Near the Austrian border in northern Italy, from the region of Alto Adige comes an excellent red wine called Lagrein (pronounced la-GRINE) that really hits the spot on a winters night dinner table. Lagrein is also the name of the grape from which it is made. As was discussed here, the area of Alto Adige is very close to the Austrian border and has a shared history with both Italy and Austria. Hence, the German language is spoken frequently and either or both languages may appear on a wine label. You can find it made as both a red wine, often called Dunkel in German and Scuro in Italian, or a Rosè, called Kretzer in German or Rosato in Italian.
The most northern of Italy’s regions, Alto Adige is surrounded by the Alps and the Dolomites. One might think that producing a red wine in this northern mountainous area of Alto Adige might present troubles. Lagrein grapes, in fact, do need very warm temperatures to ripen fully and paradoxically, have found the perfect home in the Bolzano basin of this region. Bolzano is an area that is at the convergence of the Isarco and Adige Rivers, and as it turns out is one of the hottest summertime places in all of Italy. Only Sicily has hotter average summertime temperatures. There is a warm drying breeze called the Ora which starts near Lake Garda and blows thru Alto Adige’s valleys to Bolzano. The valley floor forms a basin with sandy and gravel soils that hold the heat in the summer raising floor temperatures significantly above the surrounding hills. The result is a perfect marriage of warm daytime temperatures, soil and climate which make splendid growing conditions for Lagrein. When planted on these warmer sites, Lagrein grows prolifically requiring vigilant vineyard management. Traditionally, these grapes were grown on the Pergola system (overhead, think an Italian Restaurant), but now most growers have switched to the more modern Guyot system. There are about 700 acres of Lagrein grapes under vine in Alto Adige.
Lagrein wine is dense and dark purple/ruby in color. It has aromas of black raspberries and plums with spices such as cinnamon or nutmeg. Yet, on the palate, it is a bit lighter than expected although it does come off as rustic, with a spry acidity that makes them great with food. The flavors are more of raspberries and cranberries and some leathery qualities. For many wine drinkers, especially those used to the Bordeaux varietals, Lagrein can be unsettling as the palate seems weak based on the visual expectations. Yet, this is a wine with fascinating complexities that goes great with food.
The grape is actually thought to have originated in nearby Trentino along the Lagarina River thus garnering the name. Due to its dark color, some believe it to be a relative of the Syrah and/or the Teroldego (which is popular in Trentino) grapes. The Lagrein grape is still grown in Trentino but those tend not to be as interesting as the ones from Alto Adige.
Lagrein wines are usually labeled as DOC Alto Adige Lagrein. In addition, the word Suditrol may appear. This is the Austrian name for the area meaning South Tyrol. Under DOC rules, these wines have at least 95% Lagrein grapes but may have as much as 5% other local grapes added to it. Riservas are also produced which have a minimum ageing requirement of 24 months before being released. Lagrein is also made in a late harvest sweet format known as Vendange Tardive. I have never tried one of these wines so I cannot comment on them. Some wines will also carry a designation of Grieser or di Gries simply meaning they are from the vineyards near the town of Gries.
The leading white wine producers of Alto Adige also tend to make the best reds. Some of my favorite producers include J. Hofstatter who began producing wine before World War II in the cellars of an Inn located on the property. When his nephew took over in 1942, the winery took on a new direction towards excellence. Since that time, Hofstatter has been a leader in the region at developing and implementing quality techniques. They make a very good basic Lagrein which sells for around $25 a bottle. In addition, they make a wine from their Steinraffler vineyard that is exceptional. This wine is aged in small oak casks for 16 months and another six months in traditional large oak casks. Finally, it is given one year of bottle age before being released. This wine sells for around $40 and is well worth the extra money. They can be drunk on release or cellared for five to ten years.
Another winery that I enjoy is Elena Walch. She is a woman who married into a prominent wine making family and in 1985 took over their two estates Castel-Ringberg and Kastelaz. She makes wine under her own name as well. The Elena Walch base Lagrein is available for around $15. It is a tasty wine that sees just a little oak and works well at the dinner table. The Castel-Ringberg Riserva Lagrein costs around $30. It sees new French oak and is a bit more intense and structured. Both wines represent great values in today’s wine world.
In 2001, two wineries merged, Santa Magdalena (founded in 1930) and Kellerei Gries (founded in 1908) to form the cooperative Produttori Bolzano, however, their wines are still produced under the individual labels. Santa Magdalena makes a range of Lagrein but their best is a wonderful Lagrein called Riserva Taber. Unfortunately, the price on this wine has jumped from the low $30’s to closer to $50. These are not easy to find, but if you can, it is still worth buying a bottle. This is one winery whose reds are better than their whites.
There are other wineries that I would not hesitate to buy including Laimburg, Tiefenbrunner, Castell Salleg, Alois Lageder, and Terlano. While many producers make single vineyard designate wines and Riservas, most also produce a simple Lagrein. The basic versions can usually be found for under $20.
Traditionally, Lagrein wines are consumed with Speck which is cold cured pork with lots of fat usually added to hearty stews and other dishes. This is a wine that works well with hearty dishes that may be traditionally served during winter months. Any dish that might be served with Chianti or Valpolicella would work just as well with a Lagrein.
As far as vintages to choose from, the 2004’s are still in the stores and that would be a great place to start. It was a magical vintage throughout Italy and for Lagrein it was no exception. The 2005 vintage was almost as good. The 2006’s seem to be a bit spottier so I would suggest trying the basic level first. While these wines can age well, I would be careful about 2002 (under ripe) and 2003 (over ripe). The 2001’s, if properly stored, should be good but I would be concerned about anything still in the stores older than that.
Lagrein is an interesting and extraordinary wine experience. It is a wine that should be appreciated by all wine lovers. I hope you all go out and try a bottle of this unusual and very good red wine. Please let me know what you think.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.