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Alpine flowers

Published:  23 July, 2008

The Alpine Italian province of Trentino, the Italian-speaking part of the Trentino-Alto Adige region in northern Italy, is home not only to distinctive white wines and full-bodied reds, but also to piquant spumante, ethereal grappa and delicate Vin Santo. Innovative cooperative wineries perform the bulk of the region's production, the remainder handled by smaller specialty producers. Nearly half of Italy's bottle-fermented sparkling wines come from this region, and an overwhelming proportion of its wines possess DOC status. With five principal viticultural areas and more than 20 varieties cultivated, Trentino produces a broad variety of increasingly distinguished wines with unmistakable regional character.

Trentino's north-south axis is the Adige River, with the South Tyrolean Alps to the north and the hills of Veneto to the south. A mild breeze called the Ora sweeps in from Lake Garda, lending Mediterranean warmth to the otherwise Alpine climate. The Etruscans first saw the region's potential for viticulture, and today there are 10,000 hectares (ha) of vineyards, ranging between 70m and 700m in altitude. Microclimate and soil composition vary greatly, and these particular conditions are increasingly expressed in Trentino's wines.

White wines are becoming Trentino's focus, now accounting for 60% of its overall production. The most extensively planted white variety is Chardonnay (especially for Talento, Italy's bottle-fermented sparkling wine), followed by Pinot Grigio, Mller-Thurgau, and the indigenous Nosiola. Other international and local red varieties such as Teroldego, Marzemino and Schiava are also cultivated.

Of the region's 7,600 growers, the vast majority sell to cooperatives, while others sell to the region's 21 commercial producers: only about 120 operate estate wineries. Until the oenological revolution of the 1980s, Trentino wine was predominately sold unbottled as vino sfuso for casual drinking or for blending in other areas. Only in the 1990s, recalls Paolo Benati, in charge of the province's official wine promotion initiative, Progetto Vino, did modern viticulture and vinification produce recognisable quality improvement. Trentino was recognised as a DOC zone in 1971, and this classification system was refined in 2002 to include the Trentino Superiore DOC, in order to promote the ambition necessary to become a world-class viticultural region. Today, 83% of Trentino's production is made up of DOC wine, compared a national average of 22%. Within the regional DOC area of Trentino, there are five major viticultural areas: Campo Rotaliano (home to the indigenous Teroldego), Valle dell'Adige (where Pinot Grigio and spumante are produced), Valle di Cembra (famous for its aromatic Mller-Thurgau), Valle dei Laghi (with the Vin Santo sweet wine) and Vallagarina (the native soil of the fruity Marzemino).

Trentino's northernmost centres for wine production are the towns of Mezzolombardo and Mezzacorona in the Noce River basin of Campo Rotaliano, where dry, gravely alluvial soils provide ideal conditions for Teroldego, the region's signature red. More than 400ha of Teroldego are planted here, trained in the traditional Pergola Trentina. A deep red, full-bodied wine, it has violet and wild berry aromas, with soft tannins and noticeable acidity that grant it great aging potential, especially in its riserva versions.

2004 was the best vintage for Teroldego in 50 years,' says oenologist Leonardo Pilati of historic Cantina Rotaliana di Mezzolombardo, one of Trentino's 16 cooperatives, which together account for more than 80% of the local market. While he and his team have years of experience, they exhibit the enthusiasm of ambitious newcomers. Located in the heart of Teroldego country, the cantina makes five different versions of the variety - from easy-drinking Novello to the prestigious Clesurae selection - which accounts for half of its total production.

Teroldego was once treated as a mass-market product. It was Elisabetta Foradori who first recognised its real quality potential. In 1985, the young oenologist took over her family's winery, selecting optimal clones and introducing the Guyot suspension system to Teroldego cultivation. Her Granato Teroldego Riserva has received international recognition, a breakthrough for the variety.

Campo Rotaliano's most recognisable landmark is undoubtedly Gruppo Mezzacorona's architecturally striking Citadella del Vino, a state-of-the art facility that includes the cellars of both the Cantine Mezzacorona cooperative and Rotari brand Talento. An innovatively structured company, Gruppo Mezzacorona is controlled by both the cooperative and private stockholders, explains export manager Elena Pasquazzo, and is responsible for a third of Trentino's total grape production in addition to being Italy's largest producer of Pinot Grigio and Teroldego.

