Nestled in the foothills of the Dolomite Mountains, Alto Adige is Italy’s northernmost wine growing region – although you could also call it Austria’s southernmost vineyard! Ceded to Italy after WWI, there’s still plenty of Austrian tradition here and you’ll notice road signs shifting from Italian with German subtitles to German with Italian annotations as your drive northward from the Veneto.
While the names of producers and bottle shapes can look German, the style of the wines combines the ease and food-friendliness of Italian whites and reds with the precision and freshness of Italy’s northern neighbors.
The soaring mountains of the Dolomites and cool temperatures at higher altitudes limit grape growing to a series of valleys of the Adige and Isarco rivers which form a Y-shaped vineyard area that meets at Bolzano. The valley floors are rich, fertile, and quite hot – often Bolzano is one of Italy’s hottest cities in July and August. The combination of reliable warmth, fertile soils, and relatively flat terrain makes the valley floors perfect sites for mass produced wines – like typical grocery store Pinot Grigio.
Working the Slopes
But for growers willing to plant and work vineyards on the steep, rocky, slopes looking down on Alto Adige’s lakes and rivers, grapes can ripen perfectly, gaining plenty of lush fruit flavor while retaining crackling, pure, acidity for balance.
Working the hillsides has been the philosophy of the growers who built Kellerei Kaltern from the first. Wine growing here has always been a small-scale operation. In the past, most vineyards were owned by locals who also farmed other crops on the flat lands below. Today, vineyards are just as likely to be owned by professionals who commute to Trento or simply summer in the mountains. But average vineyard sizes remain small (less than three acres), too small for growers to profitably make their own wine.
From the 19th century on, the small growers of Alto Adige began banding together to form mutually owned wineries – co-operatives – to turn their grapes into wine. And in 1906, a group of growers around Lake Kaltern, north of Bolzano, came together to create Kelleri Kaltern.
A Source of Pride
Today, about 440 growers jointly own and supply grapes to Kellerei Kaltern, with the winery providing both vineyard management advice and winemaking and marketing for the group. Usually when we think of co-op wine, we think of inexpensive jug wine where the focus is more on quantity than quality. But, because so many of the small growers that sell to this bright, modern cooperative winery grow grapes as a second source of income, it’s a source of pride more than anything for them to sell fruit that will make the best possible wine. More importantly, they are paid on a profit sharing basis rather than by the ton, a key difference between this co-op and more traditional ones that keep the quality shockingly high considering the wines’ reasonable price.
Come see for yourself this Saturday, May 5, when Judith Unterholzner from the winery is here and pouring five terrific selections. You’ll be glad you did.