Wine notes

Tuesday 16 December 2008


An ambitious tasting shows that Italy needs to focus on terroir if it wants to pick up the German gauntlet

Behind this title hides an annual competition dedicated to Riesling only, which, now in its 4th year, takes place annually in one of South Tyrol’s most remote corners, indeed so remote that it even confused the satnav system on my way up to this very Northern part of Italy. It is organised at the same time as the famous Merano International Wine Festival, but the village of Naturns, the host of the Riesling event, is much less savvy in promoting itself. It’s a place where hotels carry names like Edelweiss and where there is no one on the street at 2pm in the afternoon. The North of Italy, largely bi lingual with the German language (and customs) being the standard, firmly considers itself as a natural extension of Austria and Italian by a quirk of history only. At the village gates a poster of the event announces the presence of Stewart Piggot, Germany’s demi dieu of Riesling, in pop star size letters for added gravitas. But I doubt whether any of the attendants would have known who he is. They seemed far too busy enjoying themselves in a Saturday afternoon’s drink, with even dogs allowed in. It was all very laid back, with candles and soft light to heighten the atmosphere, but it made the tasting somewhat of a guerrilla exercise, at least for me.
Curiously enough, a comprehensive range of Rieslings produced in Italy were presented next to the crème de la crème of German wines, so in all honesty, I couldn’t say I had been wasting my time driving to Naturns. This range was complemented by more Riesling from Felton Road, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Emerich Knoll, Franz Hirtzberger, and one or two oddities, like the Dutch Apostelhoeve. Perhaps the villagers knew after all what they had come for.

The event is a bit of a David & Goliath attempt: Whereas Germany can boast almost 22,000 ha, Italy’s total plantings of Riesling are truly minute, Alto Adige, with 27ha, possessing the largest part. But the variety is losing ground here, and plantings are roughly half now of what they were in 1993. Unsurprisingly, in the same period hectares devoted to Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio more than doubled.
The tasting showed a heavy bias towards Riesling coming from Alto Adige, or South Tyrol with its subsidiaries Eisacktal or Valle Isarco, and Vinschgau or Valle Venosta, the balance being made up of Trentino, Piemonte, Friuli, Piave, and an isolated example of the grape from Veneto.
Especially Valle Isarco showed the greatest potential, helped by its stony soils and, ironically, climate change. On one of my previous trips to the Valle Isarco visiting the biodynamic Kuenhof estate, the first to receive Gambero Rosso’s coveted 3 Bicchieri award two times in a row for its Riesling Kaiton, Peter Pliger, its proprietor (see picture), kindly took a moment of his time to talk to me about Valle Isarco’s fortune, busy as he is restoring, literally by hand, neglected old stone vineyard terraces on an altitude of 1000m. He explained that these very steep slopes were abandoned after WOII as ripening grapes here was a hit and miss affair. With temperatures going up, Valle Isarco is now able to produce the racy, succulent white wines it couldn’t in the past, so Pliger is happy, if only for the moment. According to him, climate change has been beneficial for the Valle Isarco appellation, but he would not like to see it progress any further.

All wines on show were of the 2007 vintage, which certainly for Germany was very good. A very wise decision of the organisers was to line up the Italian Rieslings first, as the consequent German flight was of such high quality it made their hosts look like beginners at best. It seemed slightly masochist, and unbalanced too, to select so many of German top wines to compare with the far more modest Italian efforts. With the likes of Horst Sauer, Fritz Haag, Kartäuserhof, Hermann Dönnhoff (superb his Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Dry), Egon Schmitt, and Joseph Leitz, the contrast with the Italian interpretation of the grape couldn’t have been greater, and it must have sent a forceful message home. Hopefully not one of resignation.

