North Italy's wines with altitude
THE mountains of Trentino soar majestically above the 10,500ha of vineyards in the valleys and on the steep slopes of this northernmost province of Italy. Just like in Switzerland, the mountains occupy a large area of land, so only about a quarter of Trentino is arable.
As well as dominating the scenery, the mountains influence the region's wines in a variety of ways. They control temperatures and mitigate the influence of the strong winds that barrel down the valleys. The minerals in the Dolomites give particular flavours to wines.
The Dolomites are similar in mineral composition to the land around Champagne in France. Locals suggest that Trentodoc is the second most important sparkling appellation after Champagne.
OPTIMAL GRAPE GROWING
The Trentodoc region's altitude and terroir make it an ideal place for growing grapes for sparkling wine. As in Champagne, the base wines are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, along with Pinot Bianco. Trentino's sparkling wines are of high quality, though only about seven million bottles are made a year.
Giulio Ferrari established Trentino's reputation for sparkling wine almost single handedly. During study trips to France, he noted similarities between the soils of Champagne and Trentino. He invented what became known as the "metodo classico", also known as "mountain wine".
In 1993, Trentodoc sparkling wine received the first designation of origin or DOC status, the country's indicator of quality. Strict regulations control production, including a requirement for secondary fermentation in the bottle, plus prolonged yeast contact and ageing. Reserve wines must spend a minimum of 36 months on lees while Millesimato must undergo 24 months.
The Consorzio Vini del Trentino, or Wine Association of Trentino, represents more than 120 members, who produce about 90 per cent of the region's wines. Many landholdings are small: Seven in 10 producers have 1ha or less of vines. Total production is only 2 per cent of Italy's wine output, but 90 per cent of that is DOC.
Trentino's main export markets are the United States, Germany and Britain.
Almost three quarters of the grapes grown in Trentino are white. Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio are the main white grapes. Teroldego is the main red grape and has a regal reputation, along with Merlot and Marzemino. The last grows well on basalt soils in the Isera sub-zone, at the southern end of the province, and seems to flourish at Cantina D'Isera, one of the traditional estates in Isera.
Mozart sang the praises of this red grape in his opera Don Giovanni: "Versa il vino! Eccellente Marzimino!" Wines made from the grape taste and smell of plums. Elsewhere in northern Italy, Marzemino is blended with Barbera, Merlot or Sangiovese but in Isera, the grape performs solos as a single varietal.
A canopy style of grape growing is employed in Isera on the steep slopes to catch all available sun. Massimo Tarter, chief winemaker at Cantina D'Isera, said he works hard to ripen Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, as well as Marzemino. The last requires a long growing season and ripens late.
Cantina D'Isera produces a range of good reds from Marzemino. The 2012 version made from an organically grown plot was especially impressive with its fresh fruit, smooth tannins and a touch of minerality. These wines are approachable young and seem to taste better when served slightly chilled.
AN EVENING OF WINE TASTING
A tasting in the evening sun in the gardens of the ramshackle winery was relaxed and educational. Pomegranates grow in sunny spots of the garden and church bells sounded as the sun set. Mr Tarter's family assembled a delightful range of local breads, cheeses and salamis.
The highlight of the evening was a sparkling, made to mark Cantina D'Isera's centenary in 2007, which Mr Tarter had recently disgorged. It sang with discreet minerality and a supple and complex mouthfeel.
One little known delight is the unique dessert wine of the region, Vino Santo del Trentino. This wine is only made from the Nosiola grape. Apparently, the name comes from the Italian word for hazelnut, nocciola, because young wines offer aromas and flavours of wild hazelnuts.
Individual berries are picked when very ripe, and put on racks known as "arele" high off the ground in lofts. Nearby, Lake Garda provides constant ventilation via winds known as the "ora del Garda". The grapes are attacked by noble rot (known as botrytis) that dehydrates the berries. Thus, 100kg of fresh berries provides only about 18 litres of must for Vino Santo.
Because of the high concentration of sugars, fermentation lasts for several years. These wines are aged for a minimum of 50 months. Annual production of Vino Santo del Trentino DOC rarely exceeds 50,000 bottles. A 1993 from the Pisoni Azienda Agricola was a privilege to taste: golden and amber, with rich aromas and flavours of honey and figs.
TRENTINO'S SPECIAL GRAPE
A visit to Villa Corniole in Cembra in the north of the region provided a chance to experience a vineyard that focuses on Muller Thurgau, a grape that underperforms in many parts of the world but which excels in Trentino. Some of the young Villa Corniole wines smelled like flowers caught in a lawn mower and mulched with apples, green peppers and hints of white pepper. These wines would match nicely with spicy dumplings.
Older vines tasted pungent and had distinct aromas. Barrel samples from the 2015 vintage revealed a range of aromas and characteristics like chalk from the porphyry soils, the zing of fresh lemonade with pears and ginger or ouzo with a touch of mashed apple.
Muller Thurgau is grown at about 500m altitude while the reds such as Teroldego are grown in the valley about 300m below. The 2009 Villa Corniole Teroldego was vibrant and had a zingy freshness and mouthfeel, with soft tannins and aromas of blueberries and violets. The grape retains a purple tinge even when old. The Teroldego was from the Rotaliano DOC, the first region to be granted DOC status in 1971.
The writer was a guest of the Consorzio Vini del Trentino.
Dr Quinn is based in Britain and writes about wine for a range of publications in Asia. He has written 20 books and focuses on teaching people about the joy of wine. He blogs at squinn.org.