of grapes grown, supplying than 1% of Italy’s total wine output on any given year. That small sliver of the Italian market is becoming increasingly influential, though. 

In 1970 and 1975 respectively, DOC designations Lago di Caldaro and Alto Adige were introduced, kicking off an investment into a deeper understanding of the region’s terroir, with the goal of making better planting and production choices. 

Today, more than 150 soil types are recognized in Alto Adige. That, and a greater interest in Bordeaux varieties (first planted there in the 1870s), and the range of altitudes (200-1000 meters elevation) and aspects, has led to a retooling of plantings over many decades, from varieties, to clones, to rootstocks. 

That interest and investment in quality has accelerated in recent decades. 

“In 2014 we built a new winery, and around that time we also set out to identify the best varieties for each site with the help of a geologist and our winemaker, who has several decades of experience making wine here,” says Harald Cronst, head of exports and marketing at Kurtatsch Kellerei Cantina, which has about 470 acres under vine, and 190 partner winegrowing families. “It is essential to us to understand what is suitable, and also what is popular on the market. We built a map of our vineyards, identified vineyards that are not optimally planted and have created incentive programs for farmers so they can replant as vineyards age out with better grapes, or graft new varieties on now.”

The Climate Change Wild Card 

Climate change has not left any region untouched, including Alto Adige. Unlike many wine-growing regions though, there is more flexibility built into the terroir there, thanks to elevation. 

Temperature decreases about 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1,000 feet you gain in altitude, or 9.8 degrees Celsius for every 1,000 meters. And while the temperature is lower, the sunshine is more intense, as is the diurnal shift, or difference in day and night temperatures. 

Producers have seen a huge change in temperatures in recent decades.

“Warmer temperatures have led to earlier bud break and flowering in our vineyards,” says winemaker Christof Tiefenbrunner at Winery Tiefenbrunner, which sources grapes from around 50 family farmers with around 200 acres under vine. “The extended periods of warm have occasionally accelerated the ripening process, resulting in earlier harvest dates. Twenty years ago, achieving full grape ripeness of the Cabernet Sauvignon in our vineyard was only possible in exceptionally warm years, but in recent times achieving full maturity has become much more consistent.”

Since 2000, Tiefenbrunner says harvest occurs two to three weeks earlier than previously.

“We are in the fortunate position of being able to adapt to these higher temperatures by strategically planting certain varieties, such as Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Müller-Thurgau and Pinot Nero at higher elevations than in the past to preserve the freshness and minerality our wines are known for,” he notes. 

Lower-elevation vineyards are also being replanted with varieties that are better suited for warming conditions. At Kurtatsch Cronst says that between 2014 and 2022, 32 acres of Lagrein, Gewürtztraminer and Schiava were replanted in lower elevations (220 to 300 meters) with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

At Weingut Pfitscher, where sales and marketing chief Daniel Pfitscher says they have seen harvest go from mid-September to the end of August in just a decade, the winery is investing heavily in Pinot Noir. 

“We are investing a lot in Pinot Noir in higher altitudes above 500 meters,” Pftischer says. “We are investing in new plantings at altitudes where viticulture was previously unthinkable.”

Kelleri St. Michael-Eppan Cantina, with 965 acres under vine, is similarly bullish on Alto Adige’s ability to withstand, and perhaps even leverage climate change. 

“Climate change has its advantages, as we can produce better quality wine at higher altitudes, with the quality remaining unchanging at lower and medium altitudes,” assistant winemaker Jakob Gasser says. “We are also concentrating on late-ripening clones like Sauvignon LB50a dn LB36 developed by the Research Centre Laimburg in South Tyrol.”

Marketing Alto Adige’s Diversity in a Unified Way 

Alto Adige will never be a one-grape wonder like Napa (Cabernet Sauvignon) or Sancerre (Sauvignon Blanc). Marketing an incredibly diverse terroir in a unified way that doesn’t dilute or dumb down the region’s heterogeneity is, to say the least, challenging. 

Alto Adige is has made great strides on the ground and in the glass—but how many non-wine geeks know about it? With a relatively small footprint on the world’s wine stage—of the world’s roughly 31.7 billion bottles produced annually, only 40 million of those are from Alto Adige—it hasn’t been easy to persuade potential wine lovers to pick up a red blend from a region they’ve never heard of and aren’t quite sure how to pronounce (al-tow aa-dee-jay), as opposed to, say a red blend from the bold-faced Tuscany or Piedmont. 

Alto Adige hopes to change that through zonation plans. Set to go into effect in 2024, Alto Adige will be divided into 80 specific places of origin, or zones, in which up to five different grapes will be designated as suitable to grow there. Wineries growing and bottling grapes that adhere to the regulations will be able to use those names on their labels. Those designations, many hope, will become shorthand for certain characteristics and qualities. (Think of sub-AVAs like Napa’s Rutherford or Stags Leap, which carry cache and set expectations for what will be found inside a bottle). 

“We are in favor of the zonation plans,” says Tiefenbrunner. “It is an important step to maintain and further increase the quality of Alto Adige wines by limiting the production of wine bottles from a defined zone to a reasonable number.”

It can also, he acknowledges, be a useful tool in terms of communication and marketing. 

“Having many grape varieties in the region on the one hand, is an advantage for viticulture, especially when the growing conditions are varied,” Tiefenbrunner points out. “On the other hand, it can be somewhat detrimental to the reputation and marketing of a wine-producing region. Zonation can enhance transparency and provide context in terms of the origin of the grapes for the end consumer.”

Cronst sees the zonation plans as nothing less than a game changer for Alto Adige. 

“I see the zonation plans as a revolution as big as our investment in quality in recent decades,” he says. “We have such a diversity of sites and varietals, zonation will help us provide a more understandable profile of the whole region. It will show what area is best suited for what varieties. It’s not quite the same as the Grand Cru system, but it will help people in shops understand what is what, and help wineries plant what is really best in the future.”

Crystal balls are hard to come by, and notoriously faulty. But given the blend of climate change, quality control and marketing process contributing to the wines of Alto Adige, the future of wine looks decidedly Alpine. 

“It is becoming the next great Italian region to explore beyond Tuscany, Piedmont and Sicily,” Struck says. “When I introduce the wines to people who aren’t familiar with them, they are typically delighted. It’s a complex place and requires some explaining, but from the perspective of a beverage buyer, the value of the wines make them a no-brainer for placement by the glass.”

It looks like you're in Asia, would you like to be redirected to the Drinks Business Asia edition?

Yes, take me to the Asia edition No