However, the tasting did not so much reveal Italy’s potential in growing Riesling, but a general absence of terroir in most of the wines. Samples from Alto Adige and Trentino showed that Riesling has a great affinity with these regions if yields are kept in check, but a wine from Emilia Romagna displayed such little varietal character, it seemed safe to say that it was not Riesling Renano, as the German version is called in Italy, but Riesling Italico, aka Welschriesling, which, except for its name, has very little with it in common. This variety finds its main purposes in blends, benefiting mostly from early consumption but can produce a passable sweet wine. It shows little acidity, and although fragrant, has nothing of the clear linearity Riesling displays so well.
For Riesling to be the carrier of terroir, it needs low yields, a long, cool ripening season, and most of all, a prime site. These factors are of course not unknown to Italian viticulture, but site specificity generally is, as witnessed by a far too lenient wine law, loosely based on the French appellation model, but much less restrictive, especially with regards to yields. In the case of Northern Italy, Riesling, together with almost all other, frequently international grape varieties, disappears in the large and largely anonymous Alto Adige and Trentino DOC, a catch-all appellation that doesn’t do anything to trigger the quest for terroir. Only Valle Isarco and Valle Venosta are the very rare exceptions, and since 2002 appear on labels as a suffix to the Alto Adige DOC much, like Cotes-du-Rhone Villages. they are generally well worth looking out for.
Piemonte, one of the very few regions with an historic knowledge of terroir with Barolo and Barbaresco being the prime examples of producers of single vineyard wines based on the red Nebbiolo grape, seems to have an almost natural inclination to site specific plantings. In the future, Riesling may well vie with Chardonnay here for sites that are too cool for the red varieties, with Sergio Germano’s Riesling Herzu, planted in Serralunga d’Alba, being one of the examples. His wine is not unlike a Rheingau version and betrays Germano’s fascination with the grape.
There seems to be little point pursuing the investigation in Riesling’s adaptability to the soils of Veneto, where Garganega rules, whereas Silvio Jermann’s Afix, a Riesling of some repute from Friuli, Italy’s very Northeast corner, is an attractive wine despite the apparent use of oak.

Although it is unlikely that this event will trigger a frenzy in Riesling plantings, its relevance goes beyond the promotion of a single grape, which, ironically, is not even indigenous to Italy. Riesling, considered the grape that most clearly expresses its terroir, makes amply clear that Italy generally focuses on suitability of sites to plant vines, but now urgently must start an indepth and long term investigation in the effects of the sites on the wines, if it wants to identify great terroir. As it is, international varieties have been providing Italy with a commercial easy way out, as the likes of Cabernet and Chardonnay almost always provide some varietal hint or the other, seemingly regardless of the circumstances. Indigenous grape varieties paired with low yields will prove a better long term strategy, especially as a younger generation has come to the fore showing a whole new dimension in the simplest of Italian varieties not held possible by their parents and grandparents only 20 years ago.

The wines were below were tasted in the order of the flight
Kellerei St Michael Eppan, Montiggl Riesling 2007 Alto Adige 16 Drink 2009-0
Shy but attractive nose of peach and green apple, followed by a minerally palate with firm acidity. Will need a couple of months to open up. 13%

Joseph Brigl, Kreuzbichler Riesling 2007 Alto Adige 14.5 Drink 2008-09
Subdued but with some appeal, showing soft peach and apple. Aeration results in more definition. Disappointing, almost bland palate, lacking extract. A real shame as it started off so well. 13%

H. Lun, Riesling 2007 Alto Adige 15 Drink 2008-10
Yeasty opening with notes of lemon. A tight, closed palate with minerally, restraint fruit and surprisingly full bodied for its 11.5%. A bit more depth wouldn’t go amiss, though. 11.5%

Landesgut Kellerei Laimburg, Riesling Alto Adige 14.5 Drink 2008-09
A wine from the Experimental Agricultural and Forestry Training Centre.
Quite reductive at first, but with aeration showing stone fruit. The palate is much more evolved, with sweet tasting but rather non descript fruit. 13%

