I can’t believe it’s almost September! Soon kids will head back to school, and the lazy days of summer will become structured once again. The hazy, hot, and humid temps of August will (in most places) give way to cooler breezes, prompting us to reach for snuggly sweaters before we venture outside.
With that change in the weather comes an almost imperceptible shift in our appetites: suddenly we crave simmering stews and braised meat, dishes that warm our hearts as well as our tummies. And we reacquaint ourselves with the red wines in our cellar, after favoring crisp whites and rosés the past few months.
If you’re excited for autumn’s arrival, you’ll want to join the Italian Food Wine & Travel group this Saturday, September 1st, for a chat about Italian Red Wines for Fall. Our host is Jill Barth of L’occasion, and you can check out her invitation post here .
Italian Food Wine & Travel (#ItalianFWT) makes a virtual visit to Italy on the first Saturday of each month. Our topics vary, but they always circle back to Italian wines, grape varieties, or regions, and our members offer up lots of menu pairings and travel stories as well. If you’d like to participate in the chat, log on to Twitter at 11 am ET this Saturday and follow the hashtag #ItalianFWT (and make sure to add it to your tweets!)
Scroll to the bottom to see a list of topics for this month.
Alto Adige or Südtirol?
Today my sights are set on the far northeast corner of Italy: Alto Adige, aka the Südtirol. Its Alpine location abutting the Swiss and Austrian borders offers a clue to its culture, which gives more than a cursory nod to Germanic tradition. Even today, nearly two-thirds of its inhabitants are native German speakers.
The fact that this area goes by two different names provides a window into its history. To this day it has deep cultural ties to Austria that date back to medieval times. In some ways, it resembles the Alsace region of France: while technically French, its proximity to Germany (and the fact that it has changed hands between the two powers multiple times) has left an indelible impression on the culture.
France has left evidence of her presence as well. During the Napoleonic Wars, locals found themselves in the unenviable position of sitting squarely between Milan (where Napoleon was) and Vienna (where he was going.) Südtirol remained Austrian from the beginning of the 19th century until the end of World War I, when it and Trentino were officially annexed to Italy as Venezia Tridentina, part of the larger Tre Venezie region. And so it has remained.
And if you happen to be in the Südtirol in June, you’re in for a treat. The celebration of the Fires of the Sacred Heart (Fuochi di Sacro Cuore) lights up the mountains, from near to far. I wrote about it in a post last year.
Wines of the Südtirol
International grape varieties have played an outsize role in winemaking here for a couple of reasons: during the Hapsburg dynasty in the 19th century, grapes like Pinot Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, and Merlot were favored by the court. Local growers aimed to please and planted them everywhere.
Nowadays two-thirds of production comes from cooperatives, which, thanks to relatively lenient DOC rules regarding permitted varieties, have the power to determine which grapes to grow. Combine that with over-generous maximum yields, and the result is lots of uninteresting wine from highly marketable grapes (Pinot Grigio, for example.)
But times are changing, and next-generation farmers are re-examining their approach to viticulture, focusing on native grapes that thrive in this Alpine region. The Südtirol tends to be white wine country (75% of production) but all types of wine are made. Red wines depend heavily on two native grapes: Schiava and Lagrein, which weigh in on opposite sides of the style scale. Deeply colored, with aromas of black fruit and a strong tannic structure, Lagrein crafts a full-bodied wine. Schiava, on the other hand, makes pale red wines with delicate aromas of red fruit and violet. What’s interesting about Schiava is that it is actually a family of grapes, with three major sub-varieties.
The Schiava family (20% of current production) dates back at least to Roman times. In fact the name Schiava derives from a roman term cum vineis sclavis, meaning “with vines enslaved”; a reference to how the vines were trained to an external support or stake. Evidence of viticulture during medieval times suggests that early Schiava wines were white – interesting because no white Schiava grapes exist today.
If you manage to find a Schiava wine, chances are it will be a blend of the three sub-varieties with perhaps another native grape thrown into the mix. Local DOC regulations don’t require that the Schiavas be listed separately. Here’s what each contributes to the final wine:
- Schiava Gentile – highly perfumed; light-bodied; high acidity; important in rosato production.
- Schiava Grigia – taking its name from the thick bloom that gives a grayish tint to the berries, this Schiava is renowned for being the most refined as a (rare) varietal bottling.
- Schiava Grossa – the most common and highest-yielding of the three, it has more delicate aromas and higher acidity than the others. It’s also the parent (with Riesling) of the Kerner variety, used in the hallmark wines of Köferhof, Pacherhof, and Manni Nossing, also in the Südtirol .
In general, Schiava wines are fresh, with moderate to intense aromas of strawberry, almond, and violet. They tend to be light-bodied and are pale ruby in color. Most are intended for early drinking alongside the lighter dishes of this Alpine region: air-cured bresaola, cheeses, and salads featuring local apples.
Lagrein is difficult to grow, even in ideal conditions; probably the reason so little is cultivated outside the Südtirol. But it loves the area around the town of Bolzano, which experiences hot summer temperatures in the 90s. Lagrein is a late ripener, so the south-facing Alpine slopes of calcareous gravel are a perfect match: the long days allow the grapes a leisurely ripening process, and the well-drained soils stay warm at night, protecting the vines from cool nocturnal breezes.