Trentino produces 40% of Italy's Talento spumante, particularly in the Valle dell'Adige, around the historic city of Trento. It was in 1902 that Giulio Ferrari set out to create a Trentino equivalent of Champagne, and thanks to his efforts, the Talento Trento DOC was enacted in 1993. Oenologist Marcello Lunelli, the third generation of his family to operate the house, has strived to realise the founder's dream of expressing the Trentino soil in a world-class sparkling wine, and today Ferrari is recognised throughout Italy as the king of spumante: the Giulio Ferrari Riserva del Fondatore, honouring its namesake, is its crowning achievement.

Another major producer of sparkling wines (specialising in the Charmat method as well as Talento) is Cantina Viticoltori, better known as Cavit, which began in 1950 as a consortium of cooperative wineries with the aim of promoting viticulture in Trentino. Today, Cavit is responsible for 70% of Trentino's wine production, producing a wide range of DOC varietal wines. Their prestige line, Il Maso, is the result of years of experimentation in matching varieties to specific microclimates.

At the other end of the scale is the small, private winery of Maso Cantanghel, where Piero Zabini has identified an ideal microclimate for at least one variety: on a steep slope not far from Trento, at 400m above sea level, he has planted Pinot Noir in the loamy chalk soil, resulting in a distinctive expression of the Burgundian grape.

The expression of a Trentino character in winemaking has been a priority of the Istituto Agrario San Michele all'Adige since its foundation in 1874. An agricultural school and research centre located in an Augustinian monastery built in 1145, it provides valuable assistance and training to growers and vintners throughout Trentino. Its first director, Edmund Mach, pioneered the concept of quality over quantity in winemaking. The institute naturally explores the whole range of winemaking possibilities in Trentino, but not only in terms of varietal wines, explains oenologist Enrico Paternoster. He sees additional potential in the creation of cuve wines that express Trentino's terroir.

The cru' of Faedo is located above the institute, and it is here that we find the rebels of the Trentino wine scene, Pojer and Sandri. They produce all manner of viticultural products, from varietal and cuve wines to impressive grappas and brandy, as well as fruit distillates. Their vineyards extend into the Valle di Cembra, one of Trentino's centres for grappa production, an important part of the local heritage. A steep, high-altitude viticultural area, it is renowned for its aromatic Mller-Thurgau, which thrives on this barren, sun-exposed porphyry bluff where viticulture is possible only through extensive terracing with stone walls.

A more traditionally minded private vintner and distiller is Giovanni Poli, based in the Valle dei Laghi village of Santa Massenza, who specialises in the indigenous Nosiola. Almost exclusive to this valley north of Lake Garda, the grape makes a crisp, pale yellow wine with a slightly bitter note of wild hazelnuts. Nosiola is also dried on straw mats for use in an ebullient amber-coloured sweet Vin Santo, with aromas of apricot and quince, pronounced acidity and very high extraction. An association of Trentino's six Vin Santo producers was established in 2002 to protect and carry on this regional tradition.

Mentioned by Mozart in his opera Don Giovanni, Marzemino is a quaffable, fruity red with floral aromas native to Vallagarina, a charming valley distinguished by its many castles and its capital, Rovereto. One historic Marzemino producer is Azienda Agricola Letrari, known for the pioneering vision of its founder Leonello Letrari. Its Marzemino is cultivated in the manganese-rich basalt hills of Isera, one of two top sites for the variety. Lower in the valley is Ziresi, where Marzemino is planted in the chalk and clay of the Adige riverbank. The eccentric Eugenio Rosi, a tireless seeker of new cultivation and vinification techniques to bring out the full character and potential of Marzemino, is based here. He is also one of several vintners in Vallagarina producing a Bordeaux-style red, a trend initiated by the prestigious Tenuta San Leonardo. Owned by the family of oenologist Marchese Carlo Guerrieri Gonzaga, it is known as the Sassicaia of Trentino', and its San Leonardo estate red demonstrated Trentino's potential as a viticultural area.

While volume and international varietals were once the sole emphasis in Trentino's quality winemaking, vintners there have since recognised the importance of expressing regional character, a direction which is evident even in its more commercial wines. Wineries have applied artisan techniques to their strengths, producing Italy's top sparkling wines, distinctively delicate Vino Santo and smooth, superlative grappas with pronounced varietal character. Today, the emphasis has logically shifted toward indigenous varieties, transforming them from mass-market products to pure expressions of the region's native soil - an effort that, combined with a stronger yield control, will definitely bring continued (and increased) distinction in the years to come.