Cantina Vini Merano, Graf von Meran Riesling Alto Adige, 15 Drink 2008-09
From a small cooperative governed by International grape varieties, but particularly praised for their rendition of the local Schiava grape, aka Trollinger.
Clean and restraint, hinting at white fruits. Similar on the palate, with more aromatic development on the finish. Touch bitter, but fruit wins eventually.14%

Andreas Huber – Pacherhof, Riesling Alto Adige Valle Isarco, 16 Drink 2008-12
Well defined and intense nose of white fruits and lemon peel. Palate shows ripe, persistent acidity with elegant fruit. Has potential. 13.5%

Gunther Kirschbaum-Köfererhof Riesling Alto Adige Valle Isarco, 16.5 Drink 2008-12
Complex, tight but captivating nose of Passion fruit, smoky tea leaves and minerals. Ripe fruits on the palate with very fine, integrated acidity, which seems almost low. Touch of residual sweetness on great length. 13%

Peter Pliger-Kuenhof, Kaiton Riesling Alto Adige Valle Isarco, 17 Drink 2009-16
The first and only white so far from Alto Adige closed with a screw cap, and quite a brave step, as it seems to defy DOC regulation.
Lots of stones and earth on the nose as well as palate. It is so tight it is virtually mute, but brooding fruit tells there is much more to come. Needs decanting. It is nothing short of a miracle that Gambero Rosso gave it its highest praise, the 3 Biccherie, as it normally only awards wines for the here and now, refusing to judge them on potential.

Oswald Schuster-Befehlhof, Riesling Alto Adige Valle Venosta, 14 Drink 2008-09
Very deep colour, nut unlike an Auslese. Similar impression on the nose, with sweet honeyed fruit. Completely dry palate lacking charm. 12.5%

Franz Pratzner-Falkenstein, Riesling Falkenstein Alto Adige Valle Venosta 16 Drink 2009-12
Cool, attractive nose of stones and green apple. Ultra clean fruit palate, which will gain in weight with an additional 6 months in bottle. Understated. Very good length. 13.5%

Germano Ettore, Herzu Langhe Bianco 16.5 Drink 2008-12
Seems almost like a Rheingau Riesling with good minerality and compact white fruits. Only the slightest hint of petrol. Full bodied feel, with sweet white fruit and lime. Delicious.

Ceretto, Arbarei Langhe Bianco 14.5 Drink 2008-09
Yeasty, bread crust nose with sweet herbal fruit notes. Sweet tropical fruit palate seems a touch manufactured, with soft acidity (partial malolactic fermentation?). Ends on bitter peach stone note.

G D Vajra, Pétracine Langhe Bianco 14.5 Drink 2008-09
Interesting minerally, herbal nose, with a less rewarding palate, even somewhat dull. Good effort though, which deserves continuation. 14%

Poderi Colla, Cascine Drago Langhe Bianco 14 Drink 2008-09
Opens a touch sweaty with a hint of truffle. Quite sweet palate without enough definition.
Residual sweetness tries to mitigate high acidity. 13%

Ronco del Gelso, Riesling Isonzo del Friuli 14 Drink 2008-09
This wine generally receives praise, but with this vintage it is difficult to see why.
Reductive, vegetal fruit nose, followed by citric acidity on the palate and a bitter finish. 13.5%

Jermann Vinnaioli, Afix IGT delle Venezie 15.5 Drink 2008-10
Has this seen oak? Shows apricot preserve and a firm structure, with convincing length. It will benefit from another 6 months in bottle. 13.5%

La Vis/Valle di Cembra, Simboli Trentino Bianco 14.5 Drink 2008-10
Opens with what smelled like geranium and never a good sign, but disappears after aeration. Notes of Rhubarb on the palate and searingly high acidity, which seems to suppress the fruit. Considerable length. The verdict is still out on this one. 13.5%

Istituto Agrario San Michelle All’Adige, Riesling Trentino 15 Drink 2008-09
From Trentino’s Institute for Oenology.
Minerally and fragrant nose is followed by a somewhat dilute palate. Could be better but seems to have potential when lower yields are respected.