But Lagrein faces another challenge in producing a healthy crop of grapes. Its flowers produce so little pollen that fertility is hampered. And the female flowers suffer from a structural deficiency that adds to the problem. Far less fruit develops than would be expected, resulting in lower yields.
When the grapes do form, however, they are powerful! Lagrein grapes contain a super-high concentration of anthocyanin, which is why they’re so deeply colored. They are also notoriously tannic which, if not handled properly during fermentation, can lead to harsh, bitter wines.
Nevertheless, Lagrein wines have always commanded attention. Beginning in 1097, local government determined and dictated harvest dates, an action that affected the daily work of the monks at the Gries Abbey (the town of Gries is considered the best terroir for Lagrein.) Later, in 1526, local farmer Michael Gasmayr led his fellow workers in a revolt against the nobility, demanding the right to drink Lagrein wines, a privilege previously available only to members of the court.
Tasting Notes (FYI: these wines were sent as samples; opinions are all mine.)
2017 Kellerei St. Pauls Lagrein Südtirol Alto Adige DOC (13.5% abv; about $12 retail)
Nestled in the Oltradige region around Lake Caldaro, Kellerei St. Pauls has made wine since 1907, with an eye toward matching grape varieties to the particular sites that suit them. Scattered around the vineyards are plots of white grapes: Chardonnay, Moscato Giallo, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muller-Thurgau, Pinot Gris, and Sauvignon Blanc; and red: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Schiava, Lagrein, and Pinot Noir. The winemaking philosophy, as they express it, is “something wondrous, an affair of both the heart and the mind.” I like the idea of that! I also liked that the cork was printed with the words Divine Delight in three languages.
This wine, made from 100% Lagrein, was fermented on its skins in stainless steel and was matured in large wooden barrels.
Color: Deep purple. No doubt about it!
Nose: Flowers and fruit – plum, black cherry, and violets – mingle with a little bit of earth.
Taste: Ripe black fruit (plum, blackberry, cherry) and those violets again. Medium acidity, medium+ tannins, long finish of dried flowers and almost-sweet cherry. Aside from the noticeable tannin, this wine reminds me a lot of Beaujolais.
Pairing: Simply grilled steak and salad. Perfect together.
2017 Castel Sallegg Bischofsleiten DOC Alto Adige Lago di Caldaro Scelto Classico (13% abv; about $12 retail)
Also located in the Oltradige area near Lake Caldaro, Castel Sallegg occupies land that belonged to the Bishops of Trento nearly 1,000 years ago (hence the name of this wine: Bischofsleiten). Vineyards have been in the hands of the Counts von Kuenburg family for nearly 100 years, and they have tried to make the most of the unique climate here, a combination of Alpine and Mediterranean influences.
This wine is 100% Schiava, from grapes grown in a single vineyard on a traditional pergola canopy system. Schiava is a thin-skinned grape and is prone to sunburn during the long, sunny days of summer. The pergola system provides protection to the grapes, allowing them to ripen without being scorched by the sun.
Fermentation and aging were conducted in stainless steel vats.
Color: Pale ruby, fading to barely-pink at the edge.
Nose: Just-ripe red fruit – cranberry, pomegranate, sour cherry – and a little herbaceous note, maybe grass or crushed leaves.
Taste: Tangy acidity, tart red fruit as promised on the nose, mild tannins. I found myself reaching for my glass again and again. Light in body but highly enjoyable – this is exactly the kind of wine I need to transition from summer to fall!
Pairing: We enjoyed this wine with tacos made from roasted chorizo and three types of peppers. Great match! The acidity cut through the fat of the chorizo, and the dark fruit complemented the taco fixings. Low tannins meant no fighting with the spices. Would definitely do this meal again.
You’ve heard about my go-to Italian red wines for fall; here’s what the rest of the Italian Food Wine & Travel group has to say:
Marcia at Joy of Wine reveals Lacrima – The Aromatic Jewel in La Marche’s Crown
Jeff at FoodWineClick gets real with his directive to Finish Up the Rosato, It’s Barolo Time!
Jennifer at Vino Travels introduces us to Badia a Coltibuono: Beginnings by Monks in Gaiole in Chianti
Gwen at Wine Predator has an inspiring suggestion for Italian Red Wines for Fall? Go Pink and Pair with Pasta! #ItalianFWT
Jane at Always Ravenous is bringing in the new season by Leaning into Fall with Beef Short Ribs and Nebbiolo
Wendy from A Day In The Life On The Farm crafts a tempting pairing of Pappardelle al Ragu Di Cinghiale and a Monsanto Chianti Classico
Camilla from Culinary Adventures With Camilla shares her secrets with A Few of My Favorite Fall Things: Truffles, Cheese, & Barolo
Katarina of Grapevine Adventures encourages readers to Welcome Fall with a Taurasi DOCG from Irpinia
Jill from L’Occasion, shares Wine To Match The Trees: 15 Italian Reds for Fall
The Oxford Companion to Wine; Jancis Robinson, et al.
Native Wine Grapes of Italy; Ian D’